The outgoing Sinn Fein Education Minister has been accused of using an eight-figure tranche of cash to help indulge an “obsession” with Irish language schools.
DUP education spokesman Peter Weir was reacting to news that a £40m package of funding has been made available to assist with building projects covering 10 different schools.
Of the 10, two are Irish language schools.
Education Minister John O’Dowd earned the ire of unionists in 2014 for approving an Irish language school in Dungiven, Co Londonderry, which only had 14 pupils.
Last year he was also under fire for approving the relocation of an Irish language school with 38 children to the site of a former high school – which he had previously closed down because it had only 140 pupils.
Mr Weir, MLA for North Down, hailed the £40m as a “much-needed boost in our school estate”.
But he said that by including Irish medium schools as 20 per cent of the new projects, “the minister has demonstrated a continued obsession with Irish-medium [that is, Irish language] new-builds at the expense of other sectors”.
He added: “Despite representing only 1.3 per cent of the school population, Irish-medium schools have benefited from eight out of 65 new-build announcements in this mandate.”
He concluded that it was “unsurprising” that Mr O’Dowd – who plans to step down from the ministry after May – “has chosen to yet again favour such a small sector”.
In a statement announcing the move, the minister himself said: “I’ve always ensured that investment plans primarily focus on providing a first-class education experience for the pupils, teachers and indeed school communities...
“I’m proud to have been involved in the development and enhancement of many schools across all sectors and I know many pupils are now enjoying the benefits of what is a significant investment by this Executive in the schools’ estate.”
In response to Mr Weir remarks specifically, he said: “All schools were evaluated and selected on the same criteria ... There is no lack of equality or clarity in my decision-making process.”
The schools which the money will help to plan and build are as follows:
· St Vincent de Paul Primary, Belfast
· A new primary formed from the amalgamation of St Mary’s and Moneydarragh primaries in Annalong and St Joseph’s in Kilkeel
· Islandmagee Primary (a new school created from the amalgamation of Mullaghdubh and Kilcoan primaries)
· Gaelscoil Aodha Rua, Dungannon
· St Peter’s Primary, Dungannon
· Gaelscoil Eanna, Newtownabbey
· Crawfordsburn Primary, north Down
· Seaview Primary, Belfast
· St Malachy’s Primary, Armagh
· King’s Park Primary, Lurgan