A Galway school for children with complex special needs says it could lose out on a critical move to a permanent home because of delays by the Department of Education.
The Ábalta special school was established in 2002 after a local family took the Department of Education to the High Court to secure appropriate education for their child with special needs. The school is currently located in a rented premises in Parkmore Industrial Estate in the city, but has secured a permanent home on a campus owned by the Brothers of Charity in Clarinbridge, some miles from the city. It lodged plans to develop this site with the Department of Education in 2018, and, according to its principal Maura Madden, now stands to lose the Clarinbridge site if a decision on the plans is not made urgently.
Ábalta currently has space for 18 children and young adults with acute special needs, but has expressions of interest for more than twice that number. Students currently travel from Clare and Mayo to access the service – with some families driving more than 1,000km each week to bring their child to school.
“The clock is ticking. If we don’t accept the two bungalows [at the Brothers of Charity campus] which have been identified for us we will lose that site. We need to act on this now. The Clarinbridge site is the ideal spot for us. It is a safe, calm environment for our children, who have got a lot of sensory needs,” said Ms Madden.
“We had an inspection from the National Council of Special Education (NCSE) in 2020 to see if our plans were worthwhile. The NCSE are still talking to the department, and we haven’t had a full response as to whether our relocation can actually happen. There are national policy changes muted about the management of special schools and I think that we have got tied into that debate. But in the meantime we stand to lose this golden opportunity.”
Gort native Leanne Flanagan, whose son Oisín (13) has attended Ábalta for the past eight years, says the school building is no longer fit for purpose and is a danger to both staff and students.
“This is a massively urgent situation. This building is cramped. Despite everything that we have done to it it’s not particularly safe. If someone is having a bit of a meltdown it presents a challenge to manage them and keep the other children safe,” she said.
“We need a permanent, purpose-build facility, it would make a massive difference. We don’t have an outside space here and a lot of these kids need to be outside. We are now in an industrial estate surrounded by concrete and cars.”
Michelle Madden from Spancil Hill, Co Clare, used to drive more than four hours each day to bring her two sons, Conor (14) and Darragh (12), to Ábalta, before a bus service was recently established. She says having two sons with contrasting acute special needs has made normal life impossible for her and her husband, but Ábalta has given them an invaluable piece of respite.
“There is no such thing as going anywhere as a family. We have two cars – we only ever travel with one boy in each car. We never go anywhere as a family together, we just can’t,” she said. “Darragh’s aversion to sound means that he can’t bear to be around his brother. So at home Darragh is upstairs and Conor is downstairs. One of them is out for a drive, the other is at home. They can’t really coexist in the same space. When Darragh experiences noise that results in self-injury, which we don’t want for him.
“The other huge challenge is that they don’t sleep. We give them melatonin, they go to sleep around 9.30pm, but they only sleep for a few hours. So they are up and ready for the day at 2am or anytime. People with toddlers can relate to this but we are 10 or 12 years into it at this stage and it takes a toll.
“For eight hours a day I can be at home and know that they are living their best life up here [in Ábalta]. I know they love school. If I could do school seven days a week that would be the ideal life. During Covid [when schools were shut] Darragh would bring me his school jumper in the morning. No words, no way to communicate, just the jumper. It was so heartbreaking.”
Ábalta is staffed by a multidisciplinary team including speech and language therapists, an onsite behavioural support specialist, an occupational therapist and special needs assistants. The school also provides programmes that can be implemented at home, including education for parents on how to keep themselves safe around their children as they get older.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said it would be in contact with Ábalta in due course to discuss the proposed relocation of the school. “A potential site option has been identified to accommodate Ábalta special school in Galway. This site is currently being investigated by the department. Site acquisitions are, by their nature, sensitive and for that reason the department is not in a position to provide any further information at this time. The department will be in further contact with the school in due course, when its assessment process is further advanced.”