Integrated education: County Tyrone schools seek change in status

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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More than 25,000 pupils are taught in integrated schools in Northern Ireland

Two County Tyrone primaries are the latest schools to seek to become integrated schools.

The Education Authority has published formal proposals from both Gillygooley Primary and Sion Mills Primary for the change.

Earlier this year parents in both schools backed separate plans in a ballot, which is part of the transformation process.

More than 25,000 pupils are taught in integrated schools in Northern Ireland but that is just over 7% of the entire school population.

A new law requiring the Department of Education (DE) to give more "support" to integrated education was passed by Stormont assembly members in April and is due to come into effect in October.

There have been concerns, however, from some sectoral bodies and churches about the effect of the new legislation on schools that are not integrated.

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Sion Mills Primary wants "formal and legal status" as an integrated school

The Education Authority has also said that more integrated schools will be needed in some areas to meet demand in the years ahead.

The UK government recently provided almost £2m towards helping schools in Northern Ireland that want to transform to become integrated.

'Already considered integrated by many'

Sion Mills Primary School has about 240 pupils and was originally set up in the 19th Century by the Herdman family who owned the linen mill in the town.

The school's proposal to change to become integrated noted that it "had a long history and proud tradition of welcoming children from both communities and from all faiths and none".

"The school is already considered integrated by many in the community but formal and legal status offers parents reassurance about the school's commitment to diversity and provides a mechanism for accountability that the school welcomes," it said.

The case for change for Gillygooley Primary School - which opened in 1937 and is a rural primary four miles from Omagh - is more complicated as the Education Authority had previously proposed that the school should close.

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The sustainability of Gillygooley Primary School has been questioned

That was because Gillygooley's pupil numbers had fallen to 27 in 2021 and its financial deficit had increased, raising questions about the sustainability of the school.

But the school's governors said that transforming to become integrated would lead to more pupils joining the school.

In their proposal for change, they said that "the parents/guardians of 147 children have expressed interest in sending their child to Gillygooley PS if it became an integrated school".

"This includes some religious balance, with a third of children described as coming from either Catholic or mixed backgrounds," they said.

"We believe that transformation to integrated status would give us an opportunity to widen our reach in the community and make a positive and lasting contribution to building a shared future."

Consultations on the proposals from both schools have begun.

However, it will ultimately be up to the education minister to decide whether to approve the plans.