The Minister has recently visited at least one school with pressing capital building needs. Will he assure the House that all the other schools that he has not visited, and which are also facing severe accommodation difficulties — for example, those in my constituency of Lagan Valley — will receive fair and equitable consideration when decisions are made? How will the Minister achieve this?
We are very careful about how we move forward in all these matters, and I understand the sensitivities. However, the criteria and methodology for determining the school capital building programme are applied to all contenders. It is important that the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and other schools authorities ensure at an early stage that their work on economic appraisals is sufficiently advanced for schools in their sectors to be considered for inclusion in the programme. The Department can consider schools only at that stage so that they can be assessed on their merits as regards educational need. That takes into account such factors as deficiencies in accommodation, the extent and condition of temporary accommodation, the ability of the school to meet the requirements of the curriculum, health and safety concerns in relation to mechanical, electrical and other areas of provision and the cost of maintaining the existing building fabric. This has to reflect the fact that the cost has to be affordable and contained within the resources available.
I have visited schools with pressing accommodation requirements. Indeed, I have visited more than one school, and I am conscious of the backlog of work that has to be caught up on. Some £500 million would be required to even begin to examine all those issues. I am under no illusions about the great difficulties faced by all school sectors. However, I can assure the House that decisions about capital support for schools and the school capital building programme are made solely on the basis of educational need. The criteria that I have outlined are the way forward, and they have been arrived at in consultation with the schools’ inspectorate, the education and library boards and the CCMS. I am also conscious of the situation in the Hillsborough area, and I am dealing with that as a matter of high importance.
I acknowledge the Minister’s detailed listing of the criteria by which he will make a decision in March. He said that the bottom line is that decisions are made solely on the basis of educational need. Does that include the application of the Programme for Government’s remit that it must also be rural and equality proofed? Does the Minister take that into consideration? If so, how will Johnny Citizen know that that has been taken on board, and in what way will it be open to discussion and constructive criticism? In other words, is there any meaning to rural proofing and the equality agenda in such decision-making?
The situation facing rural schools is particularly close to my heart. There is a responsibility on all of us to ensure that all schools are treated equally and that decisions are taken solely on the basis of educational need. Rurality of schools needs to be taken into account. I will be meeting the Committee for Education in the next couple of weeks, and we will discuss all those matters. It is important to be fair and to treat people with due respect. On my visits to schools, I have seen the great pressures that many boards of governors, schools authorities, principals, parents and teachers are under because of poor accommodation.
Accommodation is a high priority for my Department, and I have consistently fought the battle in the Executive for more resources. It is vital that we put in place proper accommodation so that we can offer the best possible environment for children to be educated in a sensible fashion. All those matters will be taken into account, but I must stress that the main criterion for the school capital building programme is educational need.
Will there be equity for schools in the controlled sector in the capital building programme for 2002-03? There is a perception in the Unionist community that it will always be second best when it comes to handing out money for schools. Will Comber High School be included in the new build, as it urgently needs repairs? However, those repairs will fill the gap only in the short term.
I shall write to the Member about Comber High School, as I do not have that information to hand. The first point is an old chestnut that comes from a minority of Members. The allegations about the distribution of the school capital building programme fund are totally untrue and unjustified — [Interruption].
The school capital building programme is determined on the basis of educational need, whether that be at controlled schools, voluntary schools or in any other school sector. I heard the point being made about "three to one", so the Member who made that allegation should listen carefully. The make-up of this year’s conventional school building programme was six Catholic maintained school projects costing £25·7 million, 10 controlled school projects costing £24·1 million — including two special schools that were the top capital priorities of two education and library boards — and one grant-maintained integrated school costing £12·5 million. People who make such allegations need to examine those figures, and they need to be fair. They must stop peddling the nonsense that we will give preferential treatment to one school sector when decisions are taken about allocations to schools in the capital building programme. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our decisions on funding schools are based solely on educational need.