PLANS to develop a new integrated postprimary school for 600 pupils in the Mid Down area have been given the green light.
Development proposals to discontinue Downpatrick’s Blackwater Integrated College and to establish in its place ‘a new non-selective, 11-18, coeducational grantmaintained integrated post-primary school in the Mid Down area’ were submitted in 2021, and these were approved by the Department of Education on Monday. It is the aim of the steering group behind the proposal that the new school be located between Crossgar and Saintfield. In the decision document, Education permanent secretary Dr Mark Browne noted that, in the absence of a minister, legislation enacted in 2022 enabled him to make a decision on the establishment of Mid Down Integrated College (MDIC). “The department must be cognisant of its statutory duty to encourage, facilitate and support the development of integrated education,” he wrote. “In the context of Blackwater Integrated College, I am satisfied that the evidence shows that its location serves as a barrier to development, and that it will continue to struggle to become viable and sustainable if retained. “The evidence presented to me persuades me that the establishment of a new integrated college that offers 11-18 provision would provide an opportunity for pupils in the area to transfer to, or remain in, the integrated sector and within a sustainable setting to complete their postprimary education.”
Dr Browne added that approval of the proposals offers an “opportunity to locate integrated postprimary provision within a more appropriate area to secure sustainable provision”. “MDIC, as a ‘developing school’, will be given a growth period to reach sustainable levels, and, in this respect, I call on the governors to work closely to secure that outcome, and I expect that they will be supported in that work by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. “I also expect close engagement with the Education Authority to maintain consistency and continuity of arrangements to meet the needs of children with statements of special education needs in line with the Specialist Provision in Mainstream Schools Framework.” Blackwater will be discontinued and the new school – which will have an enrolment number of 600 pupils and an admission number of 100 pupils – will be established “with effect from 1 September 2024 or as soon as possible thereafter”.
Departmental correspondence sent to the permanent secretary, prior to his decision, noted that it was difficult to quantify “the recurrent costs of the proposal to open a new school”, given that “details of the initial enrolment of the new school are unknown”; however, it is highlighted that, using figures to establish MDIC for Year One as quoted in the case for change proposal document, it will “cost approximately £2,770,000”. It is also confirmed that, to date, “no site has been identified, and therefore it is unlikely that there would be any site or accommodation in place for Day One, with Blackwater Integrated College being used until a suitable site has been identified”. “It is envisaged that the newly established college will operate on a split site; however, the only site identified at present, is Blackwater Integrated College,” the document read. “Blackwater Integrated College currently has 20 classrooms. “According to the department’s assessment, MDIC would require 10 classrooms in Year One, 21 in Year Two, and 29 in Year Three. “As Blackwater Integrated College has 20 classrooms, no additional classrooms would be required for the first year, with additional classrooms required from Year Two on, if the whole school is still located at Blackwater Integrated College. “The proposed new school would be the subject of a major works proposal on a new site (yet to be identified) and subject to a future capital call, and costs would have to be assessed at the appropriate stage if the development proposal is approved.” On staffing, the document stated that “there will be the need for a further two teachers in Year One (over and above current staffing levels at Blackwater Integrated College) to facilitate the split site”.
The document’s conclusion stated that Blackwater Integrated College has “sustainability issues”. “The case for change indicates that the legacy issue of Blackwater Integrated College being located outside its intended catchment area – housed on a restricted site at the southern end of the catchment area, compounded by older buildings, no playing fields, little investment, no capacity to house a sixth form and poor geographical location – have made it difficult to meet sustainable levels,” it added. It was, however, stressed that “the lack of a confirmed site or location for the new school may impact on its sustainability going forward, further affecting its potential to gain capital viability”. “There is risk that the absence of a confirmed site would reduce parental confidence and therefore applications to such a school,” the document added. “Once this pattern begins it increases the risk to the long-term sustainability of the school.”