Community hopes for a new-build Markethill High School have been dealt a fatal blow in the Assembly.
Education Minister John O’Dowd has ruled out the suggestion.
And, while he accepted that it would come as a disappointment, he did not feel the news would come as a surprise.
Mr O’Dowd referenced the ‘ups and downs’ of educational planning within the Newry and Armagh constituency.
He also revealed that £44 million of capital projects at schools were either underway – or going to start – within the constituency.
These included a new-build school for St Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen.
The information came to light during a local debate initiated by DUP Assemblyman William Irwin, who sought an update on plans for a new build for Markethill High School.
The school, which has grown considerably in size in recent years, had hoped to provide for Sixth Form accommodation within the overall development.
But the Minister said a new-build had been considered for his capital investment announcement in June of last year.
Mr O’Dowd told the Assembly: “Unfortunately, the proposed project did not pass one of a number of gateway checks, on the basis that the school’s enrolment was below the sustainable schools threshold.
“Should there be a further announcement for either the major capital or school enhancement programmes, the school will have the opportunity to reapply for consideration at that time.”
Mr Irwin queried the assertion that enrolment at the County Armagh school was “not high enough”, saying the school was at its “absolute maximum in relation to the number of pupils that it accepts”.
“Does the Minister accept that Markethill High School has consistently delivered some of the best results anywhere in Northern Ireland?,” he asked.
Minister O’Dowd accepted the school had “excellent exam results”, but said Markethill and the Armagh city area required an area planning solution to “ensure that we know exactly the make-up of the school estate from this point forward”.
He added: “That will allow me, as Minister, or my successors, to invest in the Armagh and Markethill area. At the moment, we do not have an area plan for the secondary/post-primary sector, and I encourage everyone involved to come to a conclusion on the discussions around that.”
The Minister, in response to a question from local Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan, outlined an extensive programme of investment in the local schools estate, highlighting the current state of play across Newry and Armagh.
Mr O’Dowd said: “The following schools are benefiting from the school enhancement programme: St Patrick’s Grammar School Armagh, which is on site; Our Lady’s Grammar School, Newry; Rathore School, Newry; and Armstrong Primary School, Armagh — the tender has been awarded.
“Two of the major projects are on site; one is at feasibility stage, and one is at business case stage.
“Also benefiting are St Joseph’s Convent Primary School, Newry; St Clare’s Abbey Primary School; St Colman’s Abbey Primary School, Newry; St Joseph and St James Primary School, Poyntzpass; and St Joseph’s High School, Crossmaglen.
“There is an estimated value of £44 million of capital investment in the Newry and Armagh constituency, on site now or in the foreseeable future.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy – whose wife works at Markethill High School – described the news as “disappointing”.
He said Markethill High School was a very well-regarded and high-achieving school in the mid-Armagh area and asked the Minister if he could “look again” at the criteria.
“The school estate at Markethill is no longer in a fit and proper condition to educate the pupils who are already there,” added Mr Kennedy.
Minister O’Dowd said he understood his statement would come as a disappointment to Markethill High School, “although not, I think, as a surprise, because they were aware of the situation”.
He said: “There are many schools in our schools estate that require significant investment or a complete rebuild. The way that we have been moving forward over the last number of years is through the area-planning process to ensure that, when we invest significant public funds in the schools estate, we can be confident that a school is situated in the right area — I am not suggesting that Markethill High School is not, but I am giving a broad answer, rather than one specifically about Markethill or Armagh city — and that we know the numbers that the school will be catering for into the future.
“That has to be based on an area-planning solution.”
Mr O’Dowd said there had been an “ongoing stop-start discussion on the future of education” in the Markethill and Armagh areas and added: “I encourage political representatives from all political parties to use their influence to ensure that those discussions come to a conclusion and that the needs of all the young people in that area are met. It will allow this Minister, and future Ministers, to invest in the area.”
SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley referred to the educational needs elsewhere in the constituency, asking: “Does the Minister agree that area-based planning in the south Armagh area has been completed and that there is good cooperation between St Paul’s High School (Bessbrook), Newtownhamilton High School and St Joseph’s High School, Crossmaglen? Can he also give an indication of the progress on bringing forward a new build for St Joseph’s, Crossmaglen?”
The Minister confirmed he had already announced a new build for St Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen.
“You pointed out why I could make such an announcement: area planning has progressed in the south Armagh area, and there has been engagement between the various schools,” said Mr O’Dowd.
“As we know what size of schools estate we need, we can invest in it. My announcement on St Joseph’s stands. Preparatory work for the new build is moving forward.”
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