Belfast Telegraph

£30m spent on shared campus in Northern Ireland but just one of six schools opened


By Rebecca Black

More than £30 million has been spent on a shared education site where just one of the six planned schools has been completed.

Plans for the £140m flagship Strule Campus on the outskirts of Omagh were submitted in 2010 and work on clearing the area began in 2013.

All of the new schools were due to open to pupils in September 2020, but that deadline has been pushed back to 2021.

Just one of the schools, Arvalee Special School and Resource Centre, is operational. Construction on the remaining five has yet to start.

It was revealed in February that work on the site had been suspended following the withdrawal of a bidder from the procurement process.

The Department of Education blamed budget uncertainty.

The other five Omagh schools planning to move to the site are Loreto Grammar, Omagh High, Sacred Heart College, Omagh Academy and Christian Brothers Grammar.

Despite the lack of progress, more than £30m has been spent on the project.

That sum includes a historic spend of £12.9m from 2010-2016, as well as £9.7m during the 2016/17 financial year and around £10m during the 2017/18 financial year.

The 2017/18 spend includes £2m for a new road link, as well as thousands on professional fees, including £10,000 for the Strule Exhibition, £22,000 on "other communications activity", £40,000 on business consultancy fees and £2,000 on website activity.

Ulster Unionist councillor Chris Smyth uncovered the figures with questions submitted to the Department of Education under the Freedom of Information Act.

He said the local community was already extremely frustrated and would be shocked by the outlay.

"The Strule Campus has been in the pipeline for over a decade and the people of Omagh have repeatedly been promised that it offered the best opportunity for them and their children," Mr Smyth added.

"I can already see local community support for the scheme beginning to wane and now I suspect many will be totally shocked to learn that over £30m has already been spent on the project, with not much to actually show for it apart from some groundworks.

"Whilst I was glad to see Arvalee Special School and Resource Centre open to pupils in September 2016, there has been little actual progress since then. We are still a long, long way from seeing anything that resembles a shared education campus capable of teaching over 4,000 post-primary pupils from the wider Omagh area."

Mr Smyth, who is standing in the forthcoming West Tyrone by-election, said the schools hoping to move to the campus were having to continue on in crumbling buildings.

"The reality is that some of the existing buildings used by schools across Omagh are simply no longer fit for purpose and it's just not good enough that those young people have been allowed to get caught up in the limbo surrounding the Lisanelly development," he said.

The Department of Education defended the spend so far.

"This investment has delivered the design, construction and fit-out of the award-winning Arvalee Special School, and is funding a programme of roadworks required to improve traffic flow to and from the campus," the department said.

"This expenditure is also enabling the 140-acre site to be transformed from its former military use in preparation for construction of the five remaining schools and extensive shared facilities.

"This includes demolition of the previous buildings, earthworks and installation of site infrastructure.

"It is not unusual for programmes of this scale and complexity to face emergent and unforeseen circumstances.

"The department will continue to navigate these challenges and remains committed to delivering the strategically and educationally significant Strule programme.

"With regard to the main works contract for the remaining five schools and shared facilities, a series of workshops has taken place to assess the viability of the current competition, which remains live, alongside a range of alternative procurement options.

"Based on this work, the department is liaising with advisors and stakeholders to identify and secure a positive way forward in the coming weeks."

It stressed that the rest of the programme, on both construction and non-construction projects, was continuing uninterrupted.

"The six schools work weekly on developing the education model for sharing at the campus," it added.

"A programme of activity that includes joint staff development, shared pupil activities and the exploration of shared best practice has been rolled out across all schools."

Belfast Telegraph

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