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18-mile trip leaves mum angry and helpless

Autistic boy misses out on special school place

By Gráinne Brinkley

A WEST Belfast mother has spoken of her disappointment and anger after learning that her severely disabled son will not be able to attend a specialised primary school in the Belfast area.

Katrina Rouse, who’s from Beechmount, had hoped her four-year-old son James – who suffers from autism, has  severe learning difficulties and is still in nappies – would begin his primary education at South Belfast’s Oakwood Special School in September. That  option was the recommendation of his specialist nursery unit and the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB).

However, this week the BELB wrote to the mum-of-two to inform her that there were no places available at Oakwood and that James would have to travel to a school in Newtownabbey – a situation Katrina describes as “unacceptable”.

James was turned down for a place at Oakwood’s nursery unit last September as it too was oversubscribed.  The four-year-old was then sent to a diagnostic nursery unit at St Gerard’s Educational Resource Centre off the Upper Springfield Road, which was opened last year specifically to deal with the shortage of specialist nursery school places in the city.

“James has no speech at all, he has very little communication abilities and is still in nappies,” explained Katrina.

“While he was at St Gerard’s they assessed his educational needs and found that he has severe learning difficulties as well as autism.  They recommended that he needed to attend the specialist primary unit at Oakwood and this was recommended by the education board too as it was the only primary in Belfast that met his needs.

“However, on Monday we got a letter from the board to say that there is no place available for James in a school within the BELB area and that the only place available is a school in Newtownabbey called Hillcroft.”

Katrina said she has no problem with the school – only with the journey James will have to make each day.

“The board said they will provide transport, but how can he be expected to make this 18-mile round trip on his own with such severe autism?” she said.

Katrina said the BELB have told her there’s nothing they can do.

“I’m so frustrated that this is happening again after last year. My son should be entitled to a place at a special school for his needs in the Belfast Education and Library Board Area.”

A spokesperson for the BELB said yesterday: “It is not unusual for Education and Library Boards to seek accommodation in neighbouring board areas when special schools are oversubscribed, as is the case this year in the BELB area. The Department of Education has been approached in regard to this.”

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