East Belfast mom speaks of ‘absolute and utter hell’ trying to get autistic daughter’s school place

A mother from Belfast said she has been going through “absolute and complete hell” for the past three months trying to find the right place at school for her daughter, who has special educational needs.

ver 300 children with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) do not have a place in school as of September this year, including 91 children waiting for a place in a special school and 202 children applying for a place in a mainstream school.

Tina Blackburn told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster that she had to withdraw her autistic daughter, who had had an SOP claim for years, from public school in March this year “because she was really traumatized by the experience” . “.

“I can only describe what we went through as absolute and total hell,” Ms Blackburn said.

“I don’t think anyone has shed more tears than me. I planned and knew from [my daughter was in] P4 that she needs to study in a special education department of a regular school, just like her older brother.”

The east Belfast mom added: “I did my best to make it happen and kept running into brick walls. The result was very predictable. She went to a comprehensive school, she was given a full-time class assistant. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, it didn’t work.”

Ms Blackburn said she received a call last week and was told the new school she had chosen for her daughter was full, but she criticized the Educational Affairs Authority (EA), which she said held a statement for three weeks her daughters on her desk. .

She believes the school they suggested for her child instead is “completely unsuitable”.

“What hit me the most was that I felt like they didn’t even read her diagnosis because if they had, they would have realized that she was suffering from a disability and chronic anxiety, and the thought of to put my daughter on the bus and send her to the hospital for 40 minutes. an hour on the road, to school and back every day – I couldn’t imagine it.”

According to Department of Education statistics, over 22,000 pupils in Northern Ireland currently hold the SEN certificate.

The Education Authority (EA) said there was a “significant increase” in demand for special school places and said it was “committed to ensuring that every child gets the right place that will support and meet their individual needs.” .

“Our Special Educational Needs (SEN) team is working closely with the family to determine an appropriate location, taking into account parent preferences,” the spokesperson continued.

However, Ms. Blackburn mentioned the difficulties she had in trying to get answers from EA and described her ordeal as “a constant game of cat and mouse with me banging my head against the wall.”

Referring to her daughter, she said; “Can you imagine how you would feel if someone told you that you don’t have a school to go to, that you don’t belong to anyone? It is already difficult for you to navigate the world because you cannot understand social signals, you have anxiety, you already feel different.

“It is mentally, emotionally and physically draining. I don’t feel like EA was there to support me or many parents.”

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan also called on Education Minister and EA to address the “deeply disturbing” lack of school places for children with SEN.

“Given the annual increase in the number of children with special educational needs, the Minister of Education should have prepared and planned for this case,” he said.

“These children and their families need reassurance about what will be done in September, and I urge the Minister of Education and the Department of Education to work towards a solution to this problem.

“That’s why we need a functioning executive and ministers so that we can invest in educational services and ensure that young people get the support they need.”

The Ministry of Education was also contacted for further comments.

EA added: “Parents of children with a SEN application and any concerns are encouraged to contact their Liaison Officer directly or the SEN Helpline, which is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on 028 9598 5960. Additional information is available at our website. : https://www.eani.org.uk/parents/special-educational-needs-sen/sen-contact-details