Action needed over school places ‘crisis’: ex-education minister

Bangor Academy said it has had to turn down more than 40 pupils
Bangor Academy said it has had to turn down more than 40 pupils

The Department of Education has been urged to show “greater flexibility” amid what a former minister labelled a “school places crisis”.

Peter Weir said hundreds of families “have been left high and dry” with no school place for their children due to caps on enrolments. He is calling for restrictions to be eased.

The principal of one school, Bangor Academy, said there are “over 40 families” who will miss out on a place. This could mean pupils having to travel for as much as one hour each day to attend school, rather than being given a place closer to home.

Matthew Pitts said Bangor Academy had received “an unprecedented amount of applications” this year but two official requests for an increase in enrolment, known as a ‘temporary variation’, have been turned down.

“We have made everyone aware that this situation is intolerable and, whilst the department is operating within the policy, they are not looking at this from a local and common sense perspective,” Mr Pitts wrote in an open letter to parents.

“Without an education minister in place, there is nobody willing to make a sensible decision in support of local families from Bangor.”

DUP MLA Peter Weir said: “While I understand the rationale behind enrolment caps within schools, and the reservations of the department to grant temporary variations, thus ensuring the viability of schools, the procedure has been applied too rigidly. It is failing to recognise practicalities on the ground.”

The former education minister added: “Given the current pressures there needs to be greater flexibility around decisions and implementation of temporary variation applications.”

Other political parties have also urged the department to act.

Both UUP MLA Alan Chambers and Alliance MLA Stephen Farry say they have contacted the department to encourage them to grant a variation for Bangor Academy.

Sinn Fein MLA Karen Mullan urged the Education Authority to “remove the anxiety” of parents and pupils by letting parents know where “appropriate places are available”.

The Education Authority (EA) said that while “almost 99%” of pupils had been placed, “around 300 pupils” have not. EA director Sara Long said: “EA has processed applications from over 22,000 pupils transferring from primary seven to year eight. Over 86% of pupils have gained places in their first choice school. Overall almost 99% of pupils have been placed.

“Around 300 pupils have not yet been allocated a Year 8 place. Parents have been notified of available school places for further consideration.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “We appreciate the uncertainty and disappointment for those impacted and want to reassure pupils and parents that at the end of this process all children will have access to a school place.”