Education news

Plan to shut only non-selective school in one of north's largest towns

Movilla High School in Newtownards. Picture by Mal McCann

A PLAN to shut the only non-selective secondary school in one of the north's largest towns is "worrying."

The Education Authority (EA) is considering several linked proposals that would lead to the closure of Movilla High School in Newtownards.

Four others in north Down and Ards would receive more than 1,000 extra pupils between them.

Details were shared at a meeting of the EA's education committee.

The plans for five schools are:

:: Movilla High School to "discontinue" by 2024

:: Bangor Academy to increase from 1,420 to 1,800 pupils

:: Glastry College to rise from 600 to 775 next year, then 900 after Movilla's closure

:: Nendrum College to increase from 400 to 600

:: Regent House Grammar to rise from 1,420 to 1,570

Supporters and experts have labelled the plans "baffling", saying they do not appear to consider issues including transport and accommodation costs.

They also point out Department of Education's own school admissions guidance.

It states that parental preference "is not absolute" and constrained by schools' physical capacity.

It outlines reasons why "popular schools" cannot simply be allowed to grow. This includes the risk of reducing numbers attending others with places available.

Despite this, non-Catholic schools across north Down and Ards received hundreds of extra places this year and last, even though Movilla has enough space to accommodate several more.

While Movilla has been in `formal intervention' since 2014, its GCSEs results have been improving and enrolments growing.

Critics of the EA plan say shutting Movilla would mean providing free transport for 300 more pupils than receive bus passes now.

There would also be significant accommodation costs if the other schools expanded.

Bangor Academy and Nendrum's buildings were provided in 2008 through a `public private partnership' meaning only the contractor can carry out additional work.

Strangford assembly member and chairman of Movilla's board of governors Mike Nesbitt said the school was improving.

"In a way we are welcoming this because speculation about Movilla has lasted longer than both world wars," he said.

"If this is the final battleground, let's fight because we believe with confidence that we will show that there is support."

The Controlled Schools' Support Council said it was "very concerned".

"Newtownards is a large town, and it is worrying that it will potentially be without a non-selective controlled post primary option for local pupils," said chief executive Barry Mulholland.

"The intake of pupils has recently increased substantially. In addition, under the leadership of a new principal, the achievement of pupils has improved. It is anticipated that these trends will continue.

"However, if Movilla High School is threatened with closure in four years' time, then this will impact on teaching morale and potential intake."

He added that the related proposals would see intakes of pupils increased substantially into schools already at capacity.

"There will be increased costs of providing additional classroom accommodation, either through building or mobiles, plus teachers, classroom assistants and transport," he said.

The Department of Education denied that allowing four popular schools to grow had the effect of running down Movilla.

It said it had "not created or exacerbated sustainability issues in any school" adding that additional places catered for the scale of increased demand.

"Forecasting the pattern of applications is challenging as the impact of parental preference and the implications of school admissions criteria, neither of which are within the control of the department, mean that the final distribution of application forms is not known until the conclusion of the process," a spokeswoman said.

"Additional places were provided to cater for anticipated increased demand driven by an increase in population numbers. Parents were free to apply to any school they wished for their children. In any case, many schools in the area have available places; it is the number of places in Year 8 that is most directly relevant."

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