Lorraine Wylie speaks to two families struggling to secure their children a school place
The arrival of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown has brought challenges to all sections of the community but, for young people it’s been particularly difficult.
Last year’s decision to close schools has had a major impact on children’s education but even more alarming is the toll its taken on their mental health.
In fact, a major study suggests that anxiety and depression is 25% more common among children in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK.
The return to school in March was a welcome relief but for hundreds of 11-year-olds, the stress shows no sign of abating.
The Executive’s decision to cancel GL and AQE assessments for the academic year 2020/2021 has left kids like Emily Dempster and Rhib Simpson without a school for September, plunging them and their parents into an educational nightmare.
Here, mums Lynsey Dempster and Kathleen Simpson share their story.
“Emily is a pupil at Lisnasharragh Primary school and has always been top of her class,” Lynsey explains.
“Diagnosed with Autism and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Emily is a very focused girl and is determined to excel at everything she does.
When it came to deciding schools, her dad and I asked advice from the professionals, including teachers and a paediatrician, who know her best.
“They suggested a grammar school education which would be best suited to her academic abilities as well as pastoral needs.
“We opted for Bloomfield Collegiate as first preference and Wellington College, second. Emily was beyond excited at the prospect of going to the new school.”
The day Emily learned the school’s decision was heartbreaking.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Lynsey says. “We had to go online to find out whether the school had accepted her and to be honest, there was no reason to suspect they wouldn’t. Apart from not having siblings there, Emily met all the necessary criteria. Too excited to look online, she waited for us to tell her the news.
“When my husband and I saw that she hadn’t been placed, it was such a shock. We didn’t know how to tell her. Emily didn’t take the news well. It was awful to see the disappointment on her face. She was absolutely beside herself and ran out into the garden crying, wanting to know what was wrong with her.
“In her eyes, she’d done everything right and yet the school still didn’t want her. To add to her hurt, school friends were posting that they’d been accepted. No parent wants to see their child in such distress.”
The following Monday proved yet another hurdle.
“At first Emily didn’t want to go back to school,” Lynsey says. “But her dad talked to her and, she agreed to go on Monday. It took a lot of courage to face everyone but the fact that she did is a measure of her determination, and we were so proud of her. We call her our superhero.”
Was Lynsey offered any explanation as to why Emily did not receive a place?
“We had no communication, explanation, nothing. I think the silence only added to the stress. From day one, I have written, phoned and tried everything I can to get the situation resolved.
“Everything we do, feels like we’re coming up against a brick wall. The teachers and principal at Lisnasharragh have been very supportive and we appreciate all their help. But no child should be left in this position.”
To date, Emily has not been offered a place at any of the schools on her list. The only schools available are unsuitable for a variety of reasons, including distance.
“It’s highly unreasonable to expect a child, especially with Emily’s challenges to have to take two buses to travel to a school at the other side of town.”
Lynsey is adamant that she will fight Emily’s case.
“I have written to everyone, including MPs and the Commissioner for Children. We have had practically no help from the Education Authority, but we’re determined to keep fighting on Emily’s behalf, she deserves it.”
Kathleen Simpson is also struggling to find her daughter Ribh a school.
“The situation is a shambles,” she says. “Ribh is one of those caught up in this transfer mess. Like her friends at Gilnahirk Primary School, Ribh wanted to go to Grosvenor High School and as an academic child, she’s certainly more than capable.
“Her consistently high scores proved her ability and, apart from having no siblings at Grosvenor, she met all their criteria, so we had every reason to believe she’d get a place. To say we were shocked that she didn’t get accepted is an understatement.”
How did Ribh cope with the news?
“Growing up in a single parent home, Ribh has a quite a mature outlook and, although disappointed, she initially seemed to take it well enough. But she’s since confided to me that she feels devasted. Naturally, it’s bound to be hard for her, especially as she’s the only pupil in the school with no placement.
“All her friends are excited, chatting and looking forward to moving on to the next school together while Ribh doesn’t know what’s happening or where she’ll end up. It’s a tough situation fand my heart breaks for her.”
The situation is taking its toll on parents as well as children.
“It’s just Rhib and me at home so we’re very close and I try to remain upbeat and put a positive spin on things. But to be honest, at times, the uncertainty and stress does get to me.”
In her search for a solution, Kathleen has left no stone unturned.
“They (Education Authority) are trying to push me into accepting a place elsewhere. But the schools available are totally unsuitable.
“I know my daughter, she’s a real star, a lovely caring girl, but she’s not as streetwise as some. I’ve looked into private schooling but at approximately, £18,000 per year, it’s beyond my budget. Then I suggested the EA supply her with a tutor, but they refused.
“As for home schooling, well, I work for Northern Ireland Water which is listed among the ‘essential services’ so I often have to work long. Long-term home schooling simply isn’t feasible.”
What would help parents in this predicament?
“Firstly, we need information and an open discussion. Perhaps if the EA worked with us, we could come up with a solution to suit everyone. But this deadly silence is only adding to the anxiety. The Minister of Education and society as a whole, has a duty of care to these young people. After all they are our future, we need to value and treat them with the respect and care they deserve. Otherwise, we rob them as well as ourselves.”
According to the EA, 85% of children secured a place at their first preference school. But percentages are cold comfort to kids like Emily and Ribh.
For more information visit www.education-ni.gov.uk