June 15 In the Press

Minister has ‘serious and urgent’ questions to answer says Markethill High School

By Eleanor McGillie

THE Board of Governors of Markethill High School say the Education Minister John O’Dowd has ‘serious and urgent questions to answer’ following his u-turn on his previous decision to refuse a temporary variation in admissions for St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook.

Minister John O’Dowd refused a request by Markethill High School which was submitted to the Department of Education on April 7 for seven additional places. He also refused a request by St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook which was submitted on May 8. However, on May 27, the Minister reviewed his decision and overturned it, approving an extra 24 places for St Paul’s – a move which the newly elected Sinn Fein MP, Mickey Brady, described as an example of “Team Sinn Fein delivering for people on the ground”.

Since then questions have been raised, and Freedom of Information requests submitted, after angry parents of pupils wanting to go to Markethill High School queried the Minister’s decision making process and voiced their anger that the newly elected MP had turned it into a political affair.

Mr Maxwell, Principal of Markethill High School, said the Minister, in the face of growing concerns about inequality amongst parents and the broader community, now has serious and urgent questions to answer in relation to recent decisions.

He said: “Many people want to know why Mr O’Dowd decided to turn down the St Paul’s request on May 14, presumably on the advice of his advisers, only to overturn it 13 days later on May 27 – four days after letters had been issued to parents? Additionally, if the Minister saw fit to ‘review’ the St Paul’s decision, why has he not reviewed the Markethill High decision?

“Markethill High School’s concerns include whether the Minister ‘overruled’ published admissions criteria in his recent decision in Bessbrook. We would like clarification on this, as well as on what future implications this would have for Appeals Tribunals.”

Speaking about the ongoing issue, Mr Maxwell said a number of things do not add up, and, although questions have been asked by Minister Danny Kennedy and Danny Kinahan MP MLA in the Assembly, the Minister has not clarified many of the issues raised.

Mr Maxwell continued: “Markethill High School was apparently refused extra places because, as stated in a letter from the Department of Education on April 27, ‘all applicants live within travelling distance of alternative controlled post primary schools with places available’. It has now come to light that at least two non-selective schools in Newry, one of them Maintained, were undersubscribed at the time of the Minister’s decision to allow 24 extra spaces in Bessbrook. Why, therefore, are some pupils who wish to be educated in Markethill High School, being forced to travel over five miles to alternative post-primary schools, whilst there were alternative post-primary schools within four miles of Bessbrook also with places available?”

The Board of Governors say Markethill High School followed established, proper protocol in its request for additional places and wrote to both the School Access Team at the Department of Education and the Education Minister. But suspicions have now been heightened, in light of the revelations about the process which led to O’Dowd’s decisions, about the fairness and equality of decisions.

Mr Maxwell added: “These continue to be fuelled further by Mickey Brady, who continues to believe that it is acceptable for a political party to ‘champion’ and take glory for school admissions, even though decisions on temporary variations need to be made on an objective, educational basis against stringent criteria. Mr Brady’s comments have served to be highly insensitive.

“Neither Mr O’Dowd nor Mr Brady can turn a deaf ear to this issue. Markethill High School has submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Department of Education. We are awaiting responses and will decide upon our next move when these are received.

“Markethill High School has no issues with any successful, oversubscribed school like itself applying for a temporary variation. However, decisions must be fair, and it is now incumbent upon the Minister of Education to offer urgent explanations.”

ENDS:

NOTES TO EDITOR:

  • Markethill High School is the Best School in Northern Ireland for Modern Languages
  • In September 2013, The Minister for Education John O’Dowd congratulates Markethill High School for being one of 11 schools in Northern Ireland which successfully bridges the gap between social disadvantage and educational attainment
  • In October 2013 the ETI report that Markethill High School is a school of ‘very good practice’ and commends all aspects of school life
  • In November 2013 Harper Adams University in Ireland announces a collaboration with Markethill High School to lead the way in education in Northern Ireland by encouraging pupils to take up careers in agriculture
  • For further information contact Eleanor McGillie of MGMPR Ltd on 028 3756 9569| 07709805379| Education PR | Brand Journalism Experts | Brand Journalism UK | Brand Journalism Northern Ireland | PR Agency Northern Ireland |

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