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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.