Belfast Telegraph

Anxious parents must wait and see if school can accept children

By Rebecca Black

Worried parents hoping to send their children to an east Belfast primary school won't know until next year if it will be allowed to increase the number of pupils it can admit in order to resolve an over-subscription problem.

Last week it emerged that Strandtown Primary school may be forced to introduce admissions criteria at P4 to decide which children get places - with nine potentially being turned away.

The school operates a unique system whereby incoming pupils start at P4. It mainly takes in children from three nearby infant schools - Dundela, Greenwood and Belmont.

The Department of Education allows Strandtown to admit up to 241 children into P4 every September, while its total permitted enrolment is 963 children.

Next September will be the first time the school faces the prospect of having more applicants for P4 than it is allowed to admit.

There are currently 250 children in P3 at the three feeder schools - meaning up to nine could be left without places.

More than 200 concerned prospective parents attended a meeting at the primary school last night.

Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane, who has a child at Strandtown, DUP MLA Robin Newton and DUP councillor Gavin Robinson also attended.

School principal Peter McClenaghan told parents he was hopeful the school may still be able to take all the children from the feeder schools. He revealed that the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) told him yesterday that it would be willing to support a bid by the school to expand its admission numbers to take in the extra nine children.

However, the school cannot apply to the Department of Education for what is known as a 'temporary variance' until all the applications for P4 are received. The deadline for applications is January 14.

Mr McClenaghan said after that date the school will apply for the variance and should know the outcome by the end of January.

But if the department refuses the application, there is no opportunity to appeal, he added.

In those circumstances, he said the school will only be able to take the children who live closest to the school. However, he assured parents that any children from the feeder schools who apply will always be given priority over others.

The principal said the situation was temporary and he had been advised that by September 2019 there will not be the same issue of over-subscription, according to current birth rates.

Parent Peter Osbourne asked Mr McClenaghan why nothing had been done about the situation until now. He said some parents may not have enrolled their children in P1 in one of the feeder schools if they had known about the problem.

"Why are we only hearing about this now when it was an issue three years ago?" he asked. "Some people may have sent their children to other schools if they had known about this."

Mr McClenaghan said the school had raised the issue with the BELB and the department, but that until they have more applications than places they cannot apply for temporary variance to be allowed an increased enrolment.

Ms Cochrane has a child at Strandtown and another in P3 at a feeder school, Greenwood, who will be applying for Strandtown. She said everyone at the school have been left frustrated by the situation, and she had met Education Minister John O'Dowd to discuss the situation.

Background

Strandtown Primary School operates an unusual system in which pupils start at P4. It takes most of its pupils from three nearby feeder infant schools - Dundela, Belmont and Greenwood. This year is the first time Strandtown has been faced with the prospect of more children coming in from those schools than it can admit. There are currently 250 children in P3 at the three junior schools. Strandtown is only allowed to take a maximum 241 children into P4. This leaves nine children potentially unable to get a place at Strandtown.

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