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East Belfast parents told their local schools are full... but they can have a place in Coleraine

Anxious pupils in limbo as board proposes a 120-mile round trip each day to study

By Rebecca Black

Published 28/05/2015

Ashfield Girls High School in East Belfast
Ashfield Girls High School in East Belfast
Coleraine College in Coleraine

Children in east Belfast who cannot get into their local school are being offered the option of enrolling in another 60 miles away, it can be revealed.

Year 7 pupils across Northern Ireland heard at the weekend whether they had been accepted at their first choice of secondary school.

Those who had not been successful were issued a list of schools where places were still available by the Education Authority.

The only state controlled high school in east Belfast - Ashfield Girls High and Ashfield Boys High - are oversubscribed, with long waiting lists.

Seven children in east Belfast who have not yet secured a secondary school place now face being forced to travel to another region to enrol in a controlled secondary school.

Their parents were sent a list of schools in the North Eastern region and the South Eastern region which still have places. These include Coleraine College (56 miles away), Dunluce School in Bushmills (57 miles away), Ballycastle High School (55 miles away), Magherafelt High School (34 miles away), Ballynahinch High School (17 miles away) and Movilla High School in Newtownards (13 miles away).

Even the closest available controlled school to east Belfast - Breda Academy in south Belfast - would necessitate a child getting on two different buses.

Two of the seven children in limbo are currently in P7 in Victoria Park Primary School, and they were the only ones in their class when they returned to school on Tuesday not to have a secondary school place.

Michelle Porter, mother of Abbie (10), said Tuesday was a very difficult day for her daughter hearing about her classmates talking about going to Ashfield, Grosvenor or Strathearn while her future was uncertain.

Joanne Miskelly's daughter Katie has also not get a place at a secondary school yet and she has been left distraught by the experience.

Last year the only other controlled secondary school in east Belfast - Orangefield High - was closed.

An application from both Ashfield Boys and Ashfield Girls High to expand was turned down by Education Minister John O'Dowd last January.

Community worker Ian Shanks said he has been inundated with parents contacting him in despair.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that the post primary place shortage is a further blow for parents in the east of the capital following a shortage of nursery places a few weeks ago.

He revealed that he had written to Mr O'Dowd about both issues, and in his response Mr O'Dowd said he has instructed the Education Authority to undertake development work to ensure there is adequate post primary division.

Mr Shanks described the minister's response as "not good enough" and said that parents and children have been left devastated at being forced to go outside Belfast to find a secondary school.

"On a human level are we honestly expected to send our 11-year-olds from east Belfast to schools in the North Eastern region?" he said.

"Realistically how many children from Castlereagh viewed schools in Carrickfergus or Lisburn thinking that they would be expected to accept placements that far away?"

Mr Shanks also queried why there were so many maintained schools in Belfast with available places, while there were no controlled schools with places.

A spokesman for the Education Authority said parents whose child has not been accepted to a school "should nominate further preferences as soon as possible, as per the advice in the correspondence received from the Education Authority".

He added: "Sufficient places remain available throughout Belfast, North Eastern and South Eastern regions as listed in correspondence to parents."

'Abbie's distraught... this whole experience is a nightmare'

Two young east Belfast girls have been left devastated as they do not know which school they will be going to in September.

Abbie Riddall
Abbie Riddall

Abbie Riddall (10) has grown up excited at the prospect of attending Ashfield Girls' High.

Her two big brothers went to Ashfield Boys' and her father was even on the building team that built the new Ashfield Girls' building.

"When she was just three years old she used to point at the school when I was picking up the boys and say my daddy is building that for me," Abbie's mother Michelle Porter told the Belfast Telegraph.

"This whole experience has been a living nightmare.

"She is 30th on the waiting list for Ashfield now. She also did not get into Priory College.

"I just don't know what we are going to do at the minute."

Michelle is worried about her young daughter travelling by herself to the next available schools - either Dundonald High or Breda Academy in south Belfast - and concerned about her being separated from all of her primary school friends.

"It was hard for her going back to school on Tuesday after getting the letter on Saturday to say she hadn't got a place," she said.

"Everyone else was going on about going to Ashfield, or Grosvenor, or Strathearn and she knew that she hadn't got a place."

Abbie's classmate Katie Miskelly (11) is in the same position. Her mother Joanne said Katie is so upset about being separated from her friends that she is crying herself to sleep and waking up during the night worrying.

Katie lives within sight of Ashfield Girls' School, attends a feeder primary school and her brother is currently at Ashfield Boys'.

Her mother Joanne - who also attended Ashfield Girls' as a child - told the Belfast Telegraph that they thought Katie would be certain to get in.

But she was not able to get in and is currently 20th on the waiting list.

They then tried to apply to Priory College in Holywood as their next closest school, but were again unsuccessful.

The family received a list of schools with availability from the Education Authority. However the closest school to them with spaces is Breda Academy in south Belfast, which would necessitate Katie leaving her Sydenham home every morning at 7am and having to take two separate buses by herself across the city.

Joanne said they were shocked and plan to appeal.

"What should have been a happy school experience with her friends, her brother and at a local school will now involve her leaving her home at 7am in order to get the two buses and long walk necessary to receive an education," she said.

"The selection process in this country is seriously flawed and now my daughter's future will suffer as a result.

"She now doesn't even want to go to school at all. She is now miserable and worrying about how her school life will now be.

"She is crying herself to sleep and waking up three to four times a night worrying about it."

Her mother said she plans to appeal the decision.

"I feel that being able to attend a local school that her cousins attend, her aunts attended and her grandmother attended should be her right," she said.

"Instead preference is being given to those who don't even live in the area. I am disgusted at how my daughter has been treated and I'm sure others are in the same position. I feel so helpless and am worrying now myself that her school years are going to be horrible, affecting her future as an adult."

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