Bid to close Co Tyrone school back in High Court
JUDGMENT has been reserved in Education Minister John O'Dowd's appeal against the quashing of his decision to shut the first Catholic school in Northern Ireland to attempt transformation to integrated status.
Earlier this year the High Court ruled he relied on erroneous information that Clintyclay Primary was in financial difficulties when approving a proposal for its closure.
The verdict appeared to offer a reprieve to the small school in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.
But lawyers for the minister have now mounted a challenge to the finding against him, arguing that it costs far more to run than others in Northern Ireland.
Senior judges were told yesterday that educational spending per pupil is up to 60 per cent higher at Clintyclay.
The school's future was plunged into doubt after enrolment numbers dropped below 30 children, leading the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) to propose closure.
An alternative proposal by the Board of Governors to change to grant-maintained integrated status was rejected.
At the time of the minister's announcement, in October last year, he said enrolment levels meant it was no longer sustainable and transformation to integrated status was not a feasible option.
Parents sought a judicial review, arguing that the decision should have been deferred until a full assessment of integrated status was completed.
Clintyclay was the first Catholic school in Northern Ireland to attempt a switch to integrated status.
In March, the High Court held that the minister based his decision on advice given to him which was "infected" by an erroneous CCMS report and said, rather than facing financial difficulties, the school in fact had a budget surplus.
Yesterday Tony McGleenan QC, for the minister, stressed how expensive it is to fund Clintyclay, arguing it may not be able to survive any change to a policy of providing financial help to schools with low enrolments.
"It doesn't have financial difficulties in the sense it has a small surplus," he said.
"But it costs a lot to run, and if small school support is withdrawn this school will be imperilled."
The barrister - pressed repeatedly by Lord Chief Justice Morgan, Lord Justice Weatherup and Mr Justice Deeny on why papers before the minister described financial problems - contended it was "a distraction".
"The minister says the issue was enrolment and he's properly had regard to that," Mr McGleenan added.
"In terms of financial matters, the minister was given full and accurate information. The suggestion he was misled is wrong."