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O'Dowd's Irish language college a vanity project, claim his unionist critics

By Rebecca Black

Published 11/03/2016

DUP MLA Peter Weir
DUP MLA Peter Weir

Financial concerns have been raised over a new Irish language secondary school in Dungiven.

Attending the official opening of Colaiste Dhoire was one of Education Minister John O'Dowd's final engagements after five years in the post.

Just 15 children attend the college, which is located at Dungiven Castle.

DUP MLA Peter Weir said 51 schools had been closed this Assembly term, and questioned Mr O'Dowd's priorities.

"At a time of financial pressure within education, many will share with me a sense of frustration that yet again in this case dogma has overridden practical considerations," Mr Weir told the Belfast Telegraph.

"In the same week as a 1% cut has been announced in schools funding, and a further 2% pressure for schools through increased National Insurance contributions, it is hard not to see this being driven by ideological rather than educational concerns.

"Parental choice is important, but it must be grounded on practical provision and good use of school resources, and a new school for 15 pupils is hardly responding to demand."

Start-up costs for the school totalled £91,000, it emerged earlier this year.

It opened in September with 14 pupils.

Enrolment has since risen to 15, according to an answer to an Assembly question posed by the Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend.

Ms Overend said it was scandalous that the minister went against official advice in his decision to open the new Irish-medium school. "This is a vanity project which does not stack up on economic or sustainability grounds," she claimed.

"The minister commissioned and accepted an advisory group report in 2014 about the development of post-primary Irish medium (IM) education.

"Recommendation 4.2.6 set an initial intake for an IM post-primary school of 35 in year eight, rising to 65-80 by the fifth year to ensure sustainability.

"This begs the obvious question: how on Earth can a secondary school be sustainable or attempt to deliver the curriculum with those sort of numbers?"

When Mr O'Dowd approved the new school in 2014, he remarked that his department "has a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the provision of Irish-medium education".

"I recognise there is a demand for post-primary education through the medium of Irish", he said at the time.

"I believe that Colaiste Dhoire is capable of delivering high-quality education for the benefit all young people in Dungiven and the surrounding areas."

Mr O'Dowd also visited the site of the new £1.3m Edenderry Nursery School in north Belfast yesterday as work began on the building.

The Education Minister was unavailable for comment in relation to Mr Weir and Ms Overend's remarks.

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