Three schools have been told that they face closure just days after the Education Minister said there was no ‘hit-list’ of schools.
Dunmurry High in south Belfast, Redburn Primary in Holywood and Ballykeigle Primary, a rural school three miles outside Comber, Co Down, have all been visited by officials from the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) in the past week.
Although the schools declined to comment, it is understood the management, teachers, parents and pupils are shocked and have vowed to fight the closures.
It also comes one week after John O’Dowd announced a major overhaul of Northern Ireland’s education system including a viability audit of every school and the development of an area plan for the future of the schools’ estate.
The findings of the audit are due to be handed to the minister at the end of December, while the commissioncarrying out the latter has been given until next June to complete its work. The SEELB claims the schools it is recommending for closure were already under scrutiny before the minister’s statement on September 26.
The department has said it has no knowledge of the board’s plans.
Dunmurry High was told the grim news just 72 hours after the minister made his address to the Assembly; parents at Redburn received the hammer blow on Friday, and last night Ballykeigle learned its fate.
The Belfast Telegraph understands another seven schools in the SEELB area have been listed for closure or amalgamation.
A source said: “Over the summer months the board and commissioners were working on a confidential document identifying schools for closure under Schools For The Future: A Policy For Sustainable Schools.
“That paper went to the SEELB Commissioners who discussed it at a meeting on September 20 and it’s hoped all closures could be achieved by August 2012 or before.
“It is an acceleration of the existing department policy and is focusing on enrolment and money.”
While each of the schools fail to meet some of the department’s criteria there are hundreds of schools across the province also in financial deficit, with low enrolment, poor educational outcomes and in formal intervention.
Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig raised concerns about SEELB’s treatment of Dunmurry High. He said: “There is a firm belief within the school and the board of governors that the SEELB has not followed the proper procedures in going to consultation over possible closure.”
A plea has now been sent out to the Education Minister from politicians contacted by concerned schools and parents to put an immediate stop on all closures.
UUP MLA David McNarry, vice-chairman of Stormont’s education committee, said: “I am calling on the minister to stop all closures until the full process he outlined in his statement on the future of the province’s schools is complete.”
The chairman of the education committee has written to the minister asking him not to proceed with any development proposals — plans to close schools — until the viability audit is carried out.
DUP MLA Mervyn Storey said: “It is vital that any suggestion of unfair treatment in avoided.
“If a development proposal is issued after the minister’s statement, then the school is effectively being assessed twice.”
Location: Three miles from Comber and three miles from Ballygowan
Board area: SEELB
Pupil numbers: 43
Finances: In surplus
Quality of Education: Satisfactory (rated June 2010)
Additional info: Rural school
Board area: SEELB
Pupil numbers: 158
Finances: In deficit
Quality of Education: Inadequate (also in formal intervention) (March 2011)
Additional info: Serves one of the most deprived areas of NI
Pupil numbers: 76
Finances: In surplus
Quality of Education: Always satisfactory, sometimes good, at times excellent (November 2004)
Additional info: Many pupils come from Army barracks
What they said: the views of MLAs, bureaucrats, school staff and affected families
David McNarry (Ballykeigle |Primary is in his Strangford |constituency)
“Clearly, boards have a hit-list of schools for closure. This is an outrageous state of affairs.”
Mervyn Storey (chairman of the education committee)
“It is vital that any proposals brought forward are not left open to challenge through any anomaly in the procedures for all schools.”
South Eastern Education Library Board
“The SEELB does not have the authority to close a school, such a decision is a matter for the Minister of Education. On an annual basis the board reviews the provision throughout its area and, as appropriate, engages with those schools which may be impacted upon by future plans. This scheduled review began prior to the statement from the minister. The contents of his statement were neither public nor known to the board in advance of his announcement to the Assembly.”
Department of Education
“The Department has received no proposals from the South Eastern Education and Library Board for the closure of any of these schools. Such proposals, however, are dealt with regularly by the department and when one is received, the department commences a two-month consultation period before the minister makes a decision.
“A final decision is only made after taking all evidence into account. The minister’s statement set out a range of measures to accelerate the pace of change needed in reshaping education to meet the needs of pupils. However, it is important these plans are not used to delay necessary decisions.
“It is only right and proper where there is robust evidence that a school is failing to meet the needs of its pupils, and the school Managing Authority considers closure to be the best option, that a proposal is published and decided upon at the earliest opportunity. To do otherwise would risk failing the pupils concerned.”
A spokesman for Ballykeigle |Primary School
“The situation is totally at odds with what the minister said about ‘it's not a numbers game' and ‘there's no ‘hit-list'.”
Christine Morrow (parent of child attending Ballykeigle PS)
“The sudden decision to close the school is not in the best interests of our children and we, the parents, intend to do what we can to change this decision. I hope to be given the opportunity to help the school continue to improve its standards.”