Anger in village at nursery snub

Drumahoe headmaster Terry McMaster.
Drumahoe headmaster Terry McMaster.

The headmaster of Drumahoe Primary School has expressed exasperation after a development proposal to establish a statutory nursery unit in the school grounds was turned down by the Education Minister.

Terry McMaster said there was a sense of frustration and bewilderment in the village following the decision, which was taken by the Department on June 17.

The Western Education and Library Board (WELB) proposal was put out to consultation earlier this year after the long-standing Drumahoe Community Playgroup approached the school with a view to replacing the voluntary pre-school provision it currently provides with a statutory nursery unit accountable to the Drumahoe Board of Governors.

Mr McMaster said Drumahoe is the only Controlled Primary in the city, which does not have statutory nursery provision on its school grounds, and people feel they are not being treated equally.

“We are bitterly, bitterly disappointed,” said the school’s principal. “I’m not disappointed for Terry McMaster. I’m bitterly disappointed for the community and for the playgroup.”

“Over the past twenty and more years, they’ve built it up on the understanding that it would eventually become a nursery. I’m just gutted for the village because people have been very patient.

“There’s a lot of anger that the young people of the area aren’t being treated the same as in other parts of the city,” he added.

DUP Councillor Hilary McClintock voiced some of the frustration felt after the refusal.

She said: “This decision will be a great disappointment to the people of the Drumahoe area. The school, the community playgroup and the community itself had agreed that a transfer from community playgroup to statutory provision was the best way forward for pre-school provision in the area.

“I have been involved with numerous voluntary committees within Drumahoe Community Playgroup over many years assisting with funding and governance issues.

“I went door to door with them when they collected funding after the fire in their premises some years back. I fully appreciate the exceptional service they have provided, but there has been a realisation now over a period of several years, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage parents to carry on the onerous burden of running the playgroup on a voluntary basis.”

Frustration has been heightened by the contents of a Department of Education document outlining the reasoning behind the ‘non-approval’ decision.

Compiled by Dorina Edgar of the DE Area Planning Policy Team, it points out that there were 36 letters of support for the proposal and just one letter of objection, which came from Ashlea Primary School.

However, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) and DE Early Years Team (EYT) also argued against the move.

Parents, staff and governors have been left bewildered, however, by some of these arguments.

For example, EYT says that figures from 2011/12 and 2012/13 show that the “level of provision in the area is at approximately the correct level to meet demand, perhaps with a little room for expansion.”

The school’s management suggests provision is either at the correct level to meet demand or it isn’t.

Management also asks how an increase from 24 voluntary pre-school places to just 26 statutory places doesn’t meet the EYT team’s criteria for a “little room for expansion.”

According to the document, the EYT accepts: “Approval of the development proposal as it stands would result in an overall increase of two places in pre-school provision in the area.”

Meanwhile, the ETI argues the proposal could have an “adverse impact on the existing DE funded provision in the area.”

“There remains an urgent need for the WELB to take strategic decisions that take account of both the pre-school and primary provision in the area to remove the uncertainty which exists and which is unhelpful for schools planning to meet the needs of the children in the near future in relation to Ashlea Primary and Nursery Unit and Drumahoe Primary,” is the ETI’s view.

Recommending refusal the Department concludes that there are sufficient pre-school places in the area; and that approval of the proposal would only result in an overall increase in two places in pre-school provision in the area.

It also states: “There is concern that approval of this proposal would put unnecessary pressure on the schools ‘stretched’ Aggregated Schools Budget.”

And that: “It is not normal practice to displace good quality pre-school provision already in existence with pre-school provision in an alternative setting.”

The Sentinel asked WELB for its response to the refusal but the authority referred the paper to DE.

In a statement, Minister John O’Dowd explained: “My views on the value of pre-school provision for young children are well known. However, each development proposal for the establishment of new provision must be carefully considered on the basis of all the information pertinent to the individual case.

“The challenge I face is not simply to create more pre-school places, rather to ensure pre-school provision reflects the need for provision in local areas.

“In this instance there are already sufficient pre-school places in the area and if approved the new unit would potentially displace existing good quality pre-school provision. On that basis I could not endorse this proposal.”

But Mrs McClintock said: “Drumahoe is the only primary school in the area which does not have nursery school provision attached to it. This leaves the school at a disadvantage when children are transferring to a primary school and may choose the school where their child has attended nursery.

“I think we have to be very clear on this. This new unit would not displace any existing provision.“

The Board of Drumahoe Primary was due to meet as the Sentinel went to press yesterday afternoon.