Northern Ireland news

School merger `discriminates against Catholic pupils'

Little Flower Girls School North Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

HUNDREDS of Catholic pupils will be denied single-sex, non-grammar education by the planned amalgamation of two schools, the High Court has heard.

Lawyers for a pupil at Little Flower Girls' School claimed former education minister John O'Dowd's approval of a merger with St Patrick's College Bearnageeha ends the opportunity in north Belfast.

The girl, who cannot be named, is seeking to quash decisions to close both and create a new co-educational school, opening in September 2017.

Her legal team allege the plan discriminates against Catholic pupils.

Barrister Denise Kiley told the court Mr O'Dowd's decision removes the option for children to attend a single-sex, non-selective school with a Catholic ethos in that area.

"If (the challenge) doesn't succeed this will impact not only on pupils at Little Flower at the moment, but also all the girls in future... That would be hundreds of pupils."

Amalgamation plans were approved in March last year following a proposal from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

But the parents of children at Little Flower have been fighting the move, with a petition gaining more than 1,600 signatures.

Central to the judicial review challenge is the contention that it breaches an obligation under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to promote equality of opportunity.

Lawyers for the Department of Education insist there was no requirement to carry out an equality impact assessment because necessary steps had already been taken by the CCMS.

However, Ms Kiley insisted more opportunities were available in north Belfast on the other side of the religious divide.

Citing the Boys' and Girls' Model Schools, she said: "The provision is there for these children who attend controlled schools, and the controlled sector is traditionally attended by Protestant pupils."

The case continues.

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