Northern Ireland

Portaferry parents all at sea over Downpatrick school merger

Strangford Lough
Image caption Portaferry pupils could be sent to school on the other side of Strangford Lough

Ards Peninsula families have voiced concern over how children will get to school on the other side of Strangford Lough if a planned merger goes ahead.

Pupils from St Columba's College in Portaferry, County Down, would have to travel to Downpatrick under the plan.

Their options include taking a ferry to travel less than a mile across the lough, or a 41-mile (66km) journey by road which takes more than an hour.

But there are already concerns over passenger numbers on the ferry service.

Last month, BBC News NI reported that some commuters were taking the long way round the Ards Peninsula, adding hundreds of miles to their weekly commute because of a lack of capacity on the car ferry.

Local residents fear the school merger could exacerbate the problem.

Image caption The Strangford Ferry is already very busy during the morning rush hour

"It's a unique situation here on the Ards Peninsula because transport actually involves the Strangford Ferry to start off with," SDLP Councillor Joe Boyle told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"There's exceptional numbers using both early morning crossings, attending some four or five places of education already.

"We just can't work out how they are proposing maybe upwards of 150-plus more students on to that ferry."

A Department for Infrastructure spokesperson said: "Based on current passenger information it is likely that if the ferry is required to carry an additional 150 passengers, it may be necessary for passengers to be spread across more than one sailing.

"The first weekday sailing starts from Portaferry at 7.45am and runs every 30 minutes up to 10.45pm during weekdays."

Under the plans, four Catholic secondary schools will merge into one much larger school, but the other three are all already based in Downpatrick, County Down.

Pupils from St Columba's College would travel to be educated alongside students from St Patrick's Grammar School; St Mary's High School and De La Salle High School.

'Fiery meeting'

The merger proposal provoked a mixed reaction when it was revealed almost a year ago, with several parents complaining it would reduce choice in the Catholic education sector.

On Monday night, Mr Boyle attended a "fiery" meeting between parents of St Columba's College pupils, the Education Authority (EA) and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

He criticised both the CCMS and EA representatives for failing to provide answers to "obvious" questions about school transport provision.

Image caption St Columba's College is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year

"One is responsible for getting you to school and the other is responsible for educating you," Mr Boyle told the programme.

"I would have thought that research would have been done, I thought it would have been brought to the meeting and clearly, as I stated, it wasn't."

The councillor said there was a lot of frustration from parents, "bordering on anger".

Image caption Councillor Joe Boyle said parents were "frustrated" by a lack of information on transport plans

BBC News NI contacted the CCMS and the EA for a response to the issues raised.

A spokeswoman for the EA said: "EA attended a meeting last night at the invitation of CCMS to hear the concerns of parents and we will continue to take on board views regarding transport as the CCMS consultation process continues."

CCMS said Monday's meeting formed "part of the pre-publication consultation stage" for the school merger and added that "all feedback received at the meeting was welcomed".

"Due consideration will be given to the matters raised," it said.

More on this story