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Doherty calls on Department of Education to retain St Joseph's, Plumbridge

13 June, 2006

West Tyrone Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty has urged the Department of Education to retain St Joseph's High School in Plumbridge.

He outlined what he believes to be the substantial case for the retention of the Glenelly school in a lengthy submission to the Department of Education's consultation process on Development Proposal No.186 which was published by the Western Education & Library Board on 27th April on foot of a proposal by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools to close St Josephs as and from

September 2007.

Mr Doherty said,

"I firmly believe the CCMS proposal to close St Josephs to be flawed in that it was based on incomplete and inaccurate information. As I understand it, the primary basis for the CCMS proposal was the argument that enrolment figures had been falling. While enrolment had been falling to an admission level of 24 pupils in 2004-2005, the enrolment figure increased to 25 pupils in 2005-2006 and the WELB enrolment figures for 2006-2007 are:

30 1st preferences plus 1 SEN pupil to make a total of 31,

10 2nd preferences

9 3rd preferences

The CCMS would not have had the 2006-2007 enrolment figures when it was deliberating on the St Joseph's proposal. However, these latest figures remove one of the main planks in the argument to close St Joseph' in August 2007.

Moreover, the fact that planning permission has been granted for the development of up to 200 new homes in the locality is compelling evidence to substantiate the case that future enrolment figures will not only match, but surpass, the 2006-2007 figure. Given that the catchments area of St Joseph's is destined for population growth instead of population decline, this crucial factor totally changes the context in which the CCMS proposal was made.

Based on inaccurate projected enrolment figures, the CCMS Report extrapolated a certain budget deficit for the 2006-2007 financial year. However, given the actual enrolment figures for 2006-200-7 this budget deficit is incorrect and will have to be revised downwards accordingly.

Another weakness in the CCMS proposal is the absence of a holistic evaluation in terms what actual savings would be made in closing St Joseph's in comparison to what additional transport costs would be incurred by the Board as a result of children from the catchments area of the school being forced to travel the longer distances to schools in Omagh, Strabane and Derry.

Likewise, and in terms of meals provision, St Joseph's currently produces the meals for two primary schools in the area and no cost assessment has been given as to what additional costs would be incurred as a result of transporting meals to these schools from a centralised base in either Omagh or Strabane.

It is crucial that the deliberations about the future of St Joseph's should not be based solely on financial considerations. Other equally important factors must also be considered and given equal weighting. For example if a decision to close the school were taken what would be the:

· Impact upon the educational and emotional well-being of children accustomed to being educated in a rural and close-knit setting.

· Physical and mental impact upon children being forced to rise as early as 7am and not returning home until 5pm or later. By the time the children fit in their homework and their dinner, there would be little or no time for recreation or relaxing.

· Impact upon the economic, social and cultural cohesion of the dispersed rural community of which St Joseph's is a vital part.

Upper Badoney, which encompasses four parishes and which is the main catchments area for St Joseph's, is one of the most economically deprived rural areas in the six counties. If St Joseph's were to close the economic impact upon the area would be devastating not only through the direct loss of jobs but also through the loss of service jobs that are sustained by the school in the wider locality.

St Joseph's is also the social and cultural hub of this area and its closure would run against the grain of education policy encouraging schools to become more than just 9am-3pm institutions but to take a more pro-active role in facilitating all forms of educational, community, social and cultural activity within their premises. At the core of this policy is the understanding of the beneficial role that schools can play in engendering stronger and more cohesive communities. How could the closure of St Joseph's be justified in the context of this policy?

In concluding my submission, I also highlighted the depth of hurt and anguish that the proposed closure of St Joseph's has caused in the local community. Given that it was the grandparents and great grandparents of many of the children presently attending St Joseph's who dug deep in hard times to find the money to build and maintain the school one can understand the depth of feeling in the community that this positive legacy could now be robbed from them at the stroke of a pen.

I would urge as many people as possible to support the retention of St Joseph's by making a submission to the consultation process which closes on Thursday 27th June. Written submissions should be made to Mrs Heather Mailey, Development Branch, Department of Education, Rathgael House, Bangor." ENDS

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