Integrated education in the North suffered a serious blow today when the governors of a school opened less than five years ago announced it must close next year because of a lack of pupils.
Armagh Integrated College will be the first government-funded, integrated secondary level school to be shut down.
The governors said they had taken the “difficult but responsible decision” to proceed with the closure of the school from August 31, 2009.
Integrated education of Catholic and Protestant children has been looked upon by many as the way forward in the North.
The first integrated school – Lagan Collage – was established on the edge of Belfast in 1981 It is now thriving with almost 1,200 pupils.
In total across the province there are now 61 integrated schools – 21 second level colleges and 41 primaries – educating around 19,000 pupils.
While demand had outstripped supply of places, integrated schools still only educate 5% of children in the North.
Just like the mainstream, some integrated schools are suffering from a drop off in pupil numbers – there are well over 50,000 empty desks in Northern Ireland schools and scores face closure in the next few years as enrolment falls.
Two small integrated primary schools in counties Armagh and Down are not expected to re-open after the summer holidays.
Ms Pat Carville, chair of the board of governors at Armagh Integrated, said: “The decision to close the school has been an incredibly difficult one to make and has only been taken after significant consultation with the Department of Education and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education [NICIE].
“Despite exploring a range of other options the governors felt that the fall in pupil intake, combined with current developments in education policy meant that it would be unlikely that the collage could achieve long term viability.”
When the school was set up in 2004 it was decreed it needed to enrol a minimum of 50 pupils a year over three years.
It has a maximum enrolment of 400 but has only 138 pupils this year, down from the 153 of last year.
Dominic Clarke, acting principle said: “The focus of the school now is on supporting our future year 12 students through their GCSEs in May 2009 as well as ensuring that those remaining pupils continue to progress their studies in all areas of the curriculum.”
Commenting on the news Michael Wardlow, chief executive of NICIE said the parents of Armagh had made a huge commitment to integrated education not only over the last 5 years, but since the establishment of the first integrated primary school in the city in 1993.
He said: “While NICIE of course is disappointed that from September 2009 there will be no post primary integrated provision in Armagh city we trust that parents will consider keeping their children within the integrated family of schools and would encourage them to view Integrated College Dungannon, which has ably served both communities since 1995 as their future integrated option.
“The decision to initiate the closure of Armagh has been a hard one for governors to make, especially those who themselves have children attending the school or who had hoped to enrol their children.
“It is underpinned however by the desire to ensure the continued well being and future development of the pupils associated with the school.”
Northern Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has the final say on school closures, but she is unlikely to go against the decision of the governors.
Her department confirmed that offers of places made to 10 pupils for next September had been withdrawn.
A statement added: “The interests of the young people currently attending Armagh Integrated College are the priority.
“The Department of Education will work closely with the board of governors to ensure continuity of educational provision, particularly for those taking exams.”