ANALYSIS: Fresh Start money is substantial investment programme for schools

Money will be released to let enrolments at existing integrated schools increase
Money will be released to let enrolments at existing integrated schools increase

PLANS to pump half a billion pounds into shared and integrated education were celebrated widely - as they looked fantastic, on paper at least.

The reality has been somewhat different. Two years after the announcement by then Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, things pretty much look the same.

The idea was that an additional 3,000 pupils would be educated together in shared campus schools. None of these have opened yet, and even the Department of Education's landmark Strule Campus in Omagh is being held up.

In addition, enrolments at existing integrated schools would also increase by almost 1,500 pupils. There has been some progress to allow schools to grow.

The money is designed to unblock, through investment in education and early years nursery provision "one of the most persistent obstacles towards a shared future for Northern Ireland's communities".

The schools to benefit are oversubscribed and wish to refurbish buildings and improve facilities.

Things are finally starting to move, it would appear.

In February, approval was granted for Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh to increase in size. It was suggested by Department of Education officials that "the Fresh Start (Stormont House Agreement) funding for shared and integrated education could be a suitable source of the finance required".

And this week, Forge Integrated PS in south Belfast was told it could re-locate, and will benefit from £7.5m of Fresh Start money.

There were fears when money was not spent last year - just £3m of the £50m - that the Treasury would take the remaining £47m back and there would be no roll-over. This has now been clarified. Unspent money will not be lost and people are understandably happy.

Existing schools can now be strengthened and new schools created. This week the Integrated Education Fund urged that any new school be integrated, as part of its `alternative manifesto'.

Government says anyone thinking of sending their children to an integrated school should be reassured that the money being released is "just the beginning" of a substantial investment programme.