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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic. On such occasions, Members make speeches that are so moving that they end up clearing the Chamber. Members from North Antrim are present, along with a few from other constituencies. We welcome all who have an interest in this issue, because education impinges on all constituencies.
I welcome the Minister’s presence. I wish to draw to her attention, and to that of the House, the needs of primary schools in south Ballymena, especially in the controlled sector. That sector is vital to my community. For that reason, we must always ensure that the controlled sector is given its proper place and has equality with other sectors. We must no longer have a system in which there are inequalities among the sectors.
Because of the nature of the communities of Ballee and Harryville in south Ballymena, the role of their primary schools is vital in holding those neighbourhoods together. That is especially so because of the low level of economic investment and community infrastructural support that has been given to those small but very significant communities in my North Antrim constituency.
A panoramic view of the input from the Government and its related agencies is one of relative neglect. In short, there is little likelihood that either of those communities, Ballee or Harryville, has been given the support that is necessary to contribute effectively to the Northern Ireland skills strategy, even if that contribution were based on a long-term or phased joined-up strategy on the part of any of the Government Departments. The result is communities that have been abandoned by government and controlled primary schools that have been neglected and overlooked by the education and library board. That is a sad commentary on an area of Northern Ireland.
Ballymena has huge retail potential. Major employers are situated in the surrounding area, but there are communities that are suffering serious problems and difficulties, and they cannot be ignored. The 2005 Northern Ireland index of multiple deprivation ranked Ballee ward 335 out of 582 with respect to proximity of services. That is worrying, and it is a warning that should have been noticed and taken account of by all who have an interest in the community, not least the Department of Education.
The information gathered from the Northern Ireland Neighbourhood Information Service and the Ballymena neighbourhood renewal area partnership profile indicates the overall statistical picture for those living in the Ballee ward on the basis of education. The census information collected in 2001 indicated that 79·2% of the Ballee population aged 16 to 74 had no formal qualifications. The Northern Ireland average was around 58%. Historically, education attainment in the area has been poor. That is a travesty, and it is not acceptable. In 2007, only 10% of school leavers aged 16 and over had obtained at least five GCSEs, and the Northern Ireland average was 64·7%. Those are harrowing statistics, behind which are real lives and real people who make up those communities. It is a problem that should be checked at its source.
I am particularly concerned about the North Eastern Education and Library Board’s innovative strategy to address the special educational needs of local Ballymena communities such as Ballee and Harryville. Almost 30% of children in those schools are deemed to have special educational needs. Around 30% and, in some cases, more than 30% of children are deemed to have special educational needs in Camphill Primary School and some of the other schools. My colleague Rev Coulter will have something to say on that matter, because we have an issue with the provision for building in Ballymena. I know that Robert will deal with that issue when he is called to speak.
The Ballymena neighbourhood renewal area partnership profile survey of 2007 also indicated that most of the residents of Ballee were aware of further learning opportunities. However, the level of interest remained low for a number of reasons, such as overall non-interest; lack of time; the inability of participants to afford the fees or other associated costs; lack of childcare; lack of self-confidence; and transport difficulties. If ever there was a need for joined-up thinking between the Department of Education, the Department for Social Development (DSD) and other agencies, this is a classic one. The sad reality is that we all aspire to having joined-up government and a proper system in which we work collectively and collaboratively, and I think that we have often said that in the House. In reality, however, that is not the case. The overall effects of poor education attainment affect employment opportunities and economic activity, and place a stronger reliance on social welfare.
The 2001 statistics revealed that of the population grouping aged 16 to 74, 55% were economically active; 45% were economically inactive; 6·9% were unemployed, and 51·9% of that group were classified as being long-term unemployed because they had not been in employment since 1999. Those figures indicate that the inactivity levels are higher than the Northern Ireland average, and the figures for unemployment and long-term unemployment are higher than the average for Ballymena, which is 3·1%, and for Northern Ireland, which is 4·1%.
That is the picture that exists in Ballymena South, and the proposed closure of Ballee Primary School that has arisen following the most recent meeting of the North Eastern Education and Library Board will not help the situation; in fact, it will compound the problems.
The Minister lectures us on the importance of equality and the rights of children. In my community and in my constituency, however, she has shown inequality and confusion by presiding over a series of decisions to merge schools in one community which do not meet her Department’s criteria, while the board does her bidding in the other community with a robust rigidity that contrasts with the flexibility already shown.
Of course, I am referring to the merger of two primary schools in Ahoghill. Let me remind the House that that amalgamation did not cost the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the organisation that made the decision, a single penny. Instead, the North Eastern Education and Library Board picked up the tab of £500,000 for a decision made in a sector that wants to have all of the benefits but doesn’t want to pick up the tab. That will not be acceptable in the future, and it is the reason why we have a long way to go as regards bringing in any new institutions for the governance of our education system.
The Minister’s twin-track approach has led to confusing inconsistencies, which are reflected in the board’s preferred options decision to deconstruct the structure of controlled primary school provision in south Ballymena. In the process of that deconstruction, the board, as part of its phase-two proposals for the rationalisation of primary school provision, is attempting to meet the Department’s criteria for the review of controlled primary school provision in the town. Unfortunately, the board has failed to take a comprehensive approach, or consider a range of original options, when determining proposals for closures before they go to consultation.
Although I welcome the fact that Harryville Primary School has been given a reprieve in the proposals, it is only a reprieve. I have no doubt that the Minister will tell the House later this evening that there are 500 spare places and a need for rationalisation. That is a clear indication that although a decision will be in preference for Harryville Primary School today, there will be no preference tomorrow, and, as a result, Ballee Primary School becomes the scapegoat. Indeed, I have brought a copy of today’s ‘Ballymena Times’ with me, just as the Minister brought another newspaper into the Chamber yesterday, and the word “scapegoat” has been used in the paper in relation to the school’s closure.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
We must listen to the community. The Minister often tells me that I have neglected my responsibilities to the Protestant working-class community. If the Minister is listening and paying attention to what has been said in the debate, we, the elected representatives of the Protestant and unionist community in North Antrim are telling her that there is a problem in a Protestant working-class community. We are telling her that that community needs help and assistance and proper education provision. It is up to the Minister to prove that she is able to do the right thing, and that she will listen and put in place structures to help those schools.
Both schools that have been earmarked for closure adequately meet the six criteria and the associated indicators that have been set out in the Department’s ‘Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools.’ However, all of that flies in the face of good practice, because the board has not carried out an economic appraisal of any of the options. The North Eastern Education and Library Board has consulted on several options, but one option that was never considered was that of amalgamation. That is despite that option being open to the two schools in Ahoghill, and the two maintained schools in Ballymena that amalgamated several years ago. That option was never considered in any of the documents that were produced by the North Eastern Education and Library Board. Why was that the case?
Now, we have a situation in which, in respect of the proposal that was put on the table at the last meeting, the sums have not been done to justify the decision that is going to be made. I ask the Minister to clearly examine the issue of the economic appraisal and the way in which the money is going to be spent.
I come now to the issue of special education, which I referred to at the beginning. I welcome the fact that the consultation on special educational needs has been extended to the end of November. I went to a public meeting in Ballee Primary School a couple of weeks ago, which was difficult because there are problems and challenges in that community, especially around special education. When PricewaterhouseCoopers carried out its analysis in 2008, eight issues were identified for underachievement in working-class boys. I want the Minister to agree to, and I want to work with the Department and my colleagues to attain, the establishment of an academy for children with special needs in that Protestant working-class area. That would send out a clear signal to that community that it is not being ignored, neglected or sidelined. Therefore, I urge the Minister to listen to the community that is crying out for help in a dire and desperate situation.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for bringing this issue to the Floor, as it is of immense importance to that community.
The review of controlled primary school provision in Ballymena was carried out by the North Eastern Education and Library Board last year. The review recognised that Ballee Primary School and Harryville Primary School are based in socially and economically deprived areas; that should be taken into account when formulating any future development proposal.
There is significant surplus provision in the area, however, and there is no indication of a change in that pattern. These proposals were born out of that. There is a lot of strong feeling about the issue in Ballymena South, and I congratulate the parents, the children, the board of governors, the teachers and many others who have campaigned on the issue and have put across a strong argument to retain Ballee Primary School on behalf of the local community.
Of course, there have been other closures in the Ballymena area recently, mainly through amalgamations. Four other primary schools — St Louis’ Primary School, St Joseph’s Primary School, St Mary’s Primary School and All Saints’ Primary School — have been amalgamated into two. There have already been a number of reluctant closures in that area, which reflects the overall fall in enrolments that we have to deal with.
There is a requirement to publish a development proposal in the wake of the recommendation to close Ballee Primary School, and that will involve extensive local consultation with affected parties, including the school. That consultation must take into account the statistical picture that the Member outlined with regard to the socio-economic status of the area, as well as unemployment and other factors. I urge the Minister to ensure that children in that area continue to receive a first-class education, regardless of their background. The qualitative, rather than quantitative, value of the education received at Ballee Primary School should also be taken into consideration before a final decision is reached, and that should include the expertise that the school has in the provision of special needs education — as the Member said — and the social and economic impact that it will have on that area.
I declare an interest as I am the chairman of the board of Castle Tower School in Ballymena, which has an impact on the entire area of Ballymena.
I thank Mr Storey for bringing this Adjournment topic before the House. I approach it not from any sense of aggravation against the Minister, the board or the Department.
I come to the debate with a sense of sadness, because, living in that community, I have experienced the lowering of morale among its people. There is a sadness, which is creeping to despair. Mr Storey pointed out that special education needs in that area stand very high at 30%.
In my capacity as chairman of the board of Castle Tower School I will explain the background. There were three special schools in Ballymena covering the entire age range, from the beginning until the stage at which many young people, having gone through their school experience, are capable of work. We had the opportunity to bring those three schools together. It was an idea that would reach out to the entire community of Ballymena, especially to south Ballymena, with its special education requirements. The opportunity was given to us and we grasped it. We got a site to build a new school, but we have been struggling to move the project forward. Again and again, every effort to bring the project forward has come to nothing.
Special education needs heavily affect south Ballymena, yet schools have had their play areas closed because they are unsafe and their roofs leak, but there is no one to help them. One can walk through those schools and see the buckets on a wet day. That is the situation that special needs children have to live with — young people who are desperately in need of help.
Closing the schools in south Ballymena will create a transportation problem. Transportation difficulties lead inevitably to greater absenteeism, and absenteeism among young people with special needs cannot be overlooked.
There are rumours in the town that, even as those schools are being closed, officials are looking for sites for a new Irish-language school. People who see their schools being closed but who hear on the grapevine that a new school is to be built have reached the point of despair.
We ask that our children have the opportunity in south Ballymena to lay a good educational foundation so that when we build our new special education school we will be able to provide for all our children an educational foundation that will not only take them into the future with confidence but will give their families, and people in Ballymena generally, a confidence in the education system and its governance. Only an education strategy that puts our children first and considers their needs can instil that confidence. We need a strategy that does not close schools because of statistics but which puts children first and gives them the equality of opportunity that children in other places have.
I plead with the Minister to take what we are saying seriously. Mr Storey has carefully laid out the issue, and we plead with her to treat the matter carefully and help the children.
I thank the Member who secured the debate. It is a sensitive issue: when any proposal for significant school change is made, such as the proposal that we are discussing, it raises considerable emotions. Communities and parents invest much in their local schools, and changes in such matters are not at all easy.
I will review some of the history of the decision as it is known to me. In November 2007, the North Eastern Education and Library Board produced a large and important document, ‘Review of Controlled Primary School Provision in Ballymena Town’. That document outlined the broad issues that affected the board’s thinking at that time. It referred to the demographic downturn in the school population throughout Northern Ireland and the fact that Ballymena was also affected by that. One major and important issue that it raised is that of the rapidly deteriorating condition of Ballymena Primary School, which requires a newbuild solution. That raised questions about the size and location of that school, because its future would impact on the future of other schools.
The proper way to consider such issues is to take an area-based approach to planning for schools. The report referred to the Department’s ‘Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’, under which, quite rightly, the thinking on schools in a given area is based on certain criteria. The viability of a school is assessed on the basis of a number of such criteria: quality educational experience; stable enrolment trends; sound financial position; strong leadership and management; accessibility; and strong links with the community. Schools in Ballymena score highly on many of those criteria. Ballee Primary School scores highly on a number of those issues, and there are others with obvious difficulties.
‘Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’, which is based on the Bain report, recommends minimum thresholds for schools of different types: for urban primary schools, that is set at 140 pupils. None of us sees that as an absolute requirement, but we recognise that, if a school were to go significantly below that threshold, its ability to deliver a broad curriculum would be threatened.
The board considered other contextual issues. Its report referred to the increasing enrolment at Braidside Integrated Primary School and said that a heavy demand for integrated education meant that it foresaw an enrolment of 350 pupils, which represented an increase.
The report referred to the maintained sector, which Mr Storey mentioned. It states that developments in the maintained sector:
“led to a reduction of over 500 spare places in this sector.”
I was involved in that issue, and, by way of correction, an amalgamation did not take place: four existing schools closed, and two new schools opened. Those two new schools — St Colmcille’s Primary School and St Brigid’s Primary School — are fine schools. They meet the best of modern building standards, and they are fine schools in every other respect.
The Member mentioned the progress of the integrated sector. I worked with the newbuild for Braidside Integrated Primary School. There were alternatives to the amalgamation or, as Mr O’Loan put it, the closure of those schools in the maintained sector. Those schools were offered alternatives, but the only option for Ballee Primary School is closure and picking up the pieces. The problem is that the controlled sector is not being treated in a fair and equitable way.
I will not comment on whether it is fair and equitable or identical treatment; the two situations are probably not the same in terms of the problems that are presented. However, I will say that all those situations are difficult and painful, and, sometimes, the accepting of the pain can lead to a good outcome. In the maintained sector, we got a very good outcome in two very fine, well-equipped schools that give great confidence, motivation and morale to parents, staff and the whole community. That is something that we should not lose sight of.
As for enrolments, I notice that Ballee Primary School has had a declining roll over the years, falling to 71 in 2006-07. I only have the newspaper information on this, but Ballee is quoted in one of the newspapers as having an enrolment of 45, so there seems to have been significant further leakage there. The board analysed the spare capacity in the controlled schools, and it has Ballee with a long-term enrolment estimate of 65. As I say, enrolment appears to have gone below that, if the newspaper figure is correct. Camphill Primary School, which is also in that area and also has a fine new building, is described as having a projected spare capacity of 64 — that must be a relevant factor. Harryville Primary School —
This is not my area, but I am listening with interest because I have a particular interest in education. I have young children, and both are being educated in north Antrim. The Member gave some statistics in relation to Ballee Primary School, and he earlier mentioned other schools in Ahoghill. Can he remind us how many children were enrolled in the two primary schools in Ahoghill combined?
I do not have the figures. I know that both had very small populations, but there was a need to provide education in the maintained sector in that area, and that need had to be addressed.
At that point, various options and mixes were proposed, with the potential closures of Dunclug, Ballee and Harryville primary schools. The board continued to work on and consult on these matters, and the next significant stage was when it got feedback. There was no absolute consensus on the outcome, but the board made recommendations in September 2008. For the north end of the town, which is served in part by the county primary, it deferred its decision until more clarity could be obtained on broader education issues. For the southern end of the town, it suggested not amalgamation but closure of one or both of Ballee and Harryville primary schools, with other specific recommendations about the nursery units, which are also important.
That led to a further consultation, which, in turn, has led to the eventual decision of the board to close Ballee Primary School — a painful decision, as I know. Mr Storey may be right that no economic rationale has been provided. I certainly do not know what the rationale is. I only know the outcome. I think that we all agree that the needs of this socially difficult and deprived area must be paramount, and deciding the best education solution for the area is a challenge for the board. Mr Storey made a particular proposal —
He may be right; it may be a good solution. However, we need to be very careful that any proposed solution is truly in the best interests of the people. Sometimes, a solution that is painful is better in the long run.
Go raibh maith agat. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo inniu, mar tugann sí comhthéacs do réimse polasaithe atá forbartha ag mo Roinn le heispéireas gach páiste a fheabhsú, beag beann ar an áit a bhfuil cónaí orthu nó ar an chineál scoile a bhfuil siad ag freastal uirthi.
I welcome today’s debate, as it will help to put into context a range of policies that my Department has brought forward to improve the education experience of all children, regardless of where they live, the type of school that they attend and which language they learn through.
The Member will know that I have visited Castle Tower school, and I had a wonderful morning there. An economic appraisal for its major capital works scheme is being revised by the North Eastern Education and Library Board. The board has advised us that that will be resubmitted shortly. Following approval of the appraisal, I have agreed that the project should progress immediately to project design and implementation stage. The scheme will then be in a very strong position to compete for funding from a future capital funding announcement. I assure the House that my Department and I are treating the scheme as an urgent priority.
I know that the Member is not saying —
It is very important that children in Ballymena are taught through their native language.
I share Declan O’Loan’s sentiment that change can be difficult, and that was my experience when I visited primary schools in Ballymena. Some of the teachers, groundspeople and parents to whom I spoke said that they had vociferously opposed the amalgamations in the maintained sector but that they were actually the best thing to happen. They said that they are wonderful schools and are doing very good work. Sometimes difficult decisions must be made.
Comments were made about the deficit cost of the amalgamation of two primary schools in Ahoghill. However, the costs not only of amalgamations but of closures must be met by the education and library board. The Department’s cost analysis indicated that there were no significant differences in cost between amalgamation and closure in that case.
The debate focuses on primary school provision in south Ballymena. I wish to highlight the fact that the Department has provided considerable capital investment for that area. There have been new schools for Camphill controlled primary school and St Brigid’s maintained primary school, which were completed in 2007 at a cost of almost £11·5 million and provide state-of-the-art, twenty-first-century facilities for almost 700 children. A major capital works scheme for the expanding Braidside Integrated Primary School is also at economic appraisal stage. In the 2009-2010 financial year, primary schools in south Ballymena received just over £4·6 million in common funding formula allocations, which is a per capita increase of more than 8% from the 2008-09 funding levels.
Harryville, Ballykeel, Camphill and Ballee primary schools work together in partnership as members of the same Ballymena extended schools cluster by providing services or activities outside the traditional school day to help to meet the needs of pupils, their families and the wider community. Since the programme was launched in May 2006, those schools have received more than £300,000 in funding to improve the life chances of children and young people from deprived and disadvantaged areas.
I have listened to the arguments made today on behalf of Ballee Primary School. I understand that, following two years of phased local consultation on the future of controlled primary provision in Ballymena town, the North Eastern Education and Library Board has recommended the closure of Ballee Primary School. The school has been experiencing falling enrolments, primarily as a result of demographic changes in the area. Ballee Primary School has an approved enrolment of 220 places. Fifteen years ago, its enrolment was 198 pupils; today, its enrolment has fallen to 42 pupils, which is a further reduction of 19 pupils since last year.
Nuair a mholtar gur chóir scoil a dhúnadh tá ceanglas reachtúil ann moladh forbartha a fhoilsiú, agus ba mhaith liom aird na gComhaltaí a tharraingt air sin.
I want to highlight that, when it is recommended that a school should be closed, there is a statutory requirement for a development proposal to be published. The development proposal process provides the opportunity for extensive local consultation. Before a proposal is published, there is a statutory requirement on boards, and, soon, on the ESA, to consult any schools that may be affected by that proposal. There is also a statutory duty on the proposer to consult governors, parents and teachers from the school or schools that are subject to the proposal.
The publication of the development proposal initiates a statutory two-month period during which representations, including objections, can be made directly to the Department. At the end of that period, I take into account all the information pertinent to the development proposal, including the representations that are received as part of the decision-making process. As I have a responsibility to consider and make a decision on all development proposals, I cannot and will not comment on a specific proposal in advance of that process. However, I assure the Assembly that in examining each proposal I consider the local circumstances on a case-by-case basis.
Since the institutions were re-established in May 2007, there have been 41 school closures, encompassing 25 primary schools, two Irish-medium units, two nursery units, two special schools and 10 post-primary schools. Of the 25 primary schools that were closed, 23 had fewer than 50 pupils at the date of closure, and nine of the 10 secondary schools that were closed had fewer than 100 pupils.
From 2004 to 2008, 47 schools have been involved in amalgamations, creating 21 new schools. Those amalgamations involved 33 primary schools, five special schools and nine post-primary schools.
Tá ról ríthábhachtach ag an bpolasaí do scoileanna inbhuanaithe chun an córas a fheabhsú do gach páiste. In ainneoin ár n-iarrachtaí ar fad, tá an córas oideachais ag teip ar an iomarca páistí.
I assure the Assembly that any proposal will be assessed thoroughly against the criteria outlined in the sustainable schools policy. That policy is crucial to improving the system for all children, because, despite our best efforts, the education system is letting down too many of our children. The policy will help to ensure that all children get a first-class education, regardless of background or where they live, and it recognises that we should maximise the impact of the resources that are available for education.
The policy sets out six criteria, both quantitative and qualitative, to help to assess the viability of schools. Consideration will be given to the education experience of the children, the financial position of the school, leadership and management of the school, accessibility, enrolments and links with the community. Above all, the provision of a quality education must be the overriding consideration.
The rural nature of the North of Ireland means that there will always be a significant number of small rural schools. I commend the contribution that some small schools make to educational attainment and community cohesion. However, I recognise that many small schools encounter difficulties in delivering the curriculum and find it difficult to operate within their budget.
In primary schools, the challenges become greater when there are composite classes with more than two age groups. The smaller numbers of children in each year group can limit opportunities for working alongside peers, for social interaction and challenge and for participation in extra-curricular activities. Teachers in small schools also face the problem of unduly demanding workloads and have less scope for professional interaction and mutual support.
The revised curriculum is now in place in all year groups. It focuses on raising standards in reading, writing and maths and on preparing young people for all aspects of life and work. Recently, I introduced ‘Every School a Good School’, a policy of school improvement to raise standards in all schools in the North of Ireland.
Good schools are already doing the things that are advocated in the strategy. However, there are still too many schools in which pupils are not reaching their full potential. I believe that all schools are capable of improvement, even good schools.
The school improvement policy is part of an overall focus on improving performance, and it must be complemented and supported by the wider educational — [Interruption.]
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is interesting to hear Members across the way talking to themselves.
We are in a period of significant change and have many new policies, such as transfer 2010, the sustainable schools policy and ‘Every School a Good School’. We are building a world-class education system based on equality, social justice and academic excellence.
Adjourned at 6.20 pm.