‘New school far too tight’

Dromore Central Primary School principal Linda Allen led a delegation of pupils to Stormont yesterday (Monday) in the ultimately vain hope of further pressing the Education Minister for three extra classrooms at the replacement school under construction.

Armed with a banner made by Central pupils, Mrs Allen and her Vice-Principal, Mr Carlisle, took 28 children - one for each of her existing classes - on an unannounced visit to Stormont, but failed to meet with Minister, John O’Dowd, who has so far rejected pleas for added accommodation at the primary school’s long-awaited new home.

Indeed, according to Mrs Allen, the Department is now seeking to reduce Dromore Central’s admissions number, a move the school means to appeal.

The jubilation that accompanied work finally getting underway on a new school after years of campaigns, delays and obstacles has been dampened by a locally perceived limitation on the new building that will inevitably, it’s claimed, mean Dromore Central once again turning away prospective pupils.

“Originally,” said Mrs Allen, “it was to be a 28-base school, taking into account projected enrolments due to a lot of building in the area. When the recession hit and new developments failed to materialise the Department decided to reduce it to a 25-base school.

“We currently have 28 classes operating and we (Mrs Allen and Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale) met the minster in July to present statistics in respect of our increasing rolls over the years and the fact that in the area Banbridge Council has processed permission for 273 houses in Dromore, including 59 in the field right beside the school, and 54 in the rural commmunity.

“We presented him with this information but he said that unless the children were actually in the school he wouldn’t build the additional classrooms; we asked if he would even put in the foundations, to keep the option open, but he wouldn’t do that either.

”My question is, if in the past the building had been passed with 28 classes, based on planning developments passed for building, and those are back on track now - some have even started - then what has changed? Why does that rule no longer apply?”

Mrs Allen said the Minister’s position appeared to be at odds with his own stated policy, wherein, she said, he spoke, among other things, of criteria being transparent and applied consistently, of community support and the right to choose, of schools having to take into account numbers, of pupils being educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents and of new schools being viable in the long term and meeting future requirements.

“He talks too about the impact on other schools,” she said, “but even looking at his own figures in June 2014 all the other schools in the area are full; we’re not going to impact in any way on other schools.”

Mrs Allen said of her July 7 meeting with Mr O’Dowd and Department officials that she was offered three suggestions, namely reduce enrolment, add mobile classrooms, or, where new families with school-age children moved into the Dromore area, direct them back to the schools their children were already attending, the last a suggestion she dismissed as “ludicrous”.

She added: “When it comes to reducing enrolment, that means making the children fit the school rather than making the school fit the children. Mobiles have to be placed, services and heating provided; the money they would spend on that would build the new classrooms.”

Meanwhile, the school has launched a public petition - available at the community centre, doctors’ surgery and elsewhere locally.

“We appreciate the community support,” said Mrs Allen. “To sign the petition you don’t have to have a child at the school; you just have to be a concerned member of the community.

“We only have one crack at this and we would ask people to please communicate their concerns to the Minister.

We don’t want to frighten parents. I have a great staff and we will always put the wellbeing of the children first but this would just make it that little bit easier for us.

“All we are asking for is for the school to fit the community rather than enrolment being capped to fit the building.”

Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig said he meant to raise the matter with the Education Committee today (Wednesday), with the education boards and department due to discuss area planning; that, said Mr Craig, was where the problem appeared to lie.

“Obviously they are not getting their plans right, not getting the number of pupils right, and it’s the taxpayer who will end up picking up the tab.

“Not for the first time we face the prospect of a brand new school opening up and temporary classrooms required from the outset.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said: “The £16million newbuild for Dromore Central Primary School will deliver a state of the art 25 class-base building that will benefit children in the area for many years.

“ While there are housing developments planned for the area, it is not clear how quickly, or even if, they will be completed.

“The new building will be big enough to accommodate all of the current enrolment of 704 pupils, with additional space to expand enrolment to a maximum of 730 pupils.

“Although the current enrolment equates to a 25-class base school, the school has decided to operate with 28 classes. “This is a matter for the school which has the authority to allocate its LMS budget as it feels appropriate.

“The school is currently operating a small financial deficit and will be working with its funding authority (the Southern Education and Library Board) to address this going forward.”