Northern Ireland

Collegiate Grammar/Portora Royal merger plan: Petition at Stormont

School petition
Image caption Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster with pupils from Collegiate Grammar at Stormont on Tuesday

A petition against plans to amalgamate two grammar schools in Enniskillen has been handed in at Stormont.

The Western Education and Library Board (WELB) wants to close Collegiate Grammar and amalgamate it with Portora Royal.

It would form a new co-educational grammar school.

The proposal must be approved by the education minister who will make a final decision after a public consultation ends on 14 July.

The plan has divided the local community and a petition to save the Collegiate, signed by 7,000 people, has been delivered to Stormont.

The petition was handed to the speaker of the assembly by former pupil and Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, who described the proposal as "bizarre".

"I say bizarre, because Enniskillen Collegiate is the most oversubscribed school from any sector in County Fermanagh and yet it faces closure," she said.

"It is placed 10th in all of Northern Ireland for its GCSE results, and yet it faces closure.

"It is well regarded throughout Northern Ireland and beyond for its excellence and yet it faces closure."

The WELB wants ministerial approval for two new schools, a grammar school on the site of Portora, and a new building for Devenish College on the Tempo Road, that was first promised more than 10 years ago.

Opponents of the amalgamation argue that a new building for Devenish should not depend on the closure of the two grammar schools.

Collegiate Grammar principal Elizabeth Armstrong said the school should be allowed to expand on its current site.

"We do not want to see any of our schools diminished, we want to see all of them flourish," she said.

"We want to see Portora flourish as a strong grammar school with a very distinctive ethos and we want to see Devenish College get its much needed new build as a strong vocational option.

Ms Armstrong said one model worth considering is three schools of about 600 pupils each.

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Media captionMinister Arlene Foster described the proposal to merge the schools as "bizarre"

"If a highly over-subscribed successful school like the Collegiate, which has full parental support, can be closed against the expressed will of the board of governors, against the expressed will of the parents in a consultation with the education and library board, against the expressed will of the staff in a similar consultation, and against the expressed will of its pupils and, as we are seeing, against the very strong support within the community, then I think that begs the question 'is there any school in Northern Ireland that is safe within this area planning process?'" she said.

Neil Morton, the headmaster of Portora Royal School, supports the amalgamation.

He said a 600-pupil school was not a sustainable number for post primary education.

"It's about ensuring that the grammar sector and the non-grammar sector can begin to offer a broad range of subject choices and combination of subject choices to all their students," he said.

"In the case of Portora and the Collegiate amalgamation, it's about educating the best young people in Enniskillen together, not separating them but educating them so that their creativity, their spark, they bounce off each other, they just grow.

"Fermanagh hasn't seen that yet, Fermanagh has not yet seen the potential of its young people and that potential will be fully realised if this amalgamation comes to be."

Image caption Portora Royal principal Neil Morton said a 600-pupil school was not a sustainable number for post-primary education

When the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) approved the plans last month, it said the proposal "will fulfil its vision for two new stand-alone, long-term sustainable schools in Enniskillen, to meet the future needs of pupils in the controlled/voluntary post-primary sector in County Fermanagh, so that every young person achieves his/her potential at each stage of his/her development."

It said if its vision for two new stand-alone long-term sustainable schools in Enniskillen is approved, the money to build them must be made a priority by the Department of Education and the minister.