Arlene Foster attacks lack of answers on grammar school

Arlene Foster MLA with Collegiate Grammar school governors, parents, pupils and teachers at Stormont on Tuesday
Arlene Foster MLA with Collegiate Grammar school governors, parents, pupils and teachers at Stormont on Tuesday

Senior DUP politician Arlene Foster has slammed an education board for declining to give answers about its plans for the future of a Co Fermanagh grammar school.

The Western Education and Library Board (WELB) proposes to merge Enniskillen Collegiate with Portora Royal.

However the Collegiate says the WELB has repeatedly declined to give guarantees the new grammar school would use academic selection. The WELB told the News Letter it would be “inappropriate to address the specific points raised” during consultation on the merger.

But DUP MLA for the area, Mrs Foster, said that answering the questions could not harm the process.

“The WELB consultation has been characterised by a lack of clarity, even before the development proposal [for the merger] was published,” she said. “Those who have asked questions have been given answers such as ‘we don’t know’ or ‘the interim Board Of Governors will have to answer that’.

“But answers to such questions would not in any way prejudice the outcome of the consultation.”

As Enterprise Minister, she “does not see any problems” in answering questions during any consultation from her department, she added.

Her party education spokesman, Mervyn Storey, said the merger proposal should be halted “until there is clarity” on the questions.

In response to Portora’s view that the new school will definitely use academic selection, Collegiate principal Elizabeth Armstrong said “no one can predetermine at this stage the decision of the Board of Governors of this new school”.

The proposed new merger would be “financially vulnerable” as the combined maximum enrolment would drop from 1,000 to 900, with “a commensurate reduction in finance per pupil”, she said.

She also asked if the proposed new-build for Devenish College, also part of the proposal, could be at risk if its current 538 pupils cannot be increased to the required 800.

The board needs a solution “which will strengthen Portora as a strong partner grammar school and a solution which will build Devenish as a strong vocational option”, she added.

But Portora principal Neill Morton said Portora governors intended the newly amalgamated school will “enrol its pupils entirely according to published admissions criteria in which the first criterion is a score in an assessment set by the school”.

The WELB proposal is for a new grammar school, he said. “Neither the minister nor the Department of Education have the legislative powers to change the status of a school. That can only be done through a Development Proposal published by either the school’s Board of Governors or the education and library board or CCMS. The minister may want all-ability schools but he cannot impose that model.”