Parents in Derry school ask people to take ‘leap of faith’

The future of Ballougry Primary School all depends on the results of a Development Proposal, which was published earlier this week by the Education Authority (EA).

The proposal says that the school will close on August 31 2023, or shortly thereafter as a result of small numbers of pupils and that the school has a deficit. Ballougry principal, Mr Damian O’Kane, and the wider school community argue that numbers have been rising over the past three years since Mr O’Kane came into the post.

Meabh Reynolds has two children in the school, one in P1 and another in P4. She said: “This school is our only community building. We have no church, no shop, no bus stop. It’s a small, rural area and the school is the only hub we have. Derry City and Strabane District Council are using the school for a consultation on the graveyard, we use it to vote, that’s where our classes are at night-time. They do speech and drama in there and a ninja club for the kids on a Monday night. There’s plans to add to that too; there’s a counsellor in the area who would like to use the school as a neutral place that isn’t their home. People only think it will only affect 45 kids and their families but it’s not. It’s the entire community. There’s so much more than just a school and there’s so much more around it too. The building is over 150 years old and the frustrating part is the kind of impact this is going to have on everybody.

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“They talk about deficits in school, some of the schools that have huge classes of pupils are in deficits of around £200,000 and they need a new building. We don’t need any of that. It says more about the chronic underfunding than it does about the school.

“It felt like the rug was pulled from under us when we were given six weeks to get our thoughts together. Our kids were only setting in after Covid and it really took us a week or two to get our heads around it. We then had to come up with very good reasons as to why they shouldn’t close it, right down to legislation. We had to look at the Integrated Schools Act and have very measured responses as to why this shouldn’t happen. Now we have eight weeks. We’ve done a bit of the ground work and we’ve got great support. Derry City and Strabane District Council got on board, every single political party - and there’s not much they all agree on - so it was amazing that they all came together for this.

Maebh said the issue facing the school is people are thinking about applications for primary 1 for next year.

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“This has been a dark cloud that has been following us around for a couple of months and now it’s all kicked off again. We have to ask people to take a leap of faith. The new P1s that have started this year, five of them are new parents to the school- they never went there, they have no other children there and they all took a chance sending their children. My child just started P1 too and I was more than happy to do that. I would be quite happy to take one year there over seven years anywhere else. And he’s flying - they’re all doing so well.

“We got a huge boost last week when we got a family of three Ukrainian children join the school. It gave us a huge morale boost that someone heard about us and believed in us. They had no affiliation to the school whatsoever but they were still willing to take a chance.

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“My daughter went to a different school first, so I know what’s out there. I couldn’t go back to a bigger school. She’s so happy there. One of her teachers is a qualified play therapist so, after Covid, they were all offered play therapy. There’s not too many schools that could offer that, on staff, without bringing anybody in. The kids are thriving in there. There’s children who have additional needs but because the classes are so small, it’s rural, they get loads of outside time, it’s a completely different environment to a class with big numbers. Their parents have said that if they had to move from there, they would have to get a full-time assistant - and they would be entitled to that - but at the minute, they don’t need the assistant so they’re saving the EA money.

“I went to Ballougry when I was wee and I had a first class education there. There’s five in our family and we’ve all done really well academically. There’s two pharmacists, I’m a dentist, we all went to uni, my brother owns a business and has travelled all over the world and he has the confidence to do so because he came from a small place where we were really well supported.

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“When we got the proposal at the start, we were given a list of schools and there isn’t enough room in the integrated schools. We chose an integrated education for our children but if Ballougry closes, well have to chose either a Catholic or Protestant school, which we don’t want. Everything you read would suggest that the EA wants schools to be more integrated.

“They talked about the Integrated Education Act back in April, where they want to promote shared education. The only three integrated schools in Derry [cityside] are the Model, Groarty, which they closed, and Ballougry, which they want to close. All we’re asking for is time.

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“Mr O’Kane would have the school full in four years before this campaign even started. He introduced 30 new families during Covid. Who does that during Covid? He’s doing amazing things. He just needs the chance to finish what he’s started.”

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