Education news

Derry Catholic school hopes integrated sector switch can save it from closure

Supporters hope CCMS halts a plan to close Ballyhacket PS in Co Derry

A RURAL Catholic primary school has backed a plan to transform to integrated status.

Ballyhacket PS in Castlerock, which has a tradition of educating children of different faiths, is under threat of closure.

It remains hopeful an alternative proposal to allow it to offer an integrated option for parents in Castlerock, Coleraine and Magilligan will be considered.

A `case for change' document, published ahead of a consultation exercise, recommends the school close in 2020.

It notes low pupil numbers and growing debt.

In April, parents began exploring transformation. An official ballot indicated overwhelming support for an integrated switch.

No Catholic school has ever transformed. Now two are trying to go through the process.

The Irish News this month revealed that parents at Seaview PS in Glenarm voted in favour of transformation.

It, like Ballyhacket, is fighting plans to shut it down.

Respondents to an earlier `stakeholder' consultation focused on Ballyhacket being the focal point of its rural community.

The nearest Catholic primary schools are more than six miles away in Magilligan and Coleraine. Both have empty desks.

Governors said the possibility of uniting Ballyhacket with two nearby schools should have been tested. However, St Anthony's in Bellarena shut in 2015 and the neighbouring controlled school Bellarena PS also closed.

Ballyhacket's approved enrolment is just 67, meaning it will never reach government's required figure of 105 for a rural primary.

It has a reasonably mixed intake for a small school - about 14 per cent of its children are from the minority Protestant community.

The case for change states that "the integrated nature of the enrolment has many positive benefits".

Many responses to the consultation noted that while Ballyhackett PS may be a Catholic school, it is made up of many different faiths.

Parents have urged the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools to "support the robust exploration of integrated and/or federated status".

Principal Grainne McIlvar said Ballyhackett had a long-standing tradition of welcoming children of all faiths and benefited from a shared education programme.

She said the school recognised it needed to take "the next step".

"Our current board of governors is practical and forward thinking in its outlook and saw a gap in terms of parental choice for integrated education in our area. Asking parents to vote was the next step and we are delighted that 100 per cent of parents who voted in the ballot said, `yes' to integration," she said.

"We believe that educating Protestant, Catholic and children of other or no faiths together, side by side, every day, will encourage and instil a better understanding of the religious and cultural differences that make up our community.

"This is a hugely exciting time for our school community as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of educating children here in Castlerock. We are fortunate to have the support of not just our parents, but the local business community, churches and elected representatives. Castlerock is a wonderful place and we believe our educational provision needs to reflect our inclusive, respectful and diverse community."

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COMMENT

OF the north's 65 integrated schools, 25 are `transformed'.

They were established as another management type and underwent an official process to become integrated.

Campaigners say support for transformation has never been higher. The Integrate My School website allows parents to register interest in their child's school transforming.

A school cannot transform without parental backing.

While parents at several schools have taken part in the past year in integration ballots, critics say those facing closure only consider it as a last resort.

It has worked in some instances, breathing fresh life into schools. Mallusk PS was said to be in "terminal decline" before becoming integrated. Numbers then doubled.

Elsewhere it left people questioning the logic. Schools in loyalist and Protestant areas including Suffolk and Conlig sought to transform despite their chances of attracting Catholic children being slim. Both were told no and later shut down.

Clintyclay, the first Catholic school to go through the process, only had Protestant children on its books in two of the 12 years before it made its unsuccessful bid.

Ballyhacket, much like Seaview in Glenarm, has a tradition of educating children of all faiths, which puts it in a stronger position than others than have tried and failed.

It appears its small size is an aggravating factor, but if expressions of interest become applications, perhaps it should be given a chance to prove integration can help it thrive.

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