Focus groups to decide on schools provision in expanding North West of city?

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A top education official has indicated focus groups and market researchers could help decide what type of school provision is delivered in an area of Derry that features one of the largest tranches of zoned housing land in the whole of the North.

Michael McConkey, an education officer working on rural planning for the Education Authority (EA) suggested the approach could allow people living in Ballymagroarty, Skeoge and Upper Galliagh, where the population is expected to explode over the next number of years, have a say on how many and what types of schools they want.

He made the comments during a briefing of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee on Tuesday, during which several councillors raised concerns over the EA’s recommendation to refuse a shared campus application jointly submitted by Groarty Integrated Primary and Gaelscoil Na Daróige earlier this year.

Mr. McConkey and Kim Scott, Assistant Director of the EA’s Education Directorate, were invited to address the committee after its Annual Action Plan for 2017/18, published in the spring, identified several schools, namely, Loughash PS, Donemana, Altishane, Donemana, St Joseph’s PS, Artigarvan, St Patrick’s PS, Donemana, in the Glenmoran and Donemana area, and Erganagh, PS, Castlederg, as exhibiting ‘sustainability issues’.

But it was the issue of schools provision in the expanding North West of the city that most exercised elected representatives from the affected Foyleside and Ballyarnett District Electoral Areas (DEA).

Independent councillor Warren Robinson asked if a cross-sectoral campus, in an area of projected population growth, didn’t make strategic sense.

“Surely, amalgamating the two schools would be the most sensible option,” he said.

SDLP councillor John Boyle, whose father attended Groarty, wondered whether the local council’s Community Planning (CP) process had been adequately engaged.

He said: “We have our own Local Development Plan (LDP) and I just wonder how much consideration and cognisance of that LDP has been taken when considering the possibility of a shared campus at Ballymagroarty.”

Colr. Boyle noted how the council’s LDP, inherited from its predecessor, Derry City Council, had identified the Buncrana Road corridor as a key area of population growth.

The Catholic maintained sector, for instance, considers provision should be made for at least three new primary schools in the area in the period up to 2025.

Colr. Boyle warned that turning down the shared campus could prove a “retrograde step” given “many thousands of people will be living in that part of our city”.

Sinn Féin councillor Mickey Cooper, a board member of Gaelscoil Na Daróige, suggested refusing the joint site application in “one of the largest housing areas not just in Derry but in the north” might backfire.

He also said that both schools were frustrated in that they were still awaiting a final decision from the department in the wake of the EA’s recommendation.

He echoed Colr. Boyle’s concerns around a perceived lack of joined-up thinking when it came to the EA’s area planning and the council’s LDP and CP processes.

“In a wider sense there should not be an isolationist approach without looking at the council’s LDP and CP process,” he said.

Galliagh-native, Alderman David Ramsey of the DUP, who represents the Waterside DEA, and is a former pupil of Groarty, said the co-location proposal was a “unique opportunity” that would serve an expanding population as well as an existing population of “unionist and mixed families” in the area.

Mr. McConkey responded to these concerns by saying that the EA had given the application “very careful consideration” but that, as Groarty’s managing authority, it had worked with the school, its governors and principal, and had identified a number of issues and concerns.

The education official warned that the EA was statutorily bound to follow DE’s Sustainable Schools policy, which was published in 2009 in the wake of Professor George Bain’s report and recommendation in 2006 that urban schools should have a minimum enrolment of 140 pupils.

Mr. McConkey said the EA believed that even if Groarty and Na Daróige amalgamated low projected enrolments at Groarty, in particular, would mean they would still fall below the minimum 140 pupils set out by Bain and the DE. The expected explosion in population that must follow in the wake of the massive planned developments in the HI and H2 housing zones in the years ahead may not be enough to save the shared campus proposal, however.

Mr. McConkey said such huge developments may take up to 10 years to be realised and indicated that the EA is bound to consider sustainability in the shorter to medium term.

However, he suggested the growing communities in the North West of the city might be able to actively inform how school development proceeds along the Buncrana Road corridor.

He referred to research, which is being carried out on behalf of the EA and the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) in Carnlough, in the Glens of Antrim, to try to identify, what sort of schools local people want in that area.

Mr. McConkey said that in that case academics and the polling and market research company LucidTalkNI were engaging with focus groups and local stakeholders to gauge feelings on the ground.

This could also be used in the H1 and H2 area, according to Mr. McConkey.

“We want to work with the local communtiy to get feedback on what type of schools they want in the area,” he said.