Complete data for the current school year are not yet available. However, for the year 2000-01 the percentages based on the three-year-old population are as follows: Belfast 90%; Western 73%; North Eastern 66%; South Eastern 65%; Southern 71%; and the overall figure was 72%. It is anticipated that, during this academic year, places will be available overall for at least 85% of the cohort.
In his response to a previous question, the Minister talked about equality and treated with disdain those who asked questions about fair treatment.
It is clear from the figures he has given that schools in the Unionist community that are within the North Eastern Education and Library Board and South Eastern Education and Library Board areas are being discriminated against. In Downshire, which is in my constituency, only around 25% of children are being offered pre-school places. When are children in rural constituencies in those board areas going to get fair treatment and equality and be offered the pre-school places that they have been denied? Schools, including Riverdale Primary School, that have requested pre-school places have been denied that opportunity by the pre-school education advisory group (PEAG).
In formulating their development plans, PEAGs are required by the Department of Education to give particular regard to the needs of rural areas. Prior to the expansion programme, the level of provision tended to be lowest in those areas. However, while there is a good network of nursery schools and units, pre-school playgroups and private day centres, local circumstances may be such that it is simply not possible for the intended level of coverage to be reached in some rural areas.
In some areas of the Lagan Valley constituency it has not been possible to achieve the intended level of coverage. That is largely due to local circumstances. For example, I am aware of one large village in Lagan Valley where none of the existing playgroups has applied to be allocated pre-school places. That operates to depress the overall level of coverage that can be achieved in that area. The Department is working with the South Eastern Education and Library Board PEAG to investigate what can be done to increase the level of provision in such situations.
I am also aware that there has been much discussion about the issue of statutory settings, which are established in the controlled and maintained sectors. I am aware of the view that decisions about the funding of new statutory provision have discriminated against the controlled sector. Both sectors have benefited from the creation of new nursery provision under the pre-school education expansion programme.
There are other initiatives, such as Belfast Regeneration — formerly known as Making Belfast Work — and the EU special support programme for peace and reconciliation. There are currently 155 controlled, 95 Catholic maintained, 13 grant-maintained integrated and one non- Catholic maintained nursery schools and units in a total of 264. A further 33 new projects of all management types are currently being developed. I emphasise that all pre- school education provision is open to all children. There is considerable integration of attendance in that sector.
The issue must be dealt with in its proper perspective. The Assembly must acknowledge that in certain circumstances there are particular individual situations that do not reflect the overall picture.
Pre-school provision is monitored by the PEAGs, which are attached to the five education and library boards. It is monitored consistently. The Department of Education takes a keen interest in that. Our perspective is that it is essential to provide as much provision as possible. The progress that has been made in the last several years has been rapid. The provision is monitored and inspected. If people want to ask specific questions about specific circumstances, possibly peculiar to their own constituencies, the Department will be happy to answer those questions.