Down's syndrome girl fights for school place

A girl with Down's syndrome has launched a High Court challenge after being denied a place at the high school of her family's choice.

Lawyers for the 13-year-old child claimed the authorities were excluding her from full mainstream education.

The case came to court after a special educational needs tribunal upheld a decision that she should attend St Columbanus' College in Bangor.

The girl's mother wanted her to attend St Joseph's College in Belfast.

The girl, from north Down, has not been to school for the last six months.

Her legal team argued that the decision was a breach of human rights and special educational needs legislation.

Ronan Lavery QC told the court: "This cannot be compared in any way to parents who are upset that their child goes to grammar school A rather than grammar school B, or secondary school A rather than secondary school B.

"This case is about inclusion.

"It's about the right to access mainstream education in its fullest form, not some kind of sop to the legislative requirement by saying: 'Here's a mainstream school, you can go to that one'."

Exclusion

The court heard claims that the girl would be more integrated in the school of her choice, rather than subjected to streaming.

But Neasa Murnaghan, for the tribunal, countered by stressing St Columbanus' ability to provide the girl with at least a basic minimum education.

She also pointed to St Joseph's inexperience with Down's Syndrome pupils.

Responding to the argument that staff at St Joseph's could be trained, Mrs Murnaghan said St Columbanus have dealt with some Down's Syndrome children since 2005.

However, Mr Lavery contended that such an approach would lead to "self-perpetuating exclusion" from other schools.

"The policy seems to be you can go to any mainstream school you like, as long as it's St Columbanus," he said.

The judge, Mr Justice Treacy, said he wanted time to consider all the submissions and will give a decision on whether to grant leave to seek a judicial review next week.

Outside the court the girl's mother explained why she wanted her daughter to have a fully integrated education.

She said: "It's about tolerance. Other children need to learn that they won't be as fast and as quick, but they need to be respected and appreciated as another human being without that dividing line.

"Especially with a condition like Down's syndrome, which is just so stigmatised."

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