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Urgent meeting demand as closure of rural Co Armagh primary approved

A Newry and Armagh MLA is seeking an urgent meeting with the newly-appointed Education Minister Peter Weir in a bid to save a rural Co Armagh primary school.

Sinn Fein’s Cathal Boylan hopes an ‘option to extend’ mechanism could be employed at St James’ Primary School, Mullaghbrack, after the Minister confirmed plans to close the school at the end of the summer.

Armagh I exclusively revealed in September that the axe was poised to fall on the school this year – despite vehement protests from the local community.

Mr Weir, in endorsing the earlier recommendation, blamed falling pupil numbers for the decision.

The Minister said: “St James’ Primary School has provided an excellent education to children from the local community.

“However, over the years the school has suffered from declining enrolments and is well below the minimum threshold for educational and financial viability.

“Having considered all the relevant information, I have decided to approve the proposal to close St James’ Primary School, Mullaghbrack with effect from 31 August 2016 or as soon as possible thereafter.

“There is other alternative maintained provision available in the locality which will offer the opportunity to children for greater social interaction with their peers and improved access to a more broad and balanced primary curriculum.”

At the same time, the Minister paid tribute to everyone connected with the school who over the years have “shown their commitment and dedication to the school and its pupils”.

St James’ Primary School was one of a list of schools which had been recommended for closure as part of the Area-Based Planning for the Primary School Sector in Northern Ireland.

In September, we reported that a formal development proposal had been published which would see the school – which falls within the Parish of Tandragee – close by the end of August 2016 or “as soon as possible thereafter”.

With confirmation that that is now the departmental intention, Mr Boylan has contacted Minister Weir to request an urgent meeting “in an effort to stave off the imminent closure” of the school.

The Sinn Fein representative said he had also spoken to the CCMS and requested what is known as an ‘option to extend’ on the issue which, he says, “will give a little breathing space to fully illustrate the ramifications this decision would have”.

Mr Boylan continued: “St James’ Primary School provides a vital service to the people of Mullaghbrack; an isolated minority Catholic community.

“This would not just be the closure of a school, this would deliver a hugely demoralising blow to the entire community, a fact John O’Dowd recognised when he was Education Minister.

“It’s hugely disappointing that the new Education Minister, just into the job, has chosen to swing the axe at Mullaghbrack, a school providing a priceless community resource, straight out of the trap.

“I will be very strongly making the case to both the Minister and the CCMS in defence of the school and would ask the entire community to unite behind it to show their support for St James’.”

It was in 2012 that the five education and library boards – working closely with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and other sectors – were asked to prepare Strategic Area Plans for the restructuring of primary education in their areas.

What followed was a period of public consultation on the various proposals, which ran from the middle of March until the end of June 2013.

A report detailed the responses and went back to the SELB at the end of August of that year.

A number of specific points had been made in relation to St James’ Primary School, not least that it would “impact negatively” on the local community.

It was stated that this was “the only Catholic school in the wider Markethill area” and, if the proposal proceeds, there will be “no provision within reasonable travelling distance”.

It was argued that St James Primary provides a good standard of education and “serves an isolated minority community well”.

It was also claimed – and contained within the summary report – that consultation by the CCMS had “not involved the main stakeholders and had not proposed alternative options for parents in the event of closure”.

It was stated as part of the exercise that issues arising in respect of specific school proposals, which were detailed in the area plans, would be addressed by the individual boards, while those relating to Catholic Maintained schools would be considered by CCMS.

But the new Education Authority – which replaced the five boards – published the development proposal in September last year for the closure which had been brought forward by CCMS.

A ‘Save Our School Committee’ was formed and members of it and the school’s Board of Governors travelled to Stormont last year to put across their case.

Opposition to the closure will continue and the school and local community will no doubt heighten their campaign in the coming weeks.

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