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.