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School Places: East Belfast

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP 2:15 pm, 23rd January 2017

5. Mr Allen asked the Minister of Education to outline the percentage of pupils placed in their first preference preschool, primary and post-primary school in East Belfast. (AQO 949/16-21)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I should explain that, while parents are able to nominate their preference for the preschool settings or schools they wish their child to attend, approved enrolment numbers mean that a child cannot in every case be guaranteed a place in a particular setting or school. Nevertheless, the figures for September 2016 admission, which have been provided by the Education Authority and are based on the position at the close of each admissions process, show that the vast majority of children in East Belfast were successful in gaining admission to their first preference.

I will drill down into the statistics. There were 1,106 available preschool places throughout East Belfast for this year. Preschool settings collectively received 1,068 applications, of which 937 pupils — about 90% — achieved places at their first preference setting. There were 1,207 places available in the primary sector. There were 1,094 primary applications, of which 1,021 applicants received places at their first preference. That equates to 93·3%.

Post-primary figures are as follows: 1,028 places were available and 1,025 post-primary applications were received, with 807 applicants receiving places at their first preference school. I emphasise again that these figures do not relate to children placed at one of the schools of their choice but at their first preference school.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, given the uncertainty at the prospect of the proposals in the draft area plan, will you outline what work your Department has undertaken to identify and address any shortage of school places in East Belfast to help to increase the prospect of children securing their first preference school and the school best suited to their needs?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

It is important that children get what is best suited to them. That does not always mean something entirely on their doorstep. The idea of area planning is to provide something strategic, and we will see a draft area plan that could lend itself to development proposals. While everybody's thinking on development proposals will always concern a new school, a school closure or a merger, they can also — this has happened on a number of occasions — relate to adjustments to enrolment. Development proposals can take a certain length of time. There is a provision — this has happened on a number of occasions — to allow temporary variations, which a school applies for. If there is a particular pressure, that can be met in that way.

The Department and, more specifically, the Minister sign off on a specific development proposal. The Department is not the initiator of a development proposal; it is for the Education Authority or another managing authority to initiate that. As I said, as has happened in a number of schools, there is an opportunity to ensure that that can be dealt with, which would at least provide for a temporary removal of constraints.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

Minister, are there any plans to revise the criteria for preschool admission?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Preschool education providers set admissions criteria. Research has shown that children in socially disadvantaged circumstances tend to experience more difficulty at school than other children, so the Department requires priority to be given to those children in the preschool setting as part of a wider effort. The aim is to ensure — to be fair, it is pretty close to being achieved — that there is at least a place for every child. Sometimes, there is still a disjoint from an area planning point of view; in certain parts of the country, you will have a high level of pressure on places and, in other areas, there will be a gap. It is important that the definition of children from socially disadvantaged circumstances in the required priority criteria is fit for purpose. It is probably timely that those are revised. If there is any revision, changes will be subject to consultation.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Minister very much for his answers so far. Does his analysis take into account the fact that integrated schools in the area are regularly oversubscribed, which means that parental demand for integrated education is not being met?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

As I said, there is an indication that, as part of this, we need to get a holistic view of the area plan. That is what we need to move ahead with; it will identify the needs, particularly for Belfast and East Belfast. One criticism that has been rightly made about area planning is that different sectors were moving at different speeds. The fact is that the controlled schools sector, CCMS, the integrated sector and the Irish-medium sector are all sitting around the same table trying to develop these proposals. Hopefully, that will produce a plan that is fit for purpose. If there are particular pressures on the integrated sector in East Belfast, those will be taken into account as part of an overall plan. It is important that we get the full jigsaw.