Red High Pupils And Parents Protest At EA HQ

Parents and pupils protest at Rathgael House over schools' merger proposal

Parents and pupils protest at Rathgael House over schools’ merger proposal

Parents and pupils staged a demonstration at Department of Education headquarters against Downpatrick school merger as the legal challenge is submitted.

  • A group of over 200 parents and pupils from St. Patrick’s Grammar School Downpatrick have staged a demonstration at the Department of Education headquarters against plans to merge the school with two others in the area.
  • The action comes days after a legal bid to halt the amalgamation of St. Patrick’s Grammar with De La Salle High School and St. Mary’s High School in the town is submitted.

A group of over 200 parents and pupils from St. Patrick’s Grammar School Downpatrick have staged a demonstration at the Department of Education headquarters in Bangor as their fight to halt the amalgamation of the school with two others in the area continues.

Students, parents, staff, and friends of St. Patrick’s Grammar School, Downpatrick, gather at the Department of Education, Rathgael House, Bangor. (Photos by Press Eye / Phil Magowan).

Parents, pupils and teachers from the Red High today repeated their call to Mark Browne, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education, to cease plans for the amalgamation with De La Salle High School and St. Mary’s High School in the town, which is due to take place in September 2024.

The school’s parents’ association, the Red High PFA, is an independent body representing over 500 parents of pupils at St. Patrick’s Grammar School in Downpatrick. It has long been opposed to the merger, which was green lit by former caretaker Education Minister Michelle McIlveen MLA in October 2022. The PFA represents over 500 parents in the Downpatrick area.

The group gathered outside the Department of Education building at Rathgael House in Bangor, with chants of “Caretaker Minister Did Not Care” and “Those Consulted Not Affected, Those Affected Not Consulted” ringing out in staunch opposition to the amalgamation and the lack of financial planning behind it. 

Pupils supporting the protest outside the gates of the Education Authority in Bangor.

The PFA says the approval of a merger to create a 1600 pupil, co-educational 11–19 year-old voluntary grammar school in Downpatrick followed an “entirely flawed” decision making process, in which over 85% (106 of 120) schools who opposed it at consultation stage were ignored, alongside almost 90% (539 out of 601) of responses submitted in a personal capacity.

The parent of a primary school pupil in the area, who believes their child’s future will be impacted by the amalgamation, has submitted an application for a Judicial Review on the grounds of procedural unfairness, claiming that the former caretaker Minister took the decision without regard for the consultation responses, or the adverse impact it will have on educational outcomes in the area.

Travelling to Bangor to call once again on the Permanent Secretary to halt the “outrageous and irresponsible” merger, the pupils and parents of the Red High repeated their reasons for opposition.

Pupils from St Patrick’s Grammar School in Downpatrick oppose the proposed post-primary schools’ merger.

These reasons include:

  • a lack of capacity within the proposed new school to offer spaces to local primary school children;
  • an absence of plans or ring-fenced funding to merge the three schools in one campus;
  • exclusion of pupils from rural areas that would traditionally feed into St. Patrick’s
  • and an expected drop in SEN provision.

Speaking at the demonstration, St. Patrick’s Grammar School Principal Joe McCann said: Just over a year and a half ahead of this planned merger, we are still struggling to understand the practicalities of how this school will function.

“Pupils from both local and rural primary schools will no longer be given the opportunity to join us, teachers will be travelling between sites and there is still no sign of a funding plan for a site merger.”

The Department of Education’s insistence on proceeding regardless of these challenges amounts to complete recklessness and the abandonment of educational standards in the area.

There was a strong and visible presence outside the EA HQ at Rathgael House in Bangor.

“As a result, we are supporting the PFA in asking for a temporary halt to proceedings. We ask the Department to allow all parties the time and space to reflect, to consider fully the ramifications of this move that we know will have a tremendous impact not only on the town of Downpatrick but the many communities that surround us.

“We need to make sure, before any plan goes ahead, that the school will be fit for purpose to meet the needs of future generations.”

Red High PFA Member Colin Bell, whose sons aged 13 and 15 attend the school, said: How we are standing here today with no other option but to take action against a reckless plan, which the Department thinks is going to be implemented just next year, is beyond me.

“This is an outrageous move, and we have no option but to stand up as a voice for our children. Worryingly I have no idea what the future looks like for my boys despite having made a decision about their post-primary education years ago.

“This is a heavy concern for us as a family, and for many others who have no clue what their children’s education will look like come next September.

“We want to see fair play, to see our children given the best opportunities, and to have decisions made based on reality, not a fanciful plan put forward four years ago.”

Background to the Dispute

The proposal to merge St. Patrick’s Grammar with De La Salle High School and St. Mary’s High School in the town was first submitted by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) on behalf of the De La Salle Order for a 1600 pupil co-educational 11-19 voluntary grammar school.

During the Education Authority consultation on the proposal in 2018, 106 of the 120 local schools that responded (including primary schools) stated their objection. Of the 631 individuals who replied in a personal capacity, 539 people voiced their opposition and 62 said they support it.

Former Education Minister Michelle McIlveen MLA signed off the proposals on Monday 10 October 2022. The school is due to open its doors in September 2024.

Under the new arrangements, up to a maximum of 100 (40%) of the 250 pupils given a place each year may be admitted via academic selection. Primary schools in the area have been divided into two categories – Category A and Category B – depending on their proximity, with pupils from the 13 Category A schools automatically eligible.

Challenging the Ministerial approval, the Red High PFA highlights that in the first four years alone, Category A will be oversubscribed each year, meaning the current cohort of P6 children from the local area will not all be provided a place, and no spaces will be available for the 40 plus feeder schools allocated to Category B. 

Brown Backs Parents and Pupils in Downpatrick merger dispute

South Down Alliance MLA Patrick Brown has welcomed the protest against the school amalgamation outside the Department of Education’s (DE) headquarters. He said:

“I give my strong support to the parents, students and community members that were protesting the decision of the Department of Education to approve this school amalgamation. 

“This decision should never have happened during the dying days of a caretaker ministry.

“Minister McIlveen made this incredibly controversial decision as a lame duck Minister then walked away, leaving no accountability and nothing but anxiety and uncertainty for many stakeholders in the area, not least young people.

“I believe this decision should be reviewed and welcome the legal challenge brought by concerned parents.

“I want to see an integrated, all-ability, non-selective education system and this Department proposal doesn’t deliver that.

“There are a wide range of issues with the proposals, not least the impact on SEN student well-being and significant logistical challenges of operating a two-campus model. 

“And there is the very serious issue of rural discrimination, whereby students from rural areas will be forced to sit an entrance exam, but those within closer proximity to the new school will not.

“This does not remove academic selection but simply displaces it.