EAST Antrim MP Sammy Wilson has played down fears that a possible merger of Larne town’s two secondary-level schools could be on the cards.
The North Eastern Education and Library Board has put forward a proposal that would see Larne Grammar School and Larne High School amalgamated into a co-operational school of 1200 pupils aged 11-19. The recommendation was part of a new draft area plan published by the Board, which sets out their proposals to tackle falling pupil enrolment numbers throughout the province.
The report - which is an early draft and subject to amendment or rejection by the Minister for Education - contained a second option for the two schools, which suggested that the status quo should be maintained.
When the document was leaked to a Belfast newspaper earlier this year, the Board was inundated with calls from concerned parents.
But DUP representative Mr Wilson has dismissed the report as a “cynical piece of political manoeuvring” and accused the board of “pandering” to the Education Minister, John O’Dowd.
“I want to reassure concerned parents out there that there is absolutely no chance of a merger between these two schools taking place,” Mr Wilson added.
“An amalgamation cannot happen without the agreement of the Board of Governors at Larne Grammar, and I am certain they will resist such a move.
“The NEELB seems to be simply pandering to the Education Minister who, like his predecessor, obviously has a loathing of grammar schools. This report is the board’s way of saying they are following his agenda.
“Another interpretation is that board feel they have to be seen to be doing something, and so they have put forward this option of amalgamation knowing full well that there is no major problem with post-primary provision in Larne.”
The Finance Minister believes the current Larne Learning Community arrangement, which allows pupils from the two schools to share courses, represents the best way forward for post-primary education in the town.
“This existing learning partnership has worked well in the past and it is good for pupils from both schools, as it gives them a wider choice of subjects,” he added.
“Trying to combine these two schools would be impossible, as there is neither the physical capacity or the capital to do so. Reading between the lines, I feel the option to maintain the status quo is what will be taken forward and I would urge parents not to get unduly worried. There is no threat to Larne Grammar School.”
East Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan stressed that the report is part of an ongoing consultation process to gather views from the public on the future provision on post-primary education in the borough.
He added: “The Minister wants to gather views of local people, and all that will then be looked at closely to help shape the way forward.
“I will be responding to the consultation document and would greatly encourage anyone with an interest in the future of education locally to do the same and make their thoughts known. The views of the public are vitally important to this whole process. Anyone who has any questions or concerns can feel free to contact me and discuss them.”
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist MLA for East Antrim Roy Beggs said the predicted reduction in post primary pupils in the Larne area over the next few years would lead to increased pressure on local schools.
He added: “The Larne Learning Community initiative, whereby pupils from St Comgall’s, Larne High School and Larne Grammar School had been sharing courses, had been beneficial to our young people and to the community. It is regrettable that since the closure of St Comgall’s, many of our children are bused out of Larne town each day to St Killian’s some 18 miles away. This has prevented significant interaction between all our schools and our young people. It has also created further pressure within post-primary education within Larne.
“I am aware that the NEELB opposed that merger plan, but it went ahead regardless. This demonstrates the flawed nature of the religiously segregated educational system in Northern Ireland. The Catholic sector carried out its review and implemented its own rationalisation process and completely ignored the wider needs of society in terms of planning post primary provision for all our children in Larne.
“With regards to the future options, I would like to see an even closer working relationship between Larne Grammar School and Larne High School and indeed that more of the needs of our all of young people can be provided locally,” said Mr Beggs.
Welcoming the publication of the draft area plan as an important first step in the process of mapping out the future pattern of education delivery, Education Minister O’Dowd indicated the priority was to raise educational standards for all pupils.
“The sheer number of empty desks in our schools, at 85,000, was diverting badly needed resources away from the core business of providing pupils with a high quality educational experience,” he said.
“By restructuring our service, we can develop a network of strong schools, able to meet the needs of pupils in the 21st century. The plans map out the issues affecting education in local areas both now and in the future and put forward proposals to meet these challenges. The consultation period will run until October 26 to allow schools and their communities time to read and reflect on the plans.
“I would encourage anyone with an interest in education to carefully consider the proposals and to make your views known through the consultation process. I want to hear from pupils, parents and the wider community before making my final deliberations on the Board’s proposals,” the Minister concluded.