Belfast Telegraph

Newtownbreda High merger 'will destroy school's identity' - court hears

By Alan Erwin

An improving Belfast secondary school will have its identity destroyed by a planned amalgamation, the High Court heard today.

Lawyers for parents of children at Newtownbreda High argued no good reason has been given for its closure.

A judge was also told pupils have written to Education Minister John O'Dowd urging him to reconsider.

Mr O'Dowd is facing a legal challenge over his intention to shut both Newtownbreda and Knockbreda High Schools.

Both are set to close so that one new school can be created in the area.

The future amalgamation was announced in January after viability assessments were carried out.

Falling enrolment numbers formed part of the basis for concluding a change was required.

A principal for the planned new school is due to be appointed next month ahead of the planned opening next year.

But the parents of pupils at Newtownbreda High want the plans quashed, claiming their children's education will suffer.

One of those involved is the mother of a dyslexic girl who fears her progress may be jeopardised by the move.

Their lawyers claim Mr O'Dowd took the decision without proper reasoning and consultation.

The proper course of action would have been to just close Knockbreda and integrate its pupils into Newtownbreda, the court heard.

The judge was told how school inspectors have given an improved rating to Newtownbreda High, up from satisfactory to good.

Opening the application for judicial review, David McMillen QC said it has shown remarkable progress due to strong leadership and motivated, skilled teachers.

"The Minister's decision to close both schools was based on the unfortunate position that Knockbreda found itself in," he claimed.

"While it has shown some modest improvement, parents and pupils were voting with their feet."

He also contended there was no evidence for a general assumption that a new headmaster will lead to better outcomes.

"The effect of the Minister's decision is to dismantle a good school and all the structures that lead to the improved outcome for pupils," Mr McMillen added.

"It had no real regard to the problems that arise from the Minister's chosen course of action."

During the hearing he read out one of the emails pupils at Newtownbreda High sent to Mr O'Dowd asking him to reconsider his plans.

The fourth-year girl told the Minister she obtains mainly A-C grades in her annual reports and praises the "amazing" staff for teaching in a unique way.

She continued: "By amalgamating Knockbreda and Newtownbreda into one school you will be destroying our identity. We will no longer have our uniforms or our reputation."

According to the pupil an amalgamation will cause travelling issues, making pupils feel uncomfortable and unstable on a split-school site.

Her email asked: "Why not just close Knockbreda? We don't deserve to close.

"Newtownbrea High School is the highest performing high school of all schools on the carriageway. We are above the Northern Ireland average in terms of GCSEs."

The girl concluded: "I respect your decision on this but please do what's right and reconsider."

The hearing, listed for two days, continues.

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