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Belfast special school 'unfit for purpose'

Report hails staff but finds building cramped and in dire need of modernisation

By Rebecca Black

Published 04/02/2016

Mitchell House school has come under fire in an inspectors’ report
Mitchell House school has come under fire in an inspectors’ report

A special school in Belfast has been criticised by inspectors for being difficult to get around by wheelchair.

Mitchell House School in the east of the city operates in an old house that was left in trust for the benefit of children with special needs.

It educates 81 children between the ages of three and 19, mainly from Belfast, north Down and the surrounding areas.

A report by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) released this week has praised the leadership, teaching and pastoral care at the school as very good, but issued stinging criticism of the building.

The report found:

• the school hall is too small for physical education or to hold an assembly and is unfit for purpose;

• small classrooms restrict movement of pupils using wheelchairs, standing frames and other apparatus;

• narrow and restricted corridors and steep ramps are difficult for pupils in wheelchairs;

• limited facilities for the storage of wheelchairs and other essential equipment; and

• covered walkways are not weather-resistant, and pupils in wheelchairs and those with restricted mobility have great difficulty accessing classrooms.

It found that the school's accommodation is restricting the curriculum provision and requires urgent improvement to give the pupils the appropriate opportunities for play and to develop their independence.

Mitchell House principal Laura Matchett said they were aware of the issues and would welcome a new school building.

She said since the inspection was carried out in November the school, working with the Education Authority, has moved to remedy what they can.

This includes repositioning stop buttons in the technology department, benches that are height-adjustable and replacing windows.

"The last ETI report did identify some issues with the building as well, but as far as the school is concerned we really feel the most important thing is what happens inside the building - not the state of the building," she said. "We do recognise there are many issues that need dealt with. We would be really happy to have some of the things identified addressed.

"A brand new build would be wonderful, but we don't dwell on that and we are very conscious that we have to function in this building as well as we can, and that is what we aim to do on a day-to-day basis. We try to make the impact as little as possible on the children and ensure they get a good quality education."

Mitchell House Special School first opened its doors in November 1961 with eight resident pupils, and in the 2015/16 academic year has an enrolment of 81 children.

A previous ETI inspection in 2007 similarly praised all aspects of the school apart from its accommodation.

"There is a warm and welcoming sense of community and, despite poor accommodation, the staff provide a rich and varied range of activities and experiences for the pupils," it found.

The Department of Education failed to respond to a request for a comment.

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