Row over Royal name for merged school

Portora Royal School, Enniskillen
Portora Royal School, Enniskillen

Controversy over whether a Fermanagh grammar school is to lose its academic selection status has extended to what its successor will be named.

As part of Education Minister John O’Dowd’s area-based plan reforms, the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) is proposing merging Enniskillen Collegiate and Portora Royal.

The Collegiate is opposed to the move and says the WELB’s refusal to clarify whether the new school will be selective is now echoed by ambiguity over whether the new school will retain the 400-year-old ‘Royal’ name from Portora.

However, Portora principal Neill Morton insists that ‘Royal’ will remain in the name.

This week supporters of the Collegiate delivered a petition of over 7,000 names to Stormont, opposing the merger.

Mr Morton insists that the minister has guaranteed him that the new school would be academically selective.

But Collegiate principal Elizabeth Armstrong and former pupil Arlene Foster MLA, both said that the WELB had repeatedly declined to give any assurances on whether the new school would retain its selective status.

WELB said it could not comment during consultation on the matter.

The debate comes amid fears from Lurgan College, Portadown College and UUP education spokesman Danny Kinahan that the minister is using area-based plan reforms to eliminate academic selection, which he firmly denies.

Now Mrs Armstrong has accused WELB of a lack of clarity over the name of the new school as well. She said that an advertisement in the Fermanagh press this week, placed by the board of governors of Portora, said that the “the new school will be a Royal School”.

She noted that minutes of the WELB meeting which finalised the merger proposal, clearly state that the school arising from the amalgamation will retain its Royal name, should the minister approve the merger.

“When I asked Mrs Rosemary Watterson, chief administrative officer at WELB, to confirm if assurances had been given in this regard, she replied that since the proposal is for a voluntary school, the WELB has always advised that the name will be an issue for the interim board of governors, as in all amalgamations, and that WELB has not given any assurances regarding same,” Mrs Armstrong said.

“Once again we are faced with the lack of clarity and the misinformation which has been the hallmark of this increasingly controversial process.”

Mrs Foster said that Portora principal Mr Morton “has always said the new school will be a Royal school, something which has been repeated in an advert in the Fermanagh press”.

She added that emails from WELB indicated that this has not been confirmed by WELB and instead they have said it is for the interim governors to decide.

But Mr Morton said the Portora governors have made it very clear to the WELB that a condition of their participation in the proposed amalgamation is that the appellation Royal “must be retained”.

He added: “The [WELB] CEO has informed his board of that condition. He accepts it without question, as do they.”

He agreed with Mrs Watterson that the new board of governors – made up equally of people from both preceding boards – will determine the name of the new school.

“If anyone on the new board objects to the Royal name it will not be one of the (former) Portora governors,” he said. “If anyone does suggest the name should not contain ‘Royal’ they will bring down the wrath of the community.”

He suggested the new name could be ‘The Royal Free School of Enniskillen’ or ‘The Royal Collegiate’.

A WELB spokeswoman said it had advised the naming process is through the Privy Council, but would be a decision by the interim governors, drawn equally from both schools, to decide on.

l On June 18 The News Letter quoted Mrs Armstrong as saying “if Devenish is failing”. This should have read “if Devenish enrolment is falling”. She did not criticise the quality of education at Devenish.