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.