The academic future of 80 children in east Belfast was last night unclear after one school was closed and another was refused permission to expand.
Ending years of speculation, Education Minister John O'Dowd announced yesterday that Orangefield High School will shut its doors. Its remaining 80 pupils must now try to find another school by September.
However, one of the closest high schools – Ashfield – has been told it cannot expand its pupil numbers, leaving questions over where the Orangefield children will go.
TUV leader Jim Allister challenged Mr O'Dowd in the Assembly yesterday over why he had refused the request by Ashfield, yet granted permission for an integrated school in Holywood to take in more pupils.
Mr O'Dowd told the Assembly that it was not in the best interest to keep Orangefield open and that he has a statutory obligation to promote integrated schools.
"The decision to close Orangefield High School is a sad one for current and former pupils and staff; however, it was important that a decision about the future was taken quickly," the Alliance woman said.
Orangefield High School principal Karen Burrell said it was a very sad day for the school, but that they were focusing on helping their pupils through their GCSEs and A-Levels at present.
Orangefield High School was formed in 1990 after the former Orangefield Girls' School (1960) and Orangefield Boys' School (1959) were amalgamated. It counts legendary singer Van Morrison among its alumni.
Mr O'Dowd also announced yesterday that Dundonald High School will remain open and that Newtownbreda and Knockbreda High Schools in south Belfast will amalgamate.
Priory College in Holywood has seen its permitted enrolment rise to 500, although it had asked for 600.
The decision to keep Dundonald High School open was warmly welcomed by First Minister Peter Robinson and East Belfast MP Naomi Long.
Mr O'Dowd said he was not satisfied with the performance of Dundonald High School and challenged its supporters and staff to work to improve it.
He said recruitment will begin shortly to appoint a permanent principal, someone he said should be a "visionary leader" for the school, which has fewer than 250 pupils at present.
Ms Long said she is delighted Dundonald High School will be kept open.
She said its closure would have placed an unbearable strain on post primary schools in east Belfast.
However the decision to merge Newtownbreda and Knockbreda high schools was slammed by the Ulster Unionists as a "kick in the teeth".
"Newtownbreda is a successful school which stands on its own and successfully took on pupils and staff from Lisnasharragh and Dunmurry high schools when they closed," south Belfast UUP MLA Michael McGimpsey said.
"Pupils need continuity and instead the minister has injected more doubt. He is effectively closing the last state secondary school in south Belfast."
Delay in closure no longer feasible: O'Dowd
The development proposals made by Education Minister John O'Dowd:
- Orangefield High School will close this September. Dating back to 1960, when it consisted of separate boys' and girls' schools, it has just 80 pupils at present.
- There has been doubt over the future of the school for more than a year, with falling pupil numbers. Mr O'Dowd said it has "declined to such an extent that it is no longer feasible to delay its closure".
- Dundonald High School will remain open. The South Eastern Education and Library Board will shortly recruit a permanent principal and new members to the board of governors, as well as putting into place an intensive support programme supported by the Department of Education to help it improve its standard and pupil numbers, which are currently 247.
- Ashfield Boys' and Ashfield Girls' School will not be expanded. Neither school has spare places, but were both under-subscribed in relation to Year 8 intake. The schools had requested permission to take in 490 extra pupils but this was refused, over concerns it would impact on other post-primary schools in the area.
- Priory College in Holywood was the only integrated sector school included in the proposals. Its request to be expanded was granted. It had wanted a capacity of 600, however, they have been allowed to take up to 500 pupils with a Year 8 admissions number of 100. Current enrollment is 430.
- Knockbreda High School and Newtownbreda High School in the Castlereagh area of south Belfast will amalgamate into a single school of 1,000 pupils. It will operate on a split campus initially, with the possibility of a new school in the future not ruled out.