Primary School Provision in Ballymena South

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 3rd November 2009.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin 6:00 pm, 3rd November 2009

The Minister will not give way. I listened to the Member, and now it is my turn to speak.

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.]