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Belfast mum fails to halt Little Flower and St Patrick's College amalgamation

By Alan Erwin

The mother of a pupil at a north Belfast girls' school has failed in a High Court bid to stop its planned amalgamation with an all-boys' college.

A judge dismissed the challenge to former Education Minister John O'Dowd's approval of merging Little Flower with St Patrick's College Bearnageeha.

Mr Justice Deeny rejected claims there was a failure to properly assess the impact of the proposals on Catholic students wanting to attend a single-sex, non-grammar school in the area.

He ruled that the Minister was entitled to rely on a screening process carried out by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) on behalf of the Department.

With the new co-educational school due to open in September, the judge also held the challenge should be rejected because of the delay in bringing proceedings.

He said: "It cannot be denied therefore that to halt this process at this late stage would cause disarray and prejudice in a scheme that has been in gestation for a period of years and which affects more than a thousand adults and children."

Lawyers for the girl's mother were seeking to quash decisions to close both Little Fower and St Patrick's and create a new school for both sexes.

They claim the plan discriminates against Catholic students in north Belfast and Glengormley.

Amalgamation plans were approved in March last year following a proposal from the CCMS.

But the parents of children at Little Flower have been fighting the move, with a petition gaining more than 1,600 signatures.

Central to the judicial review challenge was the contention that the plan breached an obligation under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to promote equality of opportunity.

Hundreds of Catholic pupils will be denied the opportunity of single-sex, non-grammar education, it was claimed.

Lawyers for the Department of Education insisted there was no requirement to carry out an equality impact assessment because necessary steps had already been taken by the CCMS.

Backing their case, Mr Justice Deeny said: "It seems to me therefore that the Department and the Minister were perfectly entitled to conclude that it was proper for CCMS to carry out the screening process, in effect, on behalf of the Department."

He added that any uncertainty about whether girls suffer disadvantage from co-educational schools must be balanced against "the firm view" that boys do benefit from the arrangements.

Dismissing the application, he concluded: "Even if I had not found against the applicant for the reasons set out it would be my duty to hold this is a case where the failure to act promptly should lead to the refusal of the application."

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