Mother in desperate fight to secure suitable school place for autistic son

Refusal of planning permission for Cork secondary school a devastating blow for local families
Mother in desperate fight to secure suitable school place for autistic son

Charlie Gould and his mother, Katie, in Ballincollig, Cork. They have appealed to the education minister to find a site for Ballincollig’s new secondary school so that it can provide the town’s first second-level ASD unit for students with autism.

A mum who has seen how an autism unit changed her son's life has pleaded with the Taoiseach to solve her town’s school site crisis to ensure that her child and others like him get school places in their own town next September.

Katie Gould is desperately trying to secure a suitable second level school place for Charlie, 12, in Ballincollig, Cork, which despite its size, has no dedicated autism classes in its two large secondary schools.

Ms Gould had hoped that Charlie would attend the Le Cheile secondary school, which opened in the former Cork Film Centre in the town in September, and which was hoping to open an autism unit next year.

But the refusal of planning last week for a temporary school for Le Cheile on the grounds of Ballincollig GAA Club has come as a devastating blow, she said.

“The impact felt by the refusal of planning permission runs much deeper than that of disappointment,” she said.

“For many parents in the area, they had been living in the hope that September 2022, although unacceptably late in its introduction, would be the beginning of change for families of autistic teens in the locality.” Education Minister Norma Foley was quizzed in the Dáil about it yesterday by Fine Gael TD Micheal Creed.

He said in the wake of the planning refusal, it is clear that the GAA site is dead in the water and the clock is now ticking for Le Cheile which needs to be able to accommodate up to 100 students next September.

“The impact felt by the refusal of planning permission runs much deeper than that of disappointment”

Apart from the wider school accommodation issue, there is also the issue of the autism unit provision in the town, he said.

“We have 10 months before enrolment in September and that is worrying for the vast cohort of students but it is particularly worrying for students in ASD units in primary school who have no other place in Ballincollig to go,” he said.

“They have been educated in their local community and it is cruel beyond belief that we would be unable to solve their particular problem.

“If we do nothing else here minister, we must ensure to give a clear commitment that the ASD unit will be up and running for September.” Securing a permanent site is the ultimate ambition, he said, urging the minister to consider advertising locally for a temporary site for Le Chéile.

"We have 10 months before enrolment in September and that is worrying for the vast cohort of students but it is particularly worrying for students in ASD units in primary school who have no other place in Ballincollig to go," says Fine Gael TD Michael Creed
"We have 10 months before enrolment in September and that is worrying for the vast cohort of students but it is particularly worrying for students in ASD units in primary school who have no other place in Ballincollig to go," says Fine Gael TD Michael Creed

Ms Gould said she, and other parents of children with autism in the town, have had to apply to over 20 schools across the county in the hope of securing places for their chlildren next year.

“In most cases, they do not meet the entrance criteria for the school as they do not live in the catchment area or go to the feeder schools,” she said.

“For those who are lucky enough to receive a place in a school outside of Ballincollig, it requires a long commute and additional time to their school day, in addition to not being given the opportunity to be educated in their local community, something their neurotypical peers do not face any barriers to.” In a letter to local TDs, and to the Taoiseach and Ms Foley, she has pleaded with the education department to work with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure that an autism unit opens in Le Cheile next September, and that a permanent site is found for the school urgently.

“Failure to do this is placing an unacceptable barrier to autistic children having their constitutional rights met in our area,” she said.

“The key ask is for Le Cheile to be given enough space for one extra room, in addition to the space needed for their second year of mainstream students so they can open an autism class.

“Le Cheile is and has been committed to opening an autism class this September, however this is not possible without the Department of Education and the planning department working collaboratively and in response to the needs in the area.” The Minister said the issue is being given “high priority” by her department.

She said a number of permanent site options for Le Cheile were identified, and each was investigated, but in each case, the land could not be readily acquired from the landowner or it was not deemed feasible to develop the site.

She said a potentially suitable site has now been identified and work is ongoing to acquire it.

“I can assure the deputy that we will do everything possible to prioritise the acquisition of the site and to move things forward in a timely and appropriate manner to meet the needs of the school and the needs of the area,” she said.

We just need a space... that can help kids like us

Charlie Gould, 12, says he’s decided to speak out to highlight not just his plight, but the plight faced by many senior students with autism in primary schools all over Ireland as they tried to secure secondary school places for next September.

Charlie Gould and his mother, Katie, in Ballincollig, Cork. They have appealed to the education minister to find a site for Ballincollig’s new secondary school so that it can provide the town’s first second-level ASD unit for students with autism.
Charlie Gould and his mother, Katie, in Ballincollig, Cork. They have appealed to the education minister to find a site for Ballincollig’s new secondary school so that it can provide the town’s first second-level ASD unit for students with autism.

Charlie, from Ballincollig in Cork, explains how his life has been transformed following the opening of an ASD unit in his primary school, Gaelscoil Uí Riordáin.

But despite being one of the largest towns in Cork, the two established secondary schools in Ballincollig don’t have dedicated autism units.

And any hopes that the recently opened Le Cheile secondary school had of opening an ASD unit next September are now hanging in the balance.

After just a couple of months this unit has changed my life - it really has.And not just my life, the lives of the other kids too. Now I’m not daunted. Every day has become easier because of the ASD unit.

Charlie, who had been hoping to go to secondary school in Le Cheile, is one of the many who will feel the impact of this school site crisis most acutely.

“School has always been difficult for me,” he admits readily.

“My teachers have always been good and they’ve always tried hard to make it easier for me.

“But I used to wake up in the morning and say ‘I don’t want to go’, I’d try to hide in my bed.

“It was difficult to go every day. Obviously, I have to go, but it was quite difficult to go.

“I was scared about getting told off in school, it was difficult for me sometimes, just being different but not knowing why I was different.” That all changed last September when the gaelscoil opened an autism class. Charlie is one of six pupils in the school.

He says: “After just a couple of months this unit has changed my life - it really has.

“And not just my life, the lives of the other kids too. Now I’m not daunted. Every day has become easier because of the ASD unit.

“It’s easier to learn because I’m not as stressed, I’m not so worried about school or about being told off. I know that if I get overloaded, there’s somewhere quiet I can go to settle and read. It’s so important for every school to have a unit like this.” As the issue was discussed in the Dáil yesterday, Charlie said the decision makers need to know that the solution doesn’t have to be perfect.

“Autism is common. A lot of people have it,” he says.

“There are so many other kids who are in the same position in primary schools.

“We need to have units in every school, primary schools, secondary schools, colleges need units as well.

“The building isn’t the important bit - it’s what goes on inside the building that’s important.

“We just need a bit of space. It doesn’t have to be a brick building or fancy, it doesn’t need a hot tub. We just need a space for the people that can help kids like us.

“Prefabs are not ideal but it’s better than nothing.”

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