Community campaign stops school closure

As reported in The Socialist (October 2009), grassroots campaigns have been growing to meet threats posed to the continued existence of rural schools throughout Fermanagh. The most developed of which established itself around the demand that St Mary’s Brollagh, a rural secondary school just outside Belleek, remain open.

In 2007 the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools (CCMS), a body given the remit to manage Catholic-based education by the Department of Education, singled out the school for potential closure. Its numbers had dropped substantially and they must have thought that the threat of closure would only reduce further the number of children enrolling.

Belleek is located 25 miles away from Enniskillen, and for parents of children living between Belleek and Garrison the distance children would have to travel to the closest secondary school approaches 30 miles. The road between Belleek and Enniskillen itself is very poor and the journey can take up to an hour especially when traffic delays are added in. It was this remoteness and the fact that local communities raised 85% of the cost of the school themselves which generated significantly higher opposition than was otherwise anticipated by the CCMS.

Parents and teachers responded with one of the most spirited campaigns seen in the county for many years. They put pressure on all the local politicians and made their way up to Stormont to bring the issue to a wider political audience and highlight the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane. The consultation process conceded by the bishops who run the CCMS in the face of this campaign received hundreds of letters from local people and parents demanding the decision be rescinded. This response led to the establishment of a CCMS working group who would study the special case of Brollagh and make recommendations.

The initial rationale for closing the school was the pressures of meeting the ‘Entitlement Framework’ which sets an onerous (minimum) number of courses students should be able to access at secondary level. However, once alternative arrangements to provide access to these courses were identified by the campaigners, the focus moved to the lack of ‘community utilisation’ of the school building in evenings (based on comparisons with similar schools located in Belfast!). In response to this, the campaign mobilised and secured support from community groups and primary schools across the sectarian divide. Indeed due to the strength of the campaign, far from the numbers of new pupils falling, they jumped substantially in the September 2009 intake as local communities lined up behind their school.

In the last two weeks, the CCMS have backed down – for now. The working group report concluded that Brollagh’s future should be decided in the course of the comprehensive review of secondary education that is set for the county over the next few years. This buys Brollagh a minimum of three further years and possibly many more – an outcome few politicians or in the sector would have anticipated as possible at the outset.

The campaign was led by the Parents Action Group. Those at the head of this campaign are acutely aware that they have won only a breather and continue to take steps to prepare for any future challenges to the school’s future.

Speaking at a meeting of the Action Group to mark their victory in the campaign, the chair of the Action Group Seamus Kelm indicated that he was in contact with other post-primary schools located in Derrylin and Roslea who are also in the line of fire. These other campaigns were keen to learn about the Brollagh campaign. Mr Kelm further indicated that they were considering forming a more generalised campaign around the rights of children to education provided locally to their communities – a necessary step in building a more widespread opposition to the right-wing policies which is threatening rural education.

Victories can be few and far between for those defending public services. It is important to mark them and to highlight just how working people can achieve goals that those in power were convinced to be beyond them. The victory in Brollagh this year will strengthen similar campaigns building in many other secondary schools and primary schools in the period to come.

 

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