Family v State: ‘We’re not looking for it all, just what he needs’

Susan Sheehan from Fermoy, Co Cork, with Seán, who has autism, and Lisa. Pic: Des Barry

Irish Examiner reporter, Noel Baker, meets a group of parents who are uniting in a fight for their children’s education.

SEÁN SHEEHAN sits in the back garden of his house in Fermoy, legs crossed, studying the iPad on his lap and looking every bit a man at ease.

It prompts you to think of the old line about ‘a penny for your thoughts’, but the five-year-old’s mother, Susan, would probably pay a lot more. Seán has autism and is non-verbal, and now he faces the prospect of a new school place this coming September.

Susan works as a teacher and knows the importance of routine, education, socialisation and fulfilling a child’s potential. At the present moment there is uncertainty over her own boy and where he might be this coming September.

It seems she is not alone either. There are claims that as many as 18 children with autism in the broader North Cork area may be without a school place for the next school year — at a time when a group of parents have come together in an effort to use an existing school building which is being vacated this summer because of a school amalgamation — as the setting for a new special school which could be the perfect response to their needs.

“We can’t afford to waste time,” Susan says. “We cannot afford to be in September and be told ‘here is some home tuition’.”

For the past year, Seán has been on the bus to Charleville every morning so he can attend the Holy Family School in Charleville. According to Susan, Seán hops off happily every morning and attends the Early Intervention Unit from 9am to 1pm. The issue is that there is no place for him there this September. Susan has “no qualms” about this fact, also refers to the lengthy waiting list for the St Joseph’s School in Charleville, and the fact that many other parents are crying out for more options.

Family v State: ‘We’re not looking for it all, just what he needs’

One option has arisen in the past year with the amalgamation of Presentation Convent Primary School and St Joseph’s CBS, Doneraile. The girls’ school will become vacant and parents are keen that it become home to a new special school that could fill the void in a field of narrowing options.

Kieran Kennedy, a manager within the Shine Centre for Autism based in Carrigaline, is well aware of the worries of parents. He believes allowing the vacated building to act as a new school for children with autism and complex needs is a “no brainer”.

Were the plan to go ahead it is proposed the new school would be called Croke Park, as it sits on the original Croke Park. In any event, the parents need a result.

“We all realise that there is a huge need for a special school in North Cork - it’s just way over- subscribed,” Mr Kennedy said. “You could fill a school with children.”

He said there is a waiting list for places in the Holy Family Special School in Charleville, while Scoil Aislinn in Cork City is also operating at full capacity.

“From my work there is 27 children I have identified already that need to go to a special school in that neck of the woods,” Mr Kennedy said.

There seem to be few impediments to the plan going ahead — the Diocesan Office has indicated to the parents that it is happy to hand over the keys, an alternative patron has been sounded out and even some teachers identified. A surveyor has already looked at the building, according to Mr Kennedy, and believes it only requires tweaking for it to be ready in time for the next school year.

Yet despite the plan having been floated to the Department of Education at least six months ago, there has been no indication as yet that it will be granted permission to proceed. It is understood that all local TDs have been contacted as well, including newly appointed Junior Minister David Stanton.

Junior Minister David Stanton
Junior Minister David Stanton

Kieran Kennedy believes there are as many as 18 children with autism in the general north Cork area who currently have no place lined up for this coming September. Other parents with a child in another facility may well decide that a new special school might be more suitable, he added, yet the wait for news continues.

In response to questions from the Irish Examiner, the Department said: “The National Council for Special Education has advised the department that there is an emerging need for a small number of non-mainstream placement options in the North County Cork area and that additional special class places in mainstream schools will be available from September.

“The NCSE and the DES have not yet identified the need for a new special school in the North Cork area but they are currently considering how the identified individual placement demands can be met both in the immediate and longer term future.”

A spokesperson for the department said new schools were established to meet “demographic demand” and said: “In general, the department’s policy is to integrate children with Special Educational Needs into the mainstream school system wherever possible. Many of our schools have special education units including autism units included within them.

“However, special schools are also necessary to meet the educational needs of pupils whose needs cannot be adequately catered for in a mainstream school or in special classes.”

Susan Sheehan with her son Sean who suffers from autism. Pic: Des Barry.
Susan Sheehan with her son Sean who suffers from autism. Pic: Des Barry.

According to Kieran Kennedy: “If the department have not issued a roll number by the end of this month I would say the chances of it opening in September is nil.”

Susan Sheehan, who lives with Seán and her daughter and husband, is among those lobbying the department and others to make a decision. She attended a meeting of 25 families in Charleville last month on the issue.

“I am his mother, not a teacher, when I am at home,” she said. “I feel for his special needs I am not qualified. “We are not looking for everything on a plate. What we are looking for is what he needs, for his needs. “We are his voice, for him to meet his potential.”

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