Coláiste Dhoire near Dungiven in Co Derry is due to open this September with just 15 new pupils.
Education minister John O’Dowd had been advised to turn down the proposal. His departmental advisors warned that the new school would quickly find its budget in the red. They added that enrolments would not reach sustainable levels in the medium term, if ever.
Mr O’Dowd is coming under fire for approving the proposal at a time when the education budget is facing massive cuts.
A motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly called on Mr O’Dowd to review his decision “on the grounds of rationality, affordability and sustainability”. This motion fell, however, after failing to win the support of Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
Danny Kinahan, Ulster Unionist Party education spokesman, says he is concerned about value for money: “The minister announced that the school is to be developed at a cost, according to the Department of Education, of £216,000 the first year.
“There would also be 11 mobiles costing some £600,000 plus VAT a year and a year-end deficit likely to be £100,000, when there will be only 14 pupils that first year, and a mass of other costs as yet undisclosed. All this was against departmental advice.
“I do not know which is more shocking: the idea of the minister spending close to £1 million on a new school for 125 pupils, when everyone in the profession is facing cuts, or him ignoring his professional advisors, when almost all of them say that the school is unsustainable.”
Michelle McIlveen of the Democratic Unionist Party and chair of the assembly education committee is also concerned.
She said: “As departments across government face austerity cuts, it seems inconceivable that a school of that size can be opened.
“It is well known that the smaller the school in pupil numbers, the more expensive it is to run.
“In the case of this school, the minister made his decision contrary to a wealth of official advice.”
Cathal Ó hOisín of Sinn Féin said the opportunity to deliver a secondary school in the middle of Co Derry “has to be taken at this moment and developed”.