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Clintyclay Primary School: Arguments for closure that don't stand up

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Tiny Clintyclay Primary outside Dungannon has been educating pupils for 131 years

Tiny Clintyclay Primary outside Dungannon has been educating pupils for 131 years

Tiny Clintyclay Primary outside Dungannon has been educating pupils for 131 years

Clintyclay Primary School has been educating children in the heart of the Dungannon countryside since 1893.

But next August, 131 years of history will come to an end when the Catholic maintained school closes.

The small rural school on the Clonmore Road has survived many events through the decades; even World War II didn't force its closure, instead it became home to evacuees from as far afield as Glasgow.

However, the might of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), assisted by the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, proved too much for Clintyclay.

With just 31 pupils - although the Department of Education had capped the school's enrolment at 47 - CCMS took the decision to call time on Clintyclay earlier this year.

The resilience that has been evident in Clintyclay for generations came to the fore with parents embarking on a campaign to see Clintyclay remain open by transforming from a Catholic maintained to an integrated school, educating pupils from both sides of the community.

A vote saw 100% of parents back proposals for the school to open its doors to all pupils by becoming integrated.

The hands of history were beckoning to Clintyclay, as no Catholic school has ever transformed to integrated status.

Those hopes and aspirations were backed by the community last month when a Lucid Talk poll of 500 parents revealed 80% supported plans for Clintyclay to become an integrated school.

However, on October 16 - after a leak in the press - the Sinn Fein minister issued a statement saying he had approved CCMS' plans to close the school and had turned down the proposals to transform Clintyclay to integrated.

Mr O'Dowd stated: "The enrolment at the school is such that it is not sustainable into the future."

But on closer scrutiny of the figures and legislation, was Mr O'Dowd, who on no less than three occasions has said "sustainable schools are simply not a numbers game" - simply using numbers to close Clintyclay and avoid the potential fall-out with the Catholic Church as well as the headache of more Catholic schools opting to become integrated?

First of all Clintyclay, unlike many Catholic maintained schools, was financially sound. Not only was it not in deficit, it had a surplus of 11.2% - more than double the Department's requirement.

Secondly, looking just at the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) area there are at least 10 Catholic maintained schools, a few of which are earmarked for closure, with less than 50 pupils - well below the Department's sustainable school figure of 105. Of those 10 schools, some are in deficit and all have empty desks.

Thirdly, in the SELB area there are two recently-opened Irish-medium primary schools. One opened in 2012 with just 13 pupils and now has 19 - Clintyclay has 31. The other opened in 2012, when it won funding from the Department, had 20 pupils, it now has 28 - again Clintyclay has more pupils.

Fourthly, the Department has a duty under Article 64 to facilitate and promote integrated, and Irish medium education but there is little evidence of that in relation to the decision the minister made in Clintyclay - the first Catholic school to seek transformation.

Earlier this year, as he approved a development proposal in the Irish-medium sector, Mr O'Dowd said that "demand from parents for Irish medium education has been growing. The Department has a statutory duty to facilitate the development of Irish medium education".

Does that right not extend to the integrated sector where there is a similar demand from parents for integrated education with many integrated schools oversubscribed?

At Windmill Integrated Primary in Dungannon they have 206 pupils, just four shy of their approved enrolment number. However, in recent years they have had to turn pupils away - so there is a demand in the area within which Clintyclay sits, for integrated education.

Fifthly, at least two successfully integrated schools started with less pupils than Clintyclay. When Rowandale in Moira opened in 2007 it had just 18 pupils, now it has 180. When Roe Valley in Limavady started in 2004 it had just 12 pupils, today it has almost 200.

The figures appear to speak for themselves.

Clintyclay parents may seek judicial review

Parents at the first Catholic maintained school to attempt to become integrated are considering taking the Education Minister to court over his refusal to allow them to transform.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools proposed the closure of Clintyclay Primary School in Co Tyrone around two years ago, but the school fought back and launched a bid to become integrated.

That hope was quashed last week when Education Minister John O'Dowd announced he had approved the closure. Mr O'Dowd said low pupil numbers meant the school was unsustainable.

In the school year 2012/13, it had 33 pupils. This dropped to 24 in 2013/14 after the threat of closure, but rose again to 33 in this current year.

The school has indicated it has also had up to 40 expressions of interest for next year.

The parents of children currently at the school were left distraught at the announcement of closure, with one mother even contacting the Belfast Telegraph in tears after she learned of the news via the media.

The school is set to close for good at the end of next August.

Gerard Cunningham, chairman of Clintyclay board of governors, told the Belfast Telegraph that they were considering applying for a judicial review into the minister's decision.

"A judicial review is an definite option and parents have expressed a wish to explore the possibilities of this course of action," he added.

"At the moment, no firm decision has been made, but we can assure parents that all options are being looked at."

Mr Cunningham also told how the parents had found a statement from the CCMS welcoming the decision to close Clintyclay to be "very hurtful and disrespectful to the entire Clintyclay community".

A spokesman for the Department of Education declined to comment on the issue.

Belfast Telegraph