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Judge rejects Belfast pupil's bid to stop school closure

By Alan Erwin

Published 28/08/2015

Education Minister John O'Dowd has allowed a temporary increased enrolment at Elmgrove from 592 to 724 to accommodate 152 children from Avoniel, but it will decrease eventually to 609
Education Minister John O'Dowd has allowed a temporary increased enrolment at Elmgrove from 592 to 724 to accommodate 152 children from Avoniel, but it will decrease eventually to 609

A High Court judge today dismissed a legal bid to stop the closure of an east Belfast school.

Mr Justice Stephens rejected all grounds of challenge to Education Minister John O'Dowd's decision to approve the shutting of Avoniel Primary.

His verdict means increased admissions and enrolment at nearby Elmgrove Primary will now proceed as the new term gets underway.

Legal action was mounted by an Avoniel Primary pupil granted anonymity in the case.

Lawyers for the child, referred to as YA, claimed the Minister's decision should be quashed because of flaws in a prior consultation process by the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB).

Mr O'Dowd's decision, announced in May, was said to represent the first phase in plans to reshape controlled primary provision in east Belfast.

But parents of pupils at Avoniel reacted with anger to the outcome, claiming it left them with little time to find a new school by September.

In court YA's legal team alleged consultation was not properly or fairly conducted, arguing that education authorities dismissed a potential alternative of amalgamating Avoniel and Elmgrove.

According to their case the Board's proposals were already at an advanced stage when this exercise was carried out in 2014.

Counsel for YA insisted  Avoniel had been "a dead man walking" from early on in the process.

During a two-day hearing Attorney General John Larkin QC, representing the Minister, questioned the merits of the legal action.

He described the challenge as needless and pointless.

Ruling on the case today, the judge noted efforts to manage educational resources across Northern Ireland.

In 2011 there were 85,000 spare classroom spaces - the equivalent to 150 schools.

Mr Justice Stephens pointed out that Avoniel has the smallest enrolment out of five primary schools clustered together in inner east Belfast.

In that area alone 527 primary school places are unfilled, the court heard.

Elmgrove, meanwhile, was described as a strong, sustainable primary school with yearly growth in pupil numbers.

The judge set out how some Avoniel pupils have already requested transfers to Elmgrove.

The principal and teachers at the school earmarked for closure have also secured new positions elsewhere, while Elmgrove has taken on extra staff to cope with the expected influx.

Mr Justice Stephens threw out all contentions that the consultation process was either flawed or unfair, or conducted with "a closed mind".

Dismissing the challenge, he said: "Amalgamation had not been ruled out (as an option) as it was considered subsequently both by the BELB and the Minister."

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