School Closures: South Eastern Education and Library Board

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 28th November 2011.

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Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly notes with concern the school closures announced within the South Eastern Education and Library Board area to date; is concerned that the board is making these decisions ahead of the outcome of the review of schools being conducted by the Department of Education; is further concerned that, unlike all other education and library boards, this board is run by commissioners with no political input; and calls on the Minister of Education to intervene on this important matter. — [Mr Easton.]

Which amendment was:

Leave out all after “Minister of Education” and insert

“to postpone any decisions until the viability audit has been completed.” — [Mr McDevitt.]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, Mr Speaker. I confirm what my colleague Daithí McKay said earlier. We will not support the motion or the amendment. Obviously, the primary reason for that is very simply that an appropriate process is well under way in relation to the matter in hand. As we speak, as I understand it, there are no formal proposals to close any school in the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) area.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Just to update the Member: an announcement is being made with regard to the closure of three schools in the South Eastern area as we speak. Only one has been reprieved, which is Knockmore Primary School, and I warmly welcome that.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member will have one minute added to his time.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that information. Perhaps I should rephrase my point. To my knowledge, no decision has yet been formally taken to close any particular school. Indeed, where proposals are coming forward, they will result in development proposals. Of course, at that point, the Department and the Minister will enter the process to look at the problems relating to specific schools and, more importantly, the potential solutions. I am mindful of the Minister’s recent statement to the House, in late September, in which he made clear his and the Department’s intention to move forward with a clear focus on the needs of the children.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. As a member of Ards Borough Council, I have seen a closure notice for Ballykeigle Primary School come to that council for consultation. That was long before the Minister had even suggested that there should be a complete audit. That school is on the closure list. Detrimental things have happened already; the principal has gone, the rot has set in, and it is too late, unfortunately.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. Again, I do not want to rehearse the arguments. The proposals that the Minister outlined are not new; the determination was made on behalf of the Minister and the Department to move ahead appropriately to deal with problem areas, such as the future viability of a school, and very clear criteria and terms of reference were set down for that.

I am confident that the Minister and the Department have at the forefront of their minds the need to ensure that there is a viable schools and education system for the future that allows all children to achieve to the best of their abilities.

As I said, when the SEELB’s full proposals come forward, they will, obviously, contain recommendations. At that point, the Minister, the Department and others will have a proper opportunity to evaluate, based on a professional assessment, the difficulties that particular schools may face. The Minister has made a very clear statement to the House. The difficulty for the Minister is that, on one occasion, he is told to delay taking action and, on another, he is told to make interventions speedily. That is no way to proceed towards providing a sustainable schools base for children.

It is important that schools know where they stand. I certainly understand the anxiety that exists at this time among parents in particular and everyone in the education sector as we move into even more difficult budgetary circumstances. By the same token, however, it is up to all of us to avoid simply focusing on one school at a time. To do so is regrettable. The situation requires all of us to work together to ensure that each and every child who goes through the education system has the best opportunity to attain for themselves a better outcome than that of many children who leave school at present. We have all accepted that. We need to do much better on our children’s behalf. We all understand that that needs to be done on a more rationalised basis, with children at the forefront of the minds of the Department, the Minister and, presumably, everyone in the Chamber.

We are all constituency representatives, so it is understandable that we are keen to ensure that we get the best results for schools in our constituencies. However, I urge Members not to jump in. We need to be able to stand back a little bit and ensure that we are clear that, when we talk about a school, we understand that there is a clear rationale against which any school can be assessed and that the terms of reference of that rationale produce the matrix by which we look at how to develop the school to its best potential. Obviously, factors such as enrolment, quality of education and financial viability will all come into play.

We all have to look forward and provide the type of leadership that Daithí McKay referred to earlier. As I said, we are all prone to focusing on our own constituencies and to difficulties that we all have to face in the time ahead, whether they relate to education, health or any other service. This debate is about education. Let us wait until development proposals are made in respect of schools.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Let us give our full support to the Department and the Minister to ensure that we deliver the best education system in all schools for all children.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I support the motion and the amendment. I am not sure whether I should declare an interest. I was a member of the South Eastern Board that was formally suspended in 2006. I am not sure whether I have been officially decommissioned. I am not sure that any of us who have been in that position —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I do not, actually. If I were to provide photographic evidence, I do not think that it would take us very much further forward.

Everybody accepts that there will be changes to the school estate. At times, it is argued that not every school will survive. Perhaps, at times, we get too attached to particular bits of bricks and mortar. However, I must say that the approach that has been taken by the South Eastern Board is totally unacceptable. I share and concur with earlier remarks, which I will not dwell on, about the undemocratic nature of the South Eastern Board and the failure to plug that gap for more than five and a half years. The issue is about process and making the right decision. It says a lot and demonstrates the arrogant attitude of the board that, on the very day that we debate a motion, which, if it is amended, calls for that process to be put on ice until the audit takes place as part of proper process — it is clear from responses around the Chamber that the motion and amendment will be passed — the board still met in defiance of that. It did not postpone its meeting. It went ahead and made decisions irrespective of what the Assembly says. That is testament to the South Eastern Board’s aloof attitude.

In the process, no one connected to the schools — I have a particular connection with the one in my constituency — is asking for special favours. I agree with Mr Maskey: we should not treat this one school at a time. That is the very purpose of the motion. It should not be a situation in which one board moves on some sort of solo run in departure from the rest of it. Indeed, if we are to have an audit that looks at the global needs of Northern Ireland and at hundreds of schools throughout Northern Ireland, one school should not be treated differently. Indeed, four schools should not be treated differently. That is the whole point of this.

The argument that a development proposal has not been produced seems to be a fairly weak one. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I will think that it is a duck. In this case, a proposal to close the four schools was put to the schools and is now being proposed again today at the board. Yes, there may well be formal processes beyond that, but let us not pretend that this is not having an impact on those schools and, indeed, moving ahead towards development proposals. Therefore, all we are saying is that all the schools throughout Northern Ireland should be put on a level playing field. We should not be taking premature decisions in one area that will detrimentally affect those schools. Indeed, we need to look at this holistically as part of the audit.

I am not convinced that what is being done with Redburn is the right decision. Everyone would accept that there needs to be changes to the school system in Holywood, but we have a proposal on the table that is awaiting capital funding for a four-school scheme involving the amalgamation of Redburn and Holywood Primary School, of Priory and Holywood Nursery School. That involves two different sectors, three different age groups and four schools.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the plan that he has just outlined is beneficial because it is exactly that — planned — whereas the proposal to close Redburn at the end of this academic year means that there will be an effective amalgamation of Holywood Primary School and Redburn but not a planned amalgamation and, therefore, will not be an ordinary transition?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has a minute added to his time.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I agree with the Member that it needs to be planned. Indeed, what has been put forward for the four schools should be a model for the way forward for Northern Ireland. It is, effectively, shared education, it is multidimensional and includes three age sectors, yet the problem with the proposal is that it short-circuits this. It is not planned; it jumps the gun. Indeed, rather than moving ahead on a planned basis, this may, as the Member indicates, lead to a situation in which people simply move with their feet to Holywood Primary School. It has led to a situation in which various other schools have already moved to try to poach students from there, and, indeed, rather than an ordered situation of amalgamation between the schools, there are flyers and requests from other schools to try to pick the bones of Redburn out, with the end result that we may not get the proper organised and planned way forward for Holywood that is to the benefit of all. It is not only ill-timed; it is ill-judged.

I appeal to the Minister and his party to think again. In many ways, this runs contrary to the spirit of the audit. The audit should treat everywhere holistically, but this is picking off what appear to be the weakest parts of the pack and going for those first. That is wholly unacceptable. We have seen the arrogant response of the South Eastern Board, and the line of thought that it is determined to take is clear. I appeal to the Minister to, through his closing remarks, ensure that the three schools that appear to have been singled out today —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

— are not treated simply as cannon fodder but are treated properly and to ensure that any decision by the Department is put on hold until we have the full audit and a proper plan.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I am very pleased to say a few words on this debate. I support the motion and the amendment and thank all those who brought them to the House. I am passionate about education and, indeed, in my own little life, my career path would not be what it was had it not been for the attention that my parents and teachers paid to my education. As that career path has brought me to this House, I know that some Members will feel that there is a downside to a decent education after all.

There is a concern that some schools in this education area may suffer because two parallel processes are in play. One is the viability audit that is being conducted on a regional level by the Department of Education, and another is a subregional process that is being conducted by the South Eastern Education and Library Board. I have a further concern, which has already been articulated by my colleague Mr McNarry, that the South Eastern Education and Library Board is still being run by commissioners, given that the problem emerged on 6 July 2006. The longevity and competence of the commissioners remains in question, and there is a real danger that the schools may suffer from the two processes. If the schools suffer, the children and the families will also suffer.

I have a particular interest in Ballykeigle Primary School and, more generally, rural primary schools with regard to the viability audit, which is the regional process. As I understand it, there are three criteria: entrance, achievement and financial viability, none of which takes into account the importance of rural communities. A rural school can be looked on not only as a place of learning but as some form of community hub. The answer may not always be to condemn a school as failing but to use it as an opportunity to refashion and redesign what the school achieves. I am thinking, for example, of what the extended schools programme can do for families. It is an opportunity to achieve other goals through the school estate and to look at what the school estate might do to improve general health, adult literacy and numeracy and, particularly with regard to rural communities, social cohesion. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people who live in rural areas to stop and socially interact. If you remove rural primary schools, you take away a fantastic opportunity to embed social cohesion.

As well as those concerns, I want to mention the sixth-largest controlled post-primary school in the education and library board area, Movilla High School. That school has requested to reduce temporarily its enrolment numbers from 900 to 600 and, correspondingly, reduce its annual admission number from 180 to 120. The reason is that there has been a 10-year fall in numbers, and, in fact, the enrolment figure of 900 and the admission figure of 180 have never been achieved by Movilla on census day.

Last year, by closing down part of the main school building, Movilla achieved savings of £100,000 over the year. On that basis, it has asked the Department whether it can, temporarily, reduce those figures. In September of this year, the Minister sent me a response to a question for written answer. He said:

“My Department received a letter from the South Eastern Education and Library Board … supporting Movilla High School in a request that their admission and enrolment numbers be temporarily reduced.”

Despite that support, the decision is currently under consideration. It is still under consideration today, and I want to use this occasion to lobby the Minister and ask him whether he will ensure a speedy resolution to ensure that Movilla High School can plan with some certainty for its future. As with many schools, it is reeling from the fact that it will lose £100 a pupil in the forthcoming financial year. For Movilla High School, that means a budgetary hole of some £45,000 next year. Certainty is being sought, and I urge the Minister to give that consideration. I support the motion as amended.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP 3:45 pm, 28th November 2011

It gives me very little pleasure to speak on this issue, especially given the news that I received earlier about the three schools that have been put into formal proposals with regard to closure: Dunmurry High School, Ballykeigle Primary School and Redburn Primary School. As was pointed out earlier, it is a slap in the teeth to the Assembly to have those decisions taken while we are in the middle of debating whether they have followed proper procedures.

With regard to the process that has been used, consultation took place, and the first school on which it took place was Dunmurry High School.

The entire process is a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, the issue of whether the school should close is consulted on. The consultation is not on whether the school should be reformed; on whether there should be intervention to change the way in which the school is run; or on whether there should be an amalgamation with any other school in the locality. No, the South Eastern Education and Library Board’s proposals were specific and clear: it was consulting on whether the schools should close or not.

In saying that, however, the board first consults with the board of governors. It then consults with the teachers, which is done in private. Lo and behold, the next phase is to go to a public meeting with the parents of children in those schools. If there is one thing that I have learnt in life, it is that if you broadcast the fact that you are looking at whether you should close something, the inevitable will eventually happen.

I do not blame any parents at that public meeting in Dunmurry High School for looking after the future education of their children. If the board is saying that it will close an education establishment and your child is sitting there ready to do his or her exams this year or next, you will inevitably put the education of your child first and remove him or her from the school. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those schools.

That is the process that the South Eastern Education and Library Board entered into for all those schools, with the exception of one: Knockmore Primary School. Parents started voting with their feet, but not because they believed that their children were in a bad school. I do not believe for one second that any parents send their children to what they believe to be an inferior or second-rate school. No, it was done because they knew that the future of the school was in question.

That is the sort of process that we have seen for all those schools. Knockmore was an exception to the rule, not because the parents of children at that school thought or functioned any differently but because there was a very simple rule there: the vast majority of children in that school are special educational needs in a special educational needs unit that could not and would not be replicated anywhere else in the education board’s area. The reality for those parents was that they had absolutely nowhere else to go.

For that reason, and for the great campaign that they mounted, those parents did not withdraw their children from that school. I am pleased to announce today —

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I will in a second. I am pleased to announce today that that school has been reprieved. I use the word “reprieved” cautiously, because I feel that there is still an agenda at work.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I find very favourable the news that he brings about Knockmore Primary School. It is indicative of this debate that he is bringing that news to the Assembly, and although he is the bringer of good news for one school, for my area and for other areas, he is unfortunately the bringer of bad news.

Does the Member agree that this is not the way in which we should be treated in this Assembly, when Members have gone to the trouble, and it was well noticed in advance, of tabling not only a motion but an amendment on the matter? However, the announcement seems to sterilise the debate that we are having. I hope that the Member will agree that we have a lesson to learn; namely, business should not be conducted in this way under any circumstances.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has a minute added to his time.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Not for the first time do I find myself agreeing with the Deputy Chairperson of the Education Committee. We have been treated appallingly here today by the South Eastern Education and Library Board. It was fully aware of what was being debated and could have held off its decision, even to take note of what is being debated in the Chamber.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I appeal to the Minister to take all of those points into consideration. The South Eastern Board entered into a process that pre-empted the process that the Minister announced.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I ask the Minister to take that on board when he is looking at these proposals.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion on school closures by the South Eastern Education and Library Board. I record our opposition and concern about how the proposals have been handled and progressed by the South Eastern Education and Library Board. I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Redburn Primary School. I have been a governor for over 20 years.

The main area of concern to date in my constituency of North Down has been the proposed closure of Redburn Primary School, which is located on the outskirts of Holywood, in an ideal location at the rear of Palace Barracks, with the Holywood hills in the backdrop. The school is over 50 years old and has been included in a new schools rebuild project for the Holywood area, which involves the building of a new amalgamated primary school, combining Holywood Primary School, at the present Priory College site. A new Priory College was also to be built at the existing Redburn site, and work was planned to start this year. A new nursery school was the final brick in the wall and was planned for construction on the old Holywood Primary School site.

This new schools project had full support from the wider Holywood community. We had gone through the full consultation process for newbuilds, planning permission had been approved, and the project was about to get off the ground.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

In September, Redburn’s board of governors was called to a meeting with officials from the South Eastern Education and Library Board to be told, totally out of the blue, that the board had had an internal review and had come up with a recommendation for closure as part of the draft development plan. The news of closure came as a shock to the pupils, parents, staff, governors and the local community. The school has served the area very well and has a rich mix of children from the wider community, including the army children from the local Palace Barracks. The proposed closure has rallied the local community, and, as part of the campaign, we requested a meeting with the board’s chief executive and three commissioners.

The case for the retention of the school was put ably by the chairperson, the principal and the class teacher. The school’s academic attainment and its excellent community links were highlighted. At the end of the meeting, I sought clarification on whether the school would be included in the Minister’s review, which was announced in September 2011. I was advised by the chief commissioner that the school would be subject to the Minister-led review and to the review by the board.

Redburn School has been subject to two reviews at one time: one by the unelected and undemocratic board and the other by the Minister’s Department. The children of Holywood do not need more reviews of existing schools. We need a commitment from the Minister to clarify the situation and indicate to the children of Holywood when a newbuild project is due to commence. The proposal to close Redburn is just a cheap solution to the real problem of substandard school buildings for the children of Holywood.

All school buildings in the town of Holywood are over 50 years old. We need new buildings rather than repair. We need capital investment in our school estate. Holywood needs and deserves a fair share of funding. The perception that Holywood, being part of North Down, is an affluent area that does not need such investment is wrong. That has been the attitude of the South Eastern Education and Library Board for too long. The loss of the board will be no loss to the children of North Down. The Minister needs to visit our area and see for himself the need for investment, not just closure and reviews. I support the motion.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

I support the amendment and am pleased to take part in this debate. However, I fear that this debate is taking a horrible twist, which cannot be good for the service that we endeavour to give to all of our constituents.

As I have said in the House before, speculation and rumour about the future of our schools may lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, and that can be dangerous for our entire school system. When we label a school as underperforming, the use of language must be clear because parents may choose to move their children from or elect not to send their children to a school that may be under threat. That very action may, unwittingly, threaten the future of the school. It could have more devastating consequences for the long-term viability of successful rural and urban schools across Northern Ireland and, indeed, for parents who are applying for school places for their children in the upcoming academic years in the SEELB and other board areas.

In speaking to support the motion, I would like to highlight, as a comparison, a school in Portadown that has recently had its application for a nursery unit turned down. Orchard County Primary School is a highly successful school that was established in 2005 through the amalgamation of two small rural schools — Annaghmore and Tullyroan — and I am sure that that mirrors the situation in the SEELB and other boards. Earlier this year, in recognition of one of the best inspection reports in Northern Ireland, the school was invited, along with others, to a reception in the Long Gallery by the Department of Education. The school has become a victim of its own success, and, like those we heard about earlier in the SEELB with high enrolment numbers for next year, Orchard County Primary School will not be able to offer any preschool provision, which has been one of the key planks in its and many other schools’ continued success. Therefore, the school’s application for a nursery unit was timely and forward-thinking. Indeed, the principal and governors have been heavily supported by the board, whose research clearly demonstrated that displacement would not occur were the nursery unit to be established. However the Minister, in his statement upon rejecting the application, said that there were

“already sufficient pre-school places in the area”.

Given that Orchard County Primary School forms part of the provision to which the Minister referred and will therefore not be able to offer any preschool places next year, the decision will lead to a direct reduction in preschool places available to parents and pupils in the area. In raising Orchard County Primary School as an example, I draw parallels with other boards.

Given the coming rationalisation of the school system, it sends a dangerous and worrying signal to schools, teachers, parents and pupils across Northern Ireland when a successful school such as Orchard County Primary School, created through the amalgamation of two rural schools, cannot receive the support it requires to meet the educational needs and demands of the local community. In this case, two schools were closed to facilitate one new, highly successful school. The Minister’s promise to support successful schools was, therefore, not well received by the parents at a recent open meeting which I attended.

If decisions are not taken in a systematic and focused way, the initial elation at the publication of the Programme for Government and a statement that every child would be entitled to a preschool place has the potential to turn into a nightmare for parents and children who find that the practical reality of the statement does not live up to the promise. We will yet again hear of parents being offered places for their children an impractical 20 miles or more from their home or of pupils’ applications being continually turned down.

It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that our children receive the best start to their educational experience. Although I am encouraged by the aspiration in the Programme for Government, I truly hope that that aspiration can become reality for parents and pupils across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 4:00 pm, 28th November 2011

I support the motion, and I commend my colleagues for tabling it. I, too, do not think that I need to declare an interest. I was suspended from the board at the time when the budget and the special needs provision were being reduced and, therefore, have considerable experience of how the board used to run and is now run. I should say that all elected members supported that position, including the Sinn Féin councillor who was on the board. From memory, I think that that was Councillor Coogan. Therefore, there was all-party support for the action that we took. Rightly or wrongly, commissioners were then brought in.

Any justification for the purpose for which the commissioners were brought in has long since passed. Therefore, their legal status is questionable. I know that the Minister of Education has said that that is a matter for the courts to decide, and, until they do so, they are the only authority on the matter. However, that does not take away from the fact that the right thing to do would be to remove the commissioners and to constitute the South Eastern Board on the same basis as the other boards. That is the right thing to do, and I do not think that anybody could disagree with that.

The commissioners on the board receive £500 a day, plus travel expenses. Some of them come from across the water. There is obviously an issue around that. They lack local knowledge of the issues that they have had to deal with. I have had experience of the commissioners. They are all very good people, and I get on well with those whom I have met. I do not want to call their integrity into question, far from it. However, that does not change the fact that locally elected councillors, transferor representatives or independents drawn directly from our community would make for a more accountable and better system. Although I recognise that ESA is on its way, I still think that the right thing to do would be to move as quickly as possible to reconstitute the education board.

I draw out the example of the development proposals that were formally put out by the board this afternoon as a rationale for saying that there should have been elected and independent members. I suspect that the argument that would have been put to the board and would have prevailed is that, although there may be question marks over the schools in question, a ministerial viability audit is taking place and it would have been better had a holistic approach been adopted, rather than the piecemeal approach that the South Eastern Board has taken.

Knockmore Primary School has been removed today — I welcome that— and will not now be put out formally to consultation for closure. Therefore, it has been saved. That is a welcome decision and a recognition of the campaign that parents, politicians and teachers all put in and on which they presented a very cogent case. That campaign has been justified, and that is the right decision.

I should, however, make the point —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I join the Member in expressing my delight at the reprieve for Knockmore Primary School. The quality of service for the young people at the school, particularly that provided by the speech and language unit, would have been undermined substantially. I will also lay down the marker that it is very important that, whatever is done in the future relating to that unit, it is done in conjunction with all the key specialists involved and ensures that its current quality will be maintained for children in the future.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I also thank him for the role that he played in visiting the school and for making a submission on the issue as Health Minister.

When the Knockmore proposal was being put out, the board made it very clear that this was for the mainstream only. The special units attached to it were not part of the board’s consideration. However, in its statement today, the board withdraws the proposal to close the mainstream school, which is secure, but says that it will look at the special units and that there is further work to be done. That would not have happened had there been a properly constituted board. You cannot, on the one hand, say that the special units have nothing to do with the proposal but say today that the mainstream is being kept but the board will look at the special units. That is not the right way to do it, and, if the board is going to do anything with the units, there needs to be a specific proposal. In my view, the board has handled today’s decision badly. That would not have happened had the board been constituted properly. Therefore, the Minister should move to put the board in place through the normal procedures under which the other boards were appointed.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Many Members mentioned that we received a statement from the Minister earlier this year that outlined the plans for the viability audit and his proposals for area development plans. Within a week, if memory serves, the announcement of the proposed closure of a number of schools was made, in advance of the viability audit.

Members have outlined the three areas concerned in judging a school’s viability: enrolment numbers, educational achievement and financial stability. There is at least some consensus that that is a way for us to assess schools’ sustainability and determine whether they meet the needs of the children who attend them. The problem lies with the decisions of the South Eastern Education and Library Board to put forward schools in advance of the viability audit.

In my intervention in Mr Weir’s contribution, I mentioned that we have an area-based plan in Holywood. Mr Dunne outlined the detail well. It would include a planned amalgamation of Redburn Primary School and Holywood Primary School. However, that plan has been put on hold because of the lack of funds for the capital investment that is necessary for it to go ahead. I think that there is some understanding in the Chamber of why that delay exists. However, it appears that there is no such understanding on the part of the South Eastern Board, as its proposal to simply close Redburn school without a plan is leading to uncertainty for parents. The decision was made on such a short-term basis that parents who enrolled their children in primary 1 at Redburn this year are now wondering whether they will potentially have to find another school for next year. The decision that was made was not informed because it was on such a short-term basis. Making a decision such as that without a plan is, essentially, a cut. It is not being done for any of the reasons that the Minister outlined. It is not due to enrolment numbers, educational achievement or financial sustainability. If that were the case, there would be a plan and it would be based on the needs of children in the area. However, what has been proposed by the board is to simply slice one school and leave it up to parents to find alternatives for their children.

I add my welcome to the decision to exclude Knockmore Primary School from the list of closures. Although I stand here as a representative of North Down and have made specific reference to my constituency, Members will agree that we want to get this right not just in our own constituency but across Northern Ireland, in order to ensure sustainable schools, quality education and equality of access to provision. I spoke with parents who came here on the day of the debate on Knockmore Primary School and heard their concerns. Needless to say, many of those concerns echoed those of my constituents. It is right that we look at this issue across the board and not individually by school or constituency.

We must move forward with a plan. The viability audit must go ahead. The development of area plans must take place, and decisions should be made on that basis, not simply as a reaction to the thought that we must cut expenditure so we must cut schools. I do not think that that is an acceptable way forward, and it certainly will not be accepted by the parents affected by those cuts.

I support the motion and the amendment and welcome the debate. I hope that the Minister will have heard the concerns of Members —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Draw your remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I will just say finally —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 4:15 pm, 28th November 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome today’s debate as it gives me an opportunity to re-emphasise the key messages of my statement to the Assembly on 26 September. I might say that I thought that all those matters were covered in the previous debate on rural schools on 17 October, the Dunmurry and Knockmore debate on 25 October and recent responses to oral and written questions.

This debate has as its focus — they are not specifically mentioned — four schools identified by the South Eastern Education and Library Board for potential closure. As has been mentioned, since the Assembly broke up for Question Time, further clarification has come through from the SEELB in regard to those matters. Although I recognise the concerns that have been raised about those schools, many others face significant challenges. This morning’s announcement that schools face a possible 5% reduction in their budgets cannot be divorced from the fact that we have too many schools and 85,000 empty school desks. Those two issues are not separate, cannot be divorced and have to be dealt with in a common way. That is why I commissioned the viability audit that has been referred to. We need to get a realistic picture of the extent of the challenges that schools face. Only when we face up to those realities can we begin to do something about securing viable and sustainable education for all pupils. I ask Members to look at the big picture.

Let us widen the focus and look at what we are trying to achieve through the programme of work I have commenced. I have asked the boards and CCMS to urgently undertake the viability audit or stress test using enrolment, quality of educational attainment and financial stability as indicators of the degree of stress a school is facing. I am conscious that three of the four schools mentioned have gone to development process. I am now part of the decision-making process, so I have to be careful in what I say. The viability audit —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No, not at the moment, but I will later. The viability audit is looking at each individual school. The SEELB, like other boards, has information at hand showing that a number of schools have not passed that stress test. That information has now been brought forward to go forward to development proposals. The announcement in September was not an attempt to stall or delay such a process. It was a step up and acceleration of that process. If any board comes forward to me at this time and states that it already has information at hand about schools that are under stress and believes that the option is to develop a proposal for closure, I will say to that board to go ahead now and proceed immediately to that point. Why would I do that? Because at the heart of those schools are pupils. The pupils are what matter in this debate, not the schools, not the establishment and not the concerns of local MLAs or councillors.

I say this to Members who say that the board has only commissioners on it and has no locally elected representatives: are the Members suggesting that, if their colleagues who are locally elected representatives and councillors were aware of information concerning a school’s enrolment, the quality of its education or its sustainability, they would ignore that? Are they suggesting that they, as elected representatives who have responsibility for public funds and, indeed, the well-being of our community, would ignore that? I sincerely hope that that is not the case. I sincerely hope that our elected representatives on boards would take a look at the report and say that, yes, action has to be taken on those schools because we have a responsibility to the young people in the schools.

The argument that the SEELB is made up of commissioners and that only they would move towards development proposals is, I think, a false argument. I will say this about the future role of commissioners in the SEELB: I, too, have concerns about the length of time that they have been there. It was because of a number of scenarios. It arose largely because of the on/off debate on legislation on ESA. I am thankful that we are now in a position to move towards a policy memorandum going to the Executive and, if that is agreed, to then move to a legislative framework to move ESA forward. I have asked my officials to carry out a preliminary examination of replacing the commissioners. That preliminary examination suggests that that will be unachievable before April next year and may not be the best way forward considering that ESA should be in place by 2013. However, I will ask my officials to re-examine the matter in order to move it forward and see whether we can remove the commissioners and put in place a properly constituted board. I have no wish for any commissioner to be in place. I believe in the democratic process, so, if we can achieve their removal, we should do so. However, it may not be viable ahead of the implementation date for the ESA.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

I appreciate what the Minister is saying. I have here a report from the SEELB officers to the commissioners. The report talks about the four schools. Members will have noticed that I did not mention any schools by name, but I will mention Ballykeigle Primary School now. It was asked why the board did not appoint a permanent principal to Ballykeigle. The answer was that, as a result of the review of the school, it was decided that the post of principal, when it became vacant, would not be filled on a permanent basis. That is the answer to what you said, Minister. I agree with you that the pupils are at the heart of our concern. However, we have gone beyond that now, given what has happened today.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I am not going to comment on any of the schools on which formal development proposals have now gone out. I will, however, say this: responsibility for the democratic nature, accountability and oversight of those development proposals falls to me as Minister. I will be the decision-maker. Now that there are formal development proposals that will go out to further public consultation, I, as Minister, will be able to receive delegations and hear the views not only of elected representatives but of the schools involved and any concerned stakeholders. I will take on board all those matters before reaching any decision about any of the schools.

I want to return to my point about the need to make decisions now. The viability audit does not prevent any board from coming forward with proposals. If boards have information to hand, they need to come forward with it. I am concerned that Members in this debate — I have no doubt that I will be responding to numerous debates in the months ahead, as we go through this process — are saying, “Not in my backyard”.

I came across an interesting quotation at the weekend that at least one Member in the House will recognise. Others may recognise it as well. It is about the need for elected representatives, Ministers and the Executive to make decisions. We cannot continue with the school estate in its current form. We have to face the realities of the Budget and of delivering education in the 21st century, as others Ministers have done in their field. Let me read this to Members:

“There will be sectoral interests who will use their very utmost to ensure that the changes proposed don’t happen … Lots of other people will think ‘I’m a supporter of change and it is great that you are doing something 500 miles up the road but don’t be doing it in my area’ or, ‘It is great that you are doing it in that particular sector but don’t be doing it in my sector’. Whatever comes out of this report that is in the interests of the population … it is incumbent on us to meet the challenge and implement it.”

Those are the words of our Health Minister, Edwin Poots. I am not criticising Mr Poots for that. He is absolutely right: we have to implement change and stand up to the difficult decisions that we refer to. Mr Poots went on to say that he would not run away from making difficult decisions. I can assure Mr Poots and the rest of the House that they will not see me in front of him on the running track: I will not run away from making difficult decisions either. Those decisions will be evidence-based and will be made in the best interests of the pupils whom we are here to serve. We are not here to serve schools or institutions. We are here to serve pupils.

I will move on. The audit focuses on three main areas. First, it identifies all primary and post-primary schools facing significant viability challenges in sustainable enrolment trends, delivering quality education and financial stability; secondly, it categorises those schools with regard to the root cause of the problem; and, thirdly, it presents proposals that are either already in place or planned for such schools to address the cause of lack of viability in order to protect the education of the children and young people enrolled in them. In the current financial climate, we must take action to make the best use of limited resources. There is, therefore, an urgency to have an assessment made in a consistent manner across all sectors. I am pleased to say that the boards and CCMS are clear about the importance of that work and have given it significant priority. They have identified indicators around enrolment, quality and finance taken from the sustainable schools policy that allow them to complete the task that they have been set.

The answer to Mr McNarry’s question about whether the process had taken rural proofing fully on board is “Yes, it has”. Accessibility and rural proofing are at the heart of the document. What is a rural area in the sustainable schools policy? We cannot get a broader definition than the one that I will give you from the sustainable schools policy: all areas are rural outside Belfast and the urban part of Derry. I cannot think of a broader catchment area than that. It is the broadest assessment of rurality in any government policy. I think that my predecessor and I have encapsulated the concept of rurality.

The motion asks me to intervene to stop the South Eastern Education and Library Board and to delay any decisions. I return to the point that I raised originally: why would I stop the South Eastern Education and Library Board carrying out its statutory functions? The decision-making process is being carried out by the SEELB, regardless of Members’ views of its make-up — a point that I have already covered. The decisions are based on legislation. They are statutory, and the board is carrying them out. I say this to Members: it is carrying them out because it has identified factors in a number of schools that, board members believe, compel them to put forward a development proposal that suggests closure. That process has now landed on my desk, and I will take it forward.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for giving way. Perseverance pays off, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I would appreciate it if the Minister would clarify the relationship that he has established between the viability audit and the boards’ work on development proposals. When he announced the viability audit, he said that it was not intended to identify schools for closure. However, if I hear him correctly, he is making a direct connection to the viability audit process. If boards find a school susceptible under the viability audit process, they should be moved into the pre-closure process. Does he now make that specific connection? Is he telling us that any school that a board might identify now as vulnerable, under the viability audit, is susceptible to a development proposal immediately?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No. That is not what I suggest, and I did not suggest it in September. I went through some rigorous questioning when I made my statement in September.

The viability audit is to identify schools that are under stress for financial reasons, quality-of-education reasons or by reason of enrolment figures. When a school is identified as under stress and meeting those criteria, there is an onus on the board and the managing authority — CCMS or whoever it may be — to bring forward an action plan on how it intends to bring that school out of that position. That may, in some cases, include closure. If that is the decision, there is a duty on me, as Minister, to examine closely all the details and the development proposal. As I said, if difficult decisions are to be made, I will make them.

Members should not get into the habit of defending their local school because it is their local school. As I have said in the House before, Members need to defend the education of local people and the pupils attending a school, regardless of whether they are from an urban or rural community. That is what I am saying. If the board or the managing authority identifies a school under stress, it must also bring forward proposals on how it intends to bring that school out of stress, and that may include closure. None of this is easy. I do not relish the task ahead of me, but it is the right course of action. We can no longer move forward on the basis that we cannot make decisions in our own backyard because difficult decisions may be unpopular.

I also say this to Members: many schools that face enrolment or financial problems may also face educational attainment issues as a consequence.

If you examine closely, you will find that many local parents have made the decision for you. They have decided that they will not send their child to that school. Take on board not only the views of the parents whose children still attend the school but the views of the parents who, for a variety of reasons, have decided not to send a child to that school. Factor this into your equation also: if we continue to keep unsustainable schools open, how thinly will we spread the icing, namely the finance available to the Department of Education? If we continue to keep unsustainable schools open, what will the real reduction in schools funding be in 2013-14 and 2015-16?

The financial situation is not improving; it is getting worse. Pressures such as inflation and energy costs are bearing down on our schools. If we continue to keep unsustainable schools open, we let down not only the pupils in that school and their parents but the pupils and parents in the school up the road, in the school next to that and in the school next to that. They will all suffer as a consequence. I ask Members to take that on board.

I have covered most of the points raised by Members. I answered Mr Easton’s point about the future role of the SEELB and its commissioners. I have answered Mr McNarry’s point about rurality. I will ask my officials to look at Mr Nesbitt’s comments about Movilla High School and report back to him. I also want to refer to Mrs Dobson’s comments about Orchard County Primary School. The principal contacted me directly and made a number of points, which I have asked my Department to investigate further. The issues that he highlighted deserve to be interrogated further, and I have asked my Department to do so.

Although Members may have concerns about the make-up of the SEELB and the role of its commissioners, they should not let those concerns cloud their judgement of what decisions are required to move forward and build a sustainable education system in this society and what decisions are required to ensure that education is provided to our young people in these very difficult financial circumstances.

I understand Members’ concerns only too well. I am a constituency MLA as well, and I know the pressures that elected representatives can come under when issues such as this arise. However, without wishing to put Mr Poots on the spot, I refer you to his comments at a recent conference. I assure you that Ministers do not take difficult decisions because they want to; Ministers take difficult decisions because they have to.

Photo of Karen McKevitt Karen McKevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:30 pm, 28th November 2011

I welcome the opportunity to debate the decision taken by the South Eastern Education and Library Board. The SEELB is run by a group of highly paid commissioners, who have recommended the closure of four schools: Knockmore Primary School in Lisburn, Dunmurry High School in south Belfast, Redburn Primary School in Holywood, and Ballykeigle Primary School in the outskirts of Comber. I take this opportunity to welcome the reprieve for Knockmore Primary School in Lisburn.

As a result of the SEELB’s quick decision, there is an air of worry, uncertainty and anger. Parents are concerned about the education of their children, teachers fear losing their jobs, and children do not know whether they will be in the same school as their friends this time next year. On their behalf, I call on the Minister of Education to intervene. Each and every child has the right to an education. It is the responsibility of the Assembly to ensure that that education is of a high quality and accessible to each and every child.

On 26 September 2011, the Minister informed the House of the viability audit to be carried out on each school. I am pleased that the Minister is being proactive to ensure that the education provided to the children is of an excellent standard. In light of the viability audit, I fail to understand why this decision is being rushed through. I believe that it would be wise for the SEELB to halts its decision until a viability audit has been completed. Mr Craig rightly informed the House that, under the 1986 Order, a new education and library board should have been appointed in 2009. The Department of Education has, therefore, failed to fulfil its legal obligation.

I am keen to hear from the Minister why the commissioners are continuing in their position, considering that the practice is not in line with the legislation if they have the authority to make recommendations on school closures.

The Minister has been advised that he cannot discuss school closures until he receives development proposals, as he will adjudicate on the proposals. He has advised that once the development plans come to his desk, there will be a two-month period for discussion. However, we need the answers now. The rumour mill is rife. People are upset and fearful, and they cannot wait to get the answers that they need. I ask the Minister to step in to prevent those rumours and to give assurance to the pupils, parents and teachers.

I have particular concerns about the impact that the closures will have on the children, particularly those with special educational needs. Few schools have the facilities and skills necessary to provide the valuable education to children with special educational needs. In Knockmore Primary School, one in three children who attend the mainstream school is catered for in a special unit. School criteria are set to assess the school’s viability, and Knockmore is a viable school, ticking each checklist box. I cannot comprehend why the SEELB made the decision to close the school in the first place.

A case can be made for retaining each of the schools, but, due to time restrictions, we cannot go into the detail. However, I will conclude by saying that any decision to close the school should not be taken lightly. It should not be rushed into in order to meet departmental financial aims. Parents should be kept informed, and we need to consider the effect on the child, parent and community. Every Member who spoke today has made that quite clear.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I support the motion and the amendment. I thank my colleague Alex Easton for securing the debate and thank all who were involved in today’s discussion, which, as often happens in education matters, has proven lively and informative. If anything, it shows the close contact that Members have with their constituents on such issues and the benefits of a local legislature in which those concerns can be aired. However, perhaps the debate has come about a little late, as the decision on the future of the schools has been taken by the commissioners earlier today. I agree with Mr McNarry’s comments about how we have been treated in the House today, given that the commissioners of the board were aware of the issue being debated.

The decision to continue along the road to closure for Ballykeigle, Redburn and Dunmurry in advance of the viability audit being concluded is incredibly disappointing and devastating for the parents and staff who have put together quite amazing campaigns over the past number of weeks. That said, it is not too late for the Minister to intervene, and I understand from colleagues — it has been discussed here today — that Knockmore has been given a reprieve, and I congratulate my party colleagues and all those involved in that campaign to keep the school given its very particular circumstances.

However, it is unfortunate that Sinn Féin does not support the motion or the amendment. I think that that will sadden the rest of the House. That said, although the commissioners have come to a decision on those schools, it should not detract us from the debate at hand and the manner in which those decisions have been made.

The Minister is right. It has been evident for some time that a review of the school estate has been needed. The matter was raised time and again with the Minister of Education’s predecessor, and it was a key part of the Bain report, as was the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority. After a false start and a change of Minister, sense was finally seen over a number of key issues relating to the Education and Skills Authority, and we now have a new framework set out in the Programme for Government, which will be much more acceptable to stakeholders in education. I hope that the Minister pays heed to this debate in order that any mistakes or oversights can be addressed before it is too late.

Without doubt, we all need to consider carefully and, to a certain extent, dispassionately the rationalisation of the school estate. Daithí McKay referred to making decisions based on evidence rather than emotion. We all live in the reality of budgetary constraints and demographics that do not match our school provision. However, in saying that, I believe that every school must be given the opportunity to prove itself and that decisions must be made when boards are in possession of all the facts. No school should be prejudged, and full consideration should be given to the impact of closure on all the children attending a school and the surrounding community. That was a key tenet of the debate held just a few weeks ago on rural schools and their impact in serving communities across Northern Ireland. Mr McNarry echoed those points when he raised his concerns about the lack of rural proofing in the current process.

As my colleague and proposer of the motion, Alex Easton, pointed out, the Minister announced an immediate audit of every school in Northern Ireland under the sustainable schools policy, on 26 September. On that day, the Minister was clear that the sustainable schools policy was not simply a numbers game and that schools would be measured against the six principles of that policy. It is unfortunate, therefore, as has been debated widely today, that the SEELB stands alone in Northern Ireland as overseen by appointed commissioners and that it has apparently jumped the gun in earmarking a number of schools in the area for potential closure in advance of the completion of the schools audit.

The sword of Damocles has been hanging over a number of schools across Northern Ireland, not only in the SEELB area, for a considerable time, and that is thanks to poor leadership and strategic direction. Having spoken to a number of parents in some of those schools, I know that they are very clear as to where they feel the blame lies.

The difficulty with the Minister announcing that there are 85,000 empty school desks, which equates to 150 schools, is that reporters make matters worse and see it merely as a numbers game. The spotlight, therefore, fell on Ballykeigle in my constituency. Parents of children at that school are, understandably, despondent, but they are also angry at the lack of support and direction that they have been given over the years. There is a view that they have been left to wither on the vine. I know that there is a determination among them to fight for that school’s survival, even after the announcement today. Today’s decision will be devastating for them. Schools should be given the opportunity to put forward a case for survival, and that must be handled in an even-handed way.

Knockmore Primary School has received a reprieve today, but that highlights a wider problem regarding the Minister’s announcement and the failure to include special needs provision in the sustainability audit. Given that, a school such as Knockmore primary has its special unit artificially separated from the rest of the school, by the board, for the purposes of calculating enrolment trends. By separating those units from what is termed the mainstream, the board can disregard the rise in enrolment in those special units. The Minister needs to address that urgently.

My colleagues from North Down spoke about Redburn Primary School in Holywood, and the proposer of the motion, Alex Easton, indicated how the school served an area of economic and social disadvantage. He highlighted the massively important work that is carried out there in the field of community and social school integration. One of the key roles that a school can play is being at the heart of the community. That needs to be encouraged. Other Members highlighted their concerns about the impact that it will have on community provision, were schools to close. Mr Easton also highlighted the lack of accountability in the SEELB, compared with other boards. I concur with the positive comments made by Mr McNarry in relation to the board’s chief executive, Stanton Sloan.

In moving the amendment, Mr McDevitt spoke of the undemocratic nature of the governance arrangements within the board, as did Mr Givan and other Members. I welcome the comments that the Minister made today about looking seriously at reconstituting the board in a democratic manner. Mr McDevitt also highlighted the need to develop a holistic approach to rationalisation and challenged us to explore a variety of models for the delivery of education across Northern Ireland. Mr Maskey found some of the comments made today regrettable, but what was being asked for was not that all schools be retained, but that a process be followed that allows for equitable treatment in respect of the viability audit.

Mr Weir and Mr Givan declared interests as former board members. Perhaps, I will leave it at that. Mr Craig was correct when he stated that no option other than closure was considered with regard to the four schools being discussed today. Self-fulfilling prophecy is the correct phrase to be used in respect of what the board was wishing to achieve. I also welcome the comments from my former pupil Steven Agnew, although I see that he is no longer in his place.

I move now to what the Minister said. We recognise that the decision to reduce the AWPU (age weighted pupil unit) is not divorced from the fact that there are too many schools. We also understand that there are schools that find it difficult to pass what he refers to as stress tests, but surely that should not be the only test. In his earlier statement, the Minister referred to the boards working with other sectors when looking at area planning but, today, the South Eastern Education and Library Board was looking at schools purely in the controlled sector. I know that the Education Committee would welcome the sight of the draft terms of reference for area-based planning as soon as possible.

The House is not asking the Minister to run away from difficult decisions. We all have a mandate to be decision-makers. We are asking the Minister to ensure that all the evidence is adjudicated on in a fair and equitable manner.

In conclusion, I thank all those who took part in today’s debate. Although we recognise the reality of the situation, it does not mean that we cannot raise the legitimate concerns of those in our constituencies. To ignore them would be failing in our role as their elected representatives and advocates — a role that I take very seriously. I very much hope that, in moving forward, the Minister has listened to the concerns raised today and will act on them to ensure that his Department and the boards — not just the South Eastern Education and Library Board — act in the best interests of the children being educated in our schools. Some valid points have been raised, and they need to be looked at. Hopefully, the debate has served as an appropriate basis for that to happen.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes with concern the school closures announced within the South Eastern Education and Library Board area to date; is concerned that the board is making these decisions ahead of the outcome of the review of schools being conducted by the Department of Education; is further concerned that, unlike all other education and library boards, this board is run by commissioners with no political input; and calls on the Minister of Education to postpone any decisions until the viability audit has been completed.