A year has passed since the Assembly debated the capital schools programme budget. During that debate the Minister made complimentary remarks about the contribution that I had made. Some people described that as a kiss of death. However, I am still here. I am not particularly concerned about how the Minister describes what I have to say today — whether he finds it good, bad or indifferent — as long as Hillsborough gets a new school. That is all I am interested in.
Currently there are around 340 pupils at Hillsborough Primary School. I have raised several of the relevant issues on previous occasions in the House. I must go through them again to set the context which makes it essential that the school receive a new building.
Ten of the 14 classrooms are second-hand mobile classrooms.
Of those 10 classrooms, nine are undersized and therefore wholly unsuitable for educational use. Recently a child sustained a serious cut requiring 14 stitches while attempting to enter one of them.
There is poor insulation due to single-glazed windows. There is damp plaster and dust on the equipment, which is not an ideal environment for children, particularly those who are asthmatic. Draughts from the single-glazed windows mean that curtains are frequently drawn, leading to a subsequent reduction in lighting.
Toilet facilities in the school are deplorable. If every boy were to use the toilets during break time, they would have approximately eight seconds each to get in and out. Of the 20 staff in the school, the vast majority are female. There is one toilet for female staff.
Teachers must park their cars on the school playground, thus reducing the space available for children to play on. The school has sought to compensate that to an extent by organising two lunch periods, but the playground is still absolutely packed. There is less than one square metre in each classroom for each child.
That is the environment in which children are being educated in Hillsborough Primary School. It is a very popular primary school that delivers good results and carries out a great service in the community. There is excellent special needs support for children who require it. However, children are using a 14-classroom school that was only designed for four classrooms. That must be addressed urgently.
The South Eastern Education and Library Board has proposed amalgamating Hillsborough Primary School and Newport Primary School, and that has disappointed me. Previous work to bring new schools to Lisburn Borough by the board has been faultless. It has done its job well. In this instance, however, the board attempted to pull off a private finance initiative by doing a land exchange with a local developer. The land exchange was never going anywhere — it never had any such prospect — and just led to a delay in the application for Hillsborough to get a new publicly funded primary school.
As a means of ameliorating past mistakes, the board is trying to hasten that process to cover its tracks and has proposed the amalgamation. In so doing, the board is compounding one injustice, which is that the children of Hillsborough have had to be educated in those conditions for the past three or four years when a new school was patently required, by imposing another injustice upon the children of Newport Primary School. The families and children of Newport are very satisfied with that school. Yesterday I received a petition which only two parents were not prepared to support, parents who are dissatisfied with retaining Newport as a primary school.
Newport Primary School has over 70 pupils. I cannot argue that pupil enrolment has not fallen, but it has not fallen to such an extent that the school is on the point of closure. Ten years ago, the enrolment was 75 pupils. It has now dropped from around 100 at its peak to 74. Those figures are not alarming by any stretch of the imagination. Last year, the Minister kept open two schools in the Mid-Ulster constituency that had 25 and 26 pupils respectively. To say that a school with an enrolment of 74 pupils is not feasible is not a viable argument.
We must not concentrate on the amalgamation proposal that the South Eastern Education and Library Board has made. That proposal was put forward on the basis of an inaccurate economic appraisal and without consulting parents. Therefore we must look more closely at why Hillsborough should have a new stand-alone school. The board made a fundamental mistake in arguing that Hillsborough should be upgraded from category 3 to category 2. That should have been taken a step further. To upgrade the school to category 1 would have ensured that Hillsborough received a primary school.
I understand that it is difficult to obtain category 1 status; the definition and criteria are strictly applied. However, under the recent Lisburn area plan, approximately 76 acres of residential land have been released for development in the Hillsborough area. Planning applications have already been submitted for much of that land. An advertisement for the planning application for the most substantial area — 45 acres — was in the local paper last weekend.
Some Members may not be fully aware of development in the Hillsborough area. The most recent sale of development land in Hillsborough was of 4·7 acres, which was sold by the Down Lisburn Trust. That made approximately £4·5 million, so the land has a real estate value of up to £1 million per acre. I do not need to tell anyone that someone who is sitting on £1 million per acre will not wait long before selling. Houses will be built quickly. If we get the nod for a new school in Hillsborough in this round, many new houses will be up before the school is in place.
The chief executive of the South Eastern Education and Library Board indicated that, with a fair wind and with approval at this stage, it would probably be 2005 before the school could be opened. Therefore we need to look at current planning applications and at what the Hillsborough area requires. For example, from 76 acres with nine houses per acre, approximately 170 more children will need to avail themselves of the educational facilities available in the area. Newport Primary School currently has vacancies for 70 children, but Hillsborough Primary School has none. Therefore, by 2005, 100 children will have no school to attend unless we get the go-ahead now. In that sense, Hillsborough falls into category 1, because there is simply no room on the site to provide the facilities needed for the children. I asked the board of governors of Hillsborough Primary School how many more mobiles they could put on the site of the school. Its answer was that, at a push, one more mobile classroom could be put on the site. The educational facilities will not be able to meet the requirements of the development proposals that are in place. Hillsborough urgently needs a new school and should therefore be awarded category 1 status.
The amalgamation proposal is not in the long-term interest of the people of Hillsborough or of Newport. The Belfast metropolitan area plan is currently under consideration. After some debate, it was recommended that 60% of development should occur on brownfield sites. There is very little brownfield development land in Lisburn Borough, but there is one site. Some people may be more familiar with it than are others — it was the site of the Maze Prison. That land has been described as brownfield. It is half a mile from Newport Primary School, and as a political representative involved in the Belfast metropolitan area plan, it is fairly evident to me that that land is likely to be developed for residential purposes.
What logic is there — from a strategy perspective — in closing a school that is situated within half a mile of a proposed substantial housing development?
It was recently reported in the press that there are problems with educational facilities in Downpatrick and Saintfield — schools in those towns cannot meet current demand. There has been a call for the reopening of Killyleagh High School. We do not want to be in the same situation in five or six years’ time. We do not want to realise that we need a new school in the area having closed one only two or three years previously.
I ask the Department to consider the matter seriously and strategically and to recognise the need that exists in Hillsborough. The Department should acknowledge the injustice that has been done to the children in Hillsborough and recognise that there is a requirement for a school in the Maze area, which is currently being serviced by Newport Primary School. It should take those facts on board and make the right decision.
It is important to say that all of the MLAs from Lagan Valley want the best education for all of the children in the constituency and that they believe that those children should have the best facilities to deliver that education. We all agree that the conditions in Hillsborough Primary School are unacceptable and that the school, in its own right, should be replaced.
I want to raise issues concerning the process employed throughout the application for the new school. The Minister should look at the important matter of consultation. In this case, proper protocol was not observed, and the parents of the children at Newport Primary School feel that their voices have not been heard and that they have not been part of the decision-making process. Both parties met with the Department, but only one party had the opportunity to meet with the Minister. There is some debate about whether both parties asked for a meeting with the Minister, but I assumed that the Minister and his Department were one body. Such a situation only adds to the lack of confidence that these parents have in the Department of Education.
People were misled about whether the application for Hillsborough Primary School could enter category 1 status. The Minister explained yesterday that the school could not meet the criteria for category 1 while the application is being processed. It worries me that emotional blackmail was used on the parents from Newport Primary School. They were led to believe that, if the schools failed to amalgamate, the application would drop from category 2 to category 3. I am also worried that even though the school may be given priority in category 3, it could still come up against much bigger competition and, therefore, the opportunity for a new school could be lost.
At a time when relations between the schools should be trouble-free, there has been a great deal of heightened tension and friction. I ask the Minister in future to look closely at the way consultations are carried out and to ensure that all voices are heard.
I commend Mr Poots for bringing the issue to the House and for the coherent and logical manner in which he presented a case that is beyond dispute. I find it very sad that the potential and, it is to be hoped, imminent provision of a new school in Hillsborough appears to have become a subject for division.
On the one hand, the teachers, governors and parents of pupils at Hillsborough Primary School feel that their new school could be delayed by the parents and pupils at Newport Primary School. On the other hand, the people at Newport Primary School feel that they are being forced towards closure by their Hillsborough counterparts.
I must emphasise the point that Mr Poots and Ms Lewsley have made — I have not come across one person in the Hillsborough area who would deny that Hillsborough Primary School is in a dire state and needs to be replaced urgently. I do not think that there is one person in the Lagan Valley constituency who would deny that. Over the past 15 years, the school has gone from bad to worse. It is a further example of how badly underfunded we were under direct rule.
To emphasise Mr Poots’s point, we can only marvel at the way in which the dedicated teaching staff have, literally, battled against the elements to provide education in the most trying circumstances. The truism "small is beautiful" can be attributed to Newport Primary School. The parents of pupils at the school wish to maintain that at all costs. They believe — rightly or wrongly — that they are being railroaded towards closure. They are angry at the lack of early consultation and the perceived "behind-the-door" manipulation of their case by what they refer to as the "greater number". They feel isolated and ignored. The parents also feel that they were forced to take up the cudgels against the Department and that they were given only a short timescale in which to collect their arguments and present their case. They want to save their small rural school.
The parents at Newport Primary School are not satisfied with the situation. No one has properly explained to them why Hillsborough cannot have a new primary school tomorrow, with Newport Primary School also remaining open. They do not see why they should be blamed if Hillsborough Primary School is in category 3 instead of category 2. Furthermore, they do not understand, given the circumstances that have been well documented, why Hillsborough Primary School is not in category 1. The parents want to see a new school at Hillsborough. They do not want to see that delayed for one moment more than is necessary. However, they demand openness and transparency.
Everyone here this evening hopes that the Minister, in responding, will answer the Newport parents’ questions about the various categories and make it clear why Hillsborough has not had a new school. Everyone hopes that, if the Minister finds it necessary to close Newport Primary School, he will explain the logic of his case.
No one is opposed to a new primary school for Hillsborough. The problem arises when that proposal is combined with one to amalgamate that school with Newport Primary School, because that would require the closure of Newport Primary School.
I would like to go into detail on the issue of the lack of consultation on the proposal to close Newport Primary School. Other Members have touched on that issue. The parents of pupils at the school were not consulted on proposal 148 by the South Eastern Education and Library Board or by the school’s board of governors. The parents were not aware of proposal 148 until they met with the South Eastern Education and Library Board at the school on 17 September last year. The board published proposal 148 on 18 September — one day after it met the parents. That is conclusive proof that the meeting on 17 September cannot be regarded as a consultation with the parents on proposal 148.
In a letter to Mrs Margaret Bailie of the concerned parents’ group dated 30 November 2001, the board of governors of Newport Primary School conceded that no consultation had occurred between it and the parents. The letter stated that
"We as board of governors members understood that there was no need for us to consult with local parents as the SEELB would arrange a meeting with the parents in June 2001."
The meeting referred to in the letter did not take place until September, one day before the South Eastern Education and Library Board published proposal 148. However, the South Eastern Education and Library Board consulted the board of governors of Newport Primary School on proposal 148. That is stated in the letter from its chief executive to Mr Thomas Palmer of the concerned parents’ group dated 25 October. The letter states that
"Consultation meetings have taken place with the board of governors and staff of Newport Primary School."
Those considerations strongly show that, during the meeting on September 2001, there was an attempt to present to the parents that the closure of Newport Primary School was a fait accompli.
Those considerations are reinforced, first, by the refusal of the board of governors of Newport Primary School to bring forward the annual board and parents’ meeting scheduled for 22 November 2001. This was requested by concerned parents to facilitate discussion of proposal 148. However, the board did not reply and thus, in effect, refused the request.
Secondly, the concerned parents’ group was refused the use of Newport Primary School to hold a meeting to consider proposal 148. The principal stated that the South Eastern Education and Library Board had instructed her that the meeting must not take place in the school. The meeting of concerned parents — the public meeting — was held in the Maze community hall on 5 November, but the representatives of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, who had been invited to the meeting, simply refused to attend.
Thirdly, the South Eastern Education and Library Board delayed sending information on the board’s economic assessment to concerned parents. The delay meant that 33 days of the 56-day consultation period on the publication of proposal 148 had elapsed before concerned parents were in possession of even the minimum amount of information required to assess the economic appraisal underpinning that proposal.
Finally, I understand that the chief executive of Lisburn Borough Council has sent a letter to the Department of Education stating that the council supports proposal 148. In fact, that is not the case. Those considerations mean that the contents of a letter to Mr Thomas Palmer from the South Eastern Education and Library Board letter, dated 25 October 2001, which stated that parents’ meetings had taken place and that the response had been strongly positive are not true as far as the parents of children at Newport Primary School are concerned. They were not consulted by the South Eastern Education and Library Board, and therefore could not have given a positive response to proposal 148. The claim by the South Eastern Education and Library Board is in fact the opposite of what is the case. The response by the parents of children at Newport Primary School to proposal 148 has been almost entirely negative, and the following evidence indisputably backs that up.
First, it is supported by the results of a survey sent to parents by the concerned parents’ group to record objections to proposal 148, and which was submitted to the Department on 15 November.
Secondly, it is supported by the fact that the parents of 73 out of 75 of the children at Newport Primary School have signed a letter of opposition to proposal 148, which was sent to the Department on 12 January 2002. It is nothing short of amazing that the South Eastern Education and Library Board stated in a letter to Mr Thomas Palmer dated 19 November 2001 that
"It should be noted that the Board has more than satisfied its statutory obligations regarding consultation and publication of a proposal."
That is simply not the case. As regards proposal 148, the South Eastern Education and Library Board has acted outside the letter and the spirit of the Department of Education’s requirement.
These Department of Education requirements were set out and stated on 6 December in the context of a decision by the Department to refuse an amalgamation that would have closed a school in County Tyrone. The position of the Department is that
" there will not be approval of any proposals for closure of schools unless there has been full and open consultation with local communities."
As far as Newport Primary School is concerned, that is precisely what has not happened. This means that proposal 148 simply cannot be carried further.
I will not take up more time, but there are issues in the economic assessment underpinning proposal 148 which suggest that the whole scoring of the unquantifiable factors, for example, was not done in an arbitrary way but in a way that would produce the required result — that is that Newport Primary School should be amalgamated. In their objections to the Department the concerned parents have shown that proper scoring would result in a top score for the retention of Newport Primary School.
As well as that — and Mr Poots touched on this — questions can be raised about the number of students that will require primary-school accommodation here over the next few years on the basis of a detailed assessment of planning proposals for the area, which has been made by the concerned parents. They calculate that the position for schoolchildren has been underestimated by at least 128, and in that context they are arguing for the retention of Newport Primary School.
This is a difficult discussion. In seeking money for school accommodation, this is the first time in Lagan Valley that I have encountered two conflicting interests. I want to pay tribute to the residents of the Newport area for the brochure they produced, which outlines the entire situation.
Given what has been already said — and I do not want to repeat it — in this case there is a heavy responsibility on the Minister. Approximately two years ago Members for Lagan Valley debated Ballycarrickmaddy Primary School. We met the Minister then, and he was able to produce the finance for a brand new school at Ballycarrickmaddy. In this instance there are certain options to be considered. We could continue to use the existing primary schools at Hillsborough and Newport. We could refurbish or extend Hillsborough Primary School to cater for increased capacity and retain Newport Primary School. We could replace the existing Hillsborough Primary School with a new one on the existing site to cater for increased capacity and retain Newport Primary School. We could amalgamate Newport and Hillsborough primary schools in a refurbished, extended primary school on the Hillsborough playing fields to cater for 526 pupils. Or, finally, we could build a new school on a greenfield site to replace both schools and cater for the same number of pupils.
We now come to this conflict and, as Mr Close said, it is time to start pouring oil on troubled waters, because there is division. I pay tribute to Newport Primary School, which said in its submissions that it wants to see Hillsborough Primary School going ahead, and I congratulate it on that. The difficulty arises when we come to these categories. On 17 December the two deputations came to meet the Lagan Valley Assembly Members, and, in my opinion, both got a fair hearing.
The minutes of the Newport meeting state that the Deputy Chairperson of the Education Committee, Mr Sammy Wilson, left and returned to say more or less that Hillsborough Primary School would qualify for category 1 status for funding. There is a great deal of confusion about that status and about whether Hillsborough would qualify or not. I hope that the Minister will clarify the matter. Ms Lewsley touched on the primary objective, which is the provision of adequate and suitable educational facilities to meet the curricular needs of the 526 children in Hillsborough of primary-school age.
The Hillsborough residents say that the boards of governors of both schools agree to the amalgamation. They also say — and this is open to dispute — that all members of staff at both schools agree, as do as most parents. They go on to say that Lisburn Borough Council, with the exception of one member, agrees. Mr Roche touched on that debatable point, which needs to be clarified, although I would not like to touch it today. Perhaps that is open to dispute. Most children from Newport and Culcavy already attend Hillsborough Primary School. Therefore, Newport Primary School has a decreasing roll, which will not be justifiable in a few years’ time. The residents go on to say that the local community scheme, which is supported by the village and the local council, will fail if amalgamation does not proceed. As I understand it, the principal of Newport Primary School, supported by the board of governors, wants amalgamation.
On the other hand, Mr Ken Robinson and I visited Hillsborough Primary School two years ago, and we shared the opinion that it was an outright disgrace. Only one of the 10 temporary classrooms has a toilet. The children from the other nine temporary classrooms have to use toilets in the main school building, and there are only seven girls’ toilets for 181 pupils and four boys’ toilets for 200 pupils. Anybody who has visited Hillsborough Primary School will say that they need a new building.
Will Hillsborough be deprived if no amalgamation takes place? The responsibility lies with the Minister. He can solve this problem, because he supplies the funding for Hillsborough Primary School. I assume that the Newport residents would be happy if he supplied the funding for Hillsborough on its own. The difficulty for Newport in later years might be that the school will not have enough pupils, although according to some statistics, planning applications indicate that it might. That is the major difficulty for the Members who represent Lagan Valley.
I ask the Minister to make a note of this. I understand that there was a consultation period, when the borough council, individuals or groups could make submissions to the Minister. If that has taken place, I have no doubt that the Minister has the facts at his disposal, and I do not think he needs anything else. I congratulate Mr Poots for bringing forward the debate. It is very timely. The Minister has all the information, and he must make a decision that will benefit the residents of that area.
I did not intend to speak in the debate, because some other Members and I met the Minister yesterday, and we put the message to him very clearly. I agree with what has been said. We are all concerned about Hillsborough and Newport, and I rise to ask the Minister a question. At our meeting yesterday, the Minister asked his officials whether the residents had made a request to meet with him. He was told that they had not. There seems to be a problem with consultation. At that meeting we handed you the facts from the Newport residents. I understand that a copy was left into your political headquarters. You are in possession of those facts, but my question to you is —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As Minister of Education, one of my major concerns is the replacement of sub-standard accommodation in schools. I am conscious of the fact that, while many schools need capital improvements, the resources are simply not available to replace all defective accommodation as quickly as I would like. In the interests of fairness and equality, it has therefore been necessary to prioritise capital building schemes so that the most needy schools receive attention first.
My Department’s capital priorities list, which comprises proposals by school authorities, currently has around 160 building schemes. The highest-priority projects are contained in the first three categories on the list and can compete for funding if the economic appraisal and development proposal processes have been completed.
There are clearly defined criteria for those three categories. Category 1 deals with unmet demand and is reserved specifically for schools in exceptional circumstances where there is clear evidence that the immediate demand for a large number of additional school places cannot be met sensibly by the existing accommodation, even with temporary classrooms. The position in these cases is exacerbated by the fact that schools in the immediate area have no spare capacity. Such schemes are given priority over other projects, because a capital building scheme is the only means of providing the necessary accommodation for all the pupils. A key principle underpinning this and other categories is to erect the appropriate size of school to ensure that there is no provision in advance of need.
Category 2 deals with the issue of essential works to effect rationalisation and is reserved for schemes where capital building work is essential to facilitate the amalgamation of two or more schools, and where there is sub-standard accommodation. Schools qualifying under this criterion will have serious accommodation inadequacies, with health and safety risks.
Category 3 deals with serious sub-standard accommodation and contains the remaining high-priority schemes that my Department prioritises by an assessment of the extent of the serious accommodation inadequacies that exist in each school.
The topic for this Adjournment debate refers specifically to capital development for Hillsborough Primary School. For some time the South Eastern Education and Library Board has been carrying out a programme of replacing old sub-standard primary schools in its area with new school buildings. Recently the board has provided new modern schools in a number of areas, including west Hillsborough and south Lisburn. As part of this continuing programme to improve school accommodation, the board has been considering options for the replacement of schools in the Hillsborough area.
The permanent accommodation at Hillsborough Primary School is, as Edwin Poots has said, sub-standard and undersized and lacks many facilities. That should be set against the background of a substantial increase in the number of new housing developments in the area. To facilitate the increased demand for primary school places, over two thirds of the pupils in Hillsborough Primary School are now taught in temporary accommodation.
My Department recognises the serious nature of this sub-standard accommodation. There is no dispute about that. At the same time, enrolment at the nearby Newport Primary School is falling each year, and the school is operating at less than half its capacity, with only 61 pupils. As Newport Primary School and Hillsborough Primary School are only one and a half miles apart, the board considered that an amalgamation with Hillsborough Primary School was an obvious option for consideration. Accordingly, the board carried out an economic appraisal which examined the various options and concluded that the two schools should amalgamate in a new building.
The board was able to agree a land-swap arrangement with Lisburn Borough Council to acquire a suitable site adjacent to the existing Hillsborough Primary School on which to build a new school. The board considered that this large 2·2 hectare site would not only be sufficient for a 19-classroom school with an enrolment range of between 526 and 555 pupils, but would have scope to accommodate more pupils if necessary.
The classification of this scheme is that it has category two priority because it is a rationalisation proposal that replaces sub-standard accommodation, and capital works are essential to effect that rationalisation. The higher category 1 classification is not appropriate for Hillsborough Primary School because there must be clear evidence that there is an unmet demand in the area created by insufficient places to accommodate all the pupils. Current demand in the area is being met by a combination of permanent and temporary accommodation at Hillsborough Primary School along with the accommodation at Newport Primary School, over half of which is surplus to requirements.
The South Eastern Education and Library Board has proposed a solution to the education needs in the Hillsborough/Newport area. Its economic appraisal findings are now subject to the development proposal process, which I must decide on, and there has been considerable interest in the proposal, both for and against.
Several Members raised the matters of consultation and possible future housing development in the Hillsborough area. The main objections are that the board provided insufficient information and there was a lack of consultation with the parents and other interested parties on the proposed amalgamation. The board met with the staff and boards of governors of both schools, and the governors included parents’ representatives. There were also individual meetings with parents at both schools to explain the proposal. In addition the board met with Lisburn Borough Council, the Hillsborough Community Group and representatives of the Concerned Parents of Newport Primary School, who were supplied with an abridged version of a recently completed economic appraisal. That appraisal considered various options and recommended a new amalgamated school for 526 pupils with 19 classrooms on a site adjacent to the existing Hillsborough Primary School. This group also forwarded detailed submissions to the Department, arguing its case for the retention of Newport Primary School.
Officials from my Department met Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for the area, and deputations from both Newport Primary School and Hillsborough Primary School. The views of Newport Primary School were taken on board as part of the development proposal process.
It is important to note that the site of the proposed new school could accommodate up to 25 classrooms, which would provide for between 706 and 735 pupils. That would easily meet the needs of all Hillsborough’s housing development proposals.
It is true that I met with MLAs from the area yesterday. It was a constructive meeting, at which I listened carefully to what was said. I have listened carefully to all the attendant points that have been made on the subject. I said yesterday that I regarded today’s debate as an important one, and that I wanted to hear what Edwin Poots and others had to say. I shall consider carefully what happened at that meeting and what has happened since. I shall take on board all the views expressed and make a decision on the matter in due course.
It is also clear from the contributions that have been made that what may happen in the coming period could present difficulties. As Ivan Davis said, it is in all our interests that we pour oil on troubled waters. I want to play my part in bringing the matter to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible. I shall go away and think about all that I have heard, and Members will be made aware in due course of how I intend to deal with the matter.
Adjourned at 6.17 pm.