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T4. Mr Aiken asked the Minister of Education to outline the reasons for the proposed closure of half of our eight outdoor residential activity centres, particularly because many studies have shown that building relationships, building leadership skills and giving our children a much-valued sense of the outdoors are key to development. (AQT 479/16-21)
There are 12 outdoor centres; they are being reduced from 12 to eight. The Member seems to have missed out on four of them. The position is that it is a proposal by the Education Authority. There was an assessment in 2015 of the needs with regard to outdoor activity that concluded that we needed about eight instead of 12, so this follows through from that. There is no doubt that that is also a product of the pressures that are there financially. The Education Authority this year has had its budget reduced by about £20 million, and there is £20 million of pressures. That is the situation with the overall budget. To be fair to the previous Minister, something I have tried to do as well is, as much as possible, protect the front-line schools budget. That means that — probably disproportionately, to be fair — the Education Authority has had to bear that weight of responsibility. <BR/>Everyone is aware of the good work being done in outdoor education centres. There will still be availability of that through any new scheme, but it will be the situation that, if the Education Authority has to make a level of cuts, it is also incumbent on people. There are certain things that can happen in voluntary redundancy and that type of thing, but that will not close the entire gap. If, for example, as a result of this exercise, there is a determination that these are not the right cuts, there will also be an onus on people to say, in a responsible fashion, where the other cuts should come from. We are at the consultation process, and those are the arguments that should be made. Another issue that people will have to consider is whether, if there is a reduction in outdoor centres, these are the right ones to remove. That has also got to be borne in mind in any discussion.
I apologise to the Minister; I meant eight large outdoor activity centres rather than the overall number.
With regard to your answer, one of the questions that we have to ask on the identified savings of £1·5 million is whether there are specific areas that you are looking to use those savings from. Like some of the other activities that we are doing, are you looking to use those for things like adventurous training, leadership and teamwork and how can we do that?
It is not a question of that money being hypothecated. First of all, I will indicate that the issue is that the Education Authority has a budget. The decision on the outdoor centres is a decision, ultimately, for them. The issue is that they have to live within their budget. To be fair, there would not be the same compelling financial case for change if it was simply a question of £1·5 million or whatever amount of saving simply being redirected into another activity. The argument would then be that what is there is not broke so it does not need fixing. The issue is that there are pressures for a range of activities, such as the increasing costs of special needs education, which are going up year-on-year. As for the overall budget share, the Department's budget was reduced in 2016-17, and the Education Authority, to be fair to it, bore a disproportionate amount of that cut. They have to make ends meet, so it is not a question of recycling the money; it is about trying to ensure that they remain within budget. It is a requirement that they have, and it is one that I have with my budget, too.