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Work starts on £2m school as purse snaps shut

By Lindsay Fergus

Most people will never have heard of Straw. But nestled in the rural Sperrins village is St Columba’s Primary — Northern Ireland’s luckiest school.

For yesterday, against all the odds, work finally began on a new £2m state-of-the-art school at a site on Sixtowns Road on the outskirts of Draperstown.

St Columba’s is the last school to be constructed under the Department of Education’s current building programme.

Its principal of 20 years, Geraldine Regan (below) said: “I am absolutely thrilled, it has been a long road. We are very privileged and very lucky.”

Education Minister John |O’Dowd, who cut the first sod, said: “The start of this construction represents an investment of almost £2m by my department in the future of the children that attend St Columba’s Primary School.

“However, these are very difficult financial times and we need to rethink our priorities for future capital investment.

“I intend to make a statement setting out the way forward for a school build programme in the Assembly after the summer recess.”

The new school, which can accommodate up to 175 pupils, will be built on a two- acre site adjacent to where the current school stands. It will include a dining/sports hall, special needs room, resource areas, outdoor classroom, outdoor play ground and enclosed playground for key stage one pupils.

It is in stark contrast to the current St Columba’s, where pupils are taught in a school dating back to 1957, and five mobile classrooms which have been there for two decades. They also have no sports facilities.

Mrs Regan explained: “The conditions we are working in are awful. There are five mobile classrooms and a 0.6 acre site for 136 children — so it’s wonderful to be at that this stage today.”

During the past nine years St Columba’s, a maintained primary, has had to overcome many hurdles and at times the new school seemed like an unachievable dream.

“Through no fault of our own there was hold-up after hold-up,” said Mrs Regan. “We were held up by funding, changes in Government, cutbacks, issues with water levels, site issues. There were many times when I thought there would not be a new school. I can’t believe this day has come.”

When funding was finally approved last August, graves put yet another obstacle in its way.

Initial construction plans required an old section of a graveyard to be removed to make way for a footpath, sparking opposition from some in the community who did not want to see the small number of graves exhumed.

The row was resolved when a new site was found in a neighbouring field which did not need access through the graveyard.

The new school is set to open its doors in September 2012.

Story so far

In August last year then Education Minister Caitriona Ruane announced that funding had been available to start work on 13 new builds. Carrick Primary School, Warrenpoint (£3.3m); Corranny and Cornagague PS, Roslea (£1.5m); Dromintee PS, Newry (£2m); Scoil Na Fuiseoige PS, Belfast (£1.6m); St Columba's PS, Draperstown (£2m); St Oliver Plunkett PS, Forkhill (£1.8m); St Colman's PS, Lisburn (£3.3m); St Joseph's PS, Madden, Armagh (£1.5m); Magherafelt PS & Nursery Unit (£4.1m); St Mary’s PS, Newcastle (£3.4m); Taughmonagh PS, Belfast (£3.5m); Bangor Grammar (£17.4m), and Strathearn Grammar, Belfast (£17.3m)

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