The redeployment of therapists from special schools to community services will negatively affect children with additional needs, principals have said.
Speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and other healthcare specialists currently working in schools for children with additional needs are to be transferred to community healthcare services as part of the reconfiguration of disability services for children.
The progressing disability services (PDS) programme, which will provide interdisciplinary supports through 91 local disability networks, is due to be fully implemented by July, according to the Health Service Executive.
Marie Burke, principal of the Carmona School in Glenageary, Co Dublin, said parents were “exceptionally worried” about the forthcoming changes. The school, which caters to pupils aged four to 18 with severe to profound learning disabilities, currently has full-time access to three HSE-employed specialists, but they are due to be redeployed in June.
“This is not something we would welcome at all. This will definitely negatively affect how our children are supported,” Ms Burke said. “For our children to be successful in schools and to get the best out of school they need to have access to these specialists.”
She said parents fear their children will miss out on school while attending appointments in community settings. This will not only be disruptive for young people with autism but will cause additional stress for parents who may have to leave work or other commitments to bring their child to appointments.
“The extra time and stress for parents is not fair . . . I just cannot see how the children’s needs would be met properly,” Ms Burke added.
‘Unjust and unfair’
Eimear O’Rourke, principal at the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra, Dublin, said it is “unjust and unfair” that the school faces losing its full-time speech and language therapist.
“We have had a speech and language therapist at our school for 10 years. We have been looking for more multidisciplinary supports . . . I just cannot believe they are taking away rather than adding,” she said.
The vast majority of students at the Holy Family School have just one additional need – namely language development – so would not qualify for supports under the PDS programme. These pupils will miss out, as the speech and language therapist works across the school and provides support and intervention for all students at some point or another, Ms O’Rourke said.
Meanwhile, parents of children with multiple additional needs are concerned about the amount of time their children could spend out of school while attending appointments, she added.
As a centre of excellence for deaf education, many of the students travel from distance to attend, while others from as far as Cork opt to board at the school. For them, accessing services in the community rather than in school will be logistically difficult and result in the additional loss of school hours, Ms O’Rourke said.
“It is going to be a loss of support for our staff and school and it will affect our children’s development. This is critical for them,” she said.
Minister of State for Disability Anne Rabbitte said last week the PDS network was being rolled out across the country, so “the horse has bolted on this one”.
She said work on the proposed model had been in train since 2016 and aimed to achieve an “equitable national approach” to service provision for children regardless of where they live or go to school.
“I acknowledge and totally understand the concern, upset and frustration of the parents and staff in the school,” she said, in a specific reference to the Holy Family School.
Ms Rabbitte said she had spoken with HSE representatives a number of times over the past week to air her concerns about the rollout which have been brought to her attention from parents.
Labour senator Marie Sherlock described the removal of specialists from schools as a “retrograde” step.
“There is already a good service in place and the HSE is seeking to remove that. So we are robbing Peter to pay Paul and we simply cannot allow that to happen,” Ms Sherlock said, adding it was “shameful” to tell children they must miss school to avail of therapies.