On Tuesday 27th March, hundreds of parents, children, staff and trade unionists rallied in opposition to the proposal to close seven special needs schools across Belfast and merge them into three super schools. Parents had made their own posters and banners, many with images of their own children, with slogans such as ‘Save My School’ and ‘Not all children have voices, but they have choices’.
Parents spoke of “heartbreak, devastation and betrayal.” School staff emphasised fears for real reduction of staffing levels. One parent said, “My son has very defined routines, if they are disrupted, this will be devastating to him in the long term. Parents and staff had been kept in the dark over the proposals. One parent said, “Not one parent knew until this morning. I am livid, this does not crop up overnight.”
It has become apparent that the Education Authority (EA) were preparing the way for this as far back as 2013. In a statement, they said: “In 2013, the Education Minister (John O’Dowd, Sinn Féin) commissioned a working group to carry out a review of special school provision in Northern Ireland. The working group published a report in March 2015 setting out a number of recommendations to transform the special schools estate.” Parents and staff were not included in these discussions.
Parents and staff have no illusions – this is nothing but cost-cutting, a smokescreen that will result in larger class sizes and reduced staffing levels, devastating the education of children with special needs. The EA arbitrarily made the decision, instead of investing to improve the existing schools and specialist support required. Despite presence of MLAs from the main political parties at the protests, it is evident these cuts were fully supported by the Stormont establishment.
The extent of public support has momentarily stopped the EA in its tracks, who declared there will be no changes in the immediate future on the 12th April. This is an inspiring victory for people power and an example of what can be achieved when people stand together and uncompromisingly demand their rights. Parents and unions must press their advantage, escalate the campaign and demand enhanced funding for special needs schools.
By Pat Lawlor