Call for clarity over ‘shambolic’ handling of special school merger plans

Image of protest at Education Authority's headquarters in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter on Thursday
Image of protest at Education Authority's headquarters in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter on Thursday

The Education Authority has declined to say whether or not plans for a massive shake-up of special schools in Belfast have been taken off the table.

The News Letter understands that during Easter the Education Authority’s own board rejected a plan to put a wave of school closures and mergers – which had been mooted last month – out to public consultation.

Campaigners have now heard rumours that the proposals have been shelved altogether.

But when asked today, the Education Authority (EA) would not definitively state what its plans are.

Its approach to the affair has been blasted by different political figures as “shambolic” and as an attempt to “muddy the waters”.

The proposals, which first emerged in a BBC report on March 19, would see seven schools in the city affected.

The plans involve Greenwood House Assessment Centre, Mitchell House School and Park Education and Resource Centre (all in east Belfast) being closed in August 2019, and a new school being created in their place.

Fleming Fulton and Glenveagh schools (both next to one another in south Belfast) would be discontinued at the same time, with a view to establishing a single school on the same site.

Harberton school and Oakwood school (both in south Belfast) would also be replaced by a single site within the same timeframe.

A number of protests had taken place in the wake of the news becoming public, and there have since been meetings between school figures and members of the EA.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll – who organised a rally in Belfast against the plans today – said “we heard rumours from some parents that they might sort of backtrack on the proposals” and that the plans now appear to be “off the table”.

He added: “We’re not going to stop protesting until they publicly come out and say all the schools are going to remain open.

“People, to be frank, don’t have a lot of faith in the EA for how they’ve handled this...

“There’s probably an attempt of maybe trying to confuse people or muddy the waters, but the Education Authority has not come out publicly and said anything has changed, so until that day we’re still campaigning.”

Chris Lyttle, the Alliance education spokesman, said he had received word from the authority that “it would not be publishing proposals into the future of the schools” as anticipated.

He described the EA’s handling of the matter as “shambolic”, adding: “There is a need for urgent clarification to staff, parents and the wider community on what exactly is being proposed for the future of the schools.”

The EA issued a statement which neither ruled in nor ruled out any of the potential changes which were reported last month

It said that it has “started a series of engagements with parents, staff and governors on future investment in the special schools’ estate in Belfast”.

This is driven by concerns about the “poor standard” of some school buildings, and aims to “identify opportunities for future investment in special schools in Belfast”.

The EA’s chief executive Gavin Boyd said: “At the conclusion of this process EA will bring forward development proposals.

“Any such proposals would be subject to a full consultation process. Parents should be assured that there will be no change to current provision in the immediate future.”