O’Dowd pressed on publication of border schools survey

December 16, 2013

by Christine Keighery

Pressure is mounting for Minister for Education, John O’Dowd to publish the findings of a survey of attitudes to schooling in the border counties.

Results of the research, which was carried out over a year ago, were expected to be released at a North-South Ministerial Council meeting in February this year, but that did not happen.

According to Mr O’Dowd, authorisation for publication needs to be sought from the North-South Ministerial Council once it has considered the survey results.

Figures from the Departments of Education in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland show that 275 children from the border counties in the Republic of Ireland travel to secondary schools in Northern Ireland.  An additional 132 primary school pupils also make the journey to school from the south to schools in the north.

However, only a quarter of that number travel from Northern Ireland to schools in the Republic of Ireland.

One of south Armagh’s leading secondary schools, St.Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen regularly has an intake of pupils from the Republic.  Parents of pupils who travel to St Joseph’s from nearby border towns in the south have spoken to BBC Newsline about their reasons for travelling to Northern Ireland for their children’s education.

Sharon Flynn’s two daughters travel from Dundalk to attend the Crossmaglen secondary school and she feels the education system here is “much better than in the Republic.”

“The junior certificate is not worth much so I prefer the British system of GCSEs. I am hoping both girls do A-levels and go on to university,” Ms Flynn added.

She also outlined the financial benefits of cross border schooling.   The cost of school books in the Republic is met by parents so Mrs Flynn revealed she saves between 500 to 700 euro per child per year by sending her children to a Northern school.

Better learning support services for children with learning difficulties was also cited as a reason for preferring the Northern Ireland education system.   Breda Sheeran’s son Ryan is head boy at St Joseph’s, Crossmaglen.

The 19-year-old suffers from dyslexia so his mother’s main concern when he was starting secondary school was that he would not get enough support in the Republic. After visiting the school, both mother and son were impressed by the learning support on offer in St.Joseph’s  and say it was a key factor in their decision to travel to Northern Ireland.

Parents of Newtownhamilton High students also commented on the issue, reiterating the preference for the GCSE and A Level system here as opposed to the Leaving Certificate in the Republic.

Carol Sloan, who sends her son Gareth on the half hour journey from County Monaghan to Newtownhamilton High says she believes the Northern Ireland system suits her son better, “with modular GCSEs which he can do at 16, rather than a one-off Leaving Certificate when he is older,” she said.

Accepting pupils from across the border can also  have benefits for the survival of small schools like Newtownhamilton High.

Principal of Newtownhamilton High, Garnet Mullan says,

“There will be years when we will be fractionally under quota and so we can boost our numbers using pupils from the state, and we appreciate them when they come.”

The DUP’s education spokesman Mervyn Storey is leading the calls for the publication of the border schools survey. He maintains there is a high cost to the Department of Education in Northern Ireland and he wants to know if the Republic of Ireland’s government is being paid for teaching the pupils who cross the border for their education.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education in Dublin says no money changes hands because EU rules entitle children from one region to free education in another.

Mr Storey also believes the survey is being suppressed because it does not show the results that Mr O’Dowd was expecting.

“I think he was probably expecting there was a migration of pupils from Northern Ireland to the Republic, the reverse is clearly the case,” he said.

While he claims to have no objection to the cross border traffic to schools, Mr Storey said,

“My question to the minister is, how much is that costing the Northern Ireland taxpayer and how is that being funded by the educational system in the Republic?

“I need to be content the money is being spent in a way which is of benefit to children in Northern Ireland and not just a free service for anyone who wants to use it.”