Pre-school for special needs children to close after Covid takes toll

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first opportunities pre-school
The pre-school was established in 1974 (Photo: Jerry Fenner Photography)

A PRE-SCHOOL which has supported children with special needs for over 40 years is to close – a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Catherine Bowell, chair of First Opportunities based at Ashley Junior School, announced the news to parents this week. But she told the A&T she is determined the charity will carry on in some capacity.

“We are very, very sad. Since we were set up in 1974 we have helped over 2,000 children and their families,” she said.

“Even my own daughter and son went there. It is a very special place, but we simply cannot keep going.

“Red tape and the economic pressures of running a small, Ofsted-registered group were already taking their toll and unfortunately the pandemic, with the extra measures we have had to take, was really the last nail in the coffin.”

Mrs Bowell said that so many extra Covid-19 restrictions had been put in place for schools like First Opportunities that it “simply isn’t viable for us to stay open as we are”.

She added: “Under the new legislation children can only go to one pre-school so they would have to pick us or Ashley Junior, and we are dependent on the amount of children who come to the school for our funding.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision for us to close but we really had no choice. I just want to say a huge thank you to all the staff, parents and volunteers who have worked so hard for us over the years.”

Mrs Bowell said the charity now intends to “go back to our roots”, adding: “When we started it was set up by the late Joan Turnball and her friends who saw the need for nursery provision for children with special needs.

“It is that kind of informal, play and stay, supportive, friendly, safe environment we want to return to.”

She is now appealing to parents of children with special needs aged 0-5 to come forward with ideas on what sort of facility they would like to see the charity create.

“I would hope that we could re-open in some form around Christmas time,” she added.
Members of New Milton Town Council expressed their sadness at the news of First Opportunities’ closure during a virtual meeting on Monday night.

Among them was Cllr Christine Ward, who supported the charity during her time as chair of New Forest District Council. Her fundraising efforts included abseiling down Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower in 2017.

She said: “I want to say how disappointed I am about First Opportunities, that after all the work they have done they are closing down. I’m very sorry it has come to this.”

Cllr Steve Davies added he was “devastated” to hear of the closure, saying: “They are lovely people doing a great job. Hopefully, they can come back.”

To contact First Opportunities with ideas email firstopps@hotmail.com

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