I have created this web-page for the benefit of Down District Council’s Education committee to try and give a summary of the plight of pupils attending secondary education through medium of Irish. They have been refused the same form of transport to their school (Coláiste Feirste in Belfast) that every other regional school in Belfast is provided with its own dedicated transport network covering County Down.
The GFA placed a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education.
Access to second level IM education for many/most children outside of West Belfast is effectively blocked by the use of transport regulations that were not present when the Integrated, State and Catholic secondary school sectors were set up.
Given that all other sectors are English Speaking, not only may the DOE be acting illegally, but also may be acting in a racist manner.
Access to integrated education is given a clear priority by the department of education in both city and country areas to enable this sector to develop. Lagan College for instance is seen as a regional college servicing county Down. In addition to a fleet of City buses, Lagan college has been provided with a “shuttle service” between the school and Belfast bus-stations and a fleet of country buses serving areas around county Down as far south as Downpatrick.
This same priority must be given to IM education based on the application of existing UK law as well as the provisions of the European Charter signed by the UK Government following its commitment to do so in the 1998 GFA.
Find linked letters clearly stating the law supporting Coláiste Feirste’s case from
• the NI Human Rights commissioner here
• the Children’s’ Commissioner here
• and Rodger Watts the Lawyer who has advanced this case over the last 3 years on behalf of these Children here.
1. Secondary Education Transport in NI – a look at the Belfast Area
Any child living more than 3 miles from school is entitled to a bus pass and may use normal public bus provisions or one of the many dedicated buses serving schools the secondary sector.
Transport to school in NI via the normal daily public bus service but is supplemented by approximately 2020 dedicated school buses funded by the Department of Education. These additional buses are provided where the public routes are unsatisfactory, crowded, where the distances are great, where the children may be in danger from traffic or crossing hostile areas etc. This form of transport is ideal, as it takes a child to the door of a school, but where they are engaging in extra-curricular activity they can still use their bus passes on ordinary transport.
None of these 2020 buses are available for IM secondary school children.
When one compares the generous dedicated bus provision shown in the attached link for integrated schools in the Belfast area to the complete absence of any dedicated buses for the Irish Medium secondary sector, one only begins to scratch on the surface of this problem. (Note the provision of dedicated buses to areas like Lagmore or Downpatrick where Coláiste Feirste children have been refused a similar service.)
2. Putting Children in Danger in Hostile areas
There are other scandals affecting transport in this sector. I have been copied on letters from the Department of Education by the parents of children in North Belfast who have been instructed that if their Children were to walk down the Shankill Road (a Loyalist/British Nationalist area with a long history of anti-Irish/Catholic violence) to Irish secondary school their journey would be just less than 3 miles – and are therefore not entitled to a bus pass.
When I met the department at Balloo House in my capacity as elected representative, DOE representatives openly accepted that no parent of an Irish speaking child could possibly let their child walk down the Shankill Road to school, but insists this rule must be followed and that “special exceptions” specified by the regulations do not apply. By contrast Integrated schools have a network of busses crossing “hostile areas” all over Belfast. Catholic Schools in East Belfast have buses provided that journey less than a mile and a half through hostile areas for very good health and safety reasons – but Coláiste Feirste students are refused the same facility. (Note other precedents exist to deal with this situation – eg Holy Cross primary get 2 buses because of “special circumstances”)
3. Looking at the Transport Situation outside Belfast
The situation outside of Belfast is even more dire. Parents have been campaigning for dedicated bus transport from Downpatrick to school. All other secondary school sectors (state, catholic, integrated) have a network of such buses serving Downpatrick – even where those sectors already have a school in Downpatrick and where no necessity exists to transport children in those other sectors to secondary school in distant towns. The attached links show the network of dedicated buses for;
State schools in Downpatrick area, e.g. special dedicated buses for Methody and Victoria colleges http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?hl=en&safe=active&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=100156166942575328650.00046ea7bcc67c5b879a7&ll=54.461258,-5.918884&spn=0.316497,0.890579&z=11
The Catholic schools in the Downpatrick area, e.g. special dedicated buses to Assumption Grammar school. http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?hl=en&safe=active&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=100156166942575328650.00046ea70bd5c43aa07da&z=10
Integrated Schools in the Downpatrick area, e.g. special dedicated buses for Lagan College http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?hl=en&safe=active&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=100156166942575328650.00046e825ab15e9497659&ll=54.551359,-5.780182&spn=0.3158,0.890579&z=11
The average distances to IM secondary school in Belfast from towns in Antrim and Down are made greater because outside of Belfast those communities most likely to take up secondary IM education are in North Antrim or South Down for historical reasons. This means that children as young as 11 must travel two hours each way per day (20 hours per week) if they wish to continue to receive their education in their Native Language as required of the UK under EU law.
Not one of the 2020 dedicated buses supporting secondary schools provided by the Department via Translink and the Education Boards serves the Irish Medium Secondary sector – despite this sector having the most pressing need of transport to distant schools.
It is noteworthy that were NI a county in England and Wales, most of the 2020 buses serving secondary schools would not exist, as in E&W pupils are expected to attend their nearest school in category. Yet the DOE refuses to allow Irish speaking children equivalent transport provision to attend their ONLY school in category.
While we have focused on Downpatrick in our campaign, exactly the same situation is found in the Mourne mountains area, the districts around Sliabh Crúibe, South and East Armagh, North Antrim, Tyrone and other areas around NI.
If the same percentage of the dedicated bus fleet to be available to the Irish Medium secondary sector based on (at least) the percentage of children attending secondary education though the medium of Irish, Coláiste Feirste would have a comparable fleet of country buses and city buses to that which services Lagan College or the other Belfast colleges servicing the Down/Antrim regional area.