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The Future of Movilla High School

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 6:45 pm, 25th October 2016

In conjunction with the Business Committee, we have given leave to Mr Mike Nesbitt to raise the matter of the future of Movilla High School. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I rise in an exceptionally positive mood to move the Adjournment debate. I welcome colleagues from the Strangford constituency and our near neighbour and now Education Minister, Mr Peter Weir. I look forward to what he will have to say at the conclusion of the debate, as indeed will Movilla's stakeholders as they seek certainty on the school's future. I also want to make an early declaration of interest: I have the honour and pleasure of serving as a member of the board of governors at Movilla High. I believe that there is nothing more important to our society than accepting the challenge of providing good and appropriate education for our children. Let me declare at the outset my motivation in calling for the debate. It is entirely uncontroversial. It is more a plea for information and certainty than anything else.

By happy coincidence, the debate takes place on the night Movilla High stages its annual achievement awards event, but this will be no ordinary achievement night. This year has something exceptional to celebrate: the best set of GCSE results in Movilla's history. The previous best was in 2007, when 37% of pupils in the school achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C. This year, however, Movilla came within an inch of 50%, and that success has echoed down the school corridors, adjusting attitudes and ambitions upwards and for the better. I hope that my Strangford MLA colleagues will join me in congratulating the pupils, the parents and wider family support groups, the school staff, teaching and non-teaching, and the governors. In particular, I applaud the staff and parent governors for their unstinting commitment and dedication.

The GCSE results merited a full-page spread in the 'Newtownards Chronicle', and I would like to read a couple of quotations into Hansard. Under the headline, "Best GCSE Results Ever at Movilla High", the reporter began with these words:

"A once struggling Newtownards secondary school on the turn-around has proved critics wrong with its best GCSE results ever".

Then, the head boy, Jack Hawthorne, who aspires to a career as an army officer, was quoted as saying:

"Movilla has been put down quite a lot in the papers, so it makes me really proud to show people what we can do. I believe that if it keeps going the way it has been, it will become a great school."

I invite Members to reflect on those words:

"a once struggling ... school on the turn-around".

The head boy, an ambitious man with a life plan, celebrating personal success yet focusing not on himself but on the school, its achievements and its potential, and there is potential. After what nobody denies was a period that did not represent Movilla's finest hour, the school is improving. Movilla is indeed on the turn. There is new leadership, and I put on record my appreciation for Ian Bell, the new head teacher; the vice-principal, Simon Lemon; and indeed the entire staff, both teaching and support.

When I reported for my first board of governors meeting, what struck me was the passion being articulated for the school by the cleaning staff, who stopped me to tell me what was wrong with the school and how to fix it. People care about Movilla and are committed to its future. But you only fix with great leadership, so, again, I identify the work of Mr Bell, who has transformed Movilla in a manner I find reminiscent of how Ken Perry has transformed Dundonald High less than five miles away. Like Ken, Ian has his school's interests running through his veins.

There have been big changes at Movilla since the school was put into intervention by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). Massive strides have been taken to address key areas of weakness. It is characteristic of all involved in Movilla that there is no attempt to turn a blind eye to the problems. Issues are acknowledged and analysed, and strategies are developed to fix the problem. The ETI has endorsed the direction of travel, as witnessed by its feedback from its interim visit earlier this month. Movilla's results from August now show that the school is close to hitting Department of Education benchmarking with targets that are appropriate for our free school meal band, which stands at 53·4%.

Those standards and achievements have been accompanied by a much better community profile. Again, nobody hides the fact that the school's standing within the community had dipped significantly for a number of historical reasons. That is also being addressed actively and vigorously, with the result that the school has seen an additional 15 pupils transfer into Movilla since 18 August. There are strong indications that Movilla is becoming a much more attractive proposition for prospective parents. That is the good news.

It is not all good news. The challenges were highlighted starkly in black and white with last week's publication of 'Providing Pathways: Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020'. The draft strategy states that the core purpose of area planning is to ensure a network of sustainable schools that are the right type, the right size and are located in the right place. The six criteria are quality educational experience; stable enrolment trends; sound financial position; strong leadership and management by the board of governors and principal; accessibility; and strong links with community.

I return to praise my colleagues on the board of governors of Movilla High School because, within a couple of days of the publication of the Minister's document, the board met to analyse the implications for the school. With no hint of sentimentality or special pleading, the senior staff and governors discussed a RAG assessment of the six criteria to determine which were red, amber or green. While we believe that we have some green indicators, we also have some amber, and there is no avoiding the fact that a sensible, realistic assessment of our financial position is red. That cannot be ignored. Indeed, it is not ignored by the school, nor, we realise, can it be ignored by the Minister, not when the pathways document makes clear the number of post-primary schools that are operating in deficit and not when we also read that, by the financial year 2018-19, 97 of the current 197 post-primary schools in Northern Ireland will be in deficit. That is 49% of all post-primary schools, and that is not a picture of a sustainable future. What we seek for Newtownards is a sustainable post-primary non-selective school.

Here is the dilemma or, to look at it another way, the challenge. We cannot ask the Minister to sustain the deficit at Movilla, but we must accept that a town the size of Newtownards must offer citizens a non-selective post-primary option within walking distance. The school has been diligent in consulting its stakeholders on options that were provided by the Education Authority, but it also consulted on an option designed by Movilla itself. That is because the board sensed that none of the options articulated by the Education Authority represented the best fit. Movilla engaged stakeholders. Of the 119 responses received by 10 May, only 4% supported any of the options provided by the EA. The remaining 96% —114 people — proposed a variation to the EA's option 4 — now commonly referred to by us as "4B" — whereby Movilla High School would close as an entity, but the school campus would continue under the management of Bangor Academy. Pupils applying to the academy whose addresses were closer to the Newtownards site would be educated there, with the exception of those with siblings already attending the Bangor campus. A common uniform would be designed, one on which the name of the campus could be recognised; for example, the name of the whole identity could be "The Academy", with the two sites identified as the Bangor and Newtownards campuses.

Respondents expressed concern regarding the original EA option 4, which would have condemned all Newtownards children and young people who did not attend Regent House School to be bussed out of town for their education. That clearly conflicts with the pathways document's stated purpose of sustainable schools of the right type and size in the right place.

All respondents felt that the loss of non-selective post-primary education to GCSE level from the town of Newtownards was unacceptable. Movilla believes that retaining a non-selective option in Newtownards while operating as part of the current Bangor Academy would quickly make a significant positive impact on enrolment.

Other measures offer the prospect of making the Movilla campus more attractive. I have been working for some time with Ards Football Club to find a solution that will bring the club home to Newtownards. After a number of false starts that left the club still stranded in Bangor, we have identified that the old gravel playing fields at Movilla are a potential new home. It would be good not only for the football club and its supporters but for the school and the community. I have sensed in my soundings broad support for the proposal, which would give the pupils easy access to a 3G pitch and a smaller practice area. However, I recognise that the proposal is now in the planning process, that there may be a number of objections and that there are issues that the planners must satisfy themselves about, such as parking, noise and light pollution. I am confident that the football club has the answers, but that is for another day and another forum. In any case, while sporting facilities may help, they are not the whole answer. Those who want the best education provision for the children of Newtownards seek answers and certainty this evening about Movilla's future. On that basis, I look forward to the Minister's comments.

There is uncertainty over the future of staff. I understand that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE) does not apply to teaching staff. However, I also believe that it would be wrong to suggest that there is a major issue, given that the children will still need to be taught and encouraged to learn and the current staff are best placed and motivated to do that. The bigger concern is what might happen if the school came under the management and control of Bangor Academy without long-term guarantees. Could it make radical decisions and reverse the direction of travel so heavily endorsed in the consultation? Specifically, can the school and the town be assured that the post-primary non-selective offer in Newtownards will continue to cover Key Stages 3 and 4 for the next 10 years at least? There is real concern that there may be an underlying ambition to turn Movilla into a junior high for 11- to 14-year-olds. The clear will of the people is for provision from 11 to 16.

In summary, the school is, rightly, celebrating its best ever GCSE results tonight, but nobody is wearing blinkers about the future. The Minister's pathway document makes clear the challenges ahead. Among them is the financial position, which is not one that Movilla can address and fix on its own. We stand ready and willing to secure imaginative and sustainable solutions. We have identified the fix: an academy with a campus in Bangor and a smaller one in Ards that allows Newtownards schoolchildren aged 11 to 16 to walk to school, where they will find a campus staffed and resourced to offer excellence in education.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

My constituency colleague Miss McIlveen and I first entered public service in, I think, 2005, when we were elected to Ards Borough Council. The future and sustainability of Movilla High School has been widely debated and discussed in the intervening years. In many respects, whilst I acknowledge and thank Mr Nesbitt for securing the debate, it is a great disappointment that we have to have it at all. If we were to step back and address the House not as Members wishing to defend public service provision in our constituency, the notion that any town anywhere in Northern Ireland with a population of around 30,000 would not have a non-selective secondary school would be laughed at or thought of as ridiculous. However, here we are, as we have been for 10-plus years, debating, discussing and considering what a viable future for Movilla High School might be. A town the size of Newtownards should be able, and it is well able, to sustain a non-selective secondary school.

In many ways, when we see the investment that there has been in other new educational infrastructure, not too far away from Newtownards, it is a disgrace — particularly in the context of the closure some years ago of Scrabo High School, which was partly to help Movilla to be sustainable in the longer term — that there has not been the commensurate investment in the infrastructure in Newtownards. Whilst it is not the whole answer to the problem, by any means, it could have helped in making the school sustainable in the longer term.

Those of us who represent the Strangford constituency are all well versed and very familiar with the many problems and issues that have beset Movilla High School over the last number of years. There is the fact that it had some 440 suspensions in the 2014-15 academic year. Attendance at the school is well below the Northern Ireland average. Attainment in English is 30% below the Northern Ireland average for similar schools, and in maths, the achievement is around 25% lower than the Northern Ireland average for similar schools.

It has had many changes of leadership over the last number of years. I acknowledge the new leadership in place and the good work that they are doing. Miss McIlveen informs me that the new deputy principal is someone who she used to teach. I am sure that has some bearing on the recent success, although she is too modest to say that herself. I am not sure how she feels about how old she is becoming given that the new deputy principal is somebody who she taught. I acknowledge and recognise the new leadership. I know Mr Bell, having been a former member of the board of governors at Movilla High School, and you would be hard-pressed to find somebody who is as committed to their school as Mr Bell.

It has had huge uncertainty, not least because of those changes in leadership. It has gone through some very well publicised controversies in recent times. They were well publicised in the media around the teacher strikes, assaults and so on, which did nothing for the reputation of the school or to attract new pupils to the school. As Mr Nesbitt mentioned, that all culminated in the school going into formal intervention in May 2014.

Over those 10 years or more, there have been many attempts — Mr Nesbitt referred to some them — to find viable solutions and ways forward for the school that would make it more sustainable in the longer term. One of the ideas that was put forward by the authorities at the time, the former South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB), probably in and around 2006 or 2007, was a suggestion that Donaghadee High School, which was not viable at the time, should be merged with Movilla and a new campus built. I hope that we do not look back with regret that that opportunity was not seized back in those days.

Whilst, of course, we are interested as Members who represent the Strangford constituency and the particular issues around Movilla, I do not think that we should take this problem and set it completely outside the wider education context. Yes, there are particular problems in Movilla, but it is part of a wider problem, particularly in respect of the attainment of young, Protestant, working-class boys in our education system. The Minister, I am sure, is well aware of the problems that that particular cohort of students faces and will wish, in his term in office, to come forward with some new ideas and innovative thoughts as to how those issues might be addressed.

There are glimmers of hope in the better exam results that Mr Nesbitt referred to, and that is good and encouraging. There are, of course, some examples from elsewhere. I think particularly of Ashfield Boys' High School, where there has been a turnaround and the seemingly impossible has been achieved. Even though the situation from some perspectives may look desperate for Movilla High School, it is not completely without hope.

I am sure the Minister will remind us of his wider policy of area planning and the need for Movilla to work closely and together with other schools in the constituency. Lest those who are not from the constituency think that there are not good schools in the Strangford constituency, I say that there are many good schools in that constituency. Nendrum College, in my home town of Comber, and Glastry College in the Ards peninsula are very good schools, achieving consistently good results. There is hope and opportunity for Movilla to work in partnership with those schools or, indeed, with other schools to try to raise standards and give it some sustainability in the longer term.

We have to acknowledge, as Mr Nesbitt did, that this is an uphill struggle for Movilla High School. It has been an uphill struggle for many years. We have to acknowledge that pupils and parents are making a choice and heading in other directions outside the constituency and beyond Newtownards to have their children educated. That is a tide that is very tough and very challenging to stop, never mind put in retreat. As somebody who served on the board of governors of the school and saw the passion and dedication of the staff, I think that we all owe it to them to work hard and fight for the future of the school and to ensure that a town the size of Newtownards has a non-selective secondary school that it can be proud of.

Photo of Philip Smith Philip Smith UUP

I thank my colleague for bringing forward the topic for debate this evening. It is an important debate about an institution that is crucial to the town of Newtownards. As Mr Hamilton said, Movilla High School has had a difficult time in recent years, with falling rolls and some difficult issues played out, unfortunately, in the media. I have to say, however, that my experience of the school has been very positive. When I was the Mayor of Ards a couple of years ago, I attended a number of events at the school, including its prize distribution evening, and I was always impressed by the efforts of the pupils and the creativity and enthusiasm of the teachers. Where else would you get a teacher using the production of a school Lambeg drum decorated with a famous Ards man who served in the SAS in the Second World War to gain children's interest in both history and music? Undoubtedly, the passion and creativity is there in the staff to engage the young people.

I have to say that the catchment area for Movilla High School is not the best set against the performance of the super output areas. A number of the areas in its catchment fall into the bottom 10% of deprived areas for education and skills in Northern Ireland — places such as Glen and Scrabo 1 and 2 — and there are other areas, such as central Ards, that are not much higher in the league table. That provides the school with undoubted challenges, but, as has been mentioned, as the only secondary school in a town of nearly 30,000 people, it needs help to grow and flourish. As Mr Nesbitt said, a new head has been appointed, and there are exciting projects in development, such as the proposal for Ards Football Club to develop a new ground on the site that could be used by the school as well. There are a number of positives.

My concern is for the school and its future and for the town, but it is also for the wider area. I recall, when I was on council, the SEELB, as it then was, produced a draft area plan for post-primary schools. It showed that the old Ards Borough Council area had a net loss of over 2,000 pupils leaving the area every morning to travel to schools in Belfast, Bangor or even the old Down District Council area. Of those, 1,700 were from the controlled sector. There is therefore a massive latent demand for secondary school provision in the area. The challenge is obviously to get people to go to the local school. The same report also projected that pupil numbers were due to rise at secondary level by over 5% in the next decade. More importantly, there is a massive growth in the requirement for sixth-form provision in the area. At the time, it was estimated at 35% growth in the controlled sector over the next decade. There is a need for provision in the town, and that has been undoubtedly proven by the Members who have spoken. The challenge, of course, is to help Movilla High School grow and attract more pupils. I hope that that journey, with the recent appointments and some of the positive news about exams, for example, has now started.

My colleague outlined a key option for taking this forward and ensuring that secondary provision can be secured for the town. I agree with him. It needs to be something that guarantees provision for pupils in the key stages from 11 to 16. I certainly support the school. My experience of it has been very positive. There is an ongoing need for a secondary school in the town, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say to see what actions we can put in place to support that school as it grows in the future.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 7:15 pm, 25th October 2016

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the topic this evening. I offer apologies on behalf of my colleague Kellie Armstrong, the Alliance Strangford MLA, who regrets that she is unable to be here this evening. As Alliance spokesperson for education, I am glad to contribute to the debate.

Alliance has a vision for a first-class integrated education system that supports equality of opportunity for everyone to reach their potential. That includes the children and young people of Movilla High School in Newtownards. The Education Minister recently set out his priorities for area planning in 'Providing Pathways: Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020'. That should create opportunity for innovative and sustainable provision not only in Ards and the north Down area but across the whole school estate. It is, however, vital that local communities are involved in and listened to about what happens with education provision in their area. This evening has been a good opportunity for governors, elected representatives and all stakeholders involved in Movilla High School to put their views forward on the school and Newtownards.

We need proposals that are imaginative and put the needs of pupils at the centre of consideration, if the future of the school system in Northern Ireland is to be underpinned by an evidence-based plan and inclusive community consultation. The Minister himself has said:

"the status quo is not an option." — [Official Report (Hansard), 17 October 2016, p43, col 2].

We need to see innovative solutions in 'Providing Pathways'. The Education Authority will develop proposals to address school provision where sustainability is an issue. Alliance believes that funding should be directed to the pupil, that pupil needs must come first and that it must give children the best educational opportunities, provision and infrastructure possible. There are, I believe, six controlled post-primary schools in Ards and north Down, and Movilla High School is the only post-primary non-selective school in Newtownards. The Education Authority, therefore, has the ability to look at its existing school estate to consider an innovative way to ensure that appropriate education provision can continue in the best possible form available for children and young people in the area and in the right place, which may be across more than one campus.

Movilla High School has, as mentioned, faced challenges, but it has unique circumstances to overcome. It has a higher than average number of children in receipt of free school meals, a significant number of pupils with special educational needs and accommodation that is in need of investment and improvement. However, I join colleagues in welcoming the improvements and the progress that have been made, and I, of course, join them in congratulating everyone at Movilla High School on the best GCSE results it has had in its history. I welcome the leadership being shown by Jack Hawthorne, Mr Bell and the vice-principal, Simon Lemon, who says that the results are evidence that the changes that have been introduced are indeed bearing fruit.

It is, therefore, imperative that the Education Authority works to consider an innovative alternative solution to generate a sustainable, effective and non-selective post-primary solution that meets the needs of pupils and enables the local provision of suitable education to continue in the Newtownards area. I encourage the Minister to work with the Education Authority and all stakeholders to ensure that a proper plan for provision for children and young people in the area is put in place.

In closing, it is impossible not to note with concern a pattern of potential closures of controlled non-selective post-primary schools, and the Assembly is required and entitled to ask why that is occurring and to look for solutions. I welcome the fact that the Education Committee is undertaking an inquiry into educational underachievement, with a look at post-primary transfer as well. Hopefully, we will be able to make a mature contribution to some of these issues.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will be commenting on various things, but one thing I probably will not comment on, as a Bangor supporter, is the future of Ards Football Club.

I do not agree with everything that Mr Lyttle says, but I will pick up on one point: our principal focus should always be on the pupil and on providing that pupil with high-quality access to high-quality education.

Last week saw the launch of the Education Authority’s (EA) draft strategic area plan, and it is out for consultation. While I have commented on it, the pedant in me will say that it is neither mine nor the Department's, it is the Education Authority's plan, so just to correct that. As I said in my statement to the Assembly, the document that has been produced highlights, for the first time, the strategic issues facing our education system in the primary, post-primary and special education sectors. I clearly stated the importance of helping communities understand the high-level issues that need to be addressed so that they can contribute to the solutions that are needed. The document listed the special schools but did not refer to any particular school. I would encourage everyone in the community, and elected representatives and schools, to contribute to the consultation during the discussion on the draft area plan and when more localised plans come forward. I want people in the community to have information on the context and know that area solutions are required if we are going to ensure that all pupils have access to equality of education and fulfil their potential. It is about looking at what is best for the overall area and what is best for the pupil.

It is therefore a little bit regrettable that just one week later we get a spotlight from one Member on a single school rather than focusing on the wider issues and outcomes that need to be addressed. Mr Nesbitt talked about wanting to get certainty tonight. Mr Nesbitt is either showing a lack of knowledge of the process or is, alternatively, being a little bit mischievous. He mentioned a range of options for Movilla, whether that is closure, any of the four options of the EA, the 4B option, or indeed any option. He should know full well that if any of those options come forward, that would be a development proposal and, as Minister for Education, I would have to give a legal ruling on it. Therefore, I cannot be drawn into comment on any individual school which could be perceived as predetermining any future decision. I am a little bit disappointed that the Member does not know that.

It is clear that the provision of education at Movilla, particularly for its pupils, is an important issue, because of the impact on individual pupils. But, focusing on a single school can be counterproductive. It can highlight and heighten the concerns of parents, pupils, teachers and the wider community. It can unintentionally focus on what is negative about a school to the exclusion of what is being achieved, often in very difficult and challenging circumstances. The Member has highlighted a number of the issues that the school is facing. I welcome the improvement in its results, but it has also been acknowledged in the debate that it is a school that is in formal intervention; it has a projected deficit over £1 million, which has been highlighted; and it has had a problem with enrolment.

Setting that aside, and looking at the wider context, it is incumbent on the board of governors of every school to ensure that it is effectively managed. The first duty is to ensure that pupils receive a quality education. I want boards of governors and principals, of whatever school, to examine critically the sustainability issues facing their school and how they can be tackled to benefit pupils. Every school should work with the managing authority to ensure that sustainability issues are proactively addressed.

I now return to the situation in Newtownards. Philip Smith highlighted the fact that, in Newtownards, with a population of 28,000 to 29,000 people, there is clearly an issue about the post-primary provision to meet the needs of young people in the town, but let us put it in context: Newtownards is larger than Newry City, Coleraine, Antrim, Omagh, Banbridge or Armagh. It is inconceivable that the town does not require and cannot support a good school. As indicated in the catchment area, enough pupils reside in the local area to support a large and vibrant controlled post-primary school, yet, every day in Newtownards, young people leave the town to attend other controlled post-primary schools in Comber, Bangor, Dundonald and, indeed, parts of Down.

It is a perfect example of why we need strategic planning rather than focusing in on individual schools, and why we need sustainable schools serving pupils well. When we look at that, it is important to ensure that, whatever schools we have, particularly at post-primary level in years 8 to 12, provide a sufficiently broad and balanced curriculum.

I want local communities and elected representatives to engage in meaningful and mature debate about what is best for our young people to equip them for further education, training, work and life in the 21st century. I want them to let their views be known, and I reiterate that I urge everyone to engage actively in the Education Authority consultation on the draft area plan to help to shape future education provision in the best interests of all young people. When we reach the point at which there is a finalised area plan and we move towards more localised detailed plans, I want people to engage with that.

The process cannot be about sectors, managing and planning authorities or even Departments. Ultimately, it has to be about young people and their needs. I want our young people to have a first-class education system that develops their knowledge and skills and draws out their talents. If we are to achieve the Programme for Government outcome:

“to give our children and young people the best start in life”,

we need to take these steps in a strategic manner. The key point is that we need to ensure that schools are serving our children and young people.

Adjourned at 7.28 pm.