A consultation period has begun over the closure of a primary school which has served the border community between Londonderry and Donegal for more than 150 years.
Ballougry Primary School is earmarked for closure in August 2023 in a plan published by the Education Authority (EA), with the school’s principal saying all connected with the school have been left “shocked” at the EA plan.
The eight-week consultation period is to go ahead despite arguments from the board of governors at the 44-pupil school that plans are in place to increase pupil numbers in future years.
Earlier this year, the EA revealed an ambitious five-year plan to streamline the education system, with up to 300 schools left facing an uncertain future.
Under the proposals, some 228 primary schools and 54 post-primary schools fall below the threshold of minimum pupil numbers.
With 44 pupils, Ballougry Primary School is well below the EA guide of 105 pupils for a school in a rural location and has been deemed “unsustainable”. With falling pupil numbers and an operating financial deficit which the EA said is likely to rise to £250,000 by 2024, the authority said closing the school was the best option for saving money.
The education system faces a further 2% budget cut next year at a time when it is already facing a multimillion-pound deficit, with EA figures showing that educating a pupil at a smaller primary school is around £1,500 more expensive than at a larger one.
Ballougry is just three miles from Londonderry and only a mile from the border with Co Donegal; some of the school’s pupils cross the border to attend.
The EA plan to close the school stated that pupils from Ballougry could instead join primaries in Derry city, where they would have more educational and extra-curricular activities.
Supporters of the school held a public meeting last week, with principal Mr Damien O’Kane saying the school was “shocked” to learn the intentions of the EA to consult on closure.
In a letter to parents the principal said he was proud of the children and staff in the school and invited everyone in the community to show the “incredible steps forward” the school has made over the years.
“Unfortunately, the Education Authority’s Area Planning Department focus on school enrolment numbers and school finances despite the many other qualities schools have, particularly the small rural schools such as ours,” he said.
“We, myself and the board of governors are as shocked as I know you will be. We have consistently maintained that Ballougry has made incredible steps forward and we have evidential documents to back this up, which we feel the EA have not given due credit to.
“We now need your help, as our dedicated parents and guardians, to inform the Education Authority through this process that we deserve to remain in this community.
“Please rest assured that I will continue to do anything within my power to do the absolute best for Ballougry Primary School,” he added.
“I will continue to invest all my efforts in its continued progress and development.”
As well as having pupils from Co Donegal, Ballougry is in a shared education partnership with two schools in the Irish county.
Its children take part in regular activities with pupils from St Joseph’s National School in Rathmullan and Ayr Hill National School.
It will be the responsibility of any future education minister to decide whether the school closes, with a final decision expected in January 2023.
The Education Authority is expected to continue stepping up the five-year plan for streamlining the education system following the consultation on its area plan, meaning many more rural schools will be looking over shoulders. The consultation process on Ballougry PS process runs until Wednesday, June 29.
The school was named on a list of those with sustainability issues by the EA in 2019.