I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this subject and to show my support for Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre in the Assembly today. I thank the Minister for being present to listen to the arguments. I also welcome the elected councillors, members of staff and members of the public from in and around Bushmills who are in the Public Gallery to listen to the debate.
I am aware that there was a similar debate last week, so the Minister will be well versed in all the arguments. Perhaps, with a week's reflection since the last debate behind him and the Christmas break in front of him, he may be minded to end the 2016 Assembly term with a good news story for us all and announce the retention of the Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre.
I listened to the debate last week and support the arguments made for the retention of all the centres earmarked for closure. Obviously, I will mostly concentrate my remarks this afternoon on the specific case of Bushmills, which rests in my constituency of North Antrim. I do not apologise for repeating some of the very good arguments that were made last week: this is such an important issue, and the arguments need to be repeated and reinforced.
The Minister and other MLAs will say that this is not an issue for him and instead is one for the Education Authority. That is quite true and I understand that, but I also understand that it is true that the Minister is not powerless either and can act or use his influence. Sinn Féin's two appointees on the Education Authority board have expressed their concern about the closures.
The proposal for the closure of Bushmills and the other outdoor centres and the resulting consultation document, which I will come back to later, have come on the back of a review of residential and outdoor education. The document is 84 pages long, but, for me, the key sentence is on page 3 in the executive summary. It 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."
Those sentiments, which are contained in the Education Authority's own document, will run through everything that I say here today, because those sentiments and that sentence have been relayed to me time and time again over the past few weeks in relation to the Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre.
I thank the Member for taking the intervention. Will the representatives of his party on the Education Authority board oppose any closure of the centres? Perhaps it would be helpful if other Members whose parties have representatives on the Education Authority board could indicate how they will vote when it comes to the closure of these centres.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I said that the two Members have expressed concern. We are in the consultation process. I do not want to pre-empt what they are going to do. Hopefully, we may not need the Education Authority to do anything. That is the purpose of this debate.
People have relayed to me their sentiments about Bushmills. They have been relayed by principals of primary and secondary schools, teachers, pupils, the parents of pupils, community groups, church groups and people who went to Bushmills in years gone by and had such a positive experience that they took the time to call, email and text to show their support.
I am not sure whether the Minister has seen the online 'Save Bushmills' petition, which I think has now well over 2,000 signatories. If he has not, could I ask that he gets an official to let him see some of the testimonies on it from people sharing their story of staying at the Bushmills centre and the impact that it had on them. That is why I share the frustration of those in the Gallery and in the local community about this proposed closure.
Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre provides experiences for young people. In an age of Xbox and iPhone, when too many of our children are spending less time outdoors, the special experience that Bushmills and the other centres are providing becomes even more important. Education is about more than exams and books. Not everybody wants to follow an academic path, and even those who do need to be exposed to other life experiences. Children may discover talents that they would otherwise have had no opportunity to discover or develop.
These centres are also seen as hubs, where schools and children from different backgrounds and communities can come together in a safe environment and share and learn. A number of MLAs, including myself, were invited to the Bushmills centre recently by Knockloughrim and St Brigid's, Mayogall primary schools to witness at first hand how those two schools have been using the Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre for the past 15 years for a shared residential. Anyone who saw and heard the principals and children from the different schools talk about their experiences whilst staying in Bushmills will know that you cannot give it a monetary value.
I know that the Minister is going to say that his budget is finite and decreasing, and I understand that. In fact, I empathise with him on that. That said, any saving from the closure of Bushmills would be miniscule in his overall budget. It would be a false economy in the value to education and in what Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre can save other services in the short, medium and long term.
As I said, I have been contacted and lobbied by numerous schools and teachers in North Antrim, but also beyond, in the rest of County Antrim and Derry, and by even the Principals' Association in Mid-Ulster. I note that Members from other constituencies have stayed behind to take part in the debate.
Those who use Bushmills know its value. They also know that children can go to Bushmills and have a first-class experience at a fraction of the cost of similar places in the private sector or other types of school trips. That is something I hope the Minister understands: the potential pressure put on parents and families who may not have a place like Bushmills to go to and the possible division that that can place within classes between those who can afford trips and those who cannot.
I know that Bushmills is not the only outdoor education centre proposed for closure, but I have no doubt that the Minister will know its location in comparison with the other centres. I have no doubt that he will know that Bushmills is the only residential outdoor education centre in North Antrim, in County Antrim and, indeed, in the north-east. If it closes, it is not just that schools that currently use it will go to another centre; geography and distance will dictate that. It is also true that, if Bushmills had to turn away 40 groups last year because of being over-booked, which it did, then, even if geography and distance were not the deciding factors, the availability of other centres would be. In my opinion, the loss of Bushmills cannot be subsumed into the rest of the outdoor education sector. Therefore, future generations of children will lose out on vital life-learning skills and experiences. That is a sad reality.
Who are the children who will lose out? A very small percentage of the Minister's budget to ensure the survival of Bushmills would allow 240 schools and youth groups to visit, adding up to over 8,500 children, as was the case in 2014-15. In 2015-16, even with enforced staff reduction, there were still 190 groups — 58 schools, 54 youth and church groups, as well as 78 day groups — that used the centre. That means that, overall, there were 7,500 overnight stays and 30,000 activity sessions last year. The planned closure of all the centres will remove 60% to 70% of our residential places. It is important that we compare the proposed reduction with acceptable standards elsewhere. Local education authority centres provide a ratio of 1:4,500 beds per head of population, while here in the North the ratio is currently 1:3,500. If the proposed changes take place, our ratio will decrease to 1:12,000. That is an unacceptable reduction.
I also want to highlight the implications of the range of proposals to reduce the remaining four to five centres from a seven-day-week service to a five-day-week service. The losers in that arrangement will be youth organisations, which will no longer be able to use the centres for weekend residentials or day visits. Those are non-formal-education youth services, such as local youth clubs and projects dealing with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people in our society. Currently, those young people can access the centres 48 weeks a year. That will now be reduced to eight summer weeks only. The centres are also providing youth skills training for part-time staff and outdoor leadership courses for our youth workers and teachers. They are delivering award programmes and accredited training courses for young people, providing them with alternative routes to achievement.
Minister, if the Programme for Government is serious about all the things that it contains about children, education and poverty, and if we are serious about outdoor education and having fully trained staff in a safe environment at a cost that parents and schools can afford, we need to look again at the proposals. Some 150,000 children across the North benefit from outdoor education every year. In my view, that service is well worth funding at its current level. The consultation process is flawed. I know that that was touched on a lot in last week's debate. It is flawed, and it is based on flawed information. Conspiracy theorists could easily make arguments about the whys and why nots of that. I want to believe that people, and the Minister in particular, are coming at this with an open mind.
I will not even get into the use of SurveyMonkey nor the misleading and closed questions contained in the consultation. I want to talk about the information in the review that was used to take us to the point at which Bushmills could be considered for closure. In the first instance, it was stated that any savings accrued from the review outcome will be directed towards front-line services, yet Bushmills and other front-line services are being closed or proposed for closure. That makes no sense. The review concentrated on over-provision and included voluntary centres funded by the Department of Education. That argument is used to justify the closure of the three centres in County Down. I disagree with it there, but, as I said earlier, there are no other centres around Bushmills.
In all the facts and figures presented about the low capacity, never once highlighted was the one factor that controls capacity; namely, the number of staff available to work with groups. The more staff that there are available, the more groups that you can work with and the greater the capacity of the centres, yet staff capacity has been cut by the Education Authority. That is a very important point. The centres should be allowed more staff and to maximise capacity rather than be closed.
Most confusing of all, however, is the fact that, in the initial review, Bushmills ranked third, and only three centres were earmarked for closure. Somehow, Bushmills is now ranked fifth and four to five centres are earmarked for closure. There appear to be no other options presented by the review or the Education Authority to avoid the closure of these valuable centres. It could be argued that minor changes to charges, staffing and resources could address the Minister's concerns about savings. Additionally, the centres can be and are used for teacher and part-time youth work training, and that will be totally lost if the planned closures go ahead. Who will the Education Authority pay to run all these courses? Will the same standards of safety apply? Will they be more expensive in the commercial world, as is the case with mountain centre courses?
Minister, given all of that, all that you heard last week, all that you are likely to hear today and all that you will hear in the remainder of the consultation process period, I urge you to rethink the proposed outcomes, halt the progress and instigate a working group to develop options to retain and develop the service.
I advise the House that this debate is not only well-attended but potentially oversubscribed with Members who wish to speak. I am prepared to allocate constituency Members up to five minutes. They will be taken first. Non-constituency Members will be allocated a maximum of three minutes. No additional time will be allocated for any interventions. I seek your cooperation.
I thank the Member for securing the Adjournment debate. A number of points need to be made at the start that underline the importance of what we are debating tonight. Some years ago, Edward Lappin wrote a book about outdoor education, in which he said:
"Outdoor education enables students and teachers to interact in an environment free from the limitations of the classroom."
The 'Review of Residential and Outdoor Education' gives us all the reasons why there should be a focus on the retention of these services. It states:
"Since their inception in the 1970s, Residential and Outdoor Education Centres have made a significant and valued contribution to the development of young people and society. They have operated across school and youth sectors in both formal and informal settings. This level of involvement has placed the centres in a unique position from which to influence the lives of young people throughout and beyond their formal educational experience."
We need to keep the focus on that. It is the reason why I attended the debate in the House last week. The issue has implications for colleagues in other constituencies. We need to ask how we got to this place. What we have before us did not happen as a result of a decision taken primarily because of budget constraints, even though it is interesting that the Education Authority's document states that there have been savings of £1·3 million. Where are the savings in the following years? It does not add up.
We need to go back to 2013 and the policy document, 'Priorities for Youth: Improving Young People's Lives through Youth Work', because that is when the problem arose. That led to the regional youth development plan in 2015-16, which has brought us to the point that we are at today. I do not believe that we can say that this happened because of budgetary constraints alone. A decision was made by whomever in the Department or the Education Authority that certain places had to go. Why these facilities? Why a facility like Bushmills in our North Antrim constituency? These are not places that are just open, with cobwebs gathering in corners and a few small groups coming now and again. It can be clearly demonstrated that, in 2014-15, these places were used: 240 school and youth groups involving over 8,500 individuals, 73% from schools and youth services, and 27% adults.
The Member mentioned the following, but I want to expand on it a wee bit: was there a deliberate attempt by the Education Authority and the former North Eastern Education and Library Board to run down this service? The figures for 2015-16 show a reduction of part-time staff from 14 to three, so how would you expect an organisation, when it is audited, looked at and put under the microscope, to come up with figures that say that this is the reason why the provision should be retained? We then have to look at where these children and young people would go. If the Education Authority were to get its way and close the facility, where would they go? Would they go to Woodhall residential centre in Kilrea? It cannot take them because it is full. They would have to travel many miles to get comparable — not just another type of — provision. The Minister needs to grasp that point. It is vital.
I ask the Minister to have a serious look at the Education Authority. Does it have the capacity to deal appropriately with the issue? Is it now time for the consultation to be suspended until we are satisfied that a proper assessment has been carried out that gives us the facts, based on reality, as opposed to what may be the assumption of the Education Authority?
I will start where the last Member finished, by calling on the Minister to suspend the consultation because of the facts pointed out to him today by Philip McGuigan and the points rehearsed in last week's Adjournment debate. The information from the Education Authority has been misunderstood, or possibly misconstrued. All North Antrim MLAs will be well used to that from our experience of the North Eastern Education and Library Board. We have seen how they managed other consultations to achieve their desired outcome.
It is a point well taken, and that, I think, is why we are so well represented in the House today.
As Mr McGuigan referred to earlier, a number of us were invited to Bushmills Education Centre a couple of Fridays ago. I was pleased that we had representation from four parties. Knockloughrim Primary School and St Brigid’s Primary School, Mayogall handled the invitation and tour of the facility well. They brought down a pupil from each school to guide us round in groups of two. They showed us round and really relayed to us their experiences and how worthwhile their time at the centre has been. The young people told us, for example, "This centre has touched our hearts", and, "This centre has stretched my boundaries". It was very much a real life experience, and Mr Burns, Mr Bradley and Mr McGuigan will all reinforce the points made on that day.
It is the ethos of the centre itself that is important and crucial, and that came through very clearly in a point made by one of its former employees, Dr Robin Rodduck. He said that outdoor centres are not just about fresh air and running about; they are about the whole concept of outdoor education, what it means to our young people and how that develops team building, sharing and an understanding of the world at large. What really struck me on that visit was that the Bushmills Education Centre was delivering shared education long before "shared" was a buzzword in the Education Authority, the North Eastern Education and Library Board or even in the Department itself. That is its strength. What concerns all of us who were there on that day is this: if Bushmills is to close, even temporarily, in five years' time, some great educationalist sitting in the Education Authority will dream up the concept of a residential education centre and have to start from scratch. By that stage, the personnel, the experience and the quality of provision currently at Bushmills will have been lost to generations.
When we were interacting with the pupils and the teachers there, we were struck by the ability of the trainers to truly engage with schools and youth groups in order to ensure that their three- or four-day programmes were fit for their purpose. It is not some bland voluntary education centre where they offer the same programme this week, next week and the following week, meaning that the young people have to fit into that box. The centre provides a bespoke service to each one of the young people attending. Also, because it is part of the Education Authority, the centre can look at how its activities interact with the curriculum. It can ensure that it offers a bespoke, specific service.
One of the truly remarkable things that was pointed out to us on that day, almost as an aside, was that Bushmills and associated centres are inclusive and, for the young people who go there, affordable. A concern shared by teachers and parents is that this will price young people out of going to outdoor centres. A centre run by the Education Authority can make allowances and provisions for those entitled to free school meals, whereas other educational centres cannot. That support alone is worth some of the savings that the proposed consultation will talk about.
I will finish very briefly on the £1·3 million saving proposed by the Education Authority. If the Minister does not stop this consultation now, there are so many other avenues where that money could be found, such as through shared educational programmes, T:BUC and the summer camps.
I thank the Member for bringing this debate to the Chamber today. It is a great opportunity to discuss the outdoor education centre at Bushmills and all the benefits that it brings to young people. Let me echo what has been said already in the Chamber. I fully agree with those words.
Let me say two things at the outset. First, these closures are a disappointment for me, not only the one at Bushmills but the other outdoor education centres. I attended the debate last week on the others. I have spoken directly to people affected by the proposals, including staff and the schools. I apologise that I was not able to make the event that was organised. I had other constituency-related matters that day that I could not change, but I am happy enough to visit at another time, of course. I have spoken directly to people affected by that, including schools that make use of the services. The other day, I received — I am sure that other Members did, too — a letter from the Scripture Union, which praised these services and said that it will be directly impacted by any potential closures. It is my belief, and research shows, that a large amount of what a young person learns happens outside the classroom, mainly, I believe, at home. Parents have a huge responsibility for a child's education through being their chief educator, but these outdoor education centres play a huge part in the education of our young people and contribute to the social aspect of their education and, of course, to their physical well-being.
The other point that I want to make is to highlight the failure of the Education Authority to be straight about these proposed closures. We spoke extensively to the Education Authority in a Committee meeting and were told directly that this decision was not financial but is the best for our young people and is all about delivering a better service for them. While I do not doubt the Education Authority's goal and mission of delivering a sustainable and viable service that benefits all young people, I find it strange that the centres that are earmarked for proposed closure are the ones with the highest maintenance bill. It seems to be an attempt to save money, hidden behind a disguised message. If the Education Authority is aiming to save money with these closures, be upfront and tell us about that. Do not try to hide it behind a mask that it is supposedly meant to be best for our young people, because we have heard very clearly that it will affect young people directly. In reality, the Education Authority has a responsibility to live within its budget, and we have to accept — the Member who brought the debate has to, as a Member from an Executive party — that we are living in changing times and that we have tough decisions to make.
We have an education system, as the Education Authority said, that is built on historic structures. For example, we are funding an Irish-medium sector that, in primary alone, has 895 empty desks. We, as a party in government, will have tough choices and tough decisions to make, and discussing closures is not something that I get —
Sorry, I was making a point when I was coming to a close, and I will take this opportunity. The Member has been talking about savings. There are other avenues in the Executive to find that £1·3 million, should it be through T:BUC or shared education, because the provision in Bushmills education centre is meeting those other Executive needs. That money is already there and can be drawn down from elsewhere.
I accept the Member's point on that and also agree with my colleague Mervyn Storey's points on the future savings that this will bring, but I do not believe that they are there, and I do not think that the Education Authority has proved those potential savings to be there in the long run.
As I was saying, I do not get excited about getting out of my bed in the morning to talk about potential closures. No one would run to come to the House for that. I do not envy the Minister's position at all. He asks the Education Authority to live within its budget, and, when it makes proposals to do that and to reduce its costs, we ask him to go back and say, "Actually, we do not want you to do that at all". I understand that, but I ask him to intervene on this, because I think that people will be greatly affected by those decisions. Let me make it clear though that it is an Education Authority proposal. It is out for consultation and that consultation will end on 6 February. I put this to Members and stakeholders: respond to that consultation with alternatives. Most parties in the Chamber have political representation on the Education Authority board. I ask them to lobby those people and ask them to find alternatives, because we need to put up suggestions.
We need to put up ideas and alternatives.
In conclusion, it is simply not good enough to bury our head. If the Minister buries his head, it will be totally irresponsible for the long-term delivery of the education system in this part of the United Kingdom.
I must say, I do not understand why the powers that be want to destroy a success story. That is what Bushmills is and has been for generations. Of particular concern — it raises my suspicions — is the manner of the process deployed here. First, there is a supposed review, and Bushmills is fifth on the list, and, because that seems to put three County Down centres at the top of the list, it is suddenly rejigged, and Bushmills is third.
What is even more concerning is that, during this process, no one even troubled themselves to visit the centre. No one went down to meet the excellent, dedicated staff, to talk it through with them and to see what they do day and daily. Some desktop operation was established, whereby it was decided, "Oh, well. Let's close Bushmills." That is an appalling decision. The first contact from those making the proposition in the Education Authority was four weeks ago, when they went down to the centre and broke the news that they were going to close it. That is no way to treat anyone, least of all a centre that has been a roaring success for many years.
I think of the squander by this Executive — we will hear something more about that tonight on BBC 'Spotlight' — and then I read that £1·3 million will be saved by this project. But will it? In fact, the £1·3 million will simply be redirected within the Youth Service. This will not save one penny of the Minister's overall budget. The money will be redirected. It is quite clear to me, from the underhand way in which this has been done, that it is serving another agenda. The agenda is to cull and disengage the statutory sector, if I can put it like that, from these education facilities and to hand them over to the voluntary sector. What does that mean for the kids of north Antrim? There is no alternative voluntary capacity or opportunity there. I think the nearest centre is in Bangor.
That brings me to a critical point. Who have been the key beneficiaries of the scheme? Some of the most deprived kids in our schools, who are low in self-esteem and self-worth. They get a weekend or a few days at a centre such as this and suddenly they discover that they, who feel that they have always been put down, have got an interest. There is something good that they can do. There are things that they are good at. They leave those centres believing in themselves. That is worth far more than £1·3 million, yet that is the balance in which we are putting that achievement. For some kids, an outdoor activity venture is their parents paying huge amounts of money for them to go on a ski trip. However, many more parents are very glad of this affordable outlet, whereby they can give their kids the advantage of this scheme. It is those kids that we are putting down. Shame on the Education Authority for even thinking in those terms.
Let us not forget that Bushmills is much more than an outdoor education centre in one of the most beautiful parts of our country. It provides critical adult training for those who deliver things such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. Where will that now be delivered? The Minister needs to get a grip on this. I invite him to come to Bushmills and visit the centre when it is in full operation. I visited it last Friday. Others have also visited it. I would like him to see —
Because of the time constraints that have been placed on me, I will cut to the chase. I echo the sentiments that have been expressed by practically everybody in the House today. It is very concerning that the path to getting to where we are today has been one of deception and dishonesty from the Education Authority. Unless you, Minister, use your good offices to bring this despicable process to a halt, you will stand accused of being complicit in it. I urge you to do what you can to prevent that from happening.
When we look at the ranking of all the outdoor education centres in the review document supplied, we see that Bushmills is fifth, as has already been said, and at risk of closure. However, the conditional report has Bushmills ranked third. Can the Minister explain that? What methodology was used in the review document that differed significantly from the conditional report? What were the definitional terms used? Will he give a commitment to publishing the conditional report?
Despite many promises, staff at Bushmills have not been consulted, and neither have service users: the children. They are supposed to respond to a very complex consultation document. It does not make sense. How is that fair? How is it open? How is it transparent? The consultation document contains only predetermined decisions. That is disingenuous to all those who use and work at Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre.
The Education Authority has stressed that there is duplication of services across the North. The closest centre to Bushmills is Woodhall in Kilrea in my constituency, which is 20 miles away. That education centre has maximised capacity; it is oversubscribed, as others have said. It is crystal clear that demand heavily outweighs supply in that area. It means one thing: thousands of children will lose out. That is a fatal flaw in the consultation exercise.
Occupancy rates are highlighted in the consultation document. I will set the record straight: Bushmills has gone from catering for 5,000 children in 2012-13 to 3,000 last year, but that is not evidence of a lack of uptake. The Minister and the Education Authority have failed to state that, during that time, they have cut part-time staff at the centre from 24 to eight while full-time staff have not been replaced, which has dramatically impacted —
I thank all the Members who have spoken in the debate. I particularly thank Philip McGuigan for bringing the debate to the Chamber.
We have heard many Members — I reiterate the words — saying that the outdoor education centre in Bushmills strengthens, reinforces and builds on the knowledge of all the children, young people and others who use the centre. I will quote very quickly from one of the primary schools in east Antrim that uses the centre; it is the reason why I am speaking here today. The principal of Glynn Primary School said:
"The children learn so much about teamwork, consideration, empathy, determination and achievement on their trip; the list of what they learn is really endless. Bushmills is the only Outdoor Education Centre in the northern half of our county. My Primary 7 children talk the whole year about what we'll do and what it'll be like at Bushmills, having heard from their predecessors, but it still always far exceeds their expectations. It has several times been described as the best holiday ever!".
That comes from those families for whom this is a holiday — a genuine learning experience for children.
Other Members talked about the experiences of children from St Brigid's Primary School and Knockloughrim Primary School, and I want to reiterate what they have been telling me as well:
"For over 15 years, our schools have worked together in class and in our community, but, at Bushmills, we learn so much more by being together. We enjoy what we do and realise what it is to be part of the community. We are really sad to hear of the current consultation process that may close the education centre in Bushmills in August 2017".
I want to nail a few of the lies around the facts in all this. There are 40 schools that, quite simply, have been told that there is no room at the inn for them in Bushmills. They are not getting in. They have made applications, as they have done in previous years, but there is no facility for them. Those are just examples of the depth of feeling for Bushmills and the value that it is deemed to deliver for the education sector.
As I said, I commend those who have spoken in the debate. I re-emphasise and reiterate the comment that I made earlier: there are those in the Chamber today who are represented on the Education Authority and could commit to saying that they will keep Bushmills open.
First, I thank the Member for bringing the issue to the Chamber today. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the proposed closure of Bushmills Education Centre. As we all know, the centre is a fully staffed multi-purpose centre and is advertised on the Education Authority's website as one of the best equipped residential centres in Northern Ireland. I will repeat that: it is now one of the best equipped residential centres in Northern Ireland. The centre's mission statement is as follows:
"To provide a residential facility where a variety of curriculum related programmes and resources are offered, primarily in the field of outdoor education, designed to meet the needs of both young people and adults."
Bushmills outdoor centre can provide residential and day courses to visitors and uses the resources of the outdoor environment to achieve educational objectives and experiences for our young people. It provides important learning experiences for young people, especially when it comes to their health and physical activity. The instructors are all qualified teachers with additional specialist qualifications in many activities.
Primary and secondary schools from my constituency of Mid Ulster, including, as other Members mentioned, Knockloughrim Primary School and St Brigid's Primary School, use the facilities on an annual basis. Principals, teachers, parents and pupils are concerned that this is the last year that they will be able to access the excellent facilities.
Some rural schools in my constituency, such as Knockloughrim Primary School and St Brigid's Primary School, have worked together and have been fully involved in the Save Bushmills campaign. While I understand the need to meet the expectations of the Priorities for Youth policy and to address the overprovision of services, I urge the Education Authority to consider how the closure would not only be a loss to schools and youth organisations but will affect the lives of those employed in the centre and their families. There will be a direct impact on local people employed there, the local community and the schools and community groups that utilise the centre. Should the closure go ahead, it will have an impact on children from poorer and more disadvantaged backgrounds who have little or no other opportunities to visit facilities of this nature. The centre provides protective clothing and specialist equipment to visitors, and that is a vital tool, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who would not otherwise have the means or finance to provide them for themselves. I urge the Education Authority to consider other options regarding the sustainability of the centre, including opening the service to tourists and other groups.
In conclusion, I stress the importance of Bushmills Education Centre and the excellent service that it provides to schools in my constituency of Mid Ulster and those in North Antrim, South Antrim, East Londonderry and further afield. I urge all in our community to respond to the consultation. As my colleague said, the consultation closes on 6 February 2017, and it is important that people make their voice heard.
I thank the Member for securing the Adjournment debate this afternoon. The centre at Bushmills is the one most used by schools in the Mid Ulster constituency. My three children have all been there at least twice with their primary school. They travel there with other local rural primary schools and use it as an opportunity to get to know children in the neighbouring areas. As has been mentioned, Knockloughrim Primary School and St Brigid's Primary School are in the Mid Ulster constituency and their use of the centre for shared education is second to none. In fact, Knockloughrim and St Brigid's said that shared education becomes easier after they have been to Bushmills, as spending time together helps to break down the barriers, so that really is a benefit.
I support the calls by my colleague and by the Member for North Antrim Mervyn Storey to suspend the consultation. There are a number of points about the consultation that cause me concern. The statistics have already been well rehearsed. When I consider the high demand for Bushmills, I do not understand why it has been targeted for closure. I share the concern that there is no real strategy for outdoor education centres. The Education Committee was told that the £1·3 million of savings was the instigation for the decision, yet there is no overall strategy for outdoor education centres. As my colleague Robin Swann has stated, there are funds available elsewhere that could plug the gap from sources such as shared education and T:BUC, and I support that call. I support what other Members have said about the consultation: it seems to be flawed, and it is suggested that it has predetermined outcomes.
Stephen Moss, a British natural historian who talked about shared education said:
"So children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier. Not a bad result from simply changing the location where they are being taught. Importantly, this is not just for able and motivated pupils: under-achievers also do better in a natural environment, especially when exposed to high-quality, stimulating activities."
That is something that needs to be brought to the debate: in these environments our young people find they have talents that, in a classroom, they do not realise they have. They must be given the opportunity to continue that at Bushmills.
I thank the Member for bringing the debate to the Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the valuable contribution made by outdoor activity centres like Bushmills to the development of our young people and children across Northern Ireland.
The news of the consultation has caused concern not just in North Antrim but in East Londonderry, and, as we have heard tonight, in all other constituencies. I stress that I am not placing any criticism on the Education Minister; I know that he is fully committed to delivering for young people. The consultation and the proposals have come from the Education Authority, and I stress this is a consultation process — a consultation process that I believe to be flawed. While it is easy for some to blame the Minister, this recommendation is from the Education Authority, and I encourage as many users and supporters as possible to take part in the consultation by using the comments box.
I thank the Member for his intervention. He has stolen my thunder and taken my last paragraph.
I will not hold it against him.
I have completed the survey online, and I have used both comment boxes to register my opinion on the proposed closure as opposed to answering the questions. One question makes reference to the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, and it says, "Where deemed appropriate". There is no guarantee that anything will be guaranteed.
Understandably, when we think of education, we think of schools, given the role they play. However, we must also acknowledge that education ought to take many forms and include the vital contributions that 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. If this centre closes, the nearest centre is Woodhall at Kilrea, over 30 miles away. It has only 40 beds available and, I believe, is fully booked, so where is the overprovision?
Indeed, the Bushmills centre has had to turn away bookings during peak periods.
The centre in Bushmills offers a broad range of services. It is capable of generating income at weekends, but it is not permitted to do so. Groups wanting to avail themselves of its activities would have to travel over 100 miles to the nearest equivalent centre, which is in Newcastle, County Down. Therefore, there is no duplication of services in the area at all. The centre not only provides positive educational experiences for organisations but plays a vital role in training youth workers and teachers in a wide range of outdoor activities, providing positive educational experiences and opportunities to develop interpersonal and practical skills.
In closing, I stress the importance of the centre. It has helped young people to open their mind and stretch their personal horizons far and wide. It is a shared educational facility, meeting the criteria to enjoy shared education from learning in a cross-community setting. If we can play together —
I thank the Member for securing the Adjournment debate, which is similar to the one that we had last week. I do not wish to rehearse what was said last week, because the points were well made by everybody. It was one of those rare occasions when each and every side of the House was in agreement about the situation that we find ourselves in. Hearing the same remarks today reiterates the point that we made last week that this process needs to be paused, and I welcome hearing those remarks. There were two or three things that, I feel, were not said last week, and I will bring them into today's debate, because they are as relevant to Bushmills as they are to the three County Down centres.
The first issue that I want to discuss is the criteria. One of the variables used was the location of the centre and its proximity to other voluntary centres. What that means is that, if you remove a statutory centre, groups can simply trot up the road and go to the next one. That is fictitious on several grounds. First, it makes the massive assumption that the voluntary centres are empty, and they are not. There may be some capacity in them, and I am happy that that capacity be utilised fully, but I am somewhat disappointed that that will be achieved by closing down the statutory centres and then creating an over-demand scenario in the voluntary sector. Secondly, I am a little bit concerned, because I am not entirely sure what we mean when we use the term "voluntary sector". Many of the centres and provisions that will end up having to be used will be in the private sector. We know what that means: we are talking about increased prices to be able to achieve and drive more profits. Even the voluntary centres now charge more than the statutory centres. I hope that when the decision is taken — I say "when" because I have no faith in the consultation decision — that will be considered.
I want to accept the assertion that the Minister made last week that this decision is being taken by the Education Authority, but I know that the Minister understands my view on this because I have said it many times before. The Minister is the decision maker when it comes to education in Northern Ireland. It is therefore eventually up to you to overturn the decision, if it is made. I am sure that you, like any other Minister, past or present, would be happy to turn up for a good-news story by an arm's-length body. If you are able to share ownership of those stories, you can share ownership of the bad-news stories as well.
You told us that the Education Authority is made up of political representatives. You are correct: eight of the 20 members on the board are political representatives. Four of them belong to the DUP, and I hope, Minister, that you will lobby them as well to make the right decision on this closure scenario.
Certainly. We must stop this decision being taken on Bushmills and the other centres. We have to stop being biased against them because they are good at their job, are competitively priced, are located in the right place and are overwhelming loved by the children who attend them.
Like last week, I thank the Member for bringing forward the issue. I also acknowledge the contribution made by all Members, who spoke passionately and articulately about where we are with this. Somebody mentioned last week that the focus is always on schools. I will be honest: schools and, indeed, the delivery of education to children through schools have always been and will continue to be my first priority and that of the Department.
Beyond that, there is a key commitment to youth in the Department, and approximately £34 million of resource and about £9 million of direct capital has been spent in that area.
It is undoubtedly the case that there is a very passionate debate about the issue. We saw that last week with how it has affected the South Down area, and we have seen that today with Bushmills. One of the indications of that is the high attendance in the Public Gallery, which I acknowledge. That is ultimately why decisions will need to be taken responsibly.
As we look ahead, there are a lot of issues. No one is decrying the fact that outdoor education is important or that good work has been done in Bushmills and the other centres; mention was made of the centres in South Down and others. From that point of view, any closure or change in the system is not being driven because a bad service is being provided; nobody is making that argument.
There are two issues. There is the matter of an appropriate balance of provision throughout Northern Ireland. While a clear decision has to be made and put forward by the Education Authority, it is critical that, whatever emerges from the process — we are in a consultation process, and decisions have not been finalised — it has to be fit for purpose for our young people. It will be critical to ensure that that is the case. Inadequate provision will simply not be stood over against whatever constraints there are. As mentioned by Members, it is also wrong to believe that it is simply about the level of provision. Previously, statutory outdoor centres were maintained by five education boards, and we now have one body in the Education Authority. Without being prejudicial to any decision that might be made, it is critical that we look at what is available and appropriate for Northern Ireland as a whole and try to deliver on that basis. That is without prejudice to any discussions taking place. Undoubtedly, there is also a financial element. Indeed, in education and other aspects, decisions that come across my desk are not, generally speaking, between good and bad services. They are sometimes about which good service we maintain and which good service we cut. From that point of view, whatever decisions are made on this and other issues, good things will be cut; I am not denying that. The bottom line is that we move ahead. I appreciate that suggestions have been made today. It is important that people build on those proposals.
Finance is undoubtedly a key factor in where we are with education. Some of this might be a bit repetitive of last week's debate, but this year's education budget — not in real terms but in actual terms — was down by £52 million against a backdrop of about £100 million of pressures. To be fair to the Executive, some things that emerged simply happened by way of life, such as pay pressures, but other things have been imposed nationally and have nothing to do with the Northern Ireland Executive or anyone in the House. In this year's budget — it is ongoing — some £40 million of additional employers' National Insurance contributions will have to be paid. In health, that figure is probably in the region of £100 million. That is part of the hidden cost of our block grant settlement. As we look ahead to next year and wait to see what emerges in the budget, there is not a great deal of hope that things will suddenly get a lot better. Investment from the Executive in education is needed across the board. A number of Departments face a key challenge with the amount of money that is available overall.
Unless there is a degree of change, we will face very difficult decisions; indeed, unless there is an increase in the education budget, cuts may well have to be made that are more painful even than the cuts that are proposed today. I add that caveat. I appreciate that people —
Will the Minister bring clarity to the situation? It is said that £1·3 million can be saved by closing the centres, but it is not a saving to the Minister because the money will be redirected within the Youth Service. Is that not correct? Therefore, it is not a question of where it is best spent.
That is not the reality. It may well be that it is redirected to plug another gap, but the Youth Service cannot be exempt from the pressures. If there have to be savings across the board, EA in particular will probably face a lot of the pressures because the principal responsibility is to protect front-line services in the aggregated schools budget as much as possible. There will be gaps. It can be dressed up as being redirected, but gaps will be plugged. From that point of view, if £1·3 million is not saved in one area, it will have to be saved elsewhere. That is the economic reality of the situation.
I appreciate that there will always be paranoia about how any consultation is conducted, who is conducting it and what the motivations are: I understand that entirely. What I will say is that those who will take the final decision or, at least, the decision from the EA's point of view will be those sitting on the board. Mr McGrath mentioned that, of a total of 20, eight come from a political background and others represent different sectors. Having spoken to some of those people, I do not believe that they have a doctrinaire position and an agenda of closure. From that point of view, there is an opportunity there. Some ideas of how to formulate an alternative — a plan B — were mentioned today. If people feel that they are restricted by a consultation, there is nothing to stop them writing directly to the members of the Education Authority, and suggestions can be put together. If there is an alternative way forward and a better way of providing outdoor education provision, it will, I suspect, require some change. If there is a belief that the ranking of centres is wrong and that there should be a different configuration of the services, the Education Authority members will, I think, be entirely open to that. Nobody is coming at this from a doctrinaire position. I will simply say that people have to put a viable alternative — a plan B. If, for instance, the argument is that, within the Education Authority, £1·3 million should not be saved here and another part of its budget should be cut, people should have the courage to make that argument.
I will simply say that, as with all these things, there are caveats. There will be limited money in the Department of Education and limited money available from the Education Authority. Consequently, if the response is simply a blanket, "No, this should not happen", I do not think that that would be good enough to persuade people into an alternative course of action. The opportunities are there, and there is a challenge there. I do not believe that members of the Education Authority board have a doctrinaire or set view of what should happen. I urge people who feel constrained by the way in which the consultation has been done to avail themselves of the opportunities and to make sure that, if there is an alternative, they put it forward. If there is something rational that, from a financial point of view, produces the same result, that will, I think, be embraced, but there is no doubt that we are in tough times, and people should not delude themselves that it is otherwise.