By Owen McCracken,
On Tuesday 26th March over 250 people packed into the assembly hall of Dundonald High School to oppose a proposal from the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) to close the school. In a letter sent to parents, the SEELB stated the proposal was to shut the school by August 2014, or as soon as possible after that date. The sham nature of the consultation was evident to all who attended.
At the meeting, parents provided example after example of the negative impact the closure would have on their children, particularly true for young people attending the significant special educational needs unit located at the school. Parents also stressed the impact of underfunding over recent years, explaining how this had resulted in a growing perception of the school as poorly resourced, and contributing to a decrease in pupil numbers. Recently however indications are this trend had gone into reverse with applications increasing significantly this academic year, owing in large part to the terrific reputation of the teachers and a central drive to engage with local primary schools undertaken by the schools new management. Over 1,000 homes are currently being built in the area, further demonstrating the need for a local secondary school.
Local politicians continually voice concerns about a serious problem with educational underachievement in East Belfast but have provided no serious strategy on how this can be addressed. Closing schools such as Dundonald High School is certainly not the answer. The school is the only post-primary school located in the area, drawing pupils from large housing estates such as Ballybeen, Tullycarnet and Ardcairn where unemployment and poverty are high.
The closest secondary school is in Newtownards, more than 4 miles away. Ashfield Boys and Girls schools in East Belfast is already over-subscribed, with other secondary schools in East Belfast such as Orangefield High also due to close. As with the recent scandals over the closure of Hospital A&E’s, additional burdens will be placed on those schools remaining open. Rather than closure, funding and additional support should be provided to keep schools open and support communities in need.
A significant campaign to save the school has been built uniting teachers, parents and the local community, with a working group established to co-ordinate the campaign. This has been very successful in mobilising opposition. However, to save the school real pressure must now be brought to bear not just on the board, or Sinn Fein who hold the education Ministry, but on all the parties in the Assembly Executive. While the local representatives may issue statements of support and provide some practical assistance, the parties they represent possess an effective veto at Stormont and it is ultimately their decision whether Dundonald High and other schools in a similar position remain open or not.