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Education Minister rejects application to merge three rural schools

Thursday, 24 November 2016

A PROPOSAL to close three local primary schools in favour of opening a new facility in their place, has been rejected by the Education Minister.

In March this year, the Education Authority (EA) on behalf of the Council for Catholic Controlled Schools (CCMS) published proposals to re-configure Catholic maintained primary school provision in the wider Donemana area.

Under the plans brought forward by the CCMS, Altishane Primary School, Loughash Primary School and St Patrick's Primary School would have closed to amalgamate and form a new 105 pupil co-educational primary school to serve the North Tyrone area.

In it's development proposal, the CCMS said the shake-up had been drawn up to address sustainability issues in the schools, falling pupil numbers and budget pressures.

A fourth small rural school in close proximity, St Joseph's Primary School in Glenmornan, opted out of the proposed area solution prior to publication of development proposals. A statutory two-month objection period for the plans ran from March 16 to May this year.

An assessment document of the proposals provided to the Minister by education officials acknowledged that whilst the three schools have sustainability issues, particularly the educating of small numbers of pupils in more than two composite classes and enrolments that "persistently fall well below" sustainability issues, the proposal brought forward by CCMS does not ultimately address those.

The advice read: "The area solution brought forward by CCMS after a considerable period of development and refinement following consultation at a formative stage does go some way towards addressing these issues.

"However, it will not result in the formation of a sustainable school as defined in the Sustainable Schools Policy (SSP) which sets an enrolment threshold of a minimum (not optimum) number of 105 pupils for a rural primary."

 

Enrolment

Officials said the cumulative enrolment of the three amalgamating schools, based on 2015/16 data, would be 87 "which is significantly below the sustainability threshold".

"Achieving an enrolment of 105 will require not only the realisation of a projected increase in birth rate locally, but also realisation of an assumption that all pupils currently attending schools where closure is proposed would transfer to the new amalgamated school. However, parents can express a preference and there is no certainty that their children would be placed in the new school. That is an unknown, and alternative maintained primary schools with spare capacity are available within the locality should parents wish to avail of them," officials said.

"Had it proved possible to reach agreement on inclusion of St Joseph's PS as part of an area solution as originally proposed by CCMS that would undoubtedly have strengthened the case for change.... However, the omission of St Joseph's PS following consultation feedback on an area solution renders this scaled down set of proposals ineffective in their aim to establish a sustainable school."

The report recommended that the Minister not approve the development proposals and instead ask the CCMS to examine the "potential for innovative area solutions capable of attracting support to achieve a fully sustainable amalgamated school" and in doing so, address the sustainability issues evident.

Speaking this week about his decision to turn down the application, Education Minister, Peter Weir, urged the rural schools to work together to ensure sustainable area solutions.

"The children and young people in the Donemana area of North Tyrone deserve access to an educationally sustainable and financially viable primary school that is capable of delivering a high-quality educational experience," he said.

"My decision to refer this matter back to the planning authorities reflects the bringing forward of a set of proposals that would not in my view deliver a fully sustainable area solution. I would encourage schools to work with the planning authorities to agree sustainable and viable education provision for the good of all pupils in an area."

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