The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. As two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive, so if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.
I beg to move
That this Assembly, noting the failure of the attempt at area-based planning for schools in the previous mandate, expresses its concern at the proposals contained in 'Providing Pathways Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020'; believes that schools in rural areas will be most at risk from the proposals; calls on the Minister of Education to detail what rural proofing measures were undertaken during the development of the proposed area plan; and further calls on the Minister to introduce legislation for a statutory presumption against the closure of rural schools similar to the protections already in place in England and Scotland.
It is with great concern that the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP bring this motion to the Floor of the Chamber. The draft strategic area plan for school provision, as put forward by the Minister of Education, is flawed. It is concerning that it is based on the same sustainable schools policy that underpinned the previous area plan and was called into serious disrepute by the Public Accounts Committee only a few months ago. It shows a complete failure on the part of the Minister to seriously address the issues that are faced by primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland, not least of which is the funding crisis, but, importantly, there are also systemic problems with underachievement and educational inequalities. Instead, it threatens struggling schools with closure, targets rural communities and creates a sense of panic in the schools system that takes the focus away from children in the classroom.
Our first major concern is that the plan is based on bad statistics. In answer to questions for written answer from the Ulster Unionist Party leader, the Minister indicated that 439 primary schools and 104 post-primary schools will be in budget deficit by 2019. According to the sustainable schools policy, that is a measure of sustainability. First, while all those schools will be showing a budget deficit in 2019, 11% of the primary schools on the list are actually showing clear evidence that they are reducing their deficits, so to put them on the list is particularly unfair. Perhaps a little more time and support would allow those schools to get back.
Another important issue is that 80% of the post-primary schools on the list, and 88% of primary schools, are in rural areas — 88%, Mr Deputy Speaker. What are those areas to do if their schools are attacked with closures? Where will those children go? Thousands of children will be dispersed into alternative schools. Where will they be taught? Out on the tarmac?
The consultation document states that:
"The education budget has been unable to provide the level of investment in the exiting estate ... that is required."
The new plan will change nothing. Unless the Minister has a few billion in his back pocket to fund capital development, I do not understand how this is to be orchestrated. What savings are to be made? The plan states that 80% of the budget given to schools is used for staff salaries, but the same amount of teachers will be needed to teach the same amount of pupils. To my knowledge, the only saving that may be made is to the small schools support factor, which sits at 3·82% of the aggregated schools budget. To be honest, the Minister is fooling no one if he is going to insist that that measly sum makes the dispersal of thousands of children worthwhile.
A second concern, and I have said this before, is that any area plan should be proposed with gusto, highlighting fabulous opportunities that should be forthcoming and educational advantages that should be realised. How, as the Minister has suggested, will the closure of schools improve the quality of education? We still have no indication of this. It is simply presumed that bigger schools are better schools and smaller schools are inferior. I suggest that many teachers, principals and, indeed, parents and pupils will be offended by this statement. The Minister suggests in the plan that we continue to face some challenges, and, indeed, there are eight listed in the consultation document. I am not in disagreement with him on the challenges listed. Indeed, I could add a few myself. What I am not clear on is how exactly the proposal, which would see the decimation of rural schools, would solve these problems.
Rather than addressing the funding crisis, the Minister is using it to drive his own agenda of school closures. He is creating a state of panic and fear in rural areas, where parents are wondering whether the school that their children attend will still be around in three, four or five years. If a school is labelled as unsustainable, as the Minister has done, it drives parents and pupils away in fear and plunges the school into a further state of crisis.
Legislation such as that which we are proposing was passed in England in 2006 and in Scotland in 2014, and, in Wales, the current Education Secretary, just last week, announced changes to the school organisation code, which will see the inclusion of a presumption against rural school closures.
The rest of the UK has recognised the special place that rural schools have in their communities. They recognise that pupils in rural areas deserve the same opportunities as children in other areas and recognise the challenges they face, such as small pupil numbers, budget and resource pressures, and greater difficulty in recruiting teachers, head teachers and staff. Rather than punishing rural areas with threats, fear and school closures, the Minister needs to work with schools to find innovative ways of ensuring that a quality education can be delivered in rural areas.
In Wales, 78 rural schools have closed since 2010, which is approximately 20% of the school stock in these areas. Many argue that the presumption against rural school closures has come too late, as some children as young as four and five are travelling for up to an hour to reach the nearest school. I do not want to see that happening in Northern Ireland. I would like to see children in rural areas protected against this. A statutory presumption against rural school closures will go some distance in ensuring that this takes place.
The legislation in England has been in place since 2006 under section 15(4) of the Education and Inspections Act. This legislation does not mean that a rural school will never close, but the case for closure should be strong, and a proposal must be clearly in the best interests of educational provision in the area.
When producing a proposal, the proposer must carefully consider the likely effect of the closure of the school in the local community; educational standards at the school and the likely effect on standards at neighbouring schools; the availability and likely cost of transport to other schools; any increase in the use of motor vehicles, which is likely to result from the closure of the school and the likely effects of any such increase; and any alternatives to the closure of the schools.
These are simple checks and balances that can help ensure that closing a rural school is really the only option available and that all other options and costs to the community have been considered. In 10, 20 or 30 years' time, when many of us are long gone, there will be another Education Minister with his own agenda and perhaps another strategic area plan. Legislative measures such as the examples that we have suggested will give long-term transparency and accountability around decisions being made on rural schools, putting simple checks and balances in place to ensure that all options have been considered.
At the end of the day, this is the education of our children that we have in our hands. Indeed, the Minister has more responsibility than any of us, and I hope that he is not afraid of accountability. Is he afraid that a measure such as this will expose flaws in his agenda? If so, he has serious questions that he needs to ask of his proposals. If he is not afraid, he will have no issue with putting protections in place for those living in rural areas.
In conclusion, I hope that this afternoon's debate can be a constructive one. We all want an improved education system for our children. Mature decisions need to be made with regard to planning for the future — mature decisions not masked in fear.
Leave out all after "Assembly" and insert "notes the publication of the Education Authority’s 'Providing Pathways Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020'; acknowledges the concerns that there will be over the proposals, particularly in rural areas; believes that every pupil, regardless of whether they live in a rural or an urban area, should have access to quality education in a viable and sustainable school, contributing to achieving the draft Programme for Government outcome to give our children and young people the best start in life; believes that the best way to achieve this is through an effective area planning process involving managing authorities and sectoral support bodies; acknowledges sensitivities around the provision of the schools estate in both rural and other areas; and calls on the Minister of Education to bring forward a strategic small schools initiative to ensure accessibility to a quality education, particularly for isolated communities."
I do not think that there is a single Member who will disagree with the sentiment in the amendment that every pupil, regardless of where they live, rural and urban, should have access to quality education in a viable and sustainable school in order to give our children and young people the best start in life. I am certain that every one of us could put our hands up for that. Where we differ, of course, is on how that might be best achieved. I and my party, the DUP, feel that the most effective way of achieving that is through an area-planning process involving managing authorities and sectoral support bodies, as stated in our amendment. We do, of course, acknowledge that that must be done in a most sensitive way, particularly for isolated communities.
That is why we are calling on the Minister of Education today to commit to bringing forward a strategic small schools initiative to ensure accessibility to a quality education, particularly for isolated communities. Small rural schools are and have been a vital part of life in Northern Ireland. Indeed, they are the heartbeat of their community. Alas, over the past 40 years, many of our small rural schools have disappeared. As a councillor for some 40 years, I can well remember many battles fought in an attempt to retain those schools, but, owing to lack of children attending, some rural schools were not sustainable. School closures were not confined to rural schools, as some of our village schools were impacted on as well.
I am not saying that a school, either urban or rural, should never be closed. To adopt that position is just to bury one's head in the sand. What I am saying is that, before a school, particularly a rural school, is closed, all the issues must be carefully considered, not least the direct and indirect impact that such a decision will have on its community. Rural schools play a key role in local communities, particularly where small, isolated communities live alongside one another. Such schools are often the focal point for communities, and their proposed closure causes concern among the people who live there. Removing a school from a village will leave a big hole in that community. Rural proofing must be carried out before a rural school is considered for closure, and certainly before a decision is published, as adverse publicity could impact on a school. Many jobs can be lost as a result of a school closing: teachers; local caretakers; groundspeople; school secretaries; classroom assistants; and bus drivers. Sometimes those are part-time posts, but, nevertheless, they are important to the holder of the post and our rural communities. All those positions play a vital and important role in our rural schools.
I represent a very rural constituency. I think that I am right when I say that it is the largest in the UK geographically. It has to be said that, during the long years of the Troubles, many families living in border areas were compelled to leave their home for security reasons. That impacted on children attending rural, isolated schools, and I have no doubt that the terrorist campaign that was waged was directly responsible for the closure of some of our rural primary schools, particularly along the Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh border areas. It is also true that some of the teaching staff in isolated rural areas were brutally murdered. We should all reflect on the impact that those serious incidents had on families and children across the whole community who were connected to the schools affected. My party leader was caught up in a bomb attack on a school bus that she was travelling on when on the school run. I ask you what mindset was at work when a school bus was targeted by terrorists. Hopefully, that sort of activity is now behind us, and we have truly moved into an era in which such incidents are never again repeated.
We must have an efficient, effective, acceptable and trustworthy strategic area plan. It must be one that the Assembly and our community has total respect for and confidence in. It should be the basis for educating all the children from our community, regardless of their social, political or religious background or intellectual ability; it should be all-encompassing and designed to ensure that no one is left behind. I accept that that is a huge challenge, but it is hopefully one that the Assembly, the Minister — I believe that he is — and the Education Authority are up for. I have said that I want to see an education provision where no child is left behind; that is something that I believe in most sincerely. In my book, it must include those on the margins; it has to reach out to the less privileged, if that is the correct terminology; and it must be all-inclusive to include the post-primary, primary and special education sectors. I am convinced that, if that is achieved, a massive step in the right direction will have been taken.
We should all be looking for an assurance from the Minister today that no pupil will be disadvantaged because of the location of their school and that rural communities will receive equality of treatment when accessing education that meets their needs and prepares them for their future. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the important facet of rural proofing in taking education provision forward. If I may, I will impress upon the Minister that, if and when a school's numbers are assessed as unsustainable, consideration should be given to its retention as it may be vital for the area. I do not for one moment underestimate the challenges that our rural schools face. However, I am persuaded that, with the right approach alongside responsible and creative thinking, our rural communities can enjoy the same effective delivery of education as their urban counterparts.
I thank the Member for giving way. He will agree with me in finding it strange for the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, to come to the House to talk about legislation and then, in the same vein, about treating everybody fairly. When they were in charge, they introduced article 64 of the Education Reform Order 1989, which we are now encumbered by and which places a duty on the Department to promote and facilitate Irish-medium and integrated schools. Therefore, when it comes to dealing with schools, the Minister cannot act because of how he is shackled by what those two parties signed up to in the Belfast Agreement.
Unfortunately, inconsistencies are not a new phenomenon in the House. I understand clearly what the Member has said, and I thank him for it.
I am encouraged that Minister Weir has visited many of our schools since he took up his post and will have witnessed at first hand the superb job that principals, teachers and others do. All of them take pride in their schools and give of their best to ensure that, under their charge, their children get the best start in their education. Under the common funding scheme (CFS), school funding is very often a matter of debate. I am of the opinion that the Minister should examine the CFS to ensure that it is fit for purpose and that schools are being adequately funded to deliver the best possible outcomes. Our rural schools are vital for the sustainability of rural communities. I suspect that that will be emphasised by most, if not all, who participate in today's debate, whether they are in favour of the motion or the DUP amendment.
In conclusion, I believe that one thing that we can all agree on is that we want the best possible outcomes for our children and young people as they prepare themselves for a very competitive world. I trust that, as a result of today's debate, we can go forward united in our determination to achieve these outcomes.
Leave out all after "mandate," and insert "calls on the Minister for Education to ensure that the findings of the Chief Inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate’s report are taken into consideration and applied when looking at the sustainability of rural schools and that a proper, efficient and effective consultation with local rural communities is completed prior to any decision being taken to close or merge smaller rural schools."
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I confirm that we are unable to support the original motion because it calls for the protection of the schools estate; it is about buildings rather than what is best for our rural children. I live in a rural community; as a child, I attended a rural school; I have a child who attended a rural primary school and who is now at a rural post-primary school. As a rural dweller and an MLA who serves the largely rural constituency of Strangford, I have fought, and continue to fight, for services to be located in rural areas.
I believe in the sustainability of rural communities. During Question Time, I have questioned various Ministers to ask what they are doing to ensure that rural proofing applies to policies. However, I cannot support the ongoing provision of a school in a rural area if it is not meeting the educational needs of our children. The official Opposition motion calls for the retention of schools in rural areas but does not mention the educational opportunities for children. I want the best for our children and that is not achieved by sitting in a largely empty room, in an underfunded declining education system, struggling to survive in order to keep buildings open.
Not just at the moment. As the chief inspector has said:
"All learners need, and indeed are entitled to, the highest quality of education and training if Northern Ireland is to aspire to being world class. I believe we have excellent capacity within and across sectors of education and training that will, if appropriately applied, help us to meet and resolve the challenges we face in order to be even better."
In some cases, the future of rural schools is called into question because the numbers attending are so low that the school is simply no longer viable. The number of teaching staff is affected and children no longer have access to an education system that will enhance their skills, talents and abilities. It is not good enough to state that a rural school must be protected. The motion calls simply for the protection of the school estate and does not mention the very heart of the issue: what is going to be better for rural children?
Not just at the moment. In the chief inspector's report for 2014-16, she states in relation to rural schools in paragraph 33:
"There is also a small difference in inspection outcomes between smaller and larger primary and post-primary schools, with larger schools tending to do better in inspections than the smallest. For primary schools, this difference only becomes meaningful at low enrolment levels and for rural primaries between those with less than 105 pupils and those above."
I do not believe that rural children should be put at a disadvantage, just because some people want to retain a building in an area. The needs of the child should come first.
In the PAC 'Report on Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools', recommendation 4 confirms the need for the Department to commission a review of the approved enrolment figure recorded for every school. It is extremely important that the Department has up-to-date records of the current and expected enrolment for each school. This will ensure that appropriate area-based planning is considered and positive action can be taken, well in advance, to support rural schools to take steps to safeguard against falling below the approved enrolment figures and the negative impact that that will have for pupils, or consider alternatives, whatever they may be. At all times, the matter must be based on a child-centred approach, not to protect a building or jobs, and that applies to schools in urban and rural areas. The PAC report recommends, in recommendation 1, that there is transparency, consistency and clarity in decision-making, based on both quantitative and qualitative data. In recommendation 5, it repeats that decision-making should be based on robust evidence and data collection.
If fact-based evidence is available, the Department, the school and the school community, including families and prospective pupils' families, will have a full picture as to why a rural school may no longer be viable. Schools, particularly primary schools, are deeply seated in the communities that they serve. If evidence suggests that enrolment numbers are in decline, the community must be made aware of the issue and be involved in the decision as to how to provide the best education for children. In recommendation 8, the report confirms the need for an engagement strategy or, as it calls it, a "'buying in' to the process" or, as I prefer, community consultation. In the Alliance amendment, we clearly state that:
"a proper, efficient and effective consultation with local rural communities is completed", as part of any consideration to merge or even close a school.
The Department of Education and the Education Authority need to engage in a meaningful consultation and not just pay lip service to local communities. Local communities need to feel that they are part of the process of helping to decide what is best for their young people and what education provision they want to see in the local community. Far too often, schools hear that they are being earmarked for closure without proper support from either managing authority. A one-size-fits-all model will not work; and what works in one rural community may not work in another. That is why it is vital that the community is involved in any discussions about the future of education in their area.
The only rural school in this country that we should give special consideration to is St Mary's Primary School on Rathlin. The reasons for supporting a primary school on Rathlin are clear. The island is cut off from the mainland regularly, making it impossible for primary-school children to travel to and from school each day. Unlike post-primary provision, there is no boarding option for primary-school children in Ballycastle or the surrounding area. Therefore, it is right that we should support a primary school on Rathlin for the small number of children living there. The school should be protected because of its unique island setting. The motion refers to protections against closure as used in England and Scotland.
I thank the Member for giving way and for mentioning Rathlin, which is in my constituency. So that the Member is well versed, I welcome the fact that Rathlin has increased its pupil intake to 10. It is making progress because the community sees it as its local school and because social housing has been delivered on the island. It is a good news story, and I thank the Member for giving support for Rathlin.
We have to remember that the scheme used in England and Wales for small, isolated rural schools was created to protect schools like the one on Rathlin because of their unique geographic location. We do not have areas like the Highlands and Islands of Scotland or north Yorkshire. We have only Rathlin. There are children in Scotland and England who have to travel in excess of 20 miles — sometimes many, many more — to get to a primary school. I ask each and every one of us this question: how many schools do our children pass on a 20-mile journey from home? In my case, it is probably about 10 primary schools. It is not wrong for children to have to travel to school. My daughter travelled over three miles every day to get to her local rural primary school. Many rural children travel to school every day without that journey having a negative impact on their community.
In conclusion, I agree that the Department should do better. Area planning decisions must be based on robust evidence and accurate data to take into account all school enrolments. The PAC report asked that, following a review of enrolments, the Department quantify how much surplus places cost. As the PAC identifies, that would provide a driver for change as it would identify how much resource could be invested more effectively in the education system. If the Department concentrates on ensuring that children are provided with a quality education system, it can ensure the sustainability of the school estate to allow for the stabilisation of enrolment numbers and provide a wider choice for pupils of educational opportunities and leisure, cultural and sporting activities.
As I said, I will not support the original motion. I believe in children, not buildings. As a mother, I want my child and all children to have access to the best education, and, like many rural families, I am content for my child to travel to access that education. I acknowledge that the DUP amendment recognises the sensitivities around the provision of the school estate, and I welcome the DUP's acknowledgement of sectoral bodies such as NICIE and CnaG, but this is not about buildings and ownership of land. Hard questions need to be asked: why are we keeping a school open? Why are we not putting the pupils' education first? I cannot support its call for a strategic small schools initiative, as I fail to see how different that approach will be from the official Opposition's position of a statutory presumption against closure.
Proper governance does not mean promising populace protection. We need to review the school estate, as outlined in the PAC and the chief executive's recommendations. That includes consulting the community so that they know the impact that small pupil numbers have on the educational opportunities for their children. Armed with facts, people can help to make decisions about education provision in the local area. We need to put the pupil, not buildings, first, and we should not be keeping a school open for the sake of it. The Department must learn from the Education and Training Inspectorate's reports and stop working in silos. We cannot afford to maintain the school estate in the way it is because it is reducing opportunities for our children.
I will make the first part of my contribution in my role as Chair of the Education Committee, and then I will make some comments from a party political perspective.
The first thing I want to say as Chair of the Education Committee is that the primary-school population is growing, the post-primary population is not growing, and most of that reduction is happening in non-selective schools. It appears that, in the time ahead, the focus — not all of it, but, perhaps, most of it — of the Department and the area planning process may lie in the direction of primary schools, but I stand to be corrected.
In the last mandate, around 26 schools were closed; there were 14 amalgamations involving 31 schools, two thirds of which were primary schools; and the number of vacant desks reduced by just 4,000. The Department had often quoted a disputed number that was much higher. Area planning tends to raise controversial issues, but it is necessary in order to plan school provision efficiently so as to deal with demographic changes and, of course, financial challenges.
Members will be aware of some problems with the process in the last mandate. For example, the primary schools consultation feedback took the Education Authority over one year to analyse. It was not without its problems. There was uncertainty in schools, and some said that the application of sustainability indicators appeared to be inconsistent. Rural schools felt that, in many cases, area planning was being used to further an official agenda of closing small schools. Others even argued that Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspections were being used by the Department to undermine school sustainability and lead to school closures.
The motion references presumption against closure in other jurisdictions. One of those jurisdictions introduced ministerial call-in for controversial school closures etc. This society, uniquely in these islands, has the Minister making the decisions on development proposals relating to very small changes to enrolments in schools.
To conclude my comments as Education Committee Chair, the Committee wants a clear statement from the Minister on the way forward in relation to the small schools support factor. That is vital to the survival of primaries in rural areas with fewer than 105 pupils. The Committee wants certainty that sustainability measures will be applied transparently and consistently to all schools; wants confirmation that all sectors will work together to share educational provision efficiently; wants to support innovative local school-sharing solutions; and wants, obviously, a process that feels fair to all sectors involved in it. Parents with children in special schools are part of the process for the first time, and they want assurance that the added-value nature of special schools will not be lost in an attempt to standardise provision.
As a Sinn Féin MLA, I will say in Irish that we will support the DUP amendment. Tá muid ag tacú leis an leasú seo. I want to make three concluding comments. I submitted a written question to the Minister asking him to outline whether there is a body of educational research and evidence to demonstrate or refute the case that primary schools with more than two year groups in a single class produce poor educational outcomes. The Minister acknowledged that that body of educational research does not exist. Last Friday, when I visited St Mary's Primary School in Strabane, I met a group of principals. They were at pains to point out that composite classes work and produce good outcomes.
You will get an extra minute.
The Member mentioned having more than two year groups in a class, and there is the direct reference in paragraph 34 of the ETI report to that, which specifically highlights that composite classes spanning more than two years can be much more challenging for the teacher and limit opportunities for children to develop socially. So there is a degree of evidence, particularly when we are talking about where it goes beyond two year groups.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. That needed to be said, because there is a contest. Among the principals that I met last Friday, there was a howl of protest when that point was made to them in a provocative way to tease out their response. I communicated to those principals that they needed to make arguments based on educational research and evidence.
My final point relates to Irish-medium education, particularly post-primary provision. There is a need for a second post-primary in Belfast, and there is a need for a strong Irish-medium post-primary school in the north-west. Gaelcholáiste Dhoire is shaping up to be that.
As an MLA for one of the most rural of these counties, I welcome the opportunity to speak on today's motion. Needless to say, the issue of rural school closures is one that Fermanagh and South Tyrone and its people are unfortunate enough to be accustomed to.
It is my view that the proposals in the draft area plan are a direct attack on rural education provision, and the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, as the Opposition, have tabled today's motion to let everyone else know that, when government consultations are launched, the decisions have been predetermined and it is just a case of rubber-stamping them. No amount of public engagement or consideration given to the Rural Needs Act will change the fact that that is what makes debates like this so important.
It is with deep regret that we bring the motion to the Assembly. I would have hoped that the value of rural schools to many communities across the North would be self-evident to the Minister. What is clear, however, from the proposals in the Education Authority's 'Providing Pathways' plan is that rural schools are being targeted by stealth. Rural schools represent 55% of Northern Ireland's primary schools and 20% of post-primary schools. Needless to say, the proposals put forward by the Education Authority will greatly impact on them. They are, by their nature, more likely to have smaller, composite classes and fewer people attending sixth form.
The proposals will have a devastating impact on the west, as the organisation of education will serve only the best interests of places like Belfast, Derry and other built-up areas, which leaves rural areas like mine to take the hit. That cannot be allowed to happen. The Minister can be assured that I, as a representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, will not sit back and allow the erosion of rural education in my constituency, which will be disproportionately impacted on if the current plan goes ahead. I fully support increasing educational outcomes for our young people, whether in primary, secondary or tertiary education, when there is evidence-based policy. However, just like my Opposition colleagues, I question the motive behind the proposed plan and whether it is really based on finance rather than educational outcomes.
The Minister has failed to show how small class numbers impact on educational achievement. He noted last week that there was some evidence, but he failed to elaborate. In preparation for today's debate, I did some research with others and found an interesting study conducted in Finland, whose education results greatly exceed Northern Ireland's and, indeed, the rest of the European Union states. Finland is in the top 10 world rankings for maths, reading and science, yet just over one quarter of its state-run schools have 50 or fewer students. I do not advocate the need for that number of pupils in the North, but it proves that there are merits in smaller schools, and they can greatly increase educational outcomes with the right guidance and policies stemming from the Executive. What we have seen to date, however, are attempts to erode rural education services as a cost-saving exercise, pretending to put children's interests first while in reality, behind the scenes, it is a cost-saving exercise.
In a moment.
I want to mention the impact that rural school closures will have on local communities, as I know that there is a devastating effect on my community. Rural schools are very much part of the fabric of these communities in providing not only education but jobs and consumerism. Removing schools will have much wider implications for the local economy, and transferred redundancies will not resolve that.
I give way to the Member.
Will the Member clarify for the House what he deems to be a sustainable number in a rural school, given that the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has stated that a figure of 84 could be used, which is a four-teacher school? Does the Member agree with that, and is that how he would define a rural school?
As has been stated, each school should be determined on its own merits. To take a rural school out of any area is to take the heart out of a community. There are also significant issues concerning secondary schools and sixth forms that are outside today's immediate debate but are equally important. The Education Authority's back-door plan to close rural schools is not based on inadequate education provision or financial mismanagement; it is a cost-saving exercise that, yet again, plans to erode vital local services. I urge support for the motion.
I am grateful to be able to participate in the debate. As a party, we want to provide sustainable, high-quality education for all children and young people in Northern Ireland regardless of background, social mobility or location and to see a fair and equitable offering that gives children the very best start in life and enables them to fulfil their potential.
Having been educated in a smaller-school setting in rural Tyrone just along the border area, I know all too well the importance of rural proofing and the need to protect and invest in services that, for many years, suffered as a result of the Troubles. My primary school was particularly small, with my class of seven being one of the biggest. I moved on to a post-primary school that was also small, so I know all too well the needs of rural areas and the need for area-based planning to take into account the specifics of an area and not just to look at the cold, hard figures.
I stand in the House today to commend the systematic and empathetic way the Minister has approached this matter to date, and I have no doubt that, going forward, whilst he will not shirk his overall responsibility, he will do what is best by the school estate and ensure that children have a sustainable and high-quality education service. There is no doubt that a rural school education is unique within a small school setting. The educational and pastoral care are exemplary, and I personally have benefited from those offerings. However, with its benefits also come some disadvantages and challenges for the children and the dedicated teaching staff.
There is no doubt that problems exist in smaller schools, sometimes with the lack of breadth in their offering, be it curriculum, the formal offering or the extended offering. They sometimes have difficulty attracting and retaining staff to leadership positions, and existing staff having to fulfil several roles sometimes deters them from developing specialisms in particular areas. So, yes, whilst we have to look at the overall picture, it is important that we do not do so through rose-tinted glasses and that we say, "It is the children and their education we are putting first".
We are all responsible politicians — well, most of us — and therefore we all know from our life experience that not everything can stay the same. We must shape a new school estate that meets the needs of the area in which it operates, ensures that the children whom it serves achieve improved educational equality and improves the experience for all its users. I welcome the Programme for Government's commitment to our children, and, to that end, I am utterly confident the Minister will ensure there is an improvement in educational outcomes, a reduction in educational inequality and an improvement in the quality of education provided.
There is no doubt that empty school places and the surplus capacity are having a detrimental impact on our overall budget for schools, and therefore it is imperative that a rationalisation of the school estate happens. We are all too aware that —
Will the Member agree with me that the figures on empty school desks need to be reanalysed and that the schools that were built 30 or 40 years ago do not necessarily have the same number of empty school desks now as they did then, so whenever we base decisions on figures such as those, that should be looked upon first?
I thank the Member for her intervention. Yes, figures do need to be looked at, but I also draw the Member's attention to a meeting that we sat in just a number of hours ago in one of the Committee rooms when we were told by principals that there is a major problem with funding, that empty school desks and spaces are at the heart of that and that it needs to be addressed. The Member has to take responsibility whenever she brings forward motions like this and should not use our schools and our children as a political football, which is what is happening in this place today.
We are all aware that it is the responsibility of the Education Authority to liaise with the sectoral representatives, and I believe that will be a vital component of a comprehensive plan that meets the needs of the specific area. I know that in my constituency there is a very clear model of how not to bring forward an area plan, and I have only to think back to the mess that was made around the Dickson plan, when a plan was brought forward that was not transparent and on which there was no consultation with communities.
The Member makes a point about who supported it. That has given us a basis to work from. There must be community consultation with parents, because we are a party that is fundamentally wedded to ensuring that parental choice is adhered to. I firmly believe that, with a change in strategic leadership and a Minister committed to parental choice, there is an opportunity to ensure that our estate is fit for purpose in the 21st century. It may in some instances cause pain and anguish, but for the long-term sustainability —
I accept that, as detailed in the draft plan, the nature of the North's education system, with its range of school management types, means that in proportion to the number of children and young people to be provided with places there is a higher number of schools than would be the case elsewhere. An area plan should be welcomed, and in fact I do welcome the vision outlined in the document, but I also appreciate why some are cautious. In an area as small as the North, we need to make decisions based on a vision of the whole of the North and in the interests of our young people and the quality of the education they receive. Any such vision must also have input from pupils, parents, teachers and principals, as well as the managing authorities and sectoral support bodies suggested in the document.
Most importantly, decisions must not be economically driven but pupil centred. Concerns regarding small rural schools should therefore be listened to and taken on board. I personally caution against any correlation between school size and educational attainment. We must acknowledge that small schools exist because bigger schools are simply too far away. However, I welcome the DUP amendment, which calls for the Minister to bring forward a strategic small schools initiative — evidence that the Minister is not only listening to concerns raised since the publication of the report but responding to them.
I thank the Member for her intervention. Our Education Ministers, including the most recent, John O'Dowd, made decisions based on pupils, their attainment and the value of the education that they receive. I am confident of that.
I want to note in particular the vision outlined for the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council area, which I represent. It includes a commitment:
"to establish additional learning support and autism specific provision", within primary and post-primary schools, although I think this also requires us to incorporate special educational needs (SEN) and autism-specific training into teacher training courses. There is also a commitment to provide further opportunities for children and young people to learn in specialist settings attached to mainstream schools, and I welcome that. That would further the wholesome development of children with additional educational needs, as well as their peers. The document also commits to ensuring equitable access to the entitlement framework pathways, so that all our students have access to a wide curriculum. This will undoubtedly help keep our young people engaged in education for as long as possible.
Whilst the area plan:
"will inform the shape of educational provision for: primary schools; post-primary schools; special schools; and learning support provision in mainstream schools", it fails to mention education other than in school (EOTAS) and juvenile centres, and this is a failing. For example, 33 EOTAS centres currently exist and provide education for over 600 pupils. Their experience of education should be included in any vision moving forward.
I want to give a specific mention to SEN provision across the North. It is absolutely vital that we reinstate full-time provision for all children, and in order to do that, as the draft plan states, we have to:
"improve the geographical accessibility to special educational needs provision", and:
"provide for projected growth in special educational needs support".
Data indicates that 143-plus additional special school places will be required over the next three years. We must plan for that. Children with additional educational needs should enjoy the same full-time provision as those who have no special or additional needs.
Finally, over 69% of schools make provision for preschool children.
Let us work to get that figure to 100%. Post-primary provision is offered in 87% of special schools. However, a number of them do not make 16-plus provision. That is simply not good enough. The final plan must also address that.
I welcome the draft plan but hope that the Minister takes into consideration the areas for improvement. I urge that all decisions are based on the needs of children and young people and not the elasticity of the purse strings.
I have some serious concerns about the draft area plan, particularly in the context of the area planning process. As my colleague Sandra Overend stated, the Public Accounts Committee also had concerns. In its published report, it stated that there was too much focus on three quantitative criteria for the assessment of sustainability and that the process of addressing surplus spaces under the plan did not meet its aims and the reliability of the data presented in the sustainable schools policy was called into question. The Committee actually stated:
"the evidence base supporting the sustainable schools policy falls far short of acceptable standards and the Department is basing decisions about the future of schools on inaccurate information."
The Committee also said that, despite the reduction in surplus places, the long tail of underachievement had not, in fact, improved at all and that engagement with key stakeholders around area planning was poor. Now, the Minister assures us that, this time, things will be different and everyone is now around the table. However, the truth of the matter is that the Minister can give no guarantees.
With all that in mind, I am extremely concerned and baffled that the Minister is taking a decision to take this old, discredited proposal and try to pass it off to the House as if it were a new and improved idea. If the Minister had been serious about a credible, functional strategic area plan, he would have started fresh with a new sustainable schools policy and area plan that would meet the needs of children and communities, a plan that could really address underachievement, look at inequalities in the system and take a more holistic view of the education system instead of applying blunt instruments such as a school's financial position or its enrolment trends.
I thank the Member for giving way. Given the Member's long history in teaching, would she not agree that the pupil:teacher ratio is quite important in budgeting and that, if we were to address that and reduce it, it would leave more money for extracurricular activities and tackling educational attainment?
I believe that the pupil:teacher ratio is most relevant to the teaching of children in the classroom. Certainly, extracurricular activities are important, but, very often, schools bring in grants to assist with those.
In recent years, we have seen many schools being able to turn stats around, as at Movilla High School, where enrolment was suffering and outcomes falling. Now, it has gained its best GCSE results in years, and enrolment is on the up. With help and support, that could be facilitated in many schools across Northern Ireland.
What other options has the Minister looked at? We live in the 21st century, and there are lots of examples across the globe where the use of technology has transformed teaching and learning in rural and more remote areas. Has the Minister considered that? Of course, that would require the Executive to address the issue of broadband connectivity in Northern Ireland, which we spoke about earlier. What about taking serious measures to address the school funding crisis by allowing schools to have better control over their own budget?
I thank the Member for giving way. She may not be aware of this, but, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote to all schools in Northern Ireland to ask whether they desired greater autonomy and for their views on the bureaucratic burdens that are placed on them. Essentially, the idea was to ask them what they would want with that greater level of autonomy. The Member may be a little behind the times when it comes to what is already happening.
Schools have been calling for more control over their budgets for years. The overall investment in our education system is embarrassing. Of the four nations of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland spends the least per head on primary and pre-primary education. We must seriously think about investing more in our young people and their future. Adequately and strategically supporting education will have benefits across the board. It will improve the health and well-being of our future population, support the prosperity and economic growth of our country and strengthen rural and urban areas. The list goes on. The current plan proposed by the Executive of school closures —
I welcome the general direction of travel of the draft area plan. It puts the needs of children and young people at the heart of the planning process. It states that it wants a broad and balanced curriculum for all our children. Given the number of debates that we have had on education, particularly over the past couple of weeks, it is key that all our children and young people have as much choice as possible in the curriculum. It is not just about academic subjects, although they are very important; vocational subjects need to be part of the curriculum as well. It is about skilling up our children and young people for life by giving them the life skills that they will need. It is not just about their academic achievements but about giving them the skills to deal with life's problems and difficulties.
The plan also seeks to close the attainment gap. That issue should be of great concern to all of us and the wider community. There is clear evidence — we have heard it time and again in the education debates, and no doubt we will hear it in the next debate — that links deprivation, poverty and exclusion to underachievement and poor educational outcomes. They act as a barrier to learning for some of our children and young people, and that is something that we need to change. It is important that we ensure that young people born into social and economic deprivation or poverty get the support that they need. They are entitled to as much help and support as any other child, no matter what type of family background they come from.
I want to say again — we have had this in debates — about the excellent results in my constituency of West Belfast in educational outcomes. It clearly shows that, when the right intervention is made in those areas, the children shine and their potential comes through. Every child has a right to have its potential fulfilled, and I believe that those interventions and programmes of support help to do that.
My colleague Barry McElduff mentioned the need for another post-primary Irish-medium school, particularly in north Belfast and the north-west. That is crucial because more and more people are learning through the medium of Irish. That is an important issue.
I want to touch on the EOTAS provision, which, in my opinion, is not given the recognition that it deserves. I hope that in the final area planning it will be. I have seen it at first hand with programmes like New Start in west Belfast. We all want children to go to mainstream education, but, for whatever reason, mainstream education just does not suit some children's needs and does not do it for them. Therefore, interventionist programmes that provide one-to-one support and which support the whole family are clearly the right way for some children to have the opportunities in life that other children have. I hope that the final plan will do that.
I also want to say, and the Minister is aware of this, that it is not about buildings. The previous Minister, John O'Dowd, did excellent work on bringing the entitlement framework forward. It is not just about school buildings, but school buildings sometimes can be crucial, particularly in an area where, for instance, they do not have sporting facilities in a school. The Minister will be aware of the campaign in the Colin area of west Belfast for a new school. It is essential that all our children have access to those opportunities. It is about building a community; it is not just about a school. I would like to see those regeneration projects being taken forward in the overall plan. As I said, we have debated all sorts of things over the last number of weeks, for example, nurture units and autism provision.
I perhaps find myself in the unusual position — following on from the last Member — that quite often in the House when we have new Members there is a maiden speech that has to be dealt with. I do not know if that was a valedictory speech on behalf of the Member opposite. I met the Member recently on the issues around Colin. Obviously, I am not going to talk directly on this. It would be inappropriate for me to talk about individual schools, although I will wait, perhaps, to see an imaginative proposal from Mr McPhillips who will, maybe, be having a merger between Brollagh and Helsinki in the future. The limits of imagination are not constrained in the House.
I will start with a note of consensus. I might come down to a second item later, but there is at least one item that I agree on with the proposer of the motion. Relatively early on in her speech — I hope that I quote her correctly — she said, "I do not understand". I agree with her: she clearly does not understand. Most obviously, shown by her intervention on autonomy, in which she complained that I had written to schools asking for their views on autonomy and then complained that it was vague because it did not tell them what autonomy they should be getting. Now, if Members do not see the irony in that then, perhaps, it is no wonder that this motion has gone so astray.
On the process of area planning — it should be made clear, and to be fair to the SDLP they referred correctly to the Education Authority plan rather than the Department plan. However, when I made a statement in the House on this, I made an appeal across the board — it is clear that some have embraced this — that we need to look at this in a mature fashion. Yes, there will be some tough decisions and there will be something that is painful, but, in the same way as there has been a degree of embracing around Bengoa, there is a realisation amongst the vast majority of the Chamber that there is a wider strategic direction that needs to be taken. It is the same with area planning. Therefore, it is very disappointing that that mature response has not been met by the proposers of the motion. Even before the consultation on the draft area plan has concluded, they have rushed to prejudge it and talk about a raft of closures and put up the stockade as regards the status quo.
The debate has also been characterised by a degree of scaremongering, pretending that every rural school is simply going to close and that there are going to be no opportunities for new thinking on that. The word "panic" was mentioned, and I am sure that, as we acknowledged, there is concern, but it has to be said that in the face of that concern there are some who are trying to deal with it maturely and some who are trying to fuel concern and panic and increase scaremongering. The movers of the motion seem to be falling into that category.
The missed opportunities in area planning in the past were mentioned. There is condemnation in the first line of the motion of the failure to grasp area planning in an effective manner in the previous mandate, and there is some valid criticism there. Lessons have been learned from that, and we are now in a situation where, on area planning, there is a representative from every sector around the table. However, it ill behoves those who criticise failures in area planning in the past that, when there is an opportunity for all of us, afresh, to have area planning in which everyone is involved, particularly those from the community, with a completely open consultation, they immediately take steps to scupper it.
A number of contributors, particularly the proposer of the Alliance Party amendment, put it very succinctly. This should be about pupils rather than school buildings. The school estate should be there to service the needs of pupils and not the other way around. That is what the proposers of the motion seem to have missed. I would accuse them of wanting to put protection around every school in Northern Ireland so that the school estate does not change. To be fair to them, that is not the position that they have taken. They want to have separate legislative protection for all rural schools, but if this is deemed as something necessary to provide a degree of protection, where is the level of protection for any schools outside rural areas? If you are a pupil in Belfast, Londonderry, Portadown, Ballymena or Magherafelt, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP are happy on their own terms to simply abandon you. You can operate in a different sphere from that of rural schools.
No. I have heard enough from you today. You have given yourself enough rope and I do not want to give you any more.
At times, there has been a range of selective quotations in relation to this. Whenever we look at the criteria that are in place, there is criticism of the sustainable schools policy. I will come to that later when I talk about the amendments. The six criteria for assessing a school's viability are as follows: a quality educational experience; stable enrolment trends; a sound financial position; strong leadership and management; accessibility; and strong links with the community. I would simply pose this question: which one of those six criteria is no longer relevant? It is clear that the question is about more than the numbers through the door or the financial position. We have rural proofing in every Executive policy and in every motion passed in this House. When it comes to protections, mention was made of what we should be seeking and there, at least, is one thing that I will agree with. We should be looking at a degree of balance. Taking any development proposal in a wider context about sustainable schools, there is that level of balance. However, it is also the case that there are problems with the status quo in terms of the school estate.
It has been accepted — I have not heard any particular objections to this — that over the last 10 years, for instance, in net terms, about 100 schools have disappeared in Northern Ireland. There has been an acceptance that something has to be done about the school estate. The case for change is educational and financial. From a financial point of view, you cannot get away from the educational side of it. Mention was made of the inspectorate report and I appreciate that it was too late to give a direct response to the Committee Chairperson, Mr McElduff, in relation to that. Again, the report says that larger schools tended to do better in inspections than smaller schools and in primary schools, the specific difference that was highlighted — where it becomes meaningful — is where we move on the question of sustainability.
Similarly, it referred particularly to composite classes that spanned more than two years, in which ensuring adequate progression in learning and planning becomes more of a challenge and the opportunities for children to develop socially and emotionally are limited. While the focus has principally been on primary schools, there is a small but significant difference between larger post-primary schools that have more than 500 pupils and smaller schools. There is a clear indication and specific figures show that, for schools with fewer than 105 pupils, there is a statistically significant difference in inspection outcomes. It becomes more pronounced the further down the scale you go. When you get down to 85 or 60 pupils, that has an educational impact. We cannot pretend that that is not the case. There is no doubt that there are some excellent teachers, principals and schools delivering excellent results for their children. That is why the sustainable schools policy goes beyond a simple numbers game and looks at quality. There is no doubt that having very small schools makes it more difficult for some of our pupils.
I cannot deny that there is a financial aspect to this. The teaching cost per pupil in primary schools with fewer than 50 pupils increases by more than 50% when compared with a school of over 100 pupils. This is not driven simply by finance, although we spend £27 million directly on the small schools initiative and another £8 million on principal release, but there is an economic aspect to it. The economic aspect is that it is not a question of storing up money to be taken out of schools; it is about the redistribution of money. It is about ensuring, for example, that, if a school is not needed, transferred redundancies will ensure that teachers who want to go can do so, meaning that we teach our children more effectively and efficiently. Therefore, it is about ploughing the resource into the remaining schools. The financial aspect to this is that the system gives too little to schools, and we need to ensure that we get the best possible delivery for that.
The process has been mentioned, particularly by the proposer of the Alliance amendment and others. In the current consultation on the draft area plan and as we move towards annual area plans and individual development proposals, that process will be open to everyone. I encourage everyone to contribute to it. The focus should be on the needs and desires of the community and, particularly, on the pupils.
The two amendments are mutually exclusive. I will support the DUP amendment. However, I clearly acknowledge the bulk of what was said by the proposer of the Alliance amendment, and I do not have a problem with it. Its position is much more realistic than that of the motion. I accept that there needs to be sensitivity. There will be concerns out there, which is why, as I mentioned in a statement when the area plan was first mentioned in the Assembly, there will be a need to ensure that isolated communities are not simply left too far away from a school.
The proposer of the motion mentioned that she did not want children being driven for more than an hour to get to school. There is recognition that there has to be some practical limitation on distance. I am happy to accept the amendment tabled by my colleagues. I have mentioned it previously, and there will need to be some protection for isolated schools, the most obvious example being Rathlin Island, which has already been highlighted. Like other Members, it is an area that I know well, and, with the best will in the world, whatever the mechanics —
I am happy to give that assurance. Obviously, as the Member knows, unlike other settings, we cannot simply amend on the hoof, but it is important that there is that proper consultation.
Above all, the status quo needs to change from a financial point of view and an educational point of view. The key driver in all of this — there are sensitivities, and we can ensure that consultation takes place — is the needs of our pupils moving forward. We should look to protect the educational interests of pupils, not the educational interests of school buildings. That is the distinction that I will draw between the amendment that has been put before us and the failings, I believe, of the original motion.
It is important that we consider the context in which we set ourselves today and listen to educators. We hear from school principals across Northern Ireland that there is a financial crisis facing our schools. Our Education Committee heard from one principal who said that, in 30 years of teaching, he had never known teacher morale to be so low. We have heard that the addition of superannuation costs and National Insurance costs to school budgets are the straw that broke a rather large camel's back. We have also heard that the only remaining reductions that many schools can make are to staff levels and staff hours and that some schools in Northern Ireland face hundreds of thousands of pounds of deficits within the next three years. That impacts on the provision for children with special educational needs, on families and on the educational outcomes that we can achieve for children in our society.
Principals in Northern Ireland also have concerns about the common funding formula, the use of free school meals as a criterion to assess social and educational need and the fact that investment is focused not on early years but on post-primary. Every principal and teacher whom we talk to emphasises that at the forefront of their concerns is not the buildings or the staff but the outcomes that we achieve for children and how we, as an Executive and an Assembly, will lead change to see the necessary reform to address the significant challenges.
Ultimately, the major concern being raised by teachers with our party and the Education Committee is the elephant in the room: we have too many schools, too many unfilled places and an unwieldy and ineffective administration. They clearly want to see wholesale systemic reform, and it will undoubtedly need courageous political leadership and bold cross-sectoral area planning if we are to achieve those aims. Perhaps most importantly — this has been put forward capably by my colleague Kellie Armstrong MLA today — it will need robust, inclusive community consultation and engagement if we are to bring communities along with us on the change process.
We as a party do not believe that we need to see statutory schools protected. There will, of course, be schools, in particular rural schools, that need protection, but we can consider those on a case-by-case basis. My colleague Kellie Armstrong set out the unique example of Rathlin Island, but there are small towns in Northern Ireland with as many as three primary schools. There are good examples of learning area groups coming together to maximise resources through collaboration, but this key question remains: if we do not rationalise and reform our education system, what else will we ask our schools to cut from our children's education? I do not think that there is any avoiding the fact that tough decisions that will be difficult for political parties and local elected representatives to support will have to be made, if we are to ensure that all children in our community have access to quality education in a sustainable school,
We will, therefore, for the greater good of everyone in this society, need much more responsible political leadership than we have been used to.
The Minister spoke very well about our amendment, and it is clear that the Ulster Unionist Party does not understand the draft strategic area plan. There is one thing that I cannot get over about its motion, and that is that it does not mention pupils or what is best for them. It reeks of all the luxuries of being unaccountable and not having to bear any responsibility.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
I wish to address our amendment first. Schools are not closed for absolutely no reason. The purpose of the area planning process is to implement the Department's sustainable schools policy. The primary objective of that policy is to ensure that all children get a first-class education in fit-for-purpose facilities, regardless of background or where they live, and make the best use of the resources available for their education. It places the needs —
Thank you. There are two definitions of rural. There is the specific definition in the sustainable schools policy (SSP), but the motion makes a general reference to rural. In the Northern Ireland Executive and, indeed, the Assembly, rural areas are defined as settlements of below 5,000 people. There is relevance because it is not specifically or purely tied in with the state of schools but goes wider with the protection of rural areas.
OK. The sustainable schools policy places the needs of our children and young people at the heart of the planning process. Area planning aims to ensure that children and young people have access to educational pathways and a broad and balanced curriculum that meets their needs. It is not focused on achieving a projected level of savings, but, rather, focuses on maximising the impact of available resources by working towards a network of schools that are educationally and financially viable. The criteria and their associated indicators are not used in robotic fashion to close schools, but concerns about a school's viability are often addressed when enrolments have fallen to an irreversible level. In such cases, the criteria provide a framework for early identification of emerging problems so that possible remedial action may be taken. The annual area profiles published by the Education Authority are based on three of the criteria and enable managing authorities to keep schools that are in danger of becoming unsustainable under review.
The topic is emotive, and, as Lord Morrow pointed out, many stakeholders are involved in a school — pupils, parents, teachers and support staff. When faced with the prospect of potential closure, schools are protective and passionate — rightly so. Schools —
I need to make my point and get on. Schools are not closed lightly or without consultation. Instead of putting in protections for rural schools just because they are rural, I believe that there should be a case-by-case approach — we mentioned Rathlin, and rightly so. Schools have to deliver for their pupils, regardless of their size or location. That is why we need a strategy so that small schools can be helped to deliver. Smaller schools face challenges, but, with a pragmatic approach and innovative and creative thinking, it is possible to ensure that education provision is available as close to a pupil's home as possible.
On the motion, if the previous Minister and his officials marched to the top of the hill and retreated, I accept that that is a failure, but we in this party are determined to take the tough decisions that need to be taken. We acknowledge that burying our heads in the sand is not a viable, long-term option.
As regards the concerns over rural schools, the Rural Needs Act 2016, which received Royal Assent in May, placed a duty on public authorities, including councils, to have due regard to rural needs when developing, adopting and implementing policies. The Department of Education has to meet legal obligations to give due regard to rural needs when reviewing the SSP and the area planning process.
When funding is being allocated, schools in urban areas are treated exactly the same as those with similar characteristics in rural areas. The Minister has stated that he recognises that funding is a significant issue and that all schools face difficult choices and ongoing challenges to ensure that they live within their budgets. We heard from the principals earlier today. That was a very helpful meeting, and it highlighted some of the issues we are trying to get across in our amendment.
As Chris Lyttle mentioned, the Minister wishes to examine the common funding scheme to ensure it is fit for purpose, the best possible support is given to all schools and the maximum advantage is being derived from the moneys allocated. In the common funding scheme, small schools support funding seeks to reflect the needs of smaller schools in delivering the curriculum.
The Education Department's sustainable schools policy is the framework used for assessing viability, and it is a key driver for the area planning process. The sustainable schools policy was rural proofed, and, as the Education Authority's draft area plan is based on the policy, we can be assured it is rural proofed. Let me be clear about this: what we have here —
— is a sensible approach to the schools estate that puts pupils first, with an acceptance that isolated areas cannot be abandoned.
In closing, I also believe there needs to be choice for parents.
I support our motion as presented today. I suppose the most interesting element I want to take time to recognise is that everybody in the Chamber has the interests of our children and young people at heart. That is something that has impressed me during the debate. Whilst we may differ in some of the ways we want to work through that, we all start from that basis.
I also feel that, when it comes to the amendments, the DUP amendment and our motion are very similar. In fact, when I read through the amendment, the only difference I can see is that ours calls for legislative grounds against the presumption of closure of rural schools. That is not there; a thorough case is being asked for by the DUP. So, I see very little difference. The fact that we are all here today in this playing field and are all arguing in the same direction for our children is good. We even appreciate some of the contributions from the sidelines.
We are not against the need for area planning. We would question, though, the measure by which closures would be decided as suggested in the consultation. There are many different things referenced throughout the consultation about what should be taken into consideration, but, time and time again, the Education Authority makes reference to numbers. It talks about levels at which a school is sustainable. It even gives us it in percentages. It tells us the numbers, and that is what makes me nervous, because, to me, that means a line is being drawn in the sand where it is saying, "That is the level at which we will be making our decisions". It is on that basis that we have our greatest concern for those in rural communities.
Rather than simply identifying schools with enrolment levels deemed to be of concern, with the first step in addressing them being to close the school, the attitude needs to be about how we protect the schools from closure, with closure being the last resort, rather than saying, "Enrolment levels here are low. Let's just simply throw away the keys". That is why I have to question the integrity of 'Providing Pathways', the area planning document.
I take issue with what seems to be an attempt to window dress some of the numbers in a way that makes them seem slightly worse than they are. For example, the document attempts to highlight the schools with low numbers that would face closure. It begins by citing the number of schools, and then it jumps to citing the percentages of those that have less than the desired numbers. I worry about the lack of openness and transparency there, because it makes it sound as though it is a low percentage rather than giving us the exact figure of the number of schools. When you churn that through, you see that it works out at roughly 300 rural schools and 174 urban schools. Under its definition of the figures in the document, it would be less than it wants them to be. That is where it starts to get a little bit worrying, because it is not just a handful of schools. We are not talking about one in each county; we are talking about 300 rural schools that do not meet the numbers. That is a very high figure.
We are not denying that problems exist and that they have to be addressed. We are simply saying that a more holistic view of how to deal with these problems should be considered, and we think that that more holistic approach is true area planning.
I also think the consultation is particularly weak. Twelve questions completed SurveyMonkey-style with barely enough room for 200 words for a qualitative response does not make you feel as though you are getting a good and proper opportunity to be able to respond.
Schools are at the core of any community, and, particularly in rural areas, communities are built around local schools. Schools connect people, they bring jobs to often remote areas and they instil a sense of ownership and belonging to an area that families live in. I attended a small rural school, and, right at the end of the 1970s, when I started, it was threatened with closure due to having small numbers. It was saved then, and now it is a vibrant, forward-thinking and modern school with over 135 pupils. People are queuing up to attend that school. If we had simply been taking the numbers approach of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it would have been shut down, and it would not have been there. Right around that school a small community has been built. It is used for community facilities, it is seen as a community resource and it is part of that community's identity. If it had simply been asked to look at numbers back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it would have been closed, and it would not be there. Indeed, a quality school is more than —
I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with the Member to an extent. The same thing happened at Springfield Primary School on the edge of north Belfast, between north and west Belfast. When I first got elected to Belfast City Council in 2005, there were 72 pupils: there are now over 176. However, does the Member also agree that, as well as providing a good school, it has to provide a good education and academically deliver for children? Is that not something that the Member needs to draw attention to in his speech as well?
I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that we can take it as a given that we want the best educational outcome for all of our children in all of our schools, and closing them is not necessarily the way that may result in a better education. Lumping schools together, merging them and having larger class sizes may not be the approach that needs to be taken, and that is the substance of what our motion says. It says that the presumption should be that you do not close the schools. We are not saying that you do not close a school; we are just saying that the presumption should be that you do not close them and that you have to exhaust all other possible decisions and methods that could be taken to provide the education. That is where there is a bit of a difference between the interpretations. It is not saying that you do not close; it is saying that the presumption should be there that you do not close. That is not just to be used in a way where you say that you presume that you are not going to close and then go off and close them; it is about saying that there needs to be a thorough process that you need to follow.
I thank the Member for her intervention. Her use of history is much better than mine, her having been here before. It is always great to see how quickly people can change their perspective on matters when they are in different offices. I hope that we can stick to the spirit of trying to get good educational outcomes for our children, and a presumption against closure would certainly help that.
As for the amendments, I am a bit concerned about the DUP amendment. I worry about the word "accessibility". It is not really detailed any further than ensuring "accessibility" to a good education. That accessibility could be interpreted as a school 20 miles, 25 miles or 30 miles down the road and that is where we will provide that education. That would be concerning, because we do not feel that that is fair. It is not accessible to put children through lengthy journeys to and from school.
No, we have heard enough from you today, thank you. I think that is an answer that you used earlier.
No one is saying that a school should be available on every road or on every street, but simply covering up closures by using the term "accessibility" is a bit crass.
I move to the Alliance amendment. Last week, the ETI Chief Inspector's report was mentioned and how that could be considered in any decisions that are taken forward. I think that, to be fair to the Minister, he would always consider the ETI reports. That is the purpose of them. They make the reports so that you can consider them when you make your decisions in the future, so I do not think that we need to specifically provide legislation for that. It also talks about how you need to consult and how you need to work with communities and how you need to assess with them whether or not a school should be closed. We feel that, if you have a presumption against closure, that will be part of that process of consulting the community, discussing with them, asking them for their views and allowing them to be part of the process. Therefore, we feel that both of the suggestions that are in the Alliance amendment are part of our motion.
We propose the motion to stop a process of rural closures. We have heard anecdotal soundings from within the Department that it wants up to 300 closures. That would be disastrous for our community and especially our rural communities, particularly if it is to be done simply by numbers. Introducing a legislative presumption to keep rural schools open would provide some comfort to teachers, parents and pupils that small schools will not automatically face the chop. It is for that reason that I commend the motion to the House.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made. The Assembly divided:
Mr Anderson, Ms Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Ms Dillon, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Ms Fearon, Mr Ford, Mr Frew, Ms Gildernew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mr Hazzard, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mr McGuigan, Mr McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McMullan, Mr McQuillan, Mr Maskey, Mr Middleton, Mr Milne, Lord Morrow, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan, Mr Robinson
Mr Agnew, Mr Aiken, Mr Allister, Mr Attwood, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Ms S Bradley, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mrs Dobson, Mr Durkan, Mr Kennedy, Mr E McCann, Mr McGrath, Mr McKee, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Smith, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McGrath, Mrs Overend
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes the publication of the Education Authority’s 'Providing Pathways Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020'; acknowledges the concerns that there will be over the proposals, particularly in rural areas; believes that every pupil, regardless of whether they live in a rural or an urban area, should have access to quality education in a viable and sustainable school, contributing to achieving the draft Programme for Government outcome to give our children and young people the best start in life; believes that the best way to achieve this is through an effective area planning process involving managing authorities and sectoral support bodies; acknowledges sensitivities around the provision of the schools estate in both rural and other areas; and calls on the Minister of Education to bring forward a strategic small schools initiative to ensure accessibility to a quality education, particularly for isolated communities.