Wexford school at breaking point as parents turned away in tears

The ASD class is held in a former storage cupboard.
The ASD class is held in a former storage cupboard.
The makeshift occupational therapy 'room' in the back of the hall.

The only school in County Wexford catering for children with mild general learning difficulties, has a waiting list and is forced to turn away parents in tears because it has no room for their children.

Our Lady of Fatima in Carrigeen Street, Wexford which has a countywide catchment area, has a waiting list of over 50 for this September and has no hope of accommodating the extra children as the school is already stretched to breaking point with an existing capacity enrolment of 110.

An ASD class is held in a former cupboard; at break-time children play around parked cars in the yard as there is no playground, only a basketball court; the principal has to give up her office if a pupil has a consultation with a speech and language therapist or psychologist, a makeshift occupational therapy area is situated at the back of the hall, and the multi-sensory room in a former chair store is not sound proofed and cannot be used during exams due to noise disturbance.

Our Lady of Fatima has outgrown the new building it moved into in 1968 from its original temporary home in St. Michael's Hall in Green Street and the school now resembles a warren thanks to a number of extensions over the years. In order to provide a bathroom for smaller children, it extended into a shed.

As its 50th anniversary approaches next year, the school desperately needs a new building on a bigger site and has applied to the Department of Education for funding . But management and staff are not holding out for an immediate solution and are proceeding with the construction this summer of a badly-needed playground which will, however, result in a reduced number of car parking spaces.

'We have a serious lack of space and for the past number of years we have had a waiting list. We have over 50 children on a waiting list that we cannot accommodate for September. We can only take in 12 children which is ridiculous and we are going to squeeze a few more in, out of necessity. The others have to stay in mainstream schools which are not suitable for their needs,' said principal Rita Waters.

'I've had parents crying at the door when I tell them that we can't take their child in. You would have to have your name down five years beforehand. We had a mother in with a child in a carry-tot and she wanted to enrol because she was terrified she wouldn't get a place,' she added.

Rita said the HSE, which is currently building a new primary care centre on an adjoining site, offered to give the school a piece of land for an extension. Expensive plans were drawn up for the project but the health authority eventually went ahead with its own building without making the land available.

'We also had the idea of building up to maximise space but the Department told us it would be too expensieve,' said Rita.

Our Lady of Fatima has a growing number of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) students who are taught in general classrooms rather than in their own unit. ASD children often have to be taken out of class and this can cause disruption to the other students.

'We cater for children aged four to 18 years and as you go up in the classes, the children are bigger and the classrooms are too small. You literally don't have the physical room,' said Deputy Principal Bridget Leacy.

ASD support teacher Melissa Sinnott said children with autism have sensory needs and all the expert advice says they should be taught in smaller groups but Our Lady of Fatima doesn't have the room to facilitate this.

The school caters for children with Mild General Learning Difficulties (MGLD) but the students have a wide range of needs from Autism, Down ssyndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Prader Willie, Fragile X, Epilspsy and complaints such as ODD and ADHD.

'Considering how limited the space and resources are here, it's amazing what is achieved and how much the children are thriving' said Bridget. 'We have children sitting Level 2 and Level 3 of the Junior Cert and we have a very successful Erasmus programme.'

She said building a new school would be more cost effective down the line. Currently, the lack of facilities is costing extra money as the school has to avail of accommodation in sports halls and clubs on a regular basis.

With 13 teachers and 12 SNA's it's almost impossible to get into the front grounds of the school due to the number of parked cars and it's even worse when mini-buses arrive to collect children.

'Whenever someone comes and offers to volunteer in the school, I have to tell them not to bring their cars. Some of them park in Tesco,' said Rita.

Senior SNA Mary Prunty said children stay in their classrooms on wet days. 'The only other area they can play is the hall. There isn't enough space for them at all. They behave so well considering the lack of oulets they have.'

The school catchment area stretches right across the county with two mini-buses coming from Gorey each morning, one along the coast road and the other through Enniscorthy and pupils also arriving from the New Ross area.

'It's the most wonderful place to work. No matter what you ask the teachers, volunteers or parents to do, they never say no. We have amazing children and an amazing Parents' Association. They can't help out enough,' said Rita. 'The community of Wexford has also been very good to us. We get great support.'

Generally, students come to Our Lady of Fatima when they are no longer able to cope in mainstream school, often in 5th or 6th class. 'At that stage, they are in crisis, they are in school failure,' said Melissa. 'They feel that they're stupid and they feel isolated.'

'It's heartbreaking that we have to leave so many of them in that situation. If we had them here we could really make a change in their lives. We know we do a good job now but we could do so much more.'

Bridget added: 'They wouldn't have all that struggle and all those negative experiences.'

'They have such issues when they get here,' said Melissa. 'They are filled with anxiety. You start on the emotional side. With the ASD students, it takes until March or April to get them to a situation where they are relaxed.'

'It's not fair on the children and it's not fair on their parents,' said Bridget.

Rita said a new building would allow the school to accommodate an extra 50 children a year and this would make a huge difference to the waiting list.

Bridget said there is an urgent need for a second special needs school in the north of the County to meet increasing demand.

'Next year, we will have a child coming from Carnew in County Wicklow,' said Rita.

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