Belfast Telegraph

Lifeline for speech therapy centre as closure is delayed

By Donna Deeney

A speech and language centre for children in Londonderry has been thrown a lifeline after officials told staff it would close.

Education Minister John O'Dowd revealed to a delegation of Assembly members that he will not take any decision over closing the Woodlands language unit until the end of a consultation period — contradicting the Western Education Board.

In February, parents and staff were told the unit would close because it was situated on the same grounds as Belmont Special Needs school and children who did not have a statement of special needs should not be on the premises.

A delegation of Foyle MLAs were given the news by Mr O'Dowd, who confirmed that no final decision would be made until the end of a consultation period.

The Western Education and Library Board were contacted but declined to comment.

The news has breathed new vigour into a parent-led campaign to keep the unit open for its 40 young pupils.

Caroline McCleary is one of the parents fighting so her son Caomhan (7) can get the specialist language therapy he needs.

Speaking to the North West Telegraph, Ms McCleary said: “This is good news, I am glad the minister is prepared to wait until he hears from everyone, including us parents, before he finalises the decision — contrary to what the Western Education Board's Chief Executive appeared to say when I contacted him, which is that the unit will not re-open.

“The reason we were given for closing the unit was nonsense. Our children are not attending a special needs school, they are attending a unit which happens to be located in the same grounds. But Woodlands is separate in every way from Belmont school.

“Closing the unit would be a disaster for us and for the pupils attending Woodlands, not least my son Caomhan.

“Caomhan started the unit last September and goes four days a week and the change is remarkable.

“His language skills have gone through the roof, he is able to communicate so well now which means he doesn't get frustrated so he is calm and can understand what we are saying to him.”

Before Caomhan started at Woodlands he received some outreach language therapy at his mainstream school but his mother said it wasn't successful.

“What it did do was add to Caomhan's feelings of isolation because he was taken away from the rest of his class for the therapy, whereas at Woodlands he is the same as everyone else in the class, and that is important,” she said.

Following the meeting with Mr O'Dowd, Assembly member Pat Ramsey said: “I am pleased that the minister is listening to the majority of people who are interested in the fate of this much-loved centre which does so much for children in the area.

“This is a refreshing bit of common sense on the part of the minister and shows that hope is still very much alive for the future of this remarkable facility.”

Next week Mr Ramsey will hand over a petition with several thousand signatures to the Speaker of the Assembly protesting against the proposed closure of the unit.

Background

Woodland Language Unit offers specialist therapy for children with language difficulties. Pupils aged from primary one to primary seven from schools across the North West attend for a minimum of one year up to two years. There are four teachers for the 40 available places and places are given after referrals from an educational psychologist.

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