Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

O'Dowd asked to explain 'burying' of cross-border education survey

Education Minister John O'Dowd

The Education Minister is facing questions around why the findings of a survey on cross-border education were not discussed at an inter-governmental meeting as expected.

In 2011 John O'Dowd and the Republic's Minister of Education Ruairí Quinn, agreed to carry out a joint survey of pupils in the border areas.

The purpose was to establish the current and future schooling needs in the border regions.

The survey's findings were due to be presented at last Friday's meeting of the North South Ministerial Committee, but the Department of Education in Northern Ireland has confirmed that it did not appear on the agenda and was not discussed.

The revelation has prompted concerns that the issue may have been buried because it has become politicised.

Professor Tony Gallagher of Queen's University Belfast has already raised concerns that cross-border education could become entangled in a political row.

In October it was reported that four times as many pupils from the Republic attend post-primary schools here, compared to their counterparts from Northern Ireland.

During the 2012/13 academic year, 275 students living in the Republic enrolled in post-primary schools here – compared to 63 local students who attend post-primary schools across the border. Statistics obtained by The Detail website show that while there has been a 42% increase in pupils from the Republic attending a post-primary school in Northern Ireland since 2008, there has been a 16% drop in the number of local students enrolled in schools in the Republic.

The figures – which should have been highlighted in the governments' cross-border survey – carry significant cost implications.

Mervyn Storey, DUP head of the Assembly's education committee, has already said that the Republic's government should refund the Northern Ireland Exchequer for the annual cost of educating pupils from its jurisdiction in local schools.

However, the survey was also intended to establish the role of Northern Ireland's cross-border schools.

The SDLP's Sean Rogers, who sits on the Assembly's education committee, questioned whether the survey's findings were not presented because they could raise pertinent questions around the Department of Education's area planning proposals.

The department's plans will see a reconfiguration of Northern Ireland's schools map through a series of amalgamations and closures.

Several cross-border schools, such as St Mary's High School Brollagh, which is situated on the Fermanagh/Donegal border, are facing closure under those plans.

"I would very much like to know why the survey's findings were not discussed," Mr Rogers said.

"Cross-border education needs to feed in to area-based planning and remain an option in order to sustain rural communities.

"This means that area-based plans would have to be stalled to accommodate the cross-border option, and perhaps that doesn't suit (Education Minister) John O'Dowd and the department of education."

Mr Storey claims the survey has been "dropped like a hot potato" because it may not reveal a stream of local pupils being educated in schools in the Republic.

The department of education in Northern Ireland did not respond to a request for comment.

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