On 15 March 2017, a private discussion between Diocesan representatives, senior Department of Education figures and the head teachers of two local schools was conducted.
In this meeting were the first official conversations regarding a proposal for the Island’s only Anglican based school, St Thomas’ to relocate from the centre of Douglas to Scoill Vallajeelt on the outskirts of Braddan.
Key points were hammered out and phrases noted such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, “How do those of other faiths and no faith work in a Christian ethos?” and, perhaps most tellingly, “need to be open to disagreement”
1 year on and the disagreement has rumbled on to hyperbolic levels. So much so, that the opposition’s case will be put to Tynwald on Tuesday 15 May.
So how did we get to this? What is the reasoning behind this decision? Why are the opposition so vehemently against it? Gef investigates…
Why is it happening?
St Thomas’ school was falling apart. A distinctive yet crumbling Victorian building based in Douglas town centre, laid host to no Physical Education facilities, a playground on top of an old closed supermarket, a complete lack of green space and only two permanent classrooms. Initial plans were mooted, therefore, for a self-contained school to be built alongside Henry Bloom Noble but these were dismissed by the Church.
Scoill Vallajeelt (SV), a refurbished and gleaming embodiment of modern educational architecture, clearly stood out as a viable option for relocation. This was, in many ways, the antithesis to the rundown St Thomas’. SV has a separate sports hall, dining room and assembly hall. Not to mention a large playing field, flexible classrooms and a capacity for 350 pupils. By September 2017, there were approximately 192 students attending the school with only 85 at St Thomas’.
Why the opposition?
The Department of Education, in its correspondence with parents of the schools, suggested the decision was taken in order to improve the educational experience of pupils. It was seen that the new co-location would “provide a model of friendship between a secular and a faith school”. The end desire would be two distinct, separate schools with two differing identities but working together to share resources and facilities. However, upon further reading, there appears to be little in the way of inclusivity in this proposal. The schools would retain two names, two uniforms, two heads, two governing bodies, two staffing structures, two improvement plans, separate events, separate policies, separate entrances, separate key cards for entry to the premises. Official correspondence is non-committal with any thoughts of prospective integration:
“…opportunities for staff (of both schools) to work together occasionally to share expertise”
“From time to time joint events could be joint-funded and planned for both schools”
The most damning comment of all was a subtle and perhaps, unwitting, insight into what may have resulted in Scooil Vallajeelt’s ire:
“The school community of Scooil Vallajeelt would see little impact of the change”
The sheer fact there were no public consultations prior to this decision being taken immediately had heckles raised. No official minutes being available adds another air of clandestine secrecy as though something needed to be hidden. Advisory sessions were scheduled for parents at the respective schools but this was after Isle of Man Newspapers ran the story on 15 June 2017, a story in which they suggested parents were being consulted for their views. The reality has suggested the decision had already been made.
Integration or Segregation?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines segregation as “a setting apart or separation of people or things from others or from the main group”. Can separating children of the same age in almost every aspect of their education be anything but segregation?
The Department of Education suggests it can. They assert that you could argue that housing the church school on a differing site reinforces division more than co-location. They claim, whilst the schools retain their faith and secular identities, “there is no certainly no determination to ensure the children do not mix”.
People Power vs Keyboard Power
On the rabid shouting match that masquerades under the name ‘social media’, you’ll have probably witnessed every conceivable opinion on this already. After digging through the rubble, occasionally, you can find some cogent and logical arguments, shining bright like Tiffany’s jewellery discarded in Stig’s dump. One remark was from a Ramsey pupil of the 1970’s who discussed the vitriol felt between Albert Road students and the adjacent Ramsey Catholic School. There, the ‘Catholikees’ as they were known, would troop over for first sitting in Albert Road dining hall. The kids, fuelled by an enforced sense of difference and emboldened by a unity of team colours, would hurl abuse at one another as the kids crossed schools.
The primary question is what is this for? There appears to be little or no regard for the parents, staff and, most importantly, the pupils of Scooil Vallajeelt. Whilst improved facilities and shared resources would greatly benefit the St Thomas’ pupils – and rightfully so – it is never abundantly clear how any of this does anything but disrupt the SV children. The ongoing building work has seen disruption already apparent for them. What then, when they reconvene in September and are informed they can no longer access their own school using the entrance of before? And what is the reasoning? 45 children from another school will be being taught there on religious grounds. You will see them at lunchtime and maybe, on the occasional school trip.
These 45 children of St Thomas’ were, before this was announced in June 2017, approaching over 80. Is there dissatisfaction from their side hence the drop in numbers? When Gef reached out to St Thomas’ we received no comment. This is the Island’s only Church of England school but, funded almost exclusively by Isle of Man taxpayers. Funding is not covered by the Church of England. In the school year 2016/2017, Church of England funding for the school made up £553.91 whilst the Department of Education and Children covered the remaining £306,039.19.
Whilst we must respect the religious beliefs and wishes for all in a tolerant society, there must surely be questions asked about the necessity for such extensive change for so few students. The Reverend James McGowan – the Diocese of Sodor and Man and also part of the initial consultation meeting, admitted recently there is no prerequisite for church going for attendees of the school. It, therefore, seems befuddling not to mix the two schools entirely, removing stigma and nullifying the prospect of accentuated difference on religious grounds.
May, 2018 and the heat of this debate still lingers heavy in the air. Over 400 signatures were gathered in a petition outlining their opposition to the move. Worries over traffic flow, the aforementioned segregation and the conflict that promotes, the campsite configuration of SV not being aligned to the new proposals among other concerns were outlined and will be put forward to Tynwald in a matter of days. In March this year, the Department of Education dismissed this with stories emanating that “just two formal objections” were raised. Yet, they conveniently did not state one of those objections was this petition of over 400 people. A desire to promote tolerance and understanding between secular and faith may sound admirable but, in reality, this appears to be disingenuous. The children will not mix so how can there be acceptance?
The irony being of course, that these children will, eventually mix. When their primary education comes to an end so too, will their days of enforced seclusion. When they turn 11 years old, their school jumpers will match but will the damage of segregation have already been done? This is something for Tynwald to consider come Tuesday.
15 March 2017 – Consultation meeting between senior DoE members, Dioceses representatives and Head Teachers of the schools.
15 June 2017 – story first reported on IOM Today. Proposal that St Thomas’s CoE Primary school could move to the same site as Scooil Vallajeelt. Story reported parents were being asked for their views. St Thomas has no green space nor suitable facilities to meet requirements of PE curriculum so has to use NSC
16 June 2017 – Letter dated 14 June handed to parents outside SV school from their child from Geoff Moorcroft – Director of Education outlining plans and inviting parents for meetings
21 June 2017 – Meeting held (minutes taken but not released)
28 June 2017 – Meeting held between parent reps from both schools
9 July 2017 – Survey to parents released asking for opinion on co location
20 July 2017 – letter to parents of SV announcing StT parents would be visiting the school that evening and outline of the space SV will lose to StT
10 Nov 2017 – Public note appears in local paper
22 Nov 2017 – Meeting between Dep of Education and parents of both schools
30 Nov 2017 – Residents meeting
13 Feb 2018 – Public note period ends and objections submitted along with 400+ signatures in support
21 March 2018 – Headline stating ‘Education chiefs have received just two formal objections to proposal’ is released in media
29 March 2018 – Soon transpires one of these objections was the 400+ petitions
15 May 2018 – Tynwald to consider opposition to proposed co-location