Primary plans could spell end of some communities - grim warning at Council

NEW plans for primary provision could be the death knell for some rural communities, a Ba\llymena councillor has warned.

Councillor Hubert Nicholl raised concerns over the impact on the rural community, adding the proposals were causing “great consternation”.

“If you take a school out of a rural community then there is no community,” Cllr. Nicholl said.

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He also said he couldn’t understand the rationale of some of the schools picked for amalgamation.

“Carnaghts falls short of the cut off [for enrolment thresholds] but where do the pupils go? Kells and Connor has no room,” Cllr. Nicholl said.

Cllr. Nicholl also referred to Portglenone and Longstone primary schools which are recommended for amalagation with Groggan PS in the Antrim area.

“The suggestion is for a ‘local area solution’ [for these schools] but from Groggan to Portglenone is nine miles - are we going to bus children all over the place,” Cllr. Nicholl said.

He also highlighted concerns that parents will vote with their feet if they think a school could close as a result of the proposals.

“If they think a school is under threat then they’ll send their children somewhere else and that puts a school at risk long before anything definite is in place,” Cllr. Nicholl said.

He added: “Someone sitting in County Hall or Belfast says there’s a school with only 98 children and 20 empty places. Do they not realise there is no other school near it or how it will affect the rural area?

“We have to give as much support as we can to these schools.”

Other councillors have said the ongoing consultation over the future of primary schools has highlighted the need for more integrated schools.

During a discussion over the North Eastern Education and Library Board’s Draft Area Plan for primary schools - which could see a number amalgamate or close - Councillors James McClean and Jayne Dunlop both highlighted a pressing need for more integrated schools.

“You only have to look at Braidside which is over-subscribed,” Cllr. Dunlop said.

She added: “There is real merit for an increase in integration; we should be looking at more integration.”

While Cllr. McClean commented that a “school should just be a school” and religion shouldn’t come into it.

“I think when you’re calling a school it should be just a school, not a controlled Catholic school or anything else, just a school for the education of our young people,” Cllr. McClean said.

He added: “It would help community relations; our young people brought up at schools together irrespective of what religion they area.”

He highlighted the likes of St Paul’s Primary School in Ahoghill, which he said could be better off merging with Fourtowns Primary School. The issues were raised at last week’s monthly meeting of Ballymena Council, with several other councillors voicing concerns over the Draft Area Plan for Primary Schools.

Meanwhile, Cllr. Declan O’Loan said the issue of empty desks was “not just about efficiencies”.

He said: “We should start with the pupil and what quality [of education] they are receiving.”

Cllr. Paul Frew said he recognised “there has to be change in the education system”, but he said some schools had received greater support over the years than others.

“The problem we have is that the NEELB has historically they have not always supported some of these schools,” Cllr. Frew said.

He added: “That has led us to the point where they are not able to manage resources as well as they could have or should have. They are still producing the results but only they are competing with lesser schools the NEELB deems to put support in to.”

Cllr. Frew also voiced concerns over amalgamations and how this would work.

“I’ve yet to hear any mention of capital spends,” Cllr. Frew said.

He added: “If two or three schools merge then for the betterment of pupils I think we should be seeing modern new buildings, especially in the country side.”

Councillor James Currie - who is the council’s board representative at the NEELB - said that both the Board and its Chief Executive were working from a “proven list of criteria”.

He also claimed that some of the “small or smaller schools cannot provide an adequate curriculum”.

Cllr. Currie cautioned that council should have all the “facts and comments “about what we want”.