Derry community rallies together to try save Ballougry Primary School

Parents, staff and the wider community of Ballougry Primary School are asking for help amid fear that their school could be closed.

By Daire Ní Chanáin
Tuesday, 7th June 2022, 9:48 am

Ballougry PS were informed four weeks ago that the school would be closed due to small numbers, with only 44 children and three teachers, the Education Authority (EA) has published a plan to close the school in August 2023. But the school is refusing to go down without a fight.

Damian O’Kane, principal of the school, said: “We’re currently under consultation process with the Education Authority (EA) about the future of the school. It comes down to two things really; our numbers and our finance.

“We’re a rural school, which means we will naturally have smaller numbers. There are plenty of brilliant schools in the city but parents are making the choice to come here, which says a lot about the school.

“We have 44 kids at the moment and we need to have 105 as far as the policy says. Our legal limit on the building is 84 so, before we even start, we’re already trying to battle against the unfair regulations.

“All we are asking for is time. We have shown over the past few years that we can grow. We had no children come into primary one in 2019, we had six in 2020, nine last year and nine this year. If we had three more this year we would be at our capacity for primary one which is 12. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to extend that which will leave us to capacity of 84 children.

“In my opinion, there’s no reason as to why the school can’t be part of the community. It provides different aspects of education that not every city school can provide in terms of smaller classrooms and one to one time and support. The children are learning in rural setting which means there’s sheep at the back of the school, wildlife all around them and a certain calmness around us here. That’s not taking away from bigger schools at all, that’s just how it is here.

“I would be devastated if the school were to close. I came here to make a difference, not sit back in the office and just be here. I came to make a change and I knew we could do that, we’re showing that now.

“We’re delighted with the support we’ve received from everyone, particularly the parents and wider community. Everyone has stepped up and we couldn’t have asked for any more than that. I’m overwhelmed at times, emotionally, because I knew our parents would stand behind us but I didn’t expect this level of support. We’re four weeks into the process and no parent has left yet. Our parents are steadfast and willing to give the school a chance. We can’t ask for anything else.”

Carey Moore’s daughter Raeya is in primary two in Ballougry Primary School. She moved Raeya from a bigger school in the city to Ballougry when she was in primary one. Carey said: “Raeya’s first school had quite a big class and I felt like she just wasn’t fitting in. She would be quite quiet so she struggled in that environment. A friend in work told me to come out and have a look at the school because she had three children who went here and they loved it. I came and viewed the school, met Mr O’Kane, saw the P1 class and the teacher and I just loved it. I knew that Raeya would love it here.

“We enrolled Raeya and she started at the beginning of the year and she has been thriving here. She loves it! She has great friends and she loves her teacher. They have a brilliant outdoor area that she adores to play in. They’re in the country with fresh air and I love sending her here knowing that she’s learning in such a wonderful environment.

“I would be absolutely devastated if the school were to close. I would be heartbroken. Raeya would be gutted too. She wakes up every morning excited for school and she actually hates the weekend, it’s crazy! Her baby sister Ruby is nearly one and she won’t stop talking already about when Ruby is P1 and Raeya is P7 and how much fun they’ll have in school. She loves telling Ruby about all the people she’ll meet in school and the things she’ll do when she’s here and it’s so cute but it’s heartbreaking now too to think that might not happen.”

Outgoing Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Graham Warke, on a visit to the school, said: “Obviously, hearing about Ballougry school and learning about it, I feel it’s important everyone rallies behind it. We need everyone behind us. This is a rural school and they are doing absolutely amazing. It’s something I wanted to do in my last week as Mayor to get down here before my time comes to an end and give them my support.

“To meet the staff, principal, parents and children in the school is wonderful. This school caters for everyone as an all-inclusive school in the heart of the rural community. So I encourage everyone in the city to get behind the campaign and sign the petition for Ballougry Primary School and support it 100%.”

Meanwhile , Councillors unanimously agreed to support  Ballougry Primary School in their campaign to remain open.

Bringing the motion before the full meeting of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle said: “The situation at Ballougry Primary School beggars belief to be perfectly honest, there was a range of members who attended a meeting the night before the Assembly election to hear from parents, teachers and governors about the threat from the Education Authority that the school was going to be closed.

“This is being done under the auspices of the Sustainable Schools policy under six points, one of the main ones that the Education Authority (EA) for example is bringing forward as a reason to close the school is the financial situation and the enrolment trends.

“I have to say, having worked with the Chair of the Board of Governors and the Principal over recent weeks that it’s very clear that the school has had one hand tied behind its back for a significant time leading up to this decision for pre-consultation.

“For example, with regards to stable enrollment trends, Ballougry Primary School, the total enrollment for 21/22 is 44 students but there are a range of other schools right across the North that range from 40…. who have around the same number of students and who aren’t being considered for closure by the Education Authority.

“The position of campaigners, students, school teachers, governors and staff is that this policy is not being applied consistently.

“Considering this is the last rural school on the cityside there is considerable impact to the lives of students who go there, the rural community in general and for the Education Authority to consider sending children who have grown up in an environment where they are in a rural setting, get a lot more one to one intensive care, where they can send them to larger schools where the outcome may not be as good.”

Seconding the motion, Alliance Councillor Rachael Ferguson added: “The parents are all really invested in the school and they are proud to be part of the community. The school is a welcoming place for all and because of the small numbers at the school all children’s needs are being met. 

“If this school closes children would have to travel into the city side or Waterside every day, there would be no other option and it takes away from that unique rural experience that these children are getting at the school.”

UUP Alderman Ryan McCready urged all members to get behind the school whilst DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney added that ‘too many times we have seen rural schools closed’.

Having also attended the meeting in May, SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney said: “There is an unbelievable sense that this community were not going to be pushed over or rolled over and allow this school to close without putting up a fight.

“That school is not only a school, it is the focus, the centrepoint of their community and we need to join them and help them in any way we can to help ensure it stays open.”

Stating the main concern of her party was ensuring the ‘educational and pastoral wellbeing’ of the children was paramount, Sinn Fein Councillor Patricia Logue added: “I also attended the meeting and the passion within the room for keeping the school open was palpable.

“As a party we have met with the school and they have assured us they have a plan for sustainability. We also had a zoom meeting as a party with EA and gave our thoughts on the matter very clearly to them and I do believe there is an onus on the EA to give the plan the school have a fair wind.”

Calling for all members of council to ‘stand in solidarity’ with the campaign at Ballougry Primary School, People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin commented: “It was very clear that there is a great school community there and a great energy to keep the school open. We have to do everything we can to help this campaign.”

Speaking about the impact the closure would have, Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly said: “This is a school that’s been open for 150 years and provides outstanding learning experiences to children. 

“Ballougry is one of the most inclusive schools in the district. There’s children from different religious backgrounds and cultures and to close this school will have a huge impact in particular for Protestant families in our local area who are a minority and that would be an absolute shame.”

Describing Ballougry as ‘not just a school, it is a community’, UUP Alderman Derek Hussey stated his ‘despair at the Education Authority’s corralling our children into economic units rather than to a site of educational advancement’.

The motion passed unanimously. It read: ‘That this Council recognises the exceptional education offered by Ballougry Primary School, acknowledges that the Education Authority has recently launched a pre-publication consultation which has recommended the school be closed, further recognises the detrimental impact this will have on pupils, parents, staff and the local community, and will offer the school its full support to remain open including responding to any consultations from the Authority or Department of Education and will immediately ask the Area Planning team to come before Council to hear the concerns of members.’

Council will also invite representatives from Ballougry Primary School to make a presentation to elected representatives.

The school have set up a petition in an attempt to save the school and raise funds for the campaign: https://www.change.org/p/save-ballougry-p-s?signed=true