O’Dowd must explain why he approved Irish school that experts opposed

Danny Kinnahan MLA
Danny Kinnahan MLA

John O’Dowd said:

“My Department has a duty to encourage and facilitate the provision of Irish-medium education, but I must be satisfied that proposals for a new school will lead to viable schools providing good quality education for their pupils ... I am not convinced that this proposal would achieve sustainable intakes and that Coláiste Dhoire would represent a good way forward to deliver post primary provision for the area in the medium of Irish.”

The Minister for Education said this in a press release prepared by his department for issuing when refusal for the establishment of a new Irish language secondary school in Dungiven was to be announced before Christmas.

It was never issued. Instead a different press statement was released on Wednesday December 10, announcing that the minister had “decided to agree the proposal to establish a new Irish-medium post-primary college ...”

No explanation has been given as to why Minister O’Dowd has approved the new school, beyond stating that he as minister has the right to take the decision, and reference to his statutory duty to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium (IM) education.

This is in relation to Article 89 of the Education and Libraries Order 1998. However the minister has other statutory duties, including Article 44 of the Education and Libraries Order 1986 which talks of “the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure” in provision of education.

So let’s look at the public expenditure envisaged in this new school proposal.

Coláiste Dhoire’s estimated first year deficit is around £100,000 and this would have to be carried forward to subsequent years.

The estimated total rental per year for mobile classrooms of nearly £600,000 excluding VAT does not include provision of specialist accommodation for science and technology.

These are official Department of Education estimates, and do not include the hire and salaries of teachers with the ability to teach all the subjects in the curriculum, from mathematics to chemistry, through the medium of the Irish language.

Is this reasonable expenditure in the context of budgetary cuts?

Any proposal for a new school must take into account the wishes of parents, the potential implications of the proposal, the availability of alternative suitable provision in the area, and the expected viability of the pupil intakes.

This is all included in the published Development Proposal, which is subject to consultation.

In the Dungiven case, what is immediately obvious is that a whole host of bodies have lined up to say ‘no, this proposal is not viable or sustainable and should not be given approval’.

The Western Education and Library Board, the North Eastern Education and Library Board, the Education and Training Inspectorate, the Department of Education, and even the Ministerial Advisory Group on Irish Medium Education have said no.

The Ministerial Advisory Group was appointed to report on how the Irish medium sector could be expanded at secondary level.

Even it has said that this proposal should not go ahead.

Their report which was published last year and approved by Minister O’Dowd on November 4 emphasised that IM schools must be “viable and sustainable, do not involve unreasonable public expenditure and meet specified criteria ... local parental demand, while an important driver, cannot be the sole factor in determining the location of any new provision.”

So this is not anti-Irish language campaign by Unionists.

Minister O’Dowd has a lot of explaining to do, and on Monday in the Assembly I am giving him an opportunity to do just that.

• Danny Kinahan is an MLA for South Antrim and the Ulster Unionist Party spokesperson on education