Nationalists and unionists vote to save Malvern Primary school from axe
Nationalists have united with unionist politicians to save an inner city primary school at the heart of one of Northern Ireland's most deprived communities.
Last week the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) voted by five votes to four to close Malvern Primary - even though it is the only school on the lower Shankill Road.
And in a cruel twist, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the Environment Agency has recommended that the historic school building be listed for protection, while the children and staff face a much less certain fate.
Those who voted to save the school in the loyalist heartland included councillors from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, as well as the Ulster Unionists and DUP.
One of those who voted to keep the school open - the DUP's Brian Kingston - claimed other BELB members voted to close Malvern as a result of a letter from the Department of Education. He said the members believed that by keeping Malvern open, they could be jeopardising a nearby school's funding.
The BELB has published a development proposal in today's Belfast Telegraph (see page 43) recommending Malvern's closure. There will be a two-month consultation before Education Minister John O'Dowd makes a final decision.
Mr Kingston said the department's letter was interpreted by BELB members as pressure on them to vote to close Malvern, or risk losing funding for the £10m refurbishment of nearby Glenwood Primary School. The department denied this and said that in order to decide what size Glenwood should be, it needs to know whether Malvern will close or remain open.
As well as Mr Kingston, Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers, the SDLP's Colin Keenan and Steven Corr of Sinn Fein also voted to keep Malvern open.
Mr Kingston said the crunch BELB meeting where the vote took place lasted three hours.
"The key issue was that the department said there would not be investment in Glenwood Primary School unless, essentially, Malvern is closed," he said.
"That was a key consideration. In many ways it is holding the community to ransom - saying we won't invest in your area unless you close Malvern Primary School. It put people in an impossible situation." The DUP man described the move to list the Malvern school building as it faced closure as "ironic".
"One government body wants to protect the school building, while another is seeking to close the school," he said.
A spokesman for the department said the letter did not state investment in Glenwood Primary was dependent upon the closure of Malvern. Rather, he said, it "emphasises that in order to design and construct a new school at Glenwood PS, it will be necessary to establish the appropriate size of building needed and this will not be known until the future of Malvern PS has been decided".
There are around 100 children currently enrolled at Malvern Primary and a further 13 have registered for September, despite the threat of closure. Around 78% of the children are entitled to free school meals and just over half require additional support with their learning. Malvern is part of the Greater Shankill Children & Young People Zone, which was set up last year aimed to transform the lives of one generation of Shankill children. Education Minister John O'Dowd described it at its launch as "inspirational".