Rural school in waiting for the axe to fall

January 16, 2017

News that a rural primary school in Crossmaglen has been proposed for closure in August this year has been met with huge disappointment. Although the fate of Anamar Primary School has hung in the balance for several years now – with a steady decline in enrolment numbers cited as the reason for plans to shut the school – the public announcement that the much-loved school has been recommended for closure at the end of this academic year has raised concerns among parents and staff about the future education of their children.

In September 2015 parents of Anamar pupils received notification from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) that it was proposing to close the school in August 2016, subject to the outcome of a public consultation period with the final decision on the school’s future resting with then Education Minister, John O’Dowd.

Back then, the  CCMS provided assurances that “adequate provisions” would be put in place for the pupils of Anamar Primary School should it close and that other schools in the area would be given the provisions they needed in order to absorb students from Anamar.  The CCMS also advised that provisions would be made available to send children to the school of their parents’ choice.

Now that the issue has come to the fore again, with the launch of a two month public consultation period beginning today (Monday 16th January), Anamar parents are hoping the CCMS will stand by its assurances that the choices of parents will be honoured in the event of the school’s closure this year.

Concerned parent, Fiona McCabe, whose three children attend Anamar, says parents are “up in the air” regarding the final decision and she stressed the importance of parents being informed of the outcome of the public consultation as soon as possible to facilitate a period of transition for their children.

She described the protracted threat on the school, which has been looming since 2009, as “scaremongering tactics” which had “done the school no favours,” leading to dwindling enrolment numbers over the years.

“It is very important that parents will get the school of their choice, as previously promised by the CCMS and we need them to confirm this,” added Fiona.

“We’re still in the dark about it all and with the public consultation set to run until March 16th and applications for Primary School places closed this month, we don’t want to be left in the position that our kids are just going to be squeezed in somewhere and we won’t get to choose which school they go to.”

The mum-of-three went on to explain how difficult it would be for her children to move, describing Anamar Primary School as “a real home from home” for them.

“Anamar is our nearest school and it will be a huge upheaval for us all if the school closes,” said Fiona.

“They will be coming out of small classes and joining classes of huge numbers which will be hard for them to adjust to. Because we’re right on the border between parishes some of the children might go to Cullyhanna school and some to Crossmaglen – so we could be splitting up children who’ve been friends throughout primary school.”

“We as parents have concerns and questions which need answered too – does this mean that the other schools in the area will take on extra teachers? We need to know what’s happening and our children need a transition period to settle into new schools,” added the concerned mum.

Anamar Principal Anna Shields also underlined the importance of a transition process as early as possible for the children in the event of closure.

“As yet there is no final word on the future of the school and whether closure will be the outcome but we’re in this process and its been ongoing for a very long time,” said Mrs Shields.

“Our parents really do need some kind of clarification one way or another.  If the worst does happen and the school needs to close, then parents need to be told in good time to enable them to make their preparations and also to enable all of us here in Anamar to liaise with the locals schools which our children are likely to attend so we can have some kind of transition process that will enable the children to settle well into a new school.

“From my point of view the children come first always and they should be remembered at the centre of this process.”

Meanwhile, Development Proposals to increase enrolment numbers at two other local primary schools have also been announced.  The CCMS is proposing that St. Patrick’s PS in Crossmaglen is permitted to increase its admissions number in September from 50 pupils to 68 and that Clonalig PS in Culloville be permitted to increase its September admissions to 29 from 24.

St. Patrick’s Principal, Michael Madine, says the proposals for increased enrolment have in part been submitted to absorb pupil numbers from Anamar in the event of its closure, but are also a reflection of the growing population in the area over the last ten years.

He added that whilst the school is very welcome of increased enrolment, it is important that the infrastructure is in place to give the children “the best education possible.”

“Overall we have a very positive reaction to increased enrolment at St. Patrick’s, but it is imperative that the necessary infrastructure and budget are put in place to make it the best solution possible,” said Mr Madine.

“The budgets are not there to facilitate extra staff. More is coming out of school budgets to pay for superannuation, national insurance,  so in an ideal world we would love to have more teachers to be able to have smaller classes but an increase in capacity does not necessarily mean an increase in staff.”

Mr Madine highlighted the need for more space at the Crossmaglen Primary School to facilitate increased numbers.

“At the school we need more rooms, more toilet facilities, more car parking. We also have Irish medium and English medium education at St. Patrick’s so we need more space to facilitate this.

“Increased enrolment is acknowledgement that we are a very good school and rising birth rates throughout the area mean our schools will continue to grow in number.  We are a centrally located school – this is where the houses are being built so this is where local children are going to come to school – so local children securing a place at their local school is really very important – while at the same time facilitating the people in south Armagh who want to have the Irish medium education which is provided at St. Patrick’s.”

The Examiner contacted the CCMS with a number of inquiries regarding the recommended closure of Anamar and the proposals for increased capacity at two of its local counterparts, but no response was received at the time of going to press.