BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme today covered a story which broke at the end of last week following the decision of UUP Fermanagh South Tyrone MP, Tom Elliott, to condemn the announcement that 40 pupils from an Irish language school in Lisnaskea would be permitted to use classrooms in a derelict post-primary school for the purposes of learning.
I kid you not.
As an example of all that is wrong with the political leadership of Unionism, it was hard to beat, all the more so because of the subsequent decision by the DUP’s Education spokesperson, Peter Weir, to pick up the mantle- or should that be drum– and follow up with his own ignorant comments, which I shall deal with later.
Faux outrage masking base sectarian sentiment, feeding a bogus grievance narrative constructed on falsehoods easily demonstrated as such by a cursory examination of the facts.
Let’s get to it, starting with Tom.
Tom Elliott’s problems began with his false allegation that the Education Minister, John O’Dowd, was “opening” a new Irish language school in Lisnaskea “without any apparent consultation with the local community.”
Tom Elliott is wrong. It isn’t a new Irish language school. So ignorant is Tom of the facts that he did not know nor take the time to find out that the school, Bunscoil an Traonaigh, had been in existence for a decade.
Yes. A decade.
But why would an elected MP bother to find out about the schools serving children in his own constituency before making such a statement? I wonder indeed.
Tom proceeded to compound his problems by revealing his utter ignorance of how schools work. The UUP MP expressed shock that a school of 140 pupils was being replaced by a school with just 40 pupils.
The closed school Tom made reference to was Lisnaskea High School. It closed on the advice of its own governors (note- they’re very unlikely to be Irish republicans) at a time when the school enrolment had dwindled to 107 pupils. The school was also in debt to the tune of approximately half a million pounds. Tom omitted these inconvenient facts.
The sustainability criteria by which schools are judged in the post-Bain Report era include educational standards, financial status and enrolment numbers.
As a post-primary school, the criteria for the school to be deemed sustainable would be considerably higher in terms of enrolment numbers than a primary school, and anyone with the slightest understanding of the differences between primary and post-primary schooling would appreciate that in an instant (perhaps Tom could Google the key phrases composite classes and entitlement framework for a start when he tires of banging the tribal drum….)
Foolishly, Tom then proceeded to make the very serious allegation that the Education Minister had an agenda to close controlled schools. Given that the controlled sector has a pupil enrolment which is overwhelmingly Protestant, the UUP MP was essentially accusing the Sinn Fein minister of pursuing a sectarian agenda to close Protestant schools.
Alas, Tom has made a rather serious mistake with this one.
Let’s examine the facts, but not before warning Tom Elliott supporters that things are about to get very awkward.
Under Sinn Fein Education Ministers, Catriona Ruane and John O’Dowd, 120 schools have been approved for closure or amalgamation. By a considerable margin, the greatest number of schools closed have been Catholic Maintained schools.
57 Maintained (Catholic)
7 Voluntary – mostly Prep Depts, but St Michael’s Lurgan included
4 Irish medium – 3 by Ruane
O’Dowd has approved 76 schools for closure or amalgamation:
39 Maintained (Catholic)
1 Irish medium
Ruane approved 44 for closure or merger:
3 Irish medium
The evidence overwhelmingly illustrates that the greatest sector affected by closures under Sinn Fein Education ministers- Catriona Ruane and John O’Dowd- has been the Catholic Maintained sector.
Is Tom cringing yet? He should be.
In the now familiar race to the bottom that continues to define political Unionism’s instinctively sectarian response to all things Irish, the DUP’s Education spokesperson, Peter Weir, followed up Tom Elliott with a letter published in today’s Newsletter (Unionist Unity in action- yay!)
Like Tom, Peter Weir makes the mistake of premising his argument on the erroneous assumption that Sinn Fein are creating a ‘new’ school.
He then dismisses as “laughable if it were not so serious” the decision to allow 40 kids to use classrooms in a derelict school building as opposed to the portakabins they’ve called classrooms up to this point.
In his indecent haste to kick the Irish school sector, Mr Weir makes another basic mistake by inferring that, because Bunscoil an Traonaigh was in formal intervention “as recently as 2010,” it therefore should not be provided with classrooms.
Peter Weir has spent a bit of time examining the issue of educational underachievement during his tenure as party spokesperson. I know this because I make it my business to follow education stories and because I have a particular interest in examining the causes of underachievement and addressing them at school and system level. During this period, I’ve no doubt that Peter has become aware of the fact that a disproportionately high number of controlled sector schools were unfortunate enough to find themselves in the formal intervention process.
As someone who respects my colleagues doing their best to make a difference in schools regardless of sector, I would not wish to highlight individual school communities who have been through formal intervention. It is a pity that the prospective future DUP Education Minister does not appear above using such a stick to beat a school with whilst seeking to out-drum his fellow unionist representative. In itself, this suggests that Mr Weir’s suitability for office should be deemed questionable.
For what it’s worth, Peter Weir will be well aware of the irony of his inference, given the DUP’s position of resisting the closure of other controlled sector schools which found themselves in formal intervention.
But let’s get back to Tom.
Tom Elliott has based a lot of his arguments for opposing primary school kids using classrooms in a derelict school building for the purposes of learning on the assertion that Lisnaskea High School was closed as a result of some nefarious scheming by Sinn Fein when there was a perfectly good shared education proposal that could have saved the school from closure.
Unfortunately for Tom, the facts once again contradict him.
The Principal of Lisnaskea High School, the Board of Governors of the school and the Western Education and Library Board all concluded that the shared education proposal floated by opponents of closure was not viable and that the best way forward to provide for controlled sector pupils in Lisnaskea was to pursue with amalgamation with Devenish College.
So to be clear.
Speaking with a uniform voice, those tasked with looking after the best interests of local children educated in the controlled sector favoured closing Lisnaskea High School.
There are times when an Education Minister can decide to ignore the advice of governing bodies such as the CCMS and the education boards (now EA) when the issue of school closure is raised.
That situation arose in June of this year, when the Sinn Fein Minister, John O’Dowd, ignored the advice of the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) and decided to keep Malvern Primary School, a Shankill Road primary school, open, in spite of sustainability criteria clearly suggesting that closure was the most appropriate option.
One final parting shot.
Right across Northern Ireland, buildings that once hosted children in classrooms have been transformed for other purposes, continuing to serve those with education as a vocation. The old Castle High School at Fortwilliam nowadays doubles as a venue for teacher training, as well as hosting The School of Music. The headquarters of CCMS, as well as teacher training venues across most former board areas, were all once school buildings.
A few years ago, the school community of St Colman’s PS Lambeg relocated to the one-time Balmoral High School building whilst their new school was being built, and the site has now been transformed into St Gerard’s School.
Why? Because it makes perfect sense to utilise the buildings and facilities that are available within the education sector to serve the needs of children.
The question that people who might otherwise identify with Tom Elliott and Peter Weir should be asking themselves is this: Why on earth would anyone begrudge children the use of a derelict classroom in which to learn?
The answer is pretty depressing.