Outdoor Education Centres in South Down

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 29th November 2016.

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Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 4:45 pm, 29th November 2016

In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Mr Colin McGrath to raise the matter of the proposed closure of outdoor education centres in South Down. The proposer of the topic will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to lead on this important Adjournment debate, which I approach from an interesting position. I have been an avid user of outdoor education centres over the past 25 years, as a young person, a student youth worker and a full-time youth worker; in fact, I have stayed at two of the four centres that are due to close and have stayed at one of them on many, many occasions. I have brought groups of young people to the centres and can detail to you, Minister, their roles, purpose and benefit and the absolute loss and tragedy that there will be if they are to shut.

At the outset, I seek clarification on something. Minister, two weeks ago in the House, during Question Time, you mentioned that the reason for the rationalisation was financial pressures, yet, at the presentation to the Education Committee on Wednesday a week ago, the Education Authority said that the reason for the cutbacks was to rationalise and provide an enhanced and better service and that all the money that would be saved would be pumped back into the same centres. We need to have that clarified, because, if it is the latter, we can put a good case to you to overturn the consultation process.

Why do we have outdoor centres? They are hubs. They are a space for young people to come together to learn and to do so in an experiential way. Young people learn important life skills, teamwork skills, communication skills and much more. They use the methodology of the outdoors and action activities such as mountaineering, hillwalking, canoeing, sailing, bouldering, abseiling, night lining and other outdoor pursuits to educate. It is exciting for children, thrilling for teenagers and a delight for the youth worker and teacher to use the medium to educate young people, especially those who do not often excel in the academic setting. It is invaluable for them. Outdoor centres and outdoor education are an essential and integral element of our education system and one that many in the world are jealous of. I can vouch for that, because I have brought groups from Louth, Kerry, Cork, Scotland, France, Hungary and Finland to stay in the centres. They have facilitated our young people to host guests from far and wide, make friends and share cultures, but, more importantly, they have helped our young people to open their mind and stretch their personal horizons far and wide as well. Why, oh why, would we cut back on them and reduce our capacity?

I turn to the consultation. I am disgusted that, once again, we have consultation Northern Ireland-style, which is one in which the proposed outcomes are included in the introductory paperwork. That is a joke. It is a humiliation of the good people of Northern Ireland and makes a farce of the consultation process. I want to highlight a couple of elements of the consultation and the flaws that I see, in order to help the Minister take the decision that we would like taken.

There is concern about the way in which the figures for occupancy rates have been calculated and used in the document. The occupancy rate that all centres are benchmarked against is similar to that for the hotel industry. The hotel industry is a highly competitive industry that achieves big profits when it gets a high occupancy rate of around 75%. At that level, it is doing very well and is able to deliver profits for the owners. There is no such need for profits in the outdoor industry. Covering the costs and breaking even are perfectly acceptable. Therefore, to benchmark the centres against the Savoy or the Europa is unfair and a little bit crass. When benchmarked against all other outdoor education centres in the rest of the UK, the centres that are proposed for closure compare very favourably.

The building status is another fallacy that is trotted out in the document. The building survey that has been completed is not just a list of the essential and urgent work that is required but a list of what could be done to the buildings, which includes some urgent remedial work. Let me compare that to a holiday. I could go to Barbados in the Caribbean for my holiday, but I will probably only be able to afford somewhere in Europe. If I am lucky, I might be able to add a couple of weekends here and there, maybe even in north Down. That is where the difference is. It is the difference between what we can do, what we would like to do and what we actually do. To use that as a factor is a little unfair, especially when it results in one centre being picked over another for closure.

There is also a glaring inconsistency in the figures in the document used to calculate the rank order of those centres that are to be closed. In the review document supplied to us the order has Shannaghmore listed as third, Killyleagh fourth, Bushmills fifth and Ardnabannon sixth; yet in the evidence document Bushmills is third, Shannaghmore fourth and Killyleagh and Ardnabannon are joint sixth. This decision will see people losing their jobs and having to relocate, villages having the heart ripped out of them, and a lifetime impact on our youth. Are you prepared, Minister, to allow such a consultation to proceed with such schoolboy errors in such an important document? I can hear the judicial reviews being warmed up from here.

I worry too, Minister, about the fact that this decision, with all its enormity and impact, its employment consequences and the emotions that are stirred, is being delivered by an interim head of Youth Service, who will report to an interim chief executive. Is it fair, Minister, that you want these momentous decisions to be taken by people in interim roles? If it all goes wrong, it could maybe even see your position being interim too.

The review is being carried out as a response to the 'Priorities for Youth' document of a few years ago, which stated that:

"This will include a review of the statutory youth estate and outdoor education centres."

It said "and outdoor education centres", not "merely" outdoor education centres. One would have thought that the review of the Youth Service estate and outdoor education centres would be undertaken in a complementary manner, not picking one sector and then doing the other. What if the rationalisation in the Youth Service estate in that consultation might save money that could then be pumped into the outdoor education sector? Why is it being done in such a disjointed manner? We have to get answers to those questions.

I conclude by saying to the Minister that he has the power to intervene, that he has the capacity to stop this massacre of our outdoor education centres. It is too early in the lifetime of the Education Authority (EA) for this decision to be taken. It is being taken for all the wrong reasons.

Our children will have fun in these places; they will learn and gain new skills and make long and lasting friendships; they will break down barriers and help to develop our country; they will be the leaders of tomorrow. We owe them the opportunity to learn the skills that they need. Let us not cut provision and make our outdoor education centres the preserve of the chosen few; let us make them a luxury that we can offer to many. I plead with the Minister: please keep all our outdoor education centres open.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 5:00 pm, 29th November 2016

There is substantial interest in this Adjournment debate, and a number of Members have indicated their intention to speak. I propose, therefore, to give four minutes to Members from the constituency, and they will be called first. Other Members will have three minutes.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I support outdoor pursuits and education centres. I remember, many moons ago, when I trained as an outdoor education facilitator in an outdoor pursuits centre on Achill Island, which was funded by the education system. I have some of the best memories of those times. That centre is still open and still funded by the education system.

The centres at Killowen and Ardnabannon are vital assets to the South Down community. Killowen has been open since 1982 at its current site, providing outdoor activities on Carlingford lough and the adjacent forest parks. Ardnabannon opened in 1967 and provided a large range of outdoor activities for the youth of South Down and further afield. I met representatives from Killowen last week to discuss the proposed closures and to offer my full support for keeping the centres open. They told me how centres such as Killowen, Ardnabannon and Delamont, as well as other centres throughout the North, not only keep young people active but help with mental health, the obesity crisis, and academic achievement. While I am on the subject, and I hope the Deputy Speaker will indulge me, I note today that our primary-school children are sixth in the world for maths. I pay tribute: that is phenomenal. I pay tribute to the primary schools, their teachers, the staff, parents and, indeed, successive Education Ministers who brought in literacy and numeracy policies, including myself and John O'Dowd. It is to be celebrated.

During difficult budgetary times it is important to focus where money should be focused, and that is why I ask the Minister to really think carefully about cutting money and closing these centres, because they do contribute to academic as well as physical education. I visited both the centres in my own constituency as Minister for Education. I funded both centres, and continued to fund them, during my time as Minister. I saw at first-hand the good work they are doing. I offer my full support for both centres to remain open.

I believe this Minister has an open mind, and I hope that, rather than listen to officials or people who want to cost-cut — and I am not saying all officials want to cost-cut — he takes his own mind about this. The Minister has a substantial budget — and I note he is pointing at the Minister for Finance — and money should be found from within his budget to fund these centres, rather than passing the buck. I am sure the current Minister will not do that, but I do plead with him to continue to fund these centres because they provide such an important facility for people right across the island, as my constituency colleague Colin McGrath has mentioned.

My own family have attended the centres, and their classmates from both sides of the border have really appreciated the facilities they offer. I ask the Minister to please support the centres. It is a small saving of little over £1 million when you consider the money that the centres bring in themselves. It is not fair that we ask them to be self-sufficient.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Please keep them open.

Photo of Harold McKee Harold McKee UUP

As one who resides in a rural community in South Down, I very often take for granted the beauty of the countryside, the Mourne mountains and the coastal waters of Carlingford and Strangford loughs. With this in mind, I am really concerned for the many young people who enjoy going to the outdoor education centres of Ardnabannon, Delamont and Killowen.

The proposal to close down three centres in South Down which cater for young people across Northern Ireland should be justified by reports showing systemic failures to deliver objectives and perhaps health and safety issues and so on. We have seen no such findings in this report, and I seriously question and, indeed, oppose the proposals being put forward by the Minister in this case.

When I read the findings of this review, I cannot see any justification for the rationalisation of larger statutory centres. In fact, I can only see reasons to preserve, support and promote the services, as I am sure many young people in Northern Ireland do not have the opportunity to visit one of these centres with school or through a youth group. Indeed, as the report shows, there is capacity in both the statutory and voluntary sectors for more young people to experience and benefit from the services of outdoor centres.

In the majority of performance statistics, statutory centres rate as equal or higher than the voluntary sector. The report states:

"Throughout the review it was apparent that Residential and Outdoor Education is highly valued by all those who use the service, with regard to the quality of provision, the overall outdoor experience, the calibre and experience of staff and its value for money".

The review also states that Education and Training Inspectorate assessments over the last five years have ranged from satisfactory to outstanding, and that outdoor education brings added value to both the formal and non-formal education spheres. There is not even a mention in the report of the savings to be made, but with a total budget of 0·15% of the Department's budget, I believe the advantages of outdoor education centres far outweigh the costs.

If the centres close, there is a greater cost to the young participants who have availed themselves of them for education on the environment, conservation, adventure and outdoor recreation including climbing, orienteering, abseiling, sailing, canoeing, mountain biking and rock climbing etc. Most importantly, the physical exercise contributes to the child's health and well-being.

I quote from a review paper written in 2000 by Edward Lappin:

"Outdoor education enables students and teachers to interact in an environment free from the limitations of the classroom."

The review document states that there is "a cluster" of OECs at the southern coast. Where else would you locate them when you have a natural environment with the Mourne mountains in an area of outstanding natural beauty and the loughs of Carlingford and Strangford? Ardnabannon, Delamont and Killowen are seen as an invaluable front-line service by geography and science teachers in helping them to cover the requirements of GCSE and A-level specifications. They are also used by students studying a range of vocational courses, and many go on to gain their Duke of Edinburgh's award. If the proposed closures go ahead, with the loss of 191 beds in residential outdoor education centres, there is no way that the voluntary sector will be able to address the shortfall.

I call on the Education Minister to reverse his proposal and allow schoolchildren and community groups to continue in their outdoor activities at Ardnabannon, Delamont and Killowen outdoor education centres.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, I thank my South Down colleague Colin McGrath for securing the Adjournment debate in the Chamber this evening. I also thank the Minister for being in attendance, which is critical to the debate moving forward. No doubt, through many submissions, the Minister will have been made aware of the strong reasons that surround the need to keep the centres open; indeed, in the last week or two, I had the opportunity to visit the purpose-built Killowen centre. I put on record my support for the retention of that centre, along with the other two centres in South Down, which, I believe, offer an equally good service.

The arguments that have been made are largely self-evident in that you will protect jobs and continue to offer enriched educational experiences beyond the classroom. I ask the Minister to take note of the fact that some children who visit those outdoor centres may excel for the very first time in their life. It is an opportunity for them to break away from the confines of the classroom and find that they are particularly good at something that they would not otherwise have had the opportunity to be introduced to. Events such as visits to outdoor educational centres build their confidence, and that stays with them for life. How do we measure that, Minister? How can we make a judgement on whether it would sit well on a balance sheet?

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member will note the positive impact that teachers, headmasters and headmistresses say that visiting Killowen has on the development of their kids. Anna Shields of Anamar Primary School in south Armagh has been going to Killowen every year for the last 20 years and is devastated by its potential closure.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I take the Member's point.

I ask the Minister simply to pause and take note of what is being presented here today. These are very positive, popular centres for good reason. The issues of health, obesity and outdoor pursuits have been raised, and the Programme for Government clearly reflects their importance and makes repeated references to them. The proposals to close the centres contradict everything that the Programme for Government, as it is being built, represents or claims to represent. The contradiction is so wide that it cannot sit comfortably with the Minister. In that vein, I urge him to sit down and set the proposals or the possible proposals against the objectives of the Executive. The information in the public domain to date does not, I have to say, fill me with confidence that that work has even been undertaken, and I urge him to consider that.

I put this to the Minister again: how do we measure the added confidence that young people get from visiting the centres? How do we measure the personal development that takes place when young children stay away from their parents, perhaps for the very first time? I know that some of the leaders at the centres — this was referred to — have the skills and ability to deal with the very delicate issue of homesickness, and the children learn to network with their friends. It is so difficult to put a value on that. How do we measure the spirit — the community spirit — that is engendered by the young people who step up to do courses and volunteer? They take that far beyond the centres through their life and carry that community spirit with them. They really bring such social added value that we cannot measure it.

I truly hope that the Minister has come here with an open mind. If anything comes out of the debate, I ask him to consider facilitating a meeting with representatives of the sector to discuss the review. I refer not to adding to the review but to looking at it and seeing how it was constructed and the faults that lie in it and whether he is willing to consider at least pushing the pause button. I ask him please to consider the centres and all the social value that you will never see presented to you by officials in the form of a balance sheet. I urge him to take on board that request and thank him very much for being in attendance.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 5:15 pm, 29th November 2016

That completes the contributions from constituency Members. I am prepared to grant an additional minute to the non-constituency Members who have indicated that they wish to speak, who will now each have up to four minutes.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Member for South Down for securing the debate, and I thank the Minister for his attendance. As someone who is involved in youth work — I declare an interest as a member of the Scout Association — I have been to many outdoor centres and have seen at first hand the absolute improvement in young people in their personal development when they attend the centres. That is hugely important and cannot be quantified by economists looking at the bottom line in any consultation, review or work that discusses or decides whether the centres should be retained or closed.

I take issue with two things. First, the member for South Down Ms Ruane said that the Minister should retain an open mind. I have spoken to the Minister, and he clearly has an open mind on the issue. Secondly, Mr McKee referred to "the Minister's proposals". I hope that the Ulster Unionist Party was not scoring points. It is important that people remember that they are not the Minister's proposals; they are the Education Authority's proposals. The consultation and review that the proposals came from were the Education Authority's consultation and review. The proposals are the Education Authority's proposals, and people need to be absolutely clear about that.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I will, surely.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Member will be aware that there are political representatives on that board, including those from the Ulster Unionist Party.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I have just taken one; I want to make some progress. You had your opportunity.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Having been to Killowen, Ardnabannon and Delamont — I have not been to Bushmills — over the years, I am absolutely aware of the facilities that they provide. In fact, I first visited Killowen way back in 1989 when there was a huge scout camp at Gosford. I was there last year on a visit with the CAL Committee, and the facilities are excellent. I understand absolutely that the centres are in close proximity to the coastline and allow kids to do water activities. They also allow them to go into the Mournes and learn new skills there. That is hugely important.

For the Minister, it is clearly a case of speaking to the Education Authority, which I am sure that he has done and will continue to do. It is about conflicting demands on the budget, which is not infinite.

The reality is that we must always put the young people first, and I say that as a governor of two schools. It is about the development of our young people. When our young people have the opportunity to go away, their leaders— in this case, perhaps, their teachers — have the opportunity to see them in the context of an outdoor centre or an outward bound centre and the activities that they are involved in and observe a monumental change in them.

It is also about sweating the assets, but we need to be realistic. The Department also funds other centres such as the Crawfordsburn Scout Centre, where the Minister recently opened a new cabin and chalet. We have other great centres in north Down like the Lorne Guide centre and the Boys' Brigade centre at Ganaway.

I have to stress again to the House that we need to get the facts absolutely clear. I know the Minister and have known him a long time.

The Minister is absolutely committed to delivering for young people in our community, but this was a piece of work initiated out of a review that came from the Education Authority; the consultation was the Education Authority's consultation; and these proposals are the Education Authority's proposals. I have no doubt the Minister will be sympathetic — it is up to the Minister to respond to the debate in a way that, I have no doubt, he will — but, equally, Members need to be fair and not place undue criticism on the Minister that is not and should not be directed to his office.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member clarify that, in the interests of having that detail correct, the Education Authority's review suggested this was not a monetary decision; it was about a review of service?

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Mr Storey made a contribution in an intervention and made it very clear that political representatives sit on the Education Authority. I am not one of those people. I have not had the opportunity to be privy to the report and the review. I am sure the Member has party colleagues who have; perhaps she could ask them.

I will draw my remarks to a conclusion, but I will simply say that the Member should bear in mind the facts of this issue and not deal with fantasy.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the valuable contribution made by outdoor education centres and their staff to the development of our children and young people across Northern Ireland and, specifically, those in South Down.

When we think of education, understandably, we think of schools, given the central role they play. However, we must also acknowledge that education ought to take many forms and include the vital contribution the Youth Service and outdoor education make. Outdoor education provision accounts for only a small portion of the overall education budget, but it provides unique learning opportunities and skills development for around 150,000 children and young people every year, which is approximately as many pupils as attend all our post-primary schools put together.

Residential and outdoor education centres across Northern Ireland provide a wide range of positive education experiences and opportunities to develop interpersonal and practical skills, teamwork and communication skills and social and emotional resilience through a wide range of physical activities that all aid our children and young people's ability to achieve a positive future for themselves and contribute to their community.

That has been supported by the correspondence I have received from primary and post-primary schools in my constituency of East Belfast regarding just how valuable the outdoor education centres at Delamont, Ardnabannon and Killowen in South Down are to them. The Education Minister and the Education Authority must, therefore, ensure that all children and young people have the opportunity to participate in all forms of education, including youth services and outdoor education.

As Deputy Chairperson of the Education Committee, I was glad to support our decision to invite the Education Authority to update us on its approach to this matter. The Education Authority cited over-provision, duplication, economic viability and failure to meet delivery models as reasons for the proposed closures. However, I must say that serious questions were raised by all parties about the reasons the Education Authority gave for the proposed closures of the outdoor education centres. There is clear concern that this exercise is more about cost-cutting than about improving education provision for children and young people in our community.

I have consulted South Down Alliance elected representative councillor Patrick Brown from Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, who also questions the approach taken by the Education Authority on the proposed rationalisation of the centres, and, indeed, he opposed the closure of the three centres in South Down.

There is shock that some of the busiest, largest and most popular centres are being proposed for closure. They are centres that are consistently busy throughout the year during and out of term time. They are centres that accommodate school and youth groups from across Northern Ireland and bring children and young people from across our community to exciting, outdoor, shared spaces that are vital to the aim of building a united community in Northern Ireland.

Given its natural resources, it should be no surprise that the south Down/Mourne area has a concentration of outdoor residential centres, however the proposed cuts will reduce the number of bed spaces and opportunities available for children and young people to experience outdoor residential activities throughout Northern Ireland.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I thank the Member for bringing this debate to the Floor of the Chamber. I commend the large number of people who have turned out in force, obviously demonstrating to us the depth of feeling that there is amongst the community on this very important issue. I also thank the Minister for taking time to come and listen to the debate. Obviously, he will make his comments in due course.

At the outset, I want to talk about the invaluable service that these outdoor centres have given to our society, our constituents and our young people. I can think back to my time at school when I attended some of the centres, and that is not that terribly long ago, although it maybe feels a little bit longer than what it is. They are fantastic facilities, and they do give a real added benefit to a child's overall growth and social skills. There is no doubt that they have a positive impact on their communication skills, their leadership skills, their teamworking skills and their ability to experience the real outdoors. For many who are from a town setting, it often is potentially the only time that they will have access to that real outdoor experience. I commend the many workers who, throughout the years, have had that impact on children and young people who have used this service.

When we received the briefing from the EA at the Education Committee, I was somewhat shocked at some of the revelations that the EA came forward with. As my colleague William Humphrey pointed out, this is an EA consultation, and it is an EA recommendation. I think that we have to be aware that the EA has arrived at this consultation stage.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I thank the Member very much for taking my intervention, and I absolutely accept that the Education Authority made this decision. Will the Member agree that it is the Minister who will make the final decision?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I will certainly not take any lectures from the Member across the way, because, when she was Minister, the unfortunate thing is that the education and library boards did not tackle the problem and the under usage. I will not take any lectures from her.

Our Minister is compassionate about our young people, and I have no doubt that he will do everything in his power to ensure that young people get the very best education and outdoor experience during his term in office. I do go back to the fact that we are in changing times. There is not a bottomless pit of money, and it would be wrong of us as a party of government to say that things will not have to change. I understand that things will have to change and that there does have to be a rationalisation and a looking at the entire estate. That does not mean that I am an advocate of them closing. It means that I am an advocate of the EA actually sitting down and telling us the facts and the truths around whether, if centres are to close, there is the capacity in the ones that remain open to deal with the numbers of young people that will be going to them. I also think that the EA has been slightly disingenuous with its comments —

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I am conscious of my time.

I think that the EA has been disingenuous around the figure of £1·3 million, because it has said that that will be reinvested into peripatetics. I question that, and I think that the EA has a lot of questions to answer. We all have representatives on the EA board, and it is vital that the political representatives on the EA board question the EA on its rationale for bringing this consultation forward. I ask everyone in the House to make their comments known to the Minister and make them known to the EA, because it is the EA that, I believe, has serious questions to answer in all of this.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 5:30 pm, 29th November 2016

After two North Down Adjournment debates, I joked with the Minister for Infrastructure, who is from South Down, that he had done more than anyone else to dissolve the border between North and South Down. I fear that, if the EA proposals are implemented by the Minister, he will have done more than anyone else to reinstate it. I know that he is paying attention to the debate and that he is not a man who wants to see a hard border, so, hopefully, he will not go down that line.

Adjournment debates are often constituency-based and, at a cursory glance, this looks like a South Down debate. However, we can see from the fact that we have representatives of three of the Belfast constituencies, North Antrim, Lagan Valley, Strangford — I will not list them all — as well as our North Down constituency —

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

There is also Newry and Armagh, of course. The centres serve a wide catchment area, and when we come to the question of why there is an overprovision, as it is deemed by the EA, in South Down, it is clear from the number of people here today that many from across Northern Ireland access the centres and come from well beyond the borders of South Down. The point has been made by others that South Down has a lot to offer in terms of natural environment and access to outdoor facilities. It is right that the provision should be there.

Minister, there is talk throughout the EA document about voluntary provision. I suppose that, if we were to go down that road and rely on the voluntary sector — I am hopeful that, given the number of representations from your party, you are minded to take a different route — the question that I would put is this: what guarantee is there of sustainability for those centres? What will your Department do to ensure that sustainability, so that those alternatives are there? There is a real sense of connection, as well, to these places. There is a history that goes with them. That, in itself, is not sufficient reason to keep them open, but it is sufficient reason to look twice at the proposals. As was put to me by one teacher, this will impact on my children, because Bangor Central school uses Ardnabannon every year. I put it to the Minister that this will affect many of our constituents directly. There will be annoyance, for there is an attachment to the centres, if they are to close without good reason.

My final point is around the consultation. Much has been made of it, and there is a real feeling that it has not been a genuine consultation. I do not know whether the EA was trying to be innovative by using SurveyMonkey, saying, "Look how modern we are. We are using new technology and new ways of engagement". The EA should not be knocked, if that is what it was trying to do, but there is certainly a feeling that the SurveyMonkey questionnaire that was produced very much directed people towards giving the answers it wanted to receive rather than remaining sufficiently open to the answers that people wanted to give.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Apologies, we were in Budget discussions. That was very timely, given the subject matter, I suppose, but it is why I missed the earlier contributions. The number of people here today is testimony to the feeling about the issue we are discussing. I have been here for five years, and I do not think that I have seen an Adjournment debate with so many people at it, so fair play to Colin and to everybody else for being here.

When we look at the small sum of money that is being talked about here and the money that Ministers, such as the Education Minister and I, have to look towards saving, something that should be borne in mind is the outcome that the centres give not just to our children but to the local economy. Take Killowen, Ardnabannon and Delamont: those centres are vital, and, no doubt, that has been touched on. The centres and their staff are very much part of the local community. They are also part of the learning process. Many of our young people, including kids who come out from Belfast, benefit from the environmental learning and heritage in the likes of the Mournes, Kilbroney and Carlingford lough in South Down. We see it all the time. That is their bed of learning when it comes to outdoor living and outdoor learning. It would be a travesty if we somehow could not re-engage with the consultation, speak to the centres and find an appropriate way forward that matches the needs and outcomes of the Department.

It is for the Department and the Minister to take the decision on this. Last year, when there was an issue regarding special educational needs in the Education Authority, John O'Dowd, the previous Minister, stepped in. It is maybe time to do that on this issue.

I know I am time-bound, so, finally, as the Member who spoke previously said, it is important that we look at different ways to consult, but it is also important that we do not take away from the consultation process. I fear that, as with the social security offices, which are also going under review, we have maybe taken away something from the consultation processes. I therefore ask the Minister to re-engage on that.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. As the Member who has just spoken indicated, Adjournment debates are undoubtedly specifically constituency-focused. It is clear, however, that this is an issue that goes well beyond a single constituency. It is also clear that there is a level of interest in and passion for the subject; indeed, it is commendable that so many people are in the Public Gallery to see the outcome.

I say at the outset that I do not think that anybody would demur from the idea that general youth provision is a tremendous asset in young people's lives. It should be noted — Chris Lyttle referred to it — that the natural inclination is for all of us to think purely of schools when we think of education, but youth provision is an important aspect of it. Some £34 million has been spent on revenue from the youth budget this year, while there has been about £9 million of capital expenditure, much of it to improve youth facilities. The provision that is made by a range of youth centres is a major advantage to children's lives. No one doubts that, but this is where we run into some difficulties that I will highlight.

The situation arose from an overall assessment of what youth services were needed and what could be maintained. From that point of view, significant as what we are hearing today is, we need to recognise and put it in context that we originally had five boards making their own outdoor education centre provision. One board now has that focus. If you were starting from scratch, you would not have the layout and provision that you have at present. At the moment, there are 11 statutory outdoor education centres and four voluntary. On the long-term future of those, I can say that a number, such as Lorne and Ganaway, which Mr Humphrey mentioned, are facilities that have been there for decades, so they will not be under particular pressure or threat. There is an issue about trying to ensure that we have a match between what is provided and what is needed. Undoubtedly, there will be major implications if the proposals go through on that basis. Again, I indicate that this is a proposal — indeed, a draft consultation — by the Education Authority. The people who will make the decision are on the Education Authority board. It is not the officials. The officials may have a particular view, but the board, on which at least four parties in the Assembly, as well as different sectors, are directly represented, will make the decision.

I do not want to mislead people. I believe that there is a funding issue, as there is with almost anything in education at the moment. Mr Hazzard talked about the previous Education Minister intervening on an issue. That was very welcome.

I will not pretend that there is not a financial aspect to this. The Minister made the intervention last year, but I am in a different position with this year's budget. I am not talking about a reduction in real terms, which is sometimes bandied about: in actual terms, it is £52 million down. The pressures in this year's budget are probably somewhere in the region of £100 million. Some of that is down to circumstances that have been imposed on Northern Ireland — not just in terms of the block grant —, such as the changes by the Chancellor on national insurance and superannuation, which are hitting everybody and are making a fortune of a difference. So, the room for manoeuvre that I have or which the Education Authority has is not as wide as it was. There is no doubt about that.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will give way in a moment.

While we do not know the budget for 2017-18, there is no doubt that we will be in very trying circumstances, where, unless there is a radical shift in the Budget across the Executive, there will be major problems for education. I give way to the Member.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I thank the Minister for giving way. I understand the difficulty with budgets, as we all do, but does he agree with me that at a time of austerity, at a time when we have a serious obesity crisis, at a time when the Executive are working together to try to bring about changes, and at a time when we want to deal with underachievement, it is especially important that we find £1·3 million, particularly given the huge budget that the Minister has. I was in your position; I know the amount of money that is in the education budget.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

That is a matter of public record. If I start off down by the equivalent of £150 million, the only way I can do that is through cuts.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I have only 10 minutes. Mr McGrath made an important contribution, and I want to deal with the issue.

There will undoubtedly be major pressures in 2017-18, which will particularly bear on the Education Authority because we want to try to protect as much of the front-line schools budget as possible. Unless there is a radical change, I think other cuts will have to be made that will be more painful and more politically difficult for the House than the one to outdoor education centres.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will give way briefly, then.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am concerned because the debate has completely turned and we are now talking about finance. The terms of reference of the Education Authority never made any reference to finance. We had serious questions about the review, but now we are questioning whether the terms of reference of the review are changing before our very eyes.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am being absolutely honest with the House: finance is critical to education, and it will be critical to this debate. There will have to be cuts by the Education Authority. I have no alternative other than to stay within budget nor has the Education Authority, and I am not going to pretend that there is not a pressure with finance where money will have to be found.


Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

With respect, I am trying to answer and I am being honest.

While there is work that will be done by the Education Authority to try to ensure that it has the best possible facilities for people, I will not pretend that finance is not an important aspect of that. It would be misleading to the House to pretend otherwise.

I reiterate that unless there is a radical change to the budget — to be fair to the Finance Minister, he does not have a great deal of room for manoeuvre either with the block grant — I suspect that in 2017-18 the House will face more painful decisions. I do not want to mislead anybody in relation to that.

Members have asked, "Is this the right choice?", and, "Have things been got right in the consultation?". Having spoken to members of the Education Authority, I believe they are not taking a doctrinaire position and saying that this is some sort of panacea or that it should be a plan set in stone. We are talking about proposals that will ultimately be decided on by the Education Authority board. In tackling that, and this is where I urge people in the House and in the consultation —


Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. I ask Members to show respect to the Minister when he is addressing the House.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

If Members are looking for an alternative route, it is incumbent on them to put forward a strong alternative that is commensurate with where we are with finance. People are not hung up on a particular solution. What they are hung up on is trying to ensure that the budget of the Education Authority is used in the best possible fashion. There may well be other things that the Education Authority will have to do that will be more difficult than even this.

If Members are looking at what the provision is, for instance, for outdoor education centres, I urge them to look at what the overall proposals should be, look at alternatives and provide those alternatives. I think they will find that if they produce alternatives that are able to provide a strong level of support in terms of outdoor centres but can match it much more within the budgets that will be available to the Education Authority, nobody is going to be objecting to that. However, people will not make the best use of a consultation if they simply say, "No, we oppose all cuts". That is where there has to be maturity in the debate.

The decision will ultimately be taken by the Education Authority board. I think it is open to hear what is being said by others. I urge people to take part in the consultation, whatever doubts they have about it, and put forward their proposals directly, if indeed it is not to be confined by a SurveyMonkey or anything of that nature. Speak directly to Education Authority board members, and come up with an alternative that is workable and can be financed.

Adjourned at 5.46 pm.