Desertmartin PS closure proposal casts doubt over joint-faith school

A CHURCH of Ireland school in Desertmartin has been earmarked for closure, which looks set to scupper plans to create the first joint-faith primary in Northern Ireland.

There had been discussions between Desertmartin Primary School and the nearby Catholic Knocknagin PS to make history and merge into a jointly-managed church school.

For over a decade the two schools have enjoyed a significant link through a shared education programme – engaging in extracurricular activities and sharing teachers and weekly classes.

However, due to low pupil numbers, the Church of Ireland Derry Diocesan Board of Education has recommended the closure of Desertmartin PS with effect from 31 August 2020.

The school population numbers has declined since 2009 resulting in only 13 pupils currently enrolled at the Mid-Ulster institution.

In September 2018, it welcomed just one new P1 pupil and there are no first preferences for September this year.

The enrolment numbers are well below the recommended levels for a primary school as per the Sustainable Schools Policy.

The school is also not operating within the annual budget allocations, resulting in the deficit continuing to grow year on year. In the most recent three year plan the deficit is projected to increase from -171.90% to -2804.13%.

The Pre-Publication Consultations over its closure is due end on 11th June, at which point the Education Authority will determine whether a Development Proposal is required.

Despite the plans to discontinue the school, a consultation document revealed the Board of Governors and Principal’s preferred option continues to be a jointly-managed faith school.

However, it was noted this was not achievable within a timescale that would improve the school's sustainability and such low numbers was “unsustainable both from an educational and financial perspective”.

“There is no indication that this pattern of enrolment will change in the near future or that Desertmartin PS can avail of effective jointly managed shared education or partnership working arrangements that will increase sustainability,” the document read.

“Given the declining enrolment the financial position can only deteriorate further.”

Discussions around the creation a jointly-managed church school were made public in June 2016 after a number of positive meetings locally between the two schools and representatives from the Church of Ireland and Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

The plan had stemmed from a Stormont Education Committee meeting in February 2015, where Clerics from the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations stated that joint-faith schools will be a new type of school founded on a common Christian principle.

The clergy behind the negotiations had been inspired by a school in Liverpool, Hope Academy, which was formed in 2011 by merging Catholic and Anglican schools.

If Desertmartin PS does close, it will leave just two schools managed by the Church of Ireland - Drelincourt Infants' in Armagh and Seagoe PS in Portadown.

It is expected, following the completion of the consultation period, a case-for-change document will be complied prior to a potential development proposal being published in August 2019.

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