03 Dec 2021

‘Our most vulnerable are left until last’ Laois special school makes plea

‘Our most vulnerable are left until last’ Laois special school makes plea

Staff at a Laois school for children with severe to profound disabilities, say they have been forgotten in the provision of new schools in Portlaoise.

Kolbe Special School on the Block Road near Portlaoise hospital, has seen a big increase in pupil numbers, but they remain in an old building.

Five of the seven classrooms are in prefabs. Two have no bathrooms and none have hoists because the buildings cannot take the weight.

Another prefab approved by the Department of Education in February 2018 has not yet arrived.

There is pressure on space because many children come to school using vital large mobility equipment.

The central hall was used for PE but it is now so packed with wheelchairs, walkers and standing frames that PE is no longer a safe option.

“The hall now causes anxiety for our children who have autism, it is over stimulating and they can't avoid it,” explained principal Orlagh Mahon.

Last summer the school started bussing some pupils to the Macra hall for PE, arranged by Laois Sports Partnership. It was another stressful change for the children with autism.

“They shouldn't have to go there, and only the mobile kids can use it,” she said.

The nurses station is in a poorly insulated prefab down a long hallway lined with more chairs and furniture.

Nurse Aislinn Kelly explained her issues.

“We had no water here in winter when the pipes froze, and it got to 33 degrees in here this summer. We need access to water, it's in our guidelines for infection control. There is no room here for our equipment, we sit on the bed to write our notes,” she said.

The long corridor is also a concern when staff have to move quickly to help a child.

Their sensory room had to be turned into a classroom this year, and sensory equipment bought using fundraised money, had to be packed away and covered up.

The loss of the room means that children have nowhere quiet to release agression and calm down.

Deputy Principal Kate Steed teaches in the room (below).

“My class has no running water and no handwashing.

“These children have already got such a hard road ahead, and then for every other child in Portlaoise to get a new school. Our most vulnerable are left last, not even last, they are just left. There is no sign of a new school, we get told something is happening then it doesn’t,” she said.

“This was never designed to be a school, it was a care facility. I am teaching here 12 years and I was told when I started that a new school was on the way,” Ms Steed added.

The lack of space means they cannot all gather in one spot, hold parent or grandparent days or their Winter Wonderland day with Santa any more.

“It is not possible to do anything, we all do our best for the kids. The care they get here is second to none. We are just disillusioned. Why are we still waiting at this stage, with a site waiting for years. All we want is a school good enough for their needs,” Ms Mahon asked.

“This school opened in 2000 with 13 or 14 children. Now we have 41. It’s the first year we’ve really noticed a massive strain,” she said.

The principal says parents are tired from fighting all their lives for their children’s health needs.

“The school will now have to fight for them. We have asked and repeat our request now to Laois politicians to put the pressure on to the dep of education,” she said.

A brief to design a new school is not yet finished.

“We are on the list since 2001 when they asked what we wanted. We need a full kitchen, classrooms, sensory room, PE hall, physiotherapy room, nurses station, speech and language room and soft playroom,” she said.

“These children are entitled to education the same as any other,” said teacher Yvonne Hennessy.

Below: At Kolbe Special School: carer Angela, principal Orla Mahon, teacher Yvonne Hennessy and Teresina Dermody with children Roisin Conroy, Rachael Geoghegan and Liam Ryan

Slow Progress from Department of Education:

The latest update from the Department of Education has not changed since June.
“In relation to the new school building, the Department is currently finalising the development of the project brief with the aim of progressing the project into architectural planning,” a spokesperson told the Leinster Express this week.

Last June Minister Charlie Flanagan from Laois had a similar update.
"With regards to Kolbe Special School, a new school will be built on the grounds of St Fintan’s and will cater for up to 48 pupils. Minister Richard Bruton has informed me that the Department of Education is finalising the development of the project brief with a view to progressing the project into architectural planning at an early stage,” he said.

Last May, Laois TD Brian Stanley urged Minister Bruton to move on the project.
"Unless things are moved on and given a political push, they do not happen very quickly. I plead with the Minister to ask his senior officials to become active on this. It should be moved on to the architectural planning stage," he said.

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