Forge Integrated Primary School

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 15th November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 2:00 pm, 15th November 2016

2. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister of Education to outline the timescales to approve development proposals to relocate Forge Integrated Primary School. (AQO 657/16-21)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for her question. The Education Authority (EA) published three development proposals for Forge Integrated Primary School on 20 October 2016. I am sure that the Member is aware of that, but, for the benefit of the House, the three proposals are to relocate the school to the former Knockbreda High School site; to establish a 52-place part-time nursery unit; and to establish an autistic spectrum disorder centre at Key Stage 1 and a general learning support centre at Key Stage 2. The publication on 20 October triggered a two-month objection consultation period, during which my Department will take receipt of any issues that have been raised, including objections and expressions of support for each application. The objection period, or the development proposal period, will end on 20 December, and my officials will then compile and assess all pertinent information before making a recommendation to me. I will consider all the information and advice before taking a decision in the context of my Department's statutory duties, stated priorities and policies.

As the Member will appreciate, as the final decision maker, I will legally have to give a decision on that, so I cannot discuss the details of the individual development proposals today. I can assure you, however, that I will endeavour to complete the process that I have outlined to you as quickly as possible, but the time taken can vary, depending on the individual circumstances and complexity of each proposal. As with all development proposals, my decision will conclude the process. The issues around the implementation, if implementation is required, of my decision are then a matter for the Education Authority, as Forge is a controlled integrated school.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you, Minister. I ask what is almost a hypothetical question. Do you believe that the capital funding for this proposal could fit within the shared education campuses programme, and, if not, from where do you imagine funding will come?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am tempted to say that I have enough difficulty with real questions without hypothetical ones being added to the mix.

As part of Fresh Start, there are tranches of available funding. Forge Integrated has been selected to receive a new school build under the Fresh Start funding announcement that was made in March 2016. That new-build project is being led by the Education Authority. Such projects undergo a standard set of actions, and I suppose that the advantage is that the more the Department and the Education Authority are directly involved in new school builds, the more familiar they will get with the processes. The project for the new build for Forge Integrated is in the early stages, and the Department continues to work with the EA as required. On 27 April this year, an engagement event was held with all the schools — I think that there are15 in total — for which funding under Fresh Start was announced on 23 March. The next step is site searches being commissioned, and that is the case with any new capital build. Members occasionally raise with me the point that there is a very obvious place for a particular school to go, but site searches are always commissioned with any new capital build, and work is under way to develop procurement documentation to engage integrated design teams. As with any proposal, barring any change that I have no control over, once a school has been announced for a new build, it will happen. It is not a question of there being any doubt about the capital build. Legally, the development proposals will have to be considered separately.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

Given the consistent high demand and, in some cases, oversubscription, does the Minister feel that there is adequate provision of integrated education places in south Belfast?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am aware of the broader issues. It would be difficult to deal with the issues of the precise level of availability in south Belfast without touching on the development proposals. In dealing with development proposals, I cannot do anything that can be either taken as being in favour of or against a particular development proposal. There is a limited amount of detail that I can get into. There has been some work, which was commissioned by the previous Minister, on a strategic review of integrated education, and I look forward to looking into the detail of that when I am able to deal with it.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP 2:15 pm, 15th November 2016

I thank the Minister for his answers. He has already touched on this, but will he outline how the Department of Education will ensure that Fresh Start Agreement funding is fully maximised?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I want to make sure that it is fully maximised. When it was secured by the Executive, it came both with opportunities and constraints. It is probably fair to say that there was not great enthusiasm in the Treasury for signing up to everything in Fresh Start. The funding is for integrated and shared education, and there will be some funding for shared housing. I want to make sure that the maximum amount is used. We continue to engage with the Northern Ireland Office and are working to identify future projects. From that point of view, the initial call resulted in 15. Further calls have since gone out; indeed, I initiated a new call for shared education campuses just a few weeks ago.

There are ways of widening how things are done. At the moment, the focus of Fresh Start is on pure new capital funding, but we could, for example, ensure that there was a role for Fresh Start in the integrated sector by widening out the pool for the school enhancement programme. There is also the issue of end-year flexibility, which is directly outside my control; we want to raise that with the Northern Ireland Office. The provision in Fresh Start is £50 million for each of 10 years; if it is not spent in a particular year, the money effectively goes unspent. A new capital build, in particular, is not something that you can start on one day and have the money spent within a year; it takes time. So the more flexibility we can get from the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury, the more we can maximise the amount going into school build via the Fresh Start Agreement.