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Northern Ireland principals hit out at plans to close or merge schools

By Victoria Leonard

Head teachers whose schools have had question marks raised over their sustainability in a new regional plan published by the Education Authority say their loss would be "devastating" for their communities.

The head teachers spoke out after the publication of the EA's Providing Pathways Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020, which revealed that more than 30 schools across Northern Ireland could close or merge, subject to consultation.

The document, created in conjunction with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and other sectoral support bodies, states that the "status quo cannot be maintained" and contains action plans for schools across the 11 local government districts.

It reveals that in 2016, 36% of Northern Ireland's 827 primary schools had fewer than 105 pupils, and that more than 220 schools are running at budget deficits.

The EA is also predicting that school budget deficits will increase. Based on the position of school budgets at March 31, 2016 there are currently 175 primary schools and 47 post-primary schools with a budget deficit.

Principal of St Macnisius Primary School in Tannaghmore, Maire Darragh, said that she had no idea that the sustainability of her school would be questioned in the report.

"We are the only Irish-medium school in the Antrim area and there is a high demand for Irish-medium schools here," she said.

"We have a unique situation at the minute as we were an English-medium school and we are now transitioning with the end goal of becoming an Irish-medium school. Instead of putting question marks over us, the EA should embrace the fact we are offering something no one else in the area can. This school has been in the area for decades and it would be devastating for the community if it was closed."

Michael Gormley, principal of St Patrick's College in Dungiven, which the report has also identified as having an issue with sustainability, said he felt his school was being penalised for being "small and successful".

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He said: "In September 2017 more than 50 new Year 8 pupils will be on our roll. In total we have just shy of 300 pupils at the school. We are the only English-medium post-primary school in Dungiven, so there is no option for us to merge. We have consistently run an acceptable surplus (currently 4.5%) in our budget whilst at the same time producing examination results well above the Northern Ireland average. This Year 65% of our leavers achieved 5 or more GCSE grades at A*-C, including GCSE maths and English. If the decision has been taken purely on the size of the enrolment, then it is a very sad day for this part of Ireland to be punished, by the State, for having the temerity to be small and successful.

"It is a worrying time for parents and teachers, and has come at a time of high pressure when students are getting ready for exams."

EA director of education John Collings said that the aim of the strategy was "to ensure that we have a network of sustainable schools for Northern Ireland that are of the right type, of the right size, and in the right place".

He added: "Our goal is to enhance the quality of education provision and to raise standards for all children and young people in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that all pupils are taught in good, sustainable schools that can effectively meet their educational needs as well as providing a range of opportunities for development in other ways.

"We have too many schools for the size of our population, particularly at primary school level. Providing Pathways aims to stimulate discussion and dialogue and to facilitate the development of creative and innovative solutions to shared challenges.

"We must maximise the use of the schools' estate through sharing and co-operation, to ensure that the educational experiences of our young people are the best they can be. This will also help reduce duplication and ensure efficient use of resources."

Under the spotlight

Antrim & newtownabbey

St Macnisius PS, Tannaghmore

Ards and North Down

Movilla High School, Newtownards

St Columba’s College, Portaferry

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon

Drumsallen PS, Armagh

Brownlow Controlled Integrated College, Craigavon

Belfast

Christian Brothers’ School, Glen Road

Corpus Christi College, Ard Na Va Road

St Rose’s Dominican College, Beechmount Avenue

St Louise’s Comprehensive College, Falls Road

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Bellarena PS, Limavady

St Patrick’s College, Dungiven

Derry and Strabane

Altishane PS, Strabane

Loughash PS, Strabane

St Joseph’s PS, Strabane

St Patrick’s PS, Strabane

Erganagh PS, Castlederg

St Brigid’s PS, Gortin, Omagh

Fermanagh and Omagh

Magheralough PS, Trillick

St Matthew’s PS, Dungannon

St John’s Business and

Enterprise College, Omagh

St Mary’s High School, Belleek

Mid Ulster

Aughnacloy PS, Aughnacloy

Lisfearty PS, Dungannon

Churchtown PS, Cookstown

Culnady PS, Maghera

St Brigid’s PS, Augher

St Joseph’s PS, Caledon

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Kirkinriola PS, Ballymena

Newry, Mourne and Down

Annsborough Controlled Integrated PS, Castlewellan

Castlewellan PS, Castlewellan

Blackwater Integrated College, Downpatrick

The High School, Ballynahinch

St Columban’s College, Kilkeel

St Louis Grammar School, Kilkeel

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