‘It might be disappointing but we’re still moving in the right direction,’ was Dromore High School principal John Wilkinson’s reaction to news that the school had this year missed out on funding for its planned newbuild.
It was a response echoed by some local politicians who only recently cheered news that Dromore High had secured outline planning permission for its proposed new home at Quillyburn.
On the upside, Stormont Education Minister John O’Dowd is on the record with a commitment to buy the Quillyburn site, subject to the business case ‘stacking up’.
Recent news that Dromore High was not among capital projects announced for 15 Northern Ireland schools saw Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan challenge Mr O’Dowd in the Assembly.
He said: “The Minister will know about the disappointment felt amongst my constituents in Dromore, given the extensive work to move the project forward. Indeed, there is some confusion about why the board prioritised the scheme, and yet the Department has not announced funding for it today.
“Will the Minister explain why that is? Has he revised the needs model to meet the obligations under article 64 of the 1989 Order and what he calls the positive prism, which members on this side of the House call discrimination against the controlled sector? Is there a reason why some of the schools in the controlled sector did not get funding today?”
In his response, Mr O’Dowd recognised the disappointment the school faced.
“However,” he added, “if the business case stacks up, we are committed to buying the site. That is a significant step forward, and it will increase its accessibility through the protocol as a school that has no significant barriers in its way to moving towards a build.
“When we run our next capital announcement, if things stay the way they are, I would expect that school to score very highly and come through the process.
“I am not involved in discrimination against any sector.
“The legislation states that I have to positively discriminate in relation to Irish-medium and to the integrated sector, and I make no apologies for that.” Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig also spoke of disappointment but insisted the outlook remained positive, with the Southern Education Board in a position to move ahead with the detailed planning necessary to present a “shovel-ready” proposal for the next round of funding.
“I think it’s regrettable that Dromore High School did not receive funding this year,” he said, “because of a change in selection criteria - namely the introduction of a social deprivation factor through free school meals - but while it is a setback we don’t want it to become a major setback.
“We want to see Dromore High School in a position to go ahead when funding becomes available.”
A likewise philosophical Mr Wilkinson said that, viewing the situation “in the round” Dromore High had done well to reach the point it had.
“If we do get the money to buy the ground,” he said, “it would seem ridiculous if money didn’t follow to develop the ground and during that intermim period we can actually get moving on the detailed planning; it would be my hope that within the next year we will be moving strongly to a build position.”