A group of parents from Caerphilly have been praised for their role in making sure schools remain open for children with additional learning needs (ALN).
During Wales’ first coronavirus lockdown last year, many children with ALN were not offered places at school hubs reserved for vulnerable children and the children of frontline key workers.
Now, however, the Welsh Government has expanded its definition of vulnerable children to include those with conditions like autism.
This means local authorities will be able to interpret the definition of vulnerable with more flexibility, ensuring school places remain open for those who need it.
Sparrows ALN Group, a Caerphilly County Borough-based support group for families of children with learning difficulties and Autism Spectrum Disorders, was heavily involved in discussions to extend vulnerable school places to children with special educational needs.
Katie Lloyd, a member of the Sparrows group, met with professionals following the first lockdown after her son Zack wasn’t offered a place at a hub last year.
Ms Lloyd told Caerphilly Observer it was vital he was offered a place this time around: “It’s really important for our schools to remain open for our children for so many reasons.
“Many of our children receive therapies via speech, language or occupational therapies and most of these are assessed and encouraged via routines in schools.
“While some therapies can be done at home or adapted, most of our schools or units have specialist equipment or training on how to do some of these therapeutic interventions.
“It is important to have access to in-person schooling as the majority of our children, are unable to interact with zoom calls or even communicate.
“A few would be unable to understand how to use IT facilities such as learning programs and laptops. This also means our children risk being totally isolated and increasingly anxious in social settings when this pandemic ends.
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“School gives them an opportunity to have some sense of normal routine, which in turn will help their mental health, even if it’s purely for a few hours they can help maintain the social skills as well as the usual subjects which they may need assistance with.
“With Sparrows, and with the help of Hefin David, we had the opportunity to discuss our concerns, with several professionals so we could hopefully have some sort of input on the support we would need should another lockdown arise.
“I think having input from parents on issues they had not considered was really informative. I know Hefin has worked hard to enable us to access this and most parents are now seeing positive changes in their children.”
According to research carried out by the National Autistic Society, 68% of family members said their autistic child was anxious at the loss of routine brought about by school closures, remote learning and other changes to their education during the pandemic.
Hefin David, MS for Caerphilly, has praised the work of parents within the Sparrows group, of which he is a member himself.
Dr David said: “This has been driven by parents in Caerphilly and collectively we have made a difference for people across Wales.
“I have a personal interest as my daughter is autistic and I understand the challenges faced by parents during the first lockdown.
“The work done by Sparrows and the Welsh Government advisory group Together For Children and Young People has expanded the definition of vulnerable children and now many more children are being offered school places.
“This is really important to all parents with children with additional learning needs and it enables children to have the certainty they require to continue their education.
“I would now like to see local authorities across Wales use as broad an understanding and definition of Special Education Needs as possible.”
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