Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Schools plan is going to be awful, education chief admits

An education official has described the situation facing parents and pupils following the publication of the Education Minister’s plans for Northern Ireland’s schools as “awful”.

Nicky McBride, chief administrative officer at South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB), admitted: “It’s going to be awful.”

He made the comments to scores of concerned parents who turned out at a rural primary school under threat on Tuesday night. SEELB bosses were at Ballykeigle Primary for a pre-consultation, attended by the Belfast Telegraph, to outline to anxious mothers and fathers their plans to bring the school’s 174-year-old history to an end next August.

However, no schools will be identified for closure under the Department of Education’s viability audit until the new year.

When it was put to Mr McBride that schools earmarked for the axe by the board — before the outcome of the department’s audit — were being disadvantaged, Mr McBride said: “That is a valid point,” adding that the board and department were “out of kilter”.

It also came to light at the heated meeting that both Dunmurry High School and Redburn Primary have expressed similar fears to officials from SEELB.

MLA David McNarry said: “Would it not be fair for this work to stop until he (Education Minister John O’Dowd) has actually completed this viability audit?”

Those, and other concerns, will now be forwarded to Stanton Sloan, SEELB chief executive and the three SEELB commissioners.

Jim Shannon MP and MLA Michelle McIlveen have also requested an urgent meeting with SEELB’s commissioners.

The board has also been accused of “wielding the axe” on Ballykeigle ahead of the 12-week public consultation process after it emerged that it has blocked the school appointing a new principal.

Despite admitting that the school has the resources to pay a principal’s salary, John Mason, head of human resources at SEELB, stated: “The commissioners refused to appoint a principal” on the grounds of the school’s viability. Local councillor Robert Gibson said: “Is that not pre-judging the outcome?”

Parents of the 43 pupils who attend the school blamed the board for “doing everything to close us”.

Parents were also informed that the main reason for closing the school was finances and low pupil numbers.

What they said

John Mason: “We cannot guarantee that.” (Parents getting their second choice of school)

Nicky McBride: “Parental choice is not really parental choice anymore.”

David McNarry: “Don’t you dare close this school.”

Nicky McBride: “If you can give us evidence about that (future enrolment) we will take all those things into consideration.”

Parent: “They are not numbers, they are children.”

Jim Shannon, MP: “There are a number of things the board could do to help this school to grow.”

John Mason: “No, I don’t like being a hitman.”

Nicky McBride: “There are places within the system for your children; they may not be the places you want.”

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