Stormont move for ‘forgotten pupils’ case

Dr Peter Cunningham.
Dr Peter Cunningham.

The principal of Ceara School Dr Peter Cunningham and Upper Bann MP David Simpson are pressing for an urgent meeting with Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry on behalf of the “forgotten pupils of the education system”.

An email has gone from Mr Simpson’s Portadown office seeking talks with Mr Farry “so that the over-19s from the special education system can embark on further training, up to 25, with a view to placing them in employment”.

The move follows two hard-hitting articles from recent issues of the Portadown Times, which placed the spotlight on the vacuum the over-19s face after their excellent education at Ceara. There is invariably nowhere for them to go. The majority face languishing at home, or – with luck – landing a precious job in voluntary schemes, like the 180 Degrees Restaurant in Portadown’s Mandeville Street. But these are rare.

Dr Cunningham said, “It’s soul-destroying. Every member of staff in Ceara puts their heart and soul into developing and educating all the pupils to their full potential, and at the end, it all seems to be wasted – there is nothing for them.

“When the new education and health order takes over in April (they are being unified under one authority) I hope and pray they continue to fund the special schools at the current level and make post-school training a priority. I have been in special education for 35 years, and the over-19 policies are still much the same as it was then.”

He praised the role played by Mr Simpson in the promotion of Ceara, and pointed to areas like South Londonderry, Newry and parts of Belfast where there are far more opportunities, with local politicians and community leaders there campaigning. “It’s the post code syndrome,” he said. “That is not right. All must be treated equally andc with respect.”

Mr Simpson confirmed he had contacted Mr Farry’s Department and that he and Dr Cunningham had a strong case to put to him, “not just for our area where Ceara and Donard (Banbridge) do an excellent job, but for the whole of Northern Ireland with a view to expanding a workable scheme.”

He added, “This is an issue which has been talked about by Government for many years and quite frankly it has only been lip-service. The Department of Employment and Learning needs to listen and act to have a structured process in place for transition from our well run, high achieving special schools to ensure that at aged 19 their educational journey can continue. There also needs also to be a joined approach with the Department of Education, the Department of Health at a Stormont level to tackle this long running problem head on.

“We will impress upon Minister Farry Minister Farry that his Department must put in place a suitable and comprehensive form of Post 19 training and education for these young people.”