O’Dowd banking on Donegal students to keep tiny border secondary off ‘the green mile…’?

So good news for the people of Belleek. St Mary’s High School in Brollagh, near the village on the Fermanagh border have a reprieve from closure. The tiny secondary school has just 121 students, and attracts about half the pupils transferring from nearby primary schools.

From the BBC report:

Simon Bradley, the acting principal of the school, said the news it would not be closed came as a shock.

“I think, like most people within the education community, were quite stunned by it, we weren’t expecting it,” he said.

“Having said that I’m delighted for the local area, delighted for the parents action group, who have worked incredibly hard over the last 18 months to draw attention to the need for rural education.

“It’s great news, but there’s a lot of work has to be done now if this is going to work for the long-term future.

“First and foremost the school is in dire need of capital investment. I’m not sure what the figures are, but certainly it’s in the hundreds of thousands.”

So the Minister has found some capital. Good. I suspect Mr Bradley’s shocked but happy reaction reflects the steep climb ahead of the school. The Minister claims he has a plan though (aside from encouraging local parents to start sending their kids back to St Mary’s in numbers again):

“The option of cross-border collaboration needs to be further examined and I am calling on CCMS and the WELB (Western Education and Library Board) to bring forward a pilot scheme which would allow the school to work with schools on the other side of the border,”

Belleek lies just six miles from Colaiste Cholmcille Secondary School which has a student population of 700 in Ballyshannon and 10 miles Magh Ene College a new built post primary school (350) in Bundoran.

Interestingly this is one area the Minister through the North South Ministerial Council has been doing some research. However the results of the survey of parents sending their kids across the border have yet to be officially published.

Good news is that there’s more demand for travelling from the north to the south. Bad news is that the current total demand is unlikely to give St Mary’s the necessary numbers boost:

Figures from the Departments of Education, north and south, show that 275 children from the border counties in the Republic of Ireland travel to secondary schools in Northern Ireland.

However, only a quarter of that number travel from Northern Ireland to schools in the Republic of Ireland.

In the satirical terms of Yes Minister, it’s a brave decision. Although it will play well with the local electorate up to and through the next election.

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  • cynic2

    What was SFs majority in FST at the last election?

  • St Mary’s Action Group plan and the Minister’s previous decision on Irvinestown High School. Interesting aside on Radio Ulster news at 5 pm when the Minister, in a context where he and his civil servants might differ, said something along the lines, “Civil servants advise, the Minister decides”. [my summary] The Minister’s not for turning 🙂

  • Turgon

    That DUP press release is about Lisnaskea High School. Lisnaskea is 20 miles from Irvinestown.

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s not only his civil servants in this case but the CCMS.

    It seems to me the local community is going to have to carry the burden of making this work in the long term. Getting parents to switch back to St Mary’s would get them considerably less than double the number they currently have (and that would be less than Orangefield a couple of years before its closure announcement.

    The cross border thing sounds good, but he’s effectively telling the Board to ‘make something up’ because I cannot be bothered. His own research is telling him there are no pre existing conditions that would save a school in such an isolated area.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘The tiny secondary school has just 121 students, and attracts about half the pupils transferring from nearby primary schools.’

    Maybe they should first set about securing more pupils from the local area. Typically in these situations, the opponents of closure never point the finger at their neighbours who are largely responsible for placing the school under threat.
    The action group whinges about journey times but that clearly doesn’t worry a lot of their neighbours although it would be interesting to know if free transport if being provided to other CCMS non-selective schools.
    In O’Dowd’s own backyard, the imminent closure of the only Catholic secondary school in Portadown appears to have been facilitated by the SELB’s willingness to transport Catholic children from Portadown to anywhere their parents feel like sending them, apparently in breach of the board’s own free transport guidelines.

  • “I am calling on CCMS and the WELB (Western Education and Library Board) to bring forward a pilot scheme” .. Minister

    Where does WELB come in? I understood there’s very little connection between the management of Catholic schools and ELBs. As the schools in Belleek, Ballyshannon and Bundoran are in the Diocese of Clogher perhaps the likely solution will be the closure of St Mary’s and the bussing of pupils to Belleek and Ballyshannon or to other schools in Fermanagh. It’s unsurprising that a SF minister should operate by diktat rather than by consensual agreement but, in the case of ELBs, it might be difficult to prove it.

    On a more general point about the Catholic sector, would those who favour the retention of grammar schools now be appointed to Boards of Governors or to principal-ships? Dominican College in Portstewart, it seems, has finally succumbed to pressure to become a Catholic comprehensive – minus the use of the comprehensive brand.

    Does CCMS now act under the umbrella of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education? Dolores Kelly seemed to be unaware of the existence of NICCE. [www dot catholiceducation-ni dot com/

  • “apparently in breach of the board’s own free transport guidelines.”

    OM, perhaps the Ministerial response to St Mary’s in Limavady is deserving of an FoI request.

    The principal of St Mary’s, Mary McCloskey, has written to Education Minister John O’Dowd and the Stormont education committee.

    She argued that as Loreto, like St Mary’s, is now a Catholic non-selective school, pupils from Limavady should no longer be given free bus passes to attend Loreto.

    It is understood Loreto College has discussed changing its status but decided against it and will remain a grammar school.” … “The principal of Loreto, Michael James, said the school is still designated as a grammar school and the criteria for free school transport is a matter for the education boards.

    Mrs McCloskey said she has had a reply from the education minister detailing the policy, and she is now satisfied with the explanation.” ..source

    I’d have thought that the ELBs would do what the Minister tells them. Afteral, he determines the budget allocation.

  • Mick Fealty

    Yes Nev, but (this the wood rather than a procedural tree), to do what?

  • Old Mortality

    ‘Yes Nev, but (this the wood rather than a procedural tree), to do what?’
    Pending a response from Nev, perhaps to apply the free transport criteria more rigorously thus avoiding distortions to enrolments. I doubt if many parents in Belleek or Portadown are paying for their children’s transport to Catholic non-selective schools more than three miles from their home. Of course, in a dispersed rural area like Belleek, it’s quite likely that a significant proportion of children in St Mary’s natural catchment area live more than three miles from the school. That’s much less likely to be the case in Portadown.

  • Mick Fealty


    He’s referring to cross border collaboration…

  • cynic2

    The problem with all this is, having done this in one area what happens when they are challenged by others. More JRs and lawyers fees.

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s the problem with not taking policy seriously. You’d think the media might take notice of this sort of thing every now and then?

  • mr x

    According to WELB the school loses a million pounds a year.
    That’s a lot of money.Fair to say there’s no evidence anyone from Eire has any interest in the school.and clearly many people in Fermanagh don’t either.