Belfast Telegraph

Pupils will suffer in Newtownbreda-Knockbreda High schools merger, High Court hears

By Alan Erwin

Pupils will suffer needlessly for years if plans to merge two Belfast secondary schools are not halted, the High Court has heard.

Lawyers for parents of children at Newtownbreda High also claimed Education Minister John O'Dowd took the decision without proper reasoning and consultation.

They want a judge to quash his decision to close both Newtownbreda and Knockbreda High Schools and create one new school.

One of those behind the legal challenge is the mother of a dyslexic girl who fears her educational progress may be jeopardised by the move.

David McMillen QC, for the Newtownbreda parents, claimed there was a lack of consultation involved.

He told Mr Justice Treacy that the decision-making process amounted to little more than "a box-ticking exercise".

Research which found a dip in 68% of amalgamated secondary schools' educational attainment was cited during the hearing.

The barrister claimed that no consideration was given to the alternative of closing Knockbreda and expanding Newtownbreda.

Mr McMillen argued that Newtownbreda had enjoyed an improved rating of its standards, from satisfactory to good.

A strong ethos of supporting and nurturing pupils built up over the years would be "dismantled" by opening a new school, he contended.

"In the meantime we will have a number of years of pupils coming up to GCSEs and other key stages who will suffer and we say that suffering is needless.

"If the minister had engaged properly in the consultation exercise and looked at the lack of reasoning underpinning the proposals that would have been completely apparent to him."

But counsel for Mr O'Dowd insisted he had taken everything into account as part of a detailed analysis.

"He was clearly aware of all those issues; this wasn't a box-ticking exercise," he added.

Lawyers for the minister and the South Eastern Education and Library Board both argued that the judicial review challenge was out of time because the original development proposals were published more than a year ago.

Paul McLaughlin, for the board, also pointed out that Newtownbreda and Knockbreda were currently both below the permitted enrolment numbers.

Following submissions, Mr Justice Treacy reserved his decision on whether to grant leave to seek a judicial review.

Outside the court a solicitor for Newtownbreda High School parents explained the significance of the case.

Ernie Waterworth of McCartan, Turkington and Breen said: "One of my clients is a dyslexic pupil who is now succeeding to such an extent that she is studying for GCSE English due to the quality of the education she is receiving at Newtownbreda High."

He added: "She fears the disruption that will be caused by this amalgamation will be detrimental to her ongoing education and development."

Background

Following viability studies, Education Minister John O'Dowd announced plans in January to amalgamate Newtownbreda and Knockbreda High Schools. 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 its opening, pencilled in for next year.

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