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Ulster-Scots dreams end as school to close

By Lindsay Fergus

A rural primary school — with hopes of becoming Northern Ireland’s first Ulster-Scots school — has lost its battle against closure.

Ballykeigle Primary School, on the outskirts of Comber, has been told that its doors will be closing this June after numbers fell to less than 40.

Under Department of Education criteria, a rural school needs an enrolment of 105 pupils to be sustainable long-term.

The news has come as a blow to the dozens of parents who had tirelessly campaigned to keep the 174-year-old school open.

As well as taking their fight to the doors of two Stormont ministries — Culture and Education — parents launched a major recruitment drive.

The Ulster-Scots Agency had also expressed interest in setting up a two-year pilot project at Ballykeigle which would have seen Ulster-Scots culture and heritage being delivered through the curriculum.

Education Minister John O’Dowd said: “It is with regret that I have agreed the closure of this school.

“However, with a steady decline in enrolments over a period of several years, leading to a total enrolment of only 40 pupils in the 2011/12 year, I feel my decision is in the best educational interests of the pupils and future generations.

“I would like to pay tribute to all those connected with Ballykeigle Primary School who over many years have shown their commitment and dedication to pupils in the locality.”

Jim Prentice, chairman of Ballykeigle board of governors, whose family has links to the school since its opening, said: “It is a sad day. Ballykeigle has been part of the community for generations.” However, he added: “The governors are disappointed given the amount of effort we made in our representations.

“It is unfortunate and regrettable, but not unexpected because of falling roles.”

Background

On December 13, 2011, the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) published development proposal number 224, which proposed Ballykeigle Primary School will close on August 31, 2012, or as soon as possible thereafter. Although there were dozens of objections from parents, local businesses, political representatives and the local community, the board sent their proposal for closure to the Education Minister in February. After months of deliberation he rubber-stamped SEELB’s decision.

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