Education shake-up

SEVERAL primary schools in north Antrim face merging with a nearby school or schools under one of the biggest ever shake-ups of the education sector.

‘Local area solutions’ is the terminology being used by education chiefs.

There are fears that several schools may close or else retain their building but operate under a new joint name with a nearby primary school.

The plans being brought by Education Minister John O’Dowd for the whole of Northern Ireland have been devised as pupil numbers fall.

There has been mixed views regarding the process but the public are asked to make their opinions known.

Some people like North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey, the DUP’s education spokesman who is also the Chairman of Stormont’s Education Committee, has already slammed the proposals.

The North Eastern Education and Library Board, after publishing its draft area plans for the future of primary school provision up to the year 2025, is now seeking responses from schools and local communities.

The plan, prepared in conjunction with the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools and other education stakeholders, reflects the Terms of Reference set by the Department of Education and previous engagement with schools.

A Planning statement for each of the Board’s schools is also contained within the plans.

A Board spokesman said: “The Board recognises the challenge of configuring school provision to meet the future needs of pupils and has indicated in this draft plan possible reviews of current school provision that will ensure that all children have access to education in viable and sustainable schools.

“It is important that all children have the best opportunity to achieve their potential in the primary stage of their education and it is our intention to work with the schools and the community to act in the best interests of these children.”

Copies of the plan and consultation materials can be accessed at on the NEELB web site.

The consultation will remain open until 28 June 2013.

Mervyn Storey said the school plans are “fundamentally flawed”.

In a statement to the Times he said:

“When the post primary plans were scrutinised by the Education Committee it became clear that in many cases whilst numbers may be low now by 2025 in many areas there will be a deficit in school places.

“Furthermore it became clear that the process that the Boards were forced to follow was seriously flawed and this resulted in a huge number of responses from the public most of which were critical of the plans. Despite this the Minister has decided to use the same flawed process again in an attempt to bolster his argument of too many schools.

“As I have said before the financial argument for closures is weak. The system in Northern Ireland is funded on the basis of pupil numbers and that cost remains whether or not you close buildings. As recent research from both Universities has shown there is little savings to be gained by school closures. Indeed the system will incur extra costs through transportation,teacher redundancy and the renovation of the remaining schools.

“The recent result for primary schools highlighting how well our children our performing against the rest of the world weakens the educational argument for the necessity of wholesale change. The Education committee also commissioned independent research which highlighted the fact that educational excellence had little to do with school size. In the light of this independent research the Minister’s case is by no means proven.

“The process used to develop these plans and foisted on the Education and Library Boards by the Minister is also having a major impact on the controlled sector. Indeed as I revealed as a result of an Assembly question over the last 10 years the controlled sector has taken the greatest hit with 50 controlled primary’s closed.

“The proposals contained in the area plan for Ballymoney and surrounding area is a clear example that there is no level playing field, rather controlled schools are being asked to change while other sectors are getting away free.

“Take for example one school in the Integrated sector with 53 pupils is not going to be touched but all the controlled schools with larger numbers are being told you will have to consider your future. This is totally unacceptable and I will not be supporting any further erosion of the controlled sector in this unfair and unjust way.

“All sectors except the controlled sector have support bodies in place to bolster their particular sectoral position and plans have been devised in many areas in such a manner as to result in the potential closures of mostly controlled schools. My party has won the argument and championed the case for the establishment of a controlled sector support body which is currently part of the plans to establish ESA.

“I have asked the Minister repeatedly to delay the work on the primary sector until this body was in place. He refused and this rush to publish is merely reinforcing the view that boards will be pressurised to close controlled schools prior to the establishment of the new body. My party leader is on record as desiring the development of a single education system. This system must be based on the twin pillars of parental choice and parity of treatment. However this process and these plans will do little to develop this.

“The worst aspect of this process is the apparent lack of capital funding to accompany these plans. In many cases communities are to be asked to volunteer for amalgamation without any guarantee of capital funding for a new school. The Department’s track record on capital funding for rationalisation schemes is poor.

“Consequently I would again appeal to everyone to get behind their local school. If ever there was a time parents and friends of the school should show their support it is now.,” said Mr Storey.

The NEELB document lists the proposals for each school.

The following schools are currently considered to be sustainable within the local area context in relation to the minimum enrolment threshold and financial viability - Balnamore; Bushvalley; Leaney; Lislagan; St Brigid’s, Ballymoney; St Joseph’s, Dunloy; St Patrick’s, Loughguile; St Patrick’s, Rasharkin; Ballymoney Model; Dunseverick; St Mary’s, Cushendall; St Patrick’s Glenariffe; St Patrick’s & St Brigid’s, Ballycastle; Ballycastle Controlled Integrated.

Other schools have enrolments in 2012/13 below the ‘minimum threshold detailed in the Sustainable Schools Policy’ and as such ‘local area solutions’ are proposed for them.

They include: Carrowreagh; Cloughmills Primary; Eden; Garryduff; Knockahollet; Kilmoyle; Landhead; Rasharkin Primary; William Pinkerton Memorial, Dervock; St Anne’s, Corkey; St Brigid’s, Cloughmills; Armoy Primary; Bushmills Primary; Straidbilly Primary; Barnish Primary; Gaelscoil an Chastil; Glenaan; St Ciaran’s, Cushendun; St Olcan’s, Armoy.

Options for schools below the threshold can include consideration of combining with another school or schools on a site or sites to be identified.

Regarding Armoy Primary; St Olcan’s Armoy; Barnish Primary and Straidbilly Primary, the NEELB document says: ‘Local area solution to be explored to include consideration of the joint submission from the Boards of Governors’ (of the four schools) ‘to come together as a shared federated school’.

* St Mary’s on Rathlin is deemed an island school and given special status.

* Dalriada Prep was already earmarked for closure with effect from August, 2014.