Cork special needs school remains 'cold, damp and wheelchair unfriendly'

Cork special needs school remains 'cold, damp and wheelchair unfriendly'
Siobhan Bridgeman with Shane and Rory O'Neill, all from Cobh, at the handover following a major refurbishment project by Carrigtwohill based company Merck Ireland, at St Gabriel's special needs school in Bishopstown, Cork.Picture: David Keane.

A CORK school for children with special needs remains "cold, damp and wheelchair unfriendly" despite a high-profile campaign by parents for new facilities.

Almost two years ago, the Department of Education committed to the construction of a purpose-built facility for the children of St Gabriel's Special School in Bishopstown but parents remain in the dark as to when works will begin. 

Members of the Parents' Association say they have been waiting for a new school building for too long.

It was reported in The Echo in 2018 that the school building "lacked facilities" for children with special needs.

Saint Gabriel's was originally built as a primary school in 1981 and opened as a special school in 1998.

It's a school for 43 students, aged from four to 18, who have severe and profound learning difficulties. 

It is also the only school in Cork which takes children with a dual diagnosis of autism and severe intellectual disability.

This means its students require a lot of support and many are living with complex conditions.

Parents and teachers say while some adaptions to the old building have taken place, a new purpose-built facility is needed.

In 2018, the Department of Education agreed that a new building would be constructed, but said at the time the process may take up to two years.

Siobhan Bridgeman, chair of the Parents' Association, told The Echo that there has been "no real improvements" to the situation.

"It isn't wheelchair accessible. There is a lack of stimulation, the rooms are cold and damp.

"I have a 7-year old boy who goes to school in Saint Gabriel's, Rory is his name. He's been there for three years now.

"In his old classroom, part of the ceiling fell in due to a water leak. This affected my son, big time.

"The whole class was moved and this was very disruptive for them. The new classroom was not set up properly, it was very open plan and noisy which affected my son greatly."

A section of the sensory garden at St Gabriel's special needs school in Bishopstown, Cork, after a refurbishment project by Carrigtwohill based company Merck Ireland.Picture: David Keane.
A section of the sensory garden at St Gabriel's special needs school in Bishopstown, Cork, after a refurbishment project by Carrigtwohill based company Merck Ireland.Picture: David Keane.

Ms Bridgeman said that the Department has identified a potential site for the new school building, which is close to the original one. 

"We were told the stakeholders were in negotiations... but meanwhile, the kids are suffering and the building is falling down around them.

"There's been no real improvement at all, bar what the Parents' Association fundraising has done when a new sensory room was put in. Merck [a science and technology company based in Carrigtwohill who volunteered time and employees to provide a DIY makeover to the school] also did great work."

While Ms Bridgeman is grateful for these steps, she feels a purpose-built building needs to be constructed as a matter of urgency.

"That building has been there since the 1980s. It feels like the kids have been forgotten about.

"Do they think just because we are parents of special needs children we won't kick up a fuss? It's so frustrating dropping your child to school knowing it is not [an appropriate environment]."

Ms Bridgeman says the teachers in Saint Gabriel's are excellent. 

"The staff are fantastic. But they are hindered in what they can do because its not a purpose-built facility.

"We just want to see some sort of movement, any positive development. At the rate it's going now my son will be lucky to see a change by the time he's finished school."

In a statement, a Department of Education and Skills spokesperson said: "The Department is committed to provision of a new school building for St. Gabriel’s Special School.

"A new site is required to facilitate this and the Department is engaging with the landowner in this regard.

"The Department has provided funding for roof and heating repairs to the school’s existing accommodation in recent years."

The school was also contacted for comment.

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