Six schools facilitating around 4,000 students on one shared campus costing over £100m (€126m), this the ambitious project currently underway in Omagh, Co. Tyrone which may be paving the way for the future of education in Northern Ireland.
The Strule Shared Education Campus is the first project of this scale and type in the North, but it is hoped to be a template for 10 similar shared education campuses across the region, where the Department of Education has made a commitment to shared education over the integrated education model.
Controlled schools, largely attended by Protestant children, will join Catholic maintained, grammar, non-selective and a special needs school on the 140-acre site of the former Lisanelly British Army camp. The six schools involved are: Loreto Grammar School, Omagh Academy Grammar School, Sacred Heart College, Omagh High School, Christian Brothers Grammar School and Arvalee School and Resource Centre.
The Arvalee special needs school, whose existing building was badly damaged by fire in 2012, is the first school to be constructed and is scheduled to open this September. With facilities for over 175 pupils and staff, the new school will have sensory rooms and hygiene and hoisting facilities, as well as bespoke teaching areas.
The shared education model differs from integrated education, where children from different backgrounds are educated side-by-side in secular schools, in that each school retains its separate identity and ethos while pupils will be able to share resources. This means the widest range of subjects will be available to the students.
As joint chairs of what was originally the Lisanelly Shared Educational Campus Working Group, Rev. Robert Herron of the Trinity Presbyterian Church and Msgr Joseph Donnelly of Drumragh parish have been a driving force in the project from the beginning.
Rev. Herron tells The Irish Catholic that he thinks “the reality has been that integrated education in Northern Ireland has not developed and expanded in the way that some people might have hoped”. “I do believe there is a desire in Northern Ireland for children to build relationships to share their education together, to understand one another and build a better future. I think many people do see the campus as a flagship project which will perhaps stimulate thinking and open doors in other places.”
The army vacated the Lisanelly site in 2007 and it has remained unoccupied since then. Plans for the campus were first submitted for approval in 2010, then demolition of the 200 derelict houses and a wide range of other buildings and facilities at the site began in March last year, with the target completion date for the whole campus set for September 2020.
“There has been a lot of discussion and debate about the viability of moving in this direction,” Msgr Donnelly tells The Irish Catholic, “but the site was eventually acquired and made available for education and the project of the building of the schools is part of programme of government here in Northern Ireland.
“The schools had to look very carefully at the wisdom of making that move and it was not an easy decision to make. A very good working relationship has developed over the years between the schools and there has been a lot of hard work. The principals and senior management are shouldering a lot of the work in the meetings and negotiations, and there is a dedicated team in the department looking at the different aspects of the project.”
The main areas of sharing across the campus will be the ‘Shared Education Hub’, covering areas like technology and design, music, drama, art, science, home economics and Sixth Form Study. There will also be a shared ‘School of Activity’, including a large sports complex, multiple courts, a covered multi-use games area and spectator seating.
“I am particularly interested in the sports facilities because they seem to be tremendous and the opportunities there for young people will be second to none,” says Rev. Herron. “Many of the schools in Omagh, particularly the post-primary schools and the pupils 16+ are already involved in shared education. By that I mean they do subjects in one another’s schools.
“Also we have a Further Education college close to the site and the pupils actually do subjects there like engineering, hairdressing, beauty and tourism. The bringing of the schools together on one site is an opportunity to enhance that and hopefully it will mean that the schools will be able to bring the resources together to offer a wider curriculum for the pupils on the site.”
Throughout 2015 the project team engaged with a range of stakeholders including pupils, teaching and non-teaching staff, principals and governors from each school, trustees, councillors and other education community representatives. They also conducted survey work and contacted feeder primary schools so they could reach out to parents of future students.
Msgr Donnelly says there has been positive feedback across the different levels in the community and that the project has also found “acceptance right across the political spectrum as well”.
The DUP’s Arlene Foster has described the campus as “a catalyst for change”, saying the importance of the Strule Shared Education Campus cannot be underestimated, “not only in terms of education provision but also in improving good relations across Northern Ireland”.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness described the project as “a game changer for the education sector and ultimately the standard setter” which will filter into the wider community and enhance community relations.
The public consultation process led to the new title for the campus, named after the river Strule, which is a prominent feature within the area, and Msgr Donnelly says the campus has the potential to be a “real hub for the community”.
Campus facilities will be made available for community use outside core school hours and the wider site is accessible and will benefit the whole town following completion of the cycleways and walkways project which has been developed in conjunction with Fermanagh & Omagh District Council.
“It is a very challenging project, but it also has great potential,” Msgr Donnelly says. “The focus always has to be delivery of a good education and we can never afford to lose sight of that.”