By Ann Allan

Harry Stewart, aged 8, last attended Oakwood Special School on March 13 this year. He has a chromosome disorder, is autistic and non-verbal. To a child like Harry, school is extremely important.  But the Northern Ireland Education Authority have informed Harry’s parents that there is no place for him to return to school in September at either Glenveagh or Tor Bank special schools in Belfast?

I spoke to Harry’s mother, Colette Stewart, to find out how this news has affected Harry and the rest of the family, including his 10-year-old sister Emily.

Colette (pictured above with her son Harry) said that he needs routine, and as he is non-verbal he needs help in learning to communicate. Both of these are fulfilled at school but during the pandemic this routine was interrupted and Harry has spent the last three months in lockdown.

She said that she was fortunate because she had been furloughed from her job and that her husband was able to adjust his hours to help out.

‘We’ve tried home schooling using materials supplied by the school but this is mostly on an iPad and Harry sees an iPad as leisure time,” said Colette.

“I take him for long walks in the park and I talk to him about the trees and the leaves and the different things we see in the park.”

Colette said the situation had been hard on the family and had been stressful at times. Harry going to school offered respite for the whole family.

The news that there is no school place for Harry in September has been a blow for them.

It appears that Harry is not alone as at least 100 other children have also been left without a special school place.

‘”The education system, in particular the area planning process, has failed these children’

Unacceptable: Chris Lyttle

Alliance Party MLA  Chris Lyttle, who is chair of the Education Committee at Stormont, said: ‘It is unacceptable that children with special educational needs are without a school or special school place for September.

“The education system, in particular the area planning process, has failed these children. The Education Minister must act urgently to place the pupils and restart work on the independent review of education, that he erroneously temporarily suspended, to arrest this dysfunction and deliver equal educational opportunity for all children.”

Meanwhile Harry and his family face a very uncertain future in terms of his educational needs.

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