END OF AN ERA

ANTRIM Technical College is no more.

In its heyday, thousands of students flocked to the ‘Tech’, but this week the sprawling complex on Fountain Street was reduced to rubble.

Back in 2020 a 12-week consultation process was launched into lofty plans to transform the derelict site into a luxury housing development.

The developer unveiled plans to invest £10 million building approximately 56 dwellings - a mix of two, three and four bedroom houses, apartments and bungalows scattered around a landscaped green.

The old Tech would be reborn as ‘Hamley Hall’.

Many locals will be glad to see the site put back to work, but others may ponder how another relatively new school booked a date with the wrecking ball in the first place.

It is hardly cause for celebration, but there can be few towns the size of Antrim that have so few schools and colleges for its young people.

Post primary education in the town now comes in two distinct flavours - Parkhall Integrated College or Antrim Grammar.

What a difference two decades make.

Back in the 1990s students were flooding through the gates of Ardnaveigh, Antrim High and St Malachy’s - before, one by one, the house of cards collapsed.

Incredibly, first in the firing line was Ardnaveigh, Antrim’s youngest school.

Dogged by debts and battling falling numbers, the North Eastern Board decided that it was no longer making the grade and prepared to pull the plug. The parents had other ideas, however, and the closure went to Judicial Review - and the Board lost.

But the champagne corks had barely hit the ground when the Board moved to Plan B - and turned their attention to Antrim High.

The shutters duly came down, with principal Robin Smyth moving across town to take up the helm at Ardnaveigh. A couple of years later he would be clearing his desk again when it too closed.

In a bid to stave off closure it had been relaunched as Massereene Community College, but the rebranding failed.

Loyalist protests outside the gates of neighbouring St Malachy's also took their toll, and Antrim's only Catholic secondary called time.

And then there was Antrim Technical College.

The original ‘Tech’, with its rather austere grey facade, opened on Railway Street in 1931.

It boasted 13 rooms, but the manner in which they were exploited for maximum effect was a lesson in economy.

The building was used by 210 full-time, 22 part-time day release and 461 part-time evening students.

It was a timetabling nightmare, and with the growth of Antrim in the early 1970s it was clear that something had to give.

The wheels turn slowly, but by November 1977 they were finally turning - to the delight of then principal John Bell.

Mr Bell notched up 27 years at the helm, just one less than predecessor John McCoubrey.

This new college on Fountain Street would cater for 400 full-timers, and would boast a modern new building, including a sports hall, with a focus on commercial, science, engineering and the arts.

Among the innovations was a new book-keeping room, incorporating ‘a new accounting machine’, and a cluster of typing rooms.

The engineering department would boast a brickwork and plasterers’ area, along with a garage workshop for maintenance.

The final bill was a then-hefty £1.5 million and it finally opened, a little over schedule, in Easter 1979. The formal opening came in October of that year, with former Parliamentary Under Secretary with Responsibility for Education Lord Elton doing the honours.

At first the college was its very own limited company - formed in 1981 - complete with teenage managing directors, marketing executives and accountants.

Indeed, in 1982 it was reported that ‘ATECH Ltd’ was showing a 20 per cent profit.

Little more than a decade later, however, change was in the air again.

In 1993 it was announced that Antrim was to merge with campuses in Ballymena and Magherafelt. No-one could have guessed, but it was the beginning of the end.

Over time key courses were lost. This was death by a thousand cuts and soon the Tech was haemorrhaging students.

The end finally came in the summer of 2011 despite a spirited campaign to keep it open.

The dream was over. The gleaming new campus was left a skeletal ruin, ravaged by vandals, the bones picked over by enterprising thieves.

Since the closure the Northern Regional College has lost control of the property.

The seclusion may have made for quiet classrooms, but after the shutters came down chaos reigned - and from the road passers-by could hardly tell.

Within months of the closure the vultures were circling over the carcass. First to strike were the thieves who stripped the lead flashing from the property.

In April 2012 a dumper truck was used to ‘attack’ the building, damaging the fencing, the garage and the rear doors.

Then it was open season, with intruders systematically destroying anything to hand in the classrooms.

On October 20 2012 more than 40 windows were smashed in a single evening.

The following month horses were abandoned in the grounds and reports of criminal damage soared.

In January 2013 the criminal gangs were back, gaining entrance to the buildings and stripping metal wiring. Shielding to the boiler house an its doors were also removed.

In January 2014 a blaze tore through parts of the complex. It was eventually brought under control and the main building was saved. But for what?

After one particularly destructive incursion, NRC reported widespread evidence of vandalism. And they found pots of petrol in the hallway...

There have been numerous reports of vandalism since then. It was becoming clear that it was a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ the building should fall.

Its predecessor has already gone, demolished to create the access road to Tesco.

All in all, an ignominious end to a courageous educational experiment.

Which leaves Antrim Grammar and Parkhall College as the last two standing.

Is that enough? Surely thousands into two simply does not go?

The fleets of buses which routinely leave town each morning suggests that it is not.

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