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Officials explain primary school `takeover' plan

Elmgrove PS in east Belfast is to be increased in size, and moved onto the nearby Avoniel PS site

A primary school is being allowed to take over its smaller neighbour's land and buildings because it is easier than merging the two, a report has revealed.

Parents have been left furious by education minister John O'Dowd's approval of a plan to shut down Avoniel PS in east Belfast and allow the nearby, larger Elmgrove PS to relocate onto the Avoniel site.

One Avoniel father described the shake-up as being akin to a family being evicted from their home of 80 years by a larger family with more children.

A lengthy report prepared by Department of Education officials, which explained how the minister arrived at his decision, concluded that an amalgamation of the two schools would have caused greater disruption.

It is thought to be the first time since the Northern Ireland-wide area-based planning exercise began in 2011 that such a reorganisation, in which one school will be effectively dropped onto another's site, has been given the go-ahead.

The Education Authority (EA) has confirmed that every pupil at Avoniel at present will be guaranteed a place at the new school next year. This place is safe for the entirety of their primary school careers.

There are also hopes that, due to the sensitivities involved, that the single, larger Elmgrove school will take on an entirely new name when it moves onto the Avoniel site.

Avoniel and Elmgrove are located less than half a mile apart. The former Belfast Education and Library Board had been exploring ways to remove large numbers of empty desks across east Belfast for about a decade. Late last year, it proposed shutting Avoniel and increasing pupil numbers at Elmgrove.

A report by Mr O'Dowd's advisers said an amalgamation, an option favoured by Avoniel parents, had to be ruled out.

The department's sustainable schools policy states that an amalgamation is the formation of a new school through the coming together of two or more of a similar size. There were only 202 pupils at Avoniel compared to 572 at Elmgrove last year.

A merger in this instance "was considered but deemed not appropriate".

"An amalgamation of Avoniel and Elmgrove schools, involving the closure of both and the opening of a new one, would have caused more disruption and taken longer to implement than the closure of Avoniel only," the advisers report read.

It added that objectors favoured an amalgamation rather than a closure, "and feel that the result will be a takeover by Elmgrove".

Mr O'Dowd said the proposals were just the first phase in the EA's plans to reshape state-controlled primary provision in east Belfast.

"They will result in the provision of one large, viable and sustainable primary school with associated nursery and learning support provision which will be accessible to all of the children in the inner east Belfast area," the minister said.

However, Michael Woods, who has three children at Avoniel, said the decision was baffling. Parents are understood to be considering legal action.

"The Avoniel and Elmgrove situation is like you living in your house for 80 years, me coming down and saying `I've two more kids than you' - out," Mr Woods said.

"Whoever thought this idea up needs to go and have a good talk to themselves. So unfair."

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