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Parents' heartbreak after legal bid to save their school is rejected

By Rebecca Black

Published 29/08/2015

Julie Gordon and Sylvia Harris, who sit on the board of governors at Avoniel Primary School, with parent Christine Savage
Julie Gordon and Sylvia Harris, who sit on the board of governors at Avoniel Primary School, with parent Christine Savage

Parents of children at an east Belfast primary school have told of their devastation after a judge ordered that it must close.

Avoniel Primary School was recommended for closure by the then Belfast Education and Library Board last year as part of an area plan to consolidate the number of schools in the area.

Supporters protested against the decision, but Education Minister John O'Dowd approved the proposal to close the school in May.

They then pleaded for a formal amalgamation of Avoniel with nearby Elmgrove Primary to ensure some continuity for the children moving over, but this also fell on deaf ears.

As a result they took their battle to keep the school open to the courts.

But yesterday their appeal was turned down as Mr Justice Stephens rejected all grounds of challenge to Mr O'Dowd's decision to approve the closure of Avoniel Primary.

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

With many primary schools having already started back this week, the lateness of the decision means the children from Avoniel will have a delayed start the school year.

Avoniel parent Christine Savage said they hope the Education Authority - which took over from the education and library boards earlier this year - has learned a lesson from the process.

Some of the Avoniel children have been accepted by Elmgrove, but others are having to travel further across east Belfast to Victoria Park Primary in Sydenham. However, one mother, Leanne Lynch, still has no place for her daughter, who should be going into P3, and son, who should be going into P7.

The single parent family live right beside Avoniel but are faced with having to pay for taxis to take the children to Victoria Park, or taking on the challenge of home schooling.

"My son has ADHD and doesn't deal well with change, so with having to find a new school for him this year and then another new school for him next year when he finishes primary will be very hard for him to cope with," she said. "He doesn't want to go to a new school. I want my two to be in the same school so at least there is one familiar face for him, but it is harder to get them both place together. The Avoniel parents will be getting letters offering school places soon but some may not be placed until the end of September so that would be even harder for them to adapt, coming in so late.

"Then we will have the last-minute challenge of finding uniforms for them.

"It has been so hard. I have been crying all day."

Ms Savage said she feels they have been treated disgracefully. She said: "Court this morning was horrible.

"My child has now got a place at Elmgrove and now I need to find a uniform over the weekend because until today I did not know where they would be going.

"Two days ago 26 children were without a school.

"I just hope the Belfast region of the Education Authority have learned lessons from this and no other parents are ever put through an experience like this."

Many of the teachers from Avoniel have been redeployed within the education system.

But school caretaker Hugh Hamilton has found himself without a job for the first time in his life.

He had been working at Avoniel for eight years.

"We are all absolutely devastated. It honestly is like someone has died," he said.

"Everyone is just numb and shocked... it is like a family here, the Avoniel family.

"I am now unemployed for the first time in my life, and I have four children at home to provide for."

Meanwhile, Mr O'Dowd welcomed the judgment.

"My focus continues to be developing a planned network of viable and sustainable schools capable of delivering effectively the revised curriculum and the entitlement framework," he said.

"These schools must provide adequate access to a range of educational provision appropriate to the needs of the children and young people across all local areas.

"It will therefore be essential that a broad vision of the type and scale of education provision required to meet the future needs is agreed, encompassing the various models to do so."

Belfast Telegraph

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