School’s expansion is axed by department

Dr Peter Cunningham.
Dr Peter Cunningham.
  • Principal furious after £2.3m project ‘delayed’
  • More than half children in mobile classrooms
  • Education Minister blames budget cuts

The principal of Ceara Special School – which covers the Portadown area – is furious that the school’s planned £2.3m expansion has been axed by the Department of Education.

Dr Peter Cunningham is especially incensed that the news was delivered by the Southern Education Board in an impersonal email – days before the boards were amalgamated in the new Education Authority.

It makes me wonder if children with learning difficulties are bottom of the pile.

Dr Peter Cunningham

Dr Cunningham said, “We did not expect to be part of the department’s overall cuts. It makes me wonder if children with learning difficulties are bottom of the pile. It means that we will have to continue operating with 13 mobile classrooms, which accommodate 69 of our 132 pupils – just over half of them.

“This is unacceptable for children with learning difficulties, and the irony is that I can’t appeal to the education board. The new authority is being set up and I simply don’t know where to lodge my protest.”

The purpose-built Ceara school was provided in Lurgan at the turn of the millennium, but mobiles were required from the start. And such is the excellent reputation of the school that these have mushroomed to the current 13.

Dr Cunningham added, “Some of them are almost 20 years old and not fit for purpose. In the winter they are unacceptably cold and in the summer too hot. The £2.3m expansion was promised a year ago, confirmed in January, and now comes this bombshell. £75,000 was spent on preparatory work.

“Even with the expansion we would have been left with six mobiles, but we would have selected the best of them and could have lived with that. When people visit the main school, they are full of praise for the conditions and the attractive entrance and facilities – but the line of mobiles at the back show a different aspect.

“We’re very disappointed and will be making our views made known, not least the way the cuts were relayed to us.”

Education Minister John O’Dowd said that the NI Executive’s budget has been reduced by the Westminster Government by £1.5bn over the last five years.

He added, “As a direct result of this reduction, there is significantly less money to spend on frontline services such as education. I have taken every action possible to protect education funding. However, it is simply impossible to protect everything, hence my decision to delay the delivery of some of the School Enhancement Programme projects.

“The projects that have been held back will be delivered when budget becomes available, but a time-frame for this cannot be identified at this stage. I remain committed to this (Ceara) project.”