Grammar schools face closure after legal challenge to O’Dowd fails

Portora Royal in Co Fermanagh.
Portora Royal in Co Fermanagh.

A legal battle to halt the amalgamation of two grammar schools in Co Fermanagh has failed.

The High Court refused to quash Education Minister John O’Dowd’s approval of proposals to close Collegiate Grammar and Portora Royal in Enniskillen, and merge them into one new school.

Education Minister John O'Dowd.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Education Minister John O'Dowd.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Lawyers for a female student at Collegiate, mounted a wide-ranging challenge to the move, claiming it was both irrational and unreasonable.

But despite recognising the huge emotional impact of shutting the schools, a judge today rejected all grounds advanced.

Mr Justice Colton said: “The clear objective was to meet the needs of pupils in the controlled/voluntary sectors in Fermanagh into the future.

“In my view there was nothing irrational or unlawful in coming to the conclusion that the development proposals approved will achieve exactly that, even if others may disagree.”

Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy was educated at Portora

Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy was educated at Portora

Mr O’Dowd announced the closures in November 2014, insisting his focus was on the needs of children rather than the institutions.

It will involve the establishment of a new grammar school, initially on a spilt-site campus before building at a permanent location.

A petition against the plans, signed by 7,000 people, was handed in at Stormont in an effort to preserve the schools.

The battle to stop the merger, planned for September this year, then moved to the courtroom.

Lawyers for the pupil seeking a judicial review claimed there was a failure to carry out a proper economic appraisal.

The impact on children having to operate on a split site also featured in the case.

Counsel for the argued that the Minister’s decision was unlawful and should be overturned.

Mr O’Dowd’s legal team insisted, however, that he acted under broad discretionary powers in reaching a conclusion based on an array of expert information.

Founded in 1608 under a Royal Charter by James I, Portora’s past pupils include playwrights Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett.

More recently singer songwriter Neil Hannon, front man of The Divine Comedy, was educated there.

Collegiate Grammar traces its history back to 1916.

Under the proposals both schools will be discontinued and a new co-educational school with a 900-strong enrolment taking their place.

Refusing the application for judicial review, Mr Justice Colton said the status quo of post primary education in Fermanagh is unsustainable.

The dispute involves a difference of opinion over how it should be best provided in the area, he added.

“These differences of opinion are not matters for the courts but clearly matters for the Minister,” the judge said.

“It is my earnest hope that the able and determined leadership of the Collegiate will now devote its efforts to ensuring that the new school will indeed fulfil its potential.”

Video: Enniskillen Collegiate ‘very disappointed’ at court ruling