THE news that St Patrick’s Primary School has been put on a list for possible closure in a revamp of primary school organisation across Northern Ireland by the Education Minister John O’Dowd, has shocked the Castlewellan and Bryansford community.
Speaking to Down News, school principal James Hunt said that the announcement had arrived quite suddenly. He said: “I knew on the Friday before the details of this financial review were publicly announced. It gave the school the opportunity to prepare parents for this decision.
“We have always maintained very high educational standards at St Patrick’s and this proposal has come as a shock to us all. The community and parents have initially been very supportive and this is very heartening.
“We understand that we are living in hard economic times but this decision is just the antithesis of all that has been happening in the school.
“We believe we have to defend our school from this decision and already a number of politicians have come aboard and offered their support which we are very grateful of. Past pupils too have shown they too are backing us.
“Parents of young children who are not yet of school age have even backed us and are calling for a review of this decision. We have strong family ties with the school and proud traditions going back over generations.
“Our school enrolment is actually up. We are the first school in the area to be offering a breakfast club which runs from 8m to help working parents and we also run an after-school club which goes to 5.45pm again helping working parents. We have always been an innovative school rising to meet the challenges that face us. This proposal will have to be looked at in detail and opposed.”
Siobhan Rice, Chairperson of the School Parents’ and Teachers’ Association, said: “After our meeting last week we have begun to gather support to campaign to have this decision properly examined. The Department of Education will face a backlash after making this decision. It is totally unfair.
“At the heart of the matter is the issue of why the CCMS delayed in approving our much-needed mobile units despite the Department of Education having approved the funding. The present mobiles are not fit for purpose under Health and Safety regulations. We had the improvements all in place to bring this up to standard and yet is seems a final decision has been repeatedly delayed by the CCMS.”
The CCMS body is the voice of the Catholic Maintained Schools system in Northern Ireland and is responsible for playing a key role in supporting school boards and trustees in the provision of buildings.
“This delay meant that St Patrick’s was looked less favourably on in the review and this should never have happened. There has just been a reversal of policy here saying we needed new accommodation then deciding to close the school down. There is just no logic in this,” added Siobhan Rice.
“St Patrick’s is not in the red and it can sustain itself. Schools across the North appear to have been assessed according to educational standards, financial status and enrolment levels. On all counts we are in good shape compared to some other schools.
“Our school has a lot of history going back generations. Almost everyone in the school is related – there are close family ties and these families have children, father and mothers and grandparents who all have attended the school. The school dates back to the Famine years and back then it was used as a kitchen to feed the local population. It has survived the rigours of hunger now it faces a new crisis.
“Quite simply we cannot understand the logic why we have been selected for closure. We are the only school in this position in our area and we were not even given the option of a merger. Staff and parents and the wider community are angered with this.
“The Department of Education had in fact approved funding for new mobile units for the school to replace older ones yet the CCMS appeared to drag its heels in making a decision regarding the go ahead with the installation of the units. We cannot understand why this delay occurred. Now we are being penalise because the school is not deemed up to scratch which is just ridiculous.
“We held a meeting last week and we will certainly be challenging this decision. Everyone is behind us in the Castlewellan area and over Bryansford and the wider area. Our school has an attractive rural setting and we even find that families from Castlewellan town want to have their children attend the school.
“Basically, we want to know why our school has been denied the right to merge like other schools not performing as well. We have been given no option to improve our situation and the installation of the mobile units would have been a key factor in this decision,” added Siobhan Rice.
The CCMS has not yet responded to an inquiry from Down News and details will be posted in due course.
Councillor Carmel O’Boyle has requested an emergency motion at Down District Council’s meeting this evening (Monday 25 March) supporting St Patrick’s PS at Burrenreagh.