Pupils past and present fighting to save a girls’ grammar school in Co Fermanagh have delivered a 7,000 strong petition to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Supporters of the Enniskillen Collegiate are vehemently opposed to a proposed merger with Portora Royal, a 400-year-old predominantly boys’ school on the other side of the island town.
While the Collegiate is set against the amalgamation, Portora is in favour of the move.
Stormont’s Economy minister and Fermanagh and South Tyrone Assembly member Arlene Foster, who is a Collegiate old girl, led the delegation to Parliament Buildings in Belfast and presented the petition to speaker William Hay on the floor of the Assembly.
The campaign to save the Collegiate, which has also received support from Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott and TUV leader Jim Allister, comes around 20 years after the school successfully fought off another bid by the Western Education and Library Board to merge the schools.
The current education plan in Fermanagh envisages the merger of the two grammar schools along with a new build for the town’s all-ability Devenish College. The Collegiate has questioned the logic of operating a single school on two separate sites that are on either side of the busy market town.
Senior DUP member Mrs Foster warned she was prepared to use “every mechanism available” to oppose the proposal, which is currently out for public consultation, as she urged Stormont Education Minister John O’Dowd to reject the move.
“I do not accept that it is necessary to close two high-performing schools in order to achieve the best outcome for education in Fermanagh,” she said.
“The first priority should be a new-build for Devenish College, not the closure of two very successful schools.
“The feelings of parents, pupils, staff and the wider community have been strongly aired at a number of public meetings in Enniskillen and they are relayed again today to the Assembly in this petition.
“The strength of feeling was also demonstrated by the number of people who travelled from Fermanagh to see the petition handed to the Speaker.
“The Western Education and Library Board has repeatedly failed in its task to deliver a strategic plan that would support all schools and which can command full community support. It is vital now that the Education Minister listens to the loud voice coming forward in this consultation period on the proposals.
“I have stated my desire to use every mechanism available to oppose these proposals. There is still an opportunity for the Minister to act in the best interests of education in Fermanagh. It is wrong that three schools which can operate successfully if they are given the right support are now being placed in such a situation where they effectively being “played-off’ against each other.”
Portora headmaster Neill Morton presented a very different view, claiming the campaign against the merger was characterised by “misinformation”.
“The governors of Portora Royal School support the amalgamation of the two smallest grammar schools in Northern Ireland to form a co-educational grammar school of 900 students,” he said.
“They believe that this will trigger a realignment of non-denominational educational provision in the county which will ensure two well-resourced, sustainable schools which can better meet the needs of all students in the 21st Century and which can stand in parity with two large well-resourced faith schools in Enniskillen.
“They have always understood that there are legitimate concerns around the proposals to amalgamate and have sought to discuss any related issues calmly and with use of evidence. Indeed, they welcome the continued debate but are dismayed by the misinformation which has been a characteristic of the anti-amalgamation campaign.
“The assertion that the Collegiate school is the most over-subscribed school, for instance, is true of only one of the last five years, 2013, and has not been a recurring feature of that school’s intake.”
A spokesman for Mr O’Dowd said: “The Western Education and Library published proposals on 14 May regarding the discontinuation of Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School, and the opening of a new co-education 11-18 non-denominational grammar school in Enniskillen. This is, in effect, an amalgamation of the two schools.
“The proposals are currently out for public consultation and anyone with an interest can make their views known. The Minister has agreed to meet a delegation of parents of Collegiate GS to listen to their views on the proposals. The consultation period ends on 14 July; after that date all the pertinent information will be collated and the Minister will make a final decision on the proposals.”