Ballaghderg Special Needs Pre-School in Letterkenny and St Agnes Special Needs Pre-School in Donegal Town are facing closure to save the HSE an estimated €630,000. Both pre-schools cater for children with more moderate to severe disabilities and have registered nurses available on staff to look after the complex medical needs of some of the children including severe seizure disorders.
Parents learnt last April of plans to close the HSE run pre-schools and following meetings with parents, HSE, local childcare providers and Donegal County Childcare Committee parents were told that mainstream pre-schools would not have the resources to accommodate all of the children’s needs, particularly those children with very complex needs.
The HSE have stated that “Specialised pre-school provision should be used only in relation to a very small proportion of children with disabilities whose disabilities are so severe or complex and whose assessed level of care needs, are so significant, that mainstream pre-school education is not feasible. It is estimated that this should apply to no more than 5% of children with a disability”.
A Report in to the Development of a Framework for Action for the Inclusion of Children with Special Needs in Early Childhood Education Settings funded by the Department of Education in 2010 recommended that “While every effort should be made to provide inclusive early years education in mainstream settings for children with special educational needs, there is a need to establish flexible models of early years provision to support the inclusion of children with more complex special educational needs. Consideration should be given to the provision of Specialist Early Intervention Settings for children aged birth to four years throughout the country”.
Yet despite this, the HSE are to persist in the plans to close the only special pre-schools catering for children in the Donegal area and for some children. That means there will be little or no opportunity for the more severely disabled children to attend pre-school or avail of the free ECCE Scheme like every other young child in Ireland.
According to HSE documents seen by parents, some children will be offered and “Individual Home Care Package, with Inclusion to mainstream pre-school for a short period each week, depending on their needs”. Chairperson of the Special Needs Parents Association, Lorraine Dempsey views this as discriminatory purely on the basis of funding. “Inclusion is laudable but only if it is properly resourced and both HSE and childcare providers in Donegal already know that this will not happen. While only a handful of children will be denied the right to attend pre-school on a regular basis because their needs cannot be catered for in mainstream, this is one child too many. Would you accept being told this as a parent, I think not especially when you already have a satisfactory pre-school service that is meeting the needs of your child and the rug is being pulled out from under them under the guise of Inclusion”.
“There are fine examples of special pre-schools run by the voluntary sector which support Inclusion by having children without disabilities from the local community attend alongside their peers with disabilities who still have the support of specialists to cater for their needs. This is nothing more than a cost cutting measure by the HSE and to wave the flag of Inclusion is disingenuous when it leaves those most disabled out in the cold and this is a worrying development if it is a national policy”, added Ms Dempsey.
Mother of Ailbhe who has attended Ballaghderg Special Needs Preschool in Letterkenny for the last two years, Maria McFadden said “With the services there, they assisted her with her walking, feeding and toilet training. The staff worked with her on her motor skills, concentration and listening skills. She has progressed so well in the last two years that she is now going to mainstream primary school, with SNA assistance, in September. All of this would not have been achievable without the services and staff of Ballaghderg Special Needs Preschool. It would be an injustice to the special needs children of Donegal if this preschool would be allowed to close”.
A father of one of the pupils in Ballaghderg Ray Mc Feely added, “We won’t have to fight for our son’s right to and education so why should we have to fight for our daughter’s right to an education? In our book, that’s discrimination. The fact that the Government are targeting special needs children again, by removing vital resources like Ballaghderg Special Needs Preschool is utterly sickening and totally wrong and we cannot stand back and let this happen”.
Ashling Nibbs, mother of four year old Oran who has learning disabilities and complex medical needs including frequent seizures due to Mitochondrial Disease, is one of those parents whose child will not be catered for full-time when the special pre-schools close their doors for the last time. “In September of last year, my four year old son, Órán, began attending Ballaghderg Special Needs Pre-School, in Letterkenny, three days a week as they have a nurse on the premises at all times who also has epilepsy management training and can provide the high level of care required to cater for Órán and several other children with serious medical conditions and those with severe intellectual disabilities. Órán absolutely loves his pre-school and it has proven to be a lifeline for me as his full-time carer”. For Óran and many of the other children who attend Ballaghderg Pre-School there is no alternative. The proposed transition of children with intellectual disabilities and complex medical needs into mainstream pre-school settings will mean that her son and many like him will not be able to receive any meaningful pre-school education. Ashling added, “As his parent, I refuse to accept that. He has a right, as a citizen of this State, regardless of his disability, to receive an education and the very fact that the Government provides funding for one year of pre-school for every other child attending mainstream pre-schools, means that closing special needs pre-schools in Donegal, is blatantly discriminating against him, and all those who attend these pre-schools”.
Gina Grant, Secretary of Down Syndrome Donegal Branch who has one child attending the special pre-school also with Mitochondrial Disease and one child with Down Syndrome attending mainstream is faced with the prospects of her child being given no option but to stay at home with the slim prospect of attending a mainstream pre-school as he has such complex medical needs. “No matter what is said I believe it is a cost saving measure to close these schools, it will be to no benefit to families that I can see. There are children in the mainstream at the minute that are unsupported and I feel they should fix what’s broken before they take anything away what works”.
Parents and Childcare Providers who have started the ‘Let Me Be” Campaign to keep the pre-schools open, have worked together to draw up a Threshold of Decency Statement which was signed up to by nearly fifty TDs, local Councillors and healthcare professionals in the Donegal area last month and sent to the HSE.
For further comments from parents contact Ashling Nibbs – 086 0760762, Gina Grant – 085 8428694.
Avril McMonagle Manager Donegal County Childcare Committee 074 9123442