Fifteen schools failing

FIFTEEN schools in the district are either failing to enrol enough pupils each year, are in debt - or both.

The findings were revealed in an audit, which was carried out by the Southern Education and Library Board last year, and highlighted the primary and secondary schools in the area which are suffering from so-called “stress” levels due to their finances or enrolment figures.

While Banbridge Academy came out of the report unscathed, being deemed viable, both Banbridge High School and St Patrick’s College are in debt of more than £300,000 each, sitting at level three of the financial stress indicator.

On a positive note the High School’s enrolment has risen by almost four per cent in the past three years, although it’s sixth form currently includes just 79 pupils - which is below the recommended minimum enrolment of 100.

The number of pupils at St Patrick’s College has fallen by almost eight per cent since 2009/2010, with 361 currently attending the school.

The report states that the current ratio of pupils to teachers at the college indicates there is room to “restructure classes and reduce teach costs”.

Principal of Banbridge High School, Andrew Bell, said the audit admitted it is a difficult times for many schools including his own, and pointed out that the audit does not give the context for each individual school.

“The SELB viability audits released into the public domain give a global picture of the range of issues across all education sectors,” said Mr Bell.

“Their very nature means that they do not highlight the contextual and unique factors which face every school. Schools, like Banbridge High School, will continue to provide the support and education that its young people need for the world of training and work that awaits them.”

Paul Carlin, pincipal of St Patrick’s College, said he is confident the school’s enrolment figures will rise in coming years and added that it is hoped the school will continue to represent the Catholic education system in the area.

“St Patrick’s College is seeking to manage its budget resources prudently while ensuring well resourced pupil learning,” said Mr Carlin. “Long-term primary enrolment in the Banbridge area is healthy and St Patrick’s College will continue to develop its innovative collaborations with its feeder schools to develop natural transitions within Banbridge from Primary to Post Primary education.

“It is intended that the Post Primary Review arrangements and the Department of Education’s Area Planning will ensure that a Catholic Post Primary presence will continue in Banbridge.”

The main issue for rual primary schools seems to be low pupils numbers with Gilford, Scarva, St Colman’s Bann in Laurencetown, St Colman’s in Dromore, St Mary’s Dechomet, St Mary’s Rathfriland, St Michael’s Finnis and St Patrick’s Drumgreenagh all below the minimum threshold.

Although some schools, including Scarva PS and St Mary’s in Rathfriland have seen rising enrolments in recent years.

For many schools the Banbridge Area Plan is also seen as key to addressing issues they may face, something Education Minister John O’Dowd said is crucial.

“The overall picture is a serious one and it confirms the need to move quickly on the area plans and to put in place the network of viable and sustainable schools that will deliver high quality education for all pupils,” he said on publication of the report last week.

“There are a number of schools, both primary and post primary, that are evidencing stress in one or more area.”

The Minister recognised the fears of parents following the reports, but moved to reassure them that just because a school is in stress does not mean it will automatically be earmarked for closure.

“These reports will be of concern to a lot of parents and staff in our schools. I must emphasise that it is not the case that where a school is demonstrating stress that it will close - indeed given the number of schools that are stressed this would be impossible.

“It must also be recognised that this is a complex matter and the viability audits only presents part of the picture. What it does is highlight where the support needs to be targeted and where the priorities lie as we begin to area plan.”