There’s no sign of a belated Christmas gift for Dromore Central Primary, with the school still at odds with education authorities over the size of its new home.
For principal Mrs Linda Allen, one pressing question - elswhere deemed asked and answered - is why projected population growth, as factored into original plans for a 28-classroom school, was absent from the revised plan for a 25-class building.
Mrs Allen has likewise challenged an assertion that Dromore Central’s finances were “untenable”, insisting instead they had been “turned around” .
There is disagreement too over the likely cost of providing the three classrooms at the heart of the dispute, a spokesperson for Stormont Education Minister John O’Dowd quoting £300,000, while Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig, who sits on the education committee, said he understood the actual cost of the three classrooms could be as little as £50-60,000.
So far Mr O’Dowd appears unmoved by strenuous efforts to sway him on the issue.
Mrs Allen first led a delegation of 28 pupils, one for each of the school’s existing classes, on an unannounced visit to Stormont in the ultimately vain hope of meeting with Mr O’Dowd and, as The Leader more recently reported, the children followed up with a DIY rap video pleading directly for a ministerial rethink.
Said Mrs Allen: “They had been aware of the fact that the new school could be short of classrooms and they had been doing hip-hop lessons, so they came up with the idea of doing a rap video for the minister. We are really proud of their creativity.”
The principal maintains a 25-classroom school does not take into account Central’s steadily rising enrolment, nor that the new building would be full from the moment it opened.
“The original SELB plan said that 28 classrooms were needed to take account of population growth, based on projected house building,” she said. “There is planning approval for 473 new homes nearby, so why is population growth not even mentioned in the revised plan?”
Reporting that the minister told her 28 classrooms could drain pupils from other schools, she added: “But all the local schools are already full, so this is a very short-sighted plan.”
Capping enrolment, another of the minister’s proposed solutions, she said, was in her view against departmental policy and contrary to rising community demand, also undermining the school’s ability to fund itself as it grew.
The principal believes the three extra classrooms would offer better value than spending £200,000 to add a mobile classroom, yet another of Mr O’Dowd’s reported solutions.
Mr Craig, meanwhile, said he believed education boards were short of capital and failing to take account of population growth patterns.
“The Department of Education”, he added, “has admitted that it is short of civil engineering staff, which results in long delays in processing plans, so costings and classroom numbers are often way out of date by the time construction begins.”
However, a Department of Education spokesman said Dromore Central had not queried classroom numbers when it was announced in June 2012 that it would only get 25.
Nor, he said, was the issue raised during the economic appraisal or the design process. “The project is now on site,” he added. “The new building will accommodate all current 704 pupils and can take up to 730.
“The school is currently funded as a 25-class school but the governors choose to operate as a 28-class school. This will not be financially sustainable in the medium term.
“Plans do exist for housing developments in Dromore but it is not clear if or when they will be built.”
The department having been quizzed as to why revised plans did not include an earlier assessment of planning approval for 473 nearby homes, and how much the three extra classrooms would cost, a spokeswoman for Mr O’Dowd said the area planning process had incorporated projected population growth figures for the area.
“The projected rise in pupil numbers was significantly lower when this process was undertaken in 2012 than was the case for the original plan in 2008,” she said. “There are sufficient school places in the wider Dromore area to cope with the projected increase in school-age numbers.”
She added that the additional classrooms would cost some £300,000, but the more pressing issue, she said, was the school’s “untenable” finances, with a deficit projected to “increase year on year”.
Mrs Allen, however, said the department had still failed to say why the planned housing developments had been dropped from the revised plan and she insisted school finances had been “turned around” and were on target to break even.