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DUP's Peter Weir views Coláiste Feirste building work

Education Minister Peter Weir pictured yesterday during a visited to Colaiste Feirste. Picture by Hugh Russell

NEW education minister Peter Weir has visited the north's first Irish language secondary school to view progress on a multi-million pound building project.

The £15.5 million extension at Coláiste Feirste in west Belfast will provide enhanced sports and improved teaching facilities.

It was one of 18 major capital projects announced in 2012.

The school will receive new changing rooms, a fitness suite, synthetic training area a full size 3G Gaelic pitch and five courts.

Irish language education campaigners are paying close attention to how the new minister will treat the sector.

In its assembly election manifesto, the DUP promised to "tackle the preferential treatment of Irish medium in school build".

This was dismissed as "nonsense" by campaigners who pointed out that just two Irish language schools benefited from capital programmes totalling more than £500 million approved by former education minister John O'Dowd.

In addition, not one of the 51 projects given money by Mr O'Dowd through the School Enhancement Programme were in the Irish-medium sector.

Mr Weir was among those who raised concerns when Mr O'Dowd announced that a small bunscoil in Co Fermanagh was to move onto the site of a former secondary school that was shut down due to low pupil numbers. Lisnaskea High School also had a debt that was spiralling out of control when it closed.

At the time, Mr Weir said Sinn Féin was supporting the creation of new Irish-language schools "without genuine justification of parental demand, at the expense of all other sectors" adding that this was "damaging education provision in Northern Ireland".

P1 enrolments in Irish-medium schools have grown from less than 400 to about 650 over the last six years and the overall population of the sector has also increased. This growth has bucked the trend of declining numbers within the English-medium sector generally, and means that the needs within Irish-medium are now significantly greater in terms of new buildings.

Mr Weir said he welcomed the opportunity to visit Coláiste Feirste to see the positive impact that investment had on the schools estate.

"The new facilities will provide an enhanced educational environment for the pupils and the staff at the school for many years to come. In addition to the improved provision for the school, such investment also provides a boost to the local construction industry," he said.

"Meeting pupils and school staff is an enjoyable part of my new role as education minister and I am looking forward to future visits to schools across Northern Ireland."

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