Uncertain future for specialist speech unit

WORRIED parents whose children attend a specialist speech and language unit in Ballynahinch that faces an uncertain future have appealed to the South-Eastern Education and Library Board to guarantee funding for the next year.

I Can, based at Ballynahinch Primary School, provides integrated therapy and education to 20 pre-school pupils - most of whom are from the Lisburn area - who have significant communication and speech difficulties.

It also offers training to staff at nurseries and pre-school groups in the Down and Lisburn area who work with similarly disadvantaged youngsters.

85,000 is needed to fund the unit each year but teacher Margaret Hannigan recently received a letter from the board saying there could be redundancies and the unit would have to ask the Education Minister for more money to keep the unit open.

"We are left in limbo and just don't know where to go," said Mrs Hannigan. "Time is running out and we don't know what is happening. We are getting calls from parents who are stranded in Spain, asking us what is happening and we simply can't tell them."

Mrs Hannigan said normally at this time they would be making plans for the coming year's intake.

"We have a waiting list of 53 but we cannot even contact them to let them know if there is a place for them or not."

She spoke of the benefits that the unit has brought to many children.

"If we were not here the children who need us would have to go to mainstream schools with no speicalist support," she said. "Many children leave here and go straight to mainstream school without going to a specialist unit because of the help we can give them."

One parent who has benefited, Olive Simpson from Hillhall, said the unit has been lifeline for her.

Her four year old son Neil attended the school this year. His speech difficulties were detected by the health visitor and when he went to a speech therapist she recommended the family apply for a place at ICAN unit. Neil goes to Ican in the morning and Barbour Nursery in the afternoon.

"Without their help I think he would have been practically a non speaker," Olive said. "The help he has got has given him so much more confidence. There is a great support network with a teacher, classroom assistant and speech therapist."

She said without Ican, Neil would have only get speech therapy at irregular intervals, but that is provided every day at Ican.

"It is still hard for him but he has come a long way and he'll be going to Knockmore," she said.

"At the moment he gets specialist speech therapy every day and a lot of intense homework. He thinks he goes to Ican to work and to Barbour to play.

"I would not like to see Ican close because it has been such a huge benefit to Neil," she said. "If this had happened this time last year I just do not know what Neil would have done. I know that so many people benefit from the unit. Without the support Neil would have gone into his shell and become a lot more withdrawn. Now he enjoys school and has grown in confidence."

The South Eastern Education and Library Board said in a statement it is currently looking for cash to finance the Ican unit and has already written to the Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane.

In the statement, the Borad said: "The ICAN Early Years Centre started as a pilot project in November 2000 involving a partnership between the South Eastern Education and Library Board, Down and Lisburn Trust (now part of the South East Health and Social Care Trust SEHSCT) and the ICAN National Educational Charity.

"At the outset, funding was provided by the ICAN National Education Charity for four years. In more recent years, funding was secured in various ways. In 2007/08 SEELB was successful in its application to Department of Education (DE) for earmarked resources. In 2008/09, the Centre was joint-funded by earmarked resources received by SEELB from DE and by SEHSCT. In 2009/10, the SEHSCT provided the major part of the funding and SEELB made a contribution.

"At a recent meeting between senior officials from SEHSCT and SEELB, the SEHSCT advised that, due to financial pressures, SEHSCT would not be in a position to continue to provide additional funding for the initiative other than funding for a Speech and Language Therapist.

"At their meeting on March 24, the SEELB Commissioners, in the absence of receipt of the 2010/11 budget and in the context of a very challenging budget for education next year, agreed that it would not be possible for the Board to guarantee funding for the ICAN Centre for the 2010/2011 academic year and decided, regrettably, that redundancy procedures should now commence.

"They did, however, agree to fund the centre to the end of the current academic year thereby honouring the commitment given to the parents of those children already attending the centre and ensuring that they will not be affected by the loss of funding. The children currently attending the ICAN centre will transfer to compulsory education in September 2010.

"The Chairman of the Board's Commissioners has written to the Minister of Education seeking specific earmarked funds to support the ICAN Early Years Centre in the 2010/11 academic year."