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Blow for John O'Dowd's education policy after court rules expansion of integrated schools cannot be stifled

Landmark legal case a boost for mixed schooling

Drumragh Integrated College, near Omagh, challenged the decision of Education Minister John O'Dowd not to approve its plan to substantially expand
Drumragh Integrated College, near Omagh, challenged the decision of Education Minister John O'Dowd not to approve its plan to substantially expand
Education Minister John O'Dowd

By Lindsay Fergus

The future of Northern Ireland's integrated education sector has received a major boost after a judge made a landmark ruling in favour of parent power.

Education Minister John O'Dowd's major planning policy around schools has potentially been left in tatters after the judge promoted the rights of the integrated sector above others.

In a nutshell, the Department of Education was told it was not allowed to stifle the growth of the integrated sector to protect falling numbers in Catholic and controlled schools.

In the ground-breaking case, Mr Justice Treacy said the department had failed in its legal duty to "facilitate and encourage" integrated education.

He also criticised the department's controv- ersial 'area-based' planning policy that has been used to determine which schools will remain open, expand, close or amalgamate to meet future demand.

Handing down his 13-page judgment yesterday on a judicial review taken by Drumragh Integrated College, near Omagh – the first legal challenge of its kind by the integrated sector – the judge described the department's approach to area-based planning as "inflexible" and the "opposite of encouraging and facilitating" integrated education.

It is a significant blow to the Education Minister, whose department has effectively been found wanting when it comes to its legal duty over integrated education – enshrined in both Article 64 of the Education Reform (NI) Order 1989 and the Good Friday Agreement.

However, it is a major victory for the integrated movement, which has been a strong opponent of the model used by the department for area-based planning, claiming that it thwarts the growth of integrated education to protect Catholic-maintained and controlled schools.

Drumragh Integrated, supported by the Public Interest Litigation Society (PILS) Project and the Integrated Education Fund, brought the case against the department after the minister refused a proposal to increase the oversubscribed school's intake from 580 pupils to 750 over five years.

Yesterday's ruling recognises the importance of parent power and the rights of all children who wish to be educated in an integrated school.

The judgment has been welcomed by the Integrated Education Fund, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and Alliance's education spokesman Trevor Lunn, who was also in court.

Integrated Edcuation Fund chief Tina Merron said: "This judgment brings welcome clarity to the statutory duty of the Northern Ireland Executive to encourage and facilitate integrated education and holds up to scrutiny current policy on planning education.

"We would like to see the current process of area-based planning take into account the true wishes and needs of communities. There is clear support for integrated education and this ruling gives hope to all those families who want to see children of all traditions educated side-by-side but who are denied this by the current, divided education system in Northern Ireland."

Mr Lunn, a longstanding supporter of integrated education, stated: "This judgement represents a major step forward. It will be welcome news for the many thousands of parents who have over the years been frustrated by departmental inertia in this area."

During the hearing, barrister Steven McQuitty submitted that the decision not to approve Drumragh's expansion had been unlawful as the department had failed to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education, as required under Article 64 of the legislation.

However, the department's legal representatives argued that Article 64 referred to "the education together at school of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils", rather than a specific duty to integrated schools.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Treacy said that integrated education referred to in the legislation "is education that is integrated through- out and not education that is delivered by a partisan board" in another sector.

Referring to the department's model for area-based planning, the judge said it "assumes no growth in the integrated sector".

Commenting on the ruling, the Education Minister said that he took "seriously my duties under Article 64 of the 1989 order". He added: "I have and will continue to give every due consideration to my duty in relation to decisions on proposals from the integrated sector, including in relation to my final decision in this case."

The minister added that he and department officials will give careful consideration to the details contained in the judgment.

Timeline: how the case unfolded

March 16, 2012: Drumragh College submits a proposal to increase its enrolment from 580 to 750 over a five-year period, starting in September 2013.

September 7, 2012: The Department of Education area planning policy team consider the proposal and recommend refusal to the minister.

October 12, 2012: The minister issues a Press statement turning down the proposal.

October 18, 2012: The Integrated Education Fund makes a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the department to obtain the briefing paper presented to the minister.

November 23, 2012: The department responds to the FoI.

January 14, 2013: Pre-action correspondence between the two sides is entered into.

October 2, 2013: Five days before a leave hearing is due to get under way, the department solicitor indicates that the minister has decided to retake the decision on Drumragh. That decision is still pending.

October 7, 2013: The leave hearing proceeds on the basis that there are issues raised that are in the public interest.

May 15, 2014: Mr Justice Treacy hands down his judgment.

May 22, 2014: Both parties have until this date to ask for further clarification on the judgment.

July 3, 2014: Final date both parties can seek leave to appeal.

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