Northern Ireland

Four County Down schools could merge

School
Image caption Parents have shared mixed opinions to the proposals

Four Catholic post-primary schools in County Down could be merged under new proposals revealed on Thursday.

The schools earmarked for the move are De La Salle High School, St Mary's High School, St Patrick's Grammar School, all in Downpatrick, and St Columba's College, in Portaferry.

One of the possible outcomes would create a single school for 1,600 pupils.

Parents have expressed mixed opinions about the plans.

A representative from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) was at one of the schools last night and told BBC News NI that nobody would be commenting on the meetings or the proposals.

On Tuesday, schools received a letter from the finance director at the Department of Education outlining that there is no money to pay for additional pressures that could be faced this year.

Gary Fair wrote: "The outcome for education is challenging and some very difficult decisions have had to be taken."

'Doing nothing not viable'

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, who is a governor at St Mary's High School, said there are three proposals.

"One was to do nothing, which under the current financial framework is just not going to be viable going forward," he said.

"The second is two schools with 800 in each, and the third, is to bring all four together to make one amalgamated school in Downpatrick."

Mr McGrath said that option two or option three would see the school based on one large site.

Image caption Three options have been proposed

"The most important thing to look at is what the purpose of the merger of two or four schools is," he said.

"It's about securing the best education outcomes for young people, and to provide various different pathways children want to take."

The proposals have been met with mixed opinions by parents.

'Wider selection of subjects'

Jennifer McGrath's daughter attends St Mary's High School.

"What they're saying is that we should embrace a co-ed education for our children and bring them into one site," she said.

She added that parents had been told the move would enable pupils to have "a much wider selection of subjects and to have a bigger range of resources available".

Image caption The proposals were unveiled on Thursday evening

"Rather than have the three sites where the resources are more limited, the finances are more limited - we're going to have upwards of 1600 children all moving from three onto one," said Ms McGrath.

'Completely wrong'

However Kelly Hill, whose children have autism, said she is worried about how they may react to any changes.

"It's a completely wrong idea," she said.

"To come into a school that they have known is routine, is structured and that everything is there - 100, or 600 pupils - even 10 pupils is even too much around a child with autism.

"But the way it's seen here is like, 'Throw them in with 1600 kids', but what impact is that going to have?

"I worry about the whole lot of it, especially for children with needs."

It is understood a consultation process for parents to express their views will be open until Friday 18 May.

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