School Enhancement Programme

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 14th January 2020.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 11:00 am, 14th January 2020

While we wait with bated breath for the result of the very close contest that we have just taken part in, I would like to make a statement updating the Assembly on my capital investment plans under the second call to the school enhancement programme, also known as "SEP2".

By way of background, the school enhancement programme was first announced in June 2012. The programme makes funding of between £500,000 and £4 million available for projects aimed at refurbishing or extending existing school provision. Particularly for Members who may be unfamiliar with the project, I make it clear that that is not a new school build; it is refurbishing or extending existing school provision. The first call to SEP was launched in January 2013 and resulted in projects in 50 schools being announced to advance in planning. Forty-seven of those projects are either now complete or close to completion, with two currently on site. One project is on hold, pending a decision on a major works project funded under the Fresh Start Agreement for shared and integrated education.

Given the success of SEP1, on 25 January 2017, I made a written statement to the Assembly on my proposal to make a second call for applications under the programme. By the closing date of 28 February 2017, a total of 165 applications had been received under the call. Those applications were then assessed under the agreed protocol, and separate priority lists were created for primary, post-primary and special schools. To ensure that a pipeline of SEP projects was maintained in the absence of Ministers, the Department's permanent secretary made an announcement in May 2018 of 25 projects from the prioritised lists to advance in planning. Those projects have an estimated investment of £60 million. A further 16 schools, with an enhanced investment of £40 million, were announced by the permanent secretary in January 2019.

Today, I am pleased to announce a further 18 schools that will advance in planning under the school enhancement programme. Twelve are primary schools; five are post-primary schools; and there is one special school that will benefit from an estimated capital investment of about £45 million. The 12 primary schools to advance in planning are as follows: Botanic Primary School in Belfast; Carrick Primary School in Lurgan; Cliftonville Controlled Integrated Primary School in Belfast; Glencraig Controlled Integrated Primary School, close to Holywood; Holy Child Primary School in Londonderry; Irvinestown Primary School; Kilcooley Primary School; Killinchy Primary School; St John the Baptist Primary School in Belfast; St Kieran's Primary School, Dunmurry; St Paul's Primary School in Mica Drive, Belfast; and Strabane Primary School. The five post-primary schools are Glastry College, Ballyhalbert; St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena; St Patrick's College, Maghera; Sullivan Upper School, Holywood; and Victoria College, Belfast. The eighteenth school that will receive investment is Riverside special school, which is in Antrim.

This is a significant investment that will deliver much-needed capital investment in the schools estate via the school enhancement programme. Improving the schools estate is a priority for me, and the SEP has been an excellent way of delivering capital works projects that have an immediate, positive impact on the schools and pupils. Today's announcement is not just good news for the schools themselves but represents a welcome boost to the economy, especially the construction industry.

In addition to this SEP announcement, I continue to advance the programme of major capital builds, as well as a programme of much-needed minor works across the estate. I will also look to invest in maintenance works across all schools to ensure schools are fit for purpose and enable effective teaching and learning for the benefit of all our children and young people.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 11:30 am, 14th January 2020

It is a privilege to serve as Chairperson of the Education Committee. I look forward to working with Committee colleagues and the Minister to ensure we deliver better education for all in our community.

There are obviously many serious challenges facing education to which we must respond decisively. Capital investment is urgently needed by many schools in Northern Ireland, and, whilst the announcement is welcome news for a small number of schools, radical investment and reform is needed to ensure that all our school facilities are fit for purpose. How and when will the Minister establish the root-and-branch independent review of education envisaged by the new deal proposals in order to deliver a reformed, integrated and sustainably resourced education system for all?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First of all, I congratulate the Member on his appointment as Chair of the Education Committee. I know, from the previous mandate when he worked as vice Chair, of his particular passion and involvement in and knowledge of education. I look forward to working with him, the vice Chair and, indeed, all the members of the Education Committee when they are appointed. He is right that the announcement today, even on the capital side, is one piece of the jigsaw. It is important to say that, as we move ahead, there will be a mixture of announcements — some dealing with minor works; some potentially with other SEP announcements — and major capital works. It is important that, as we move ahead, that is part of an overall coordinated position on and picture of how we will deliver, in particular, the school estate in terms of education.

He mentioned the need for reform, and I concur with him. It is undoubtedly the case that, while, for any incoming Minister, there are major resource challenges out there, there is also a strong need to ensure that we get the best possible delivery for all our children. It is also an issue of transformation and reform, and I think that anyone believing that it is simply one or the other —. I am committed to the new document in terms of the delivery of the project of how we globally, if you like, reform education, and I hope to bring proposals soon to the Assembly in connection with that.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and the additional investment that will go into schools in my constituency, particularly Botanic Primary School and Victoria College.

It is the ambition of us all, or at least it should be, that we have a school estate that is fit for the education of our children.

On the theme of all politics being local, I ask the Minister to indicate that he is prepared to visit Nettlefield Primary School off the Woodstock Road to see for himself the need for capital investment in order to improve its facilities.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for his comments. I do not have great foresight, but I suspect, particularly when we are dealing with a school enhancement programme and, indeed, capital build for schools, that there may be a theme running through a number of the questions that contains a certain level of local interest. It is good that MLAs have that local interest. I will consider and try to accommodate as many invitations as possible. I do not want to give a specific commitment to an individual invitation, but I will certainly be trying to get out and about as much as possible, because I think it is important that any Minister, particularly an Education Minister, does so.

Across the system, there is a need for capital investment. We need to ensure that no child who goes through the gates of a school is disadvantaged because of the school's physical fabric or its lack of facilities. That means that, with any investment programme, any money has to be made available in a robust and impartial way. As part of that, I am willing and more than happy to visit a range of schools across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

First, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I look forward to working alongside him and other members of the Committee on progressing the work that we have been doing all along.

I welcome today's announcement of much-needed capital investment, particularly for Holy Child Primary School in Creggan in Derry, a school in my constituency that is over 60 years old and in much need of improved accommodation.

Given the crisis in the education budget, is it the Minister's intention to advance the programme of major capital builds and other works across the school estate?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First, I congratulate the Member on her appointment to vice Chair. I know the work that she has put in over the past few years as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on education, and I look forward to her continuing that work through the formal structures of the Committee.

Yes, it is undoubtedly the case that this is part of a wider picture and a wider jigsaw of need for capital investment. The Member refers to the financial pressures in education. That is undoubtedly the case, and we will be working with Executive colleagues on a range of financial pressures that needs to be dealt with.

There is a little bit more positive news on the capital side. We will be looking to advance major capital works as well. It is important that there be a flow of works that can lead to a level of improvement. I am sure that various Members will have particular schools in mind from their own constituency, but it is undoubtedly always the case that, although a considerable amount will be spent on school improvement through a range of projects, if more money is available, more money can be spent. To that extent, we are also trying to deal with a certain backlog of maintenance work, as well as a need to try to provide the best possible facilities for all our pupils.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I congratulate Minister Weir on his appointment. It will provide a certain amount of continuity, and I look forward to discussing important issues, such as special educational needs and youth services, in the period ahead.

In the context of today's announcement, there is sometimes a bit of concern that the time between the announcement and the shovel going into the ground can be too long. Can the Minister give us some assurances about the work that he will undertake to ensure that these projects are delivered in a timely manner?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member has become the Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office. I hope that TEO's gain does not become Education's loss. Although it is obviously not my place to appoint members to the Education Committee, I value the experience that the Member brought to the issues as the SDLP education spokesperson.

The school enhancement programme is now a well-trialled and well-worked scheme. It can be the case with any capital build, whether schools, hospitals or a range of other things, that, if you are looking at a major capital programme involving new works, there can be a very long delay between announcement and completion. The one advantage of the school enhancement programme is that it is on a scale of between half a million pounds and £4 million, and it is, effectively, work on-site. One of the processes with new capital build is going through a site search to make sure that you are getting best value for public money and, indeed, finding the most appropriate place. These works will, essentially, be on-site and, therefore, the time between announcement and completion will be shorter than for a major capital announcement.

I mentioned that 47 of 50 in the initial tranche are more or less complete. For all of us, I am sure that there is always a frustration about how quickly these things are turned around. Certainly, we will make sure that this happens as soon as is practicable for each of those schools.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Mr Weir, I also congratulate you on your appointment as Minister of Education.

I welcome this school enhancement programme, which adds 18 extra schools to the list, and the capital investment of £45 million in them. Particularly, I am pleased to see Irvinestown Primary School in Fermanagh/South Tyrone on the list. That should give it a boost. However, can the Minister confirm that the money is available immediately and ring-fenced for this purpose?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Do not forget the expenditure. First, without this sounding a little like a love-in of former education spokespersons — I think you are the fourth party education spokesperson to speak — I look forward to working with you.

The money is available, and because it is a capital build, there is a flow of projects. The Department is confident that the money is there. Most of it will not be spent immediately. Probably, it will not occur within this financial year. Unless there is some radical change of direction from the Executive to suddenly cut all programmes, there is confidence that that money is there. It is not dependent upon additional resources from, for example, the British Government, and there is a long tradition on a number of calls with SEPs, so people can take that the announcement means that works at these 18 schools will happen.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

From the outset, I would like to declare that I am a governor of Killinchy Primary school, and I have met the EA on a number of important issues in relation to it. I am delighted that Killinchy Primary School and Glastry College will benefit from the Minister's announcement.

Is the Minister in a position to give details of the anticipated work to be carried out, the amount of money to be allocated and the likely delivery timescales for both schools?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member. I know she has been very proactive in pressing the case for Killinchy Primary in particular.

I will highlight a couple of things. First, the money available in each case will be up to £4 million. It is probably likely to be in the region of £3 million to £4 million each. On the detail of what will happen, it is important, because I suspect that this will be raised by a number of Members, to say that the next steps in the process will be that work will go on between the Department and the individual schools to work up the project. All 18 schools have been approved, and all will receive their SEP. The specific detail of what schools get might alter as a result of those discussions. On some occasions in the past, that has been additionally positive. Sometimes, it can be the substitution of what is being provided: it might be found, for example, that a school's actual priority is ensuring that it has safe wiring or something of that nature. It can also be the case that, if it is then found that, within the envelope of money available, the project can be delivered at a lower rate, some additional money could be available.

On the specifics of the two bits, the remarks I made about what is proposed reflect a school's ask and not necessarily what the end result will be. Glastry College, I think, has highlighted an issue of additional accommodation to bring it up to the schedule of accommodation — for example, a number of units in the school are undersized, and there is a lack of a sports hall. That will form part of the discussions, particularly as regards Glastry. For Killinchy, again, there are accommodation issues and size issues, and I know that there has been a particular issue around traffic management, which, I think, will be a priority as well. Those issues reflect the asks of the school, and there will then be an iteration of discussion around those projects with the individual schools. That is an important caveat to make clear to people. In fact, however, it will mean that all these schools will receive a school enhancement programme.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 14th January 2020

I thank the Minister for his statement, and, in particular, I welcome his inclusion of Irvinestown Primary School in the school enhancement project. Will he ensure that the next stage is delivered as soon as possible?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There will be no delay in relation to that. It is fair to say that good work has always been done by the Department on the SEP. I appreciate that former Minister O'Dowd originally announced it. As part of that, there has been a good working relationship between schools, contractors and the Department in helping to deliver the programme. Certainly, there will be no undue delays.

As I said, because of some of the restrictions that do not apply to the school enhancement programme, as opposed to a much larger capital build, which might involve a £20 million or £30 million project, schools are not simply refurbished or provided with new classrooms overnight, but, in terms of timescales, it is a lot better than other capital projects. Certainly, there will not be any level of delay.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I, too, congratulate Minister Weir on his re-election. I am delighted that he has included three schools in the North Down area, and I congratulate him on remembering his roots and where he came from. No doubt, it probably did not influence his decision.

Will the Minister indicate how we justify the school enhancement programme against a new build for specific buildings? Is the public getting value for money, or is this just a short-term exercise that puts off the dreaded day when we need new buildings in a lot of areas rather than just a short-term fix?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

It is a cocktail of capital projects. It is important that, in terms of the capital money that is available, we ensure that there is a steady spend of that money to deliver for people. As such, it does, I believe, deliver value for money. If we were in a situation where, for example, school enhancement programmes were simply in place of there ever being any major capital builds, that would be the wrong approach. Similarly, if we simply concentrated on new capital builds, we would have a limited number of projects, and this is an opportunity to deliver that.

It is also the case, I am sure, that even some of the schools that applied would, in an ideal world, like an entirely new capital build. It is also the case that, on a case-by-case basis, not all schools will require a new capital build. Sometimes, it is also the case that it is less about the fabric of the existing building but may well be a lack of particular facilities. It may mean that, while the school building itself is very good, there may be a lack of a sports hall or, while provision of subject matters in, say, English and history may be fine, the science lab may need to be looked at.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Comhghairdeas leat i do ról nua. Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate you on your new role. I also want to thank the Minister and congratulate him on his new role.

Like others around the Chamber, I welcome the statement, particularly in relation to St Pat's College in Maghera, which is in my constituency of Mid Ulster. My party has met Mrs Mussen and the team there on several occasions, and I can attest to the urgent need for that capital investment. On her behalf, I ask the Minister if he could provide an indication of the timescale for the project and when work is likely to begin.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

On that project, first of all, I seem to remember that, in my previous post, I had the opportunity to visit St Pat's, although there are that many schools that I have either visited or not visited — I am sure that former Ministers can also refer to this — that I am trying to work out whether there is a slight false memory about that.

Across the board, I cannot give specific commitments on individual timescales, but the intention is that the work will begin in 2022-23. The general rule of thumb for the school enhancement programme is that it would be about an 18-month project, so the idea is that they could be completed within that period. Whereas, with major capital builds, even when they are announced, it is sometimes five or even close to 10 years before there is completion, with these there can be much greater turnaround. We aim to have these completed in 2024-25, so we are still talking about a few years away. The timescale will be on a moving scale, but we hope to get them progressed as quickly as possible.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I join others in congratulating Minister Weir on his appointment as Education Minister. I welcome the inclusion of Carrick Primary School, which is in my constituency. The Minister may know that, whilst it is not a fully formally integrated school, it has a school population that broadly reflects the wider community in which it is geographically placed, and that is very welcome.

Minister, in your statement, you refer to investment in maintenance works, both capital and minor: have you, even at this early stage, any sense of how much that might be? Would you give any thought to looking at the process by which school principals can requisition some minor works, which does seem to be unduly cumbersome, bureaucratic and costly?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Broadly speaking, the overall capital investment will be, as I said, a mix of new build, maintenance and SEP. There is still some thought and decisions to be taken about the precise nature of that mix.

The Member makes a good point about issues around autonomy, particularly in procurement. That is one of the areas that we will want to look at, to ensure that there is always a balance between trying to get the maximum value for public money and, by the same token, ensuring that we do not micromanage. I think that there is a strong case. It is also the case, looking ahead on that issue, that it is about giving people opportunities for levels of autonomy. Previously, when I was Minister, we put out a fairly open questionnaire to schools on the issue of autonomy. Even from schools in very similar positions, there is sometimes a very mixed opinion. Some schools take the view that they do not want any additional burden, and they effectively want somebody else to sort it out for them, whereas other schools are much keener to embrace it. It is about trying to work out a system whereby we can give, within the context of, as I said, value for money, that level of opportunity for autonomy in a sensible way. That clearly involves levels of procurement and maintenance.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well.

There are huge pressures on school budgets. That is particularly the case where there have been school amalgamations and schools continue to operate on multiple sites. In the Minister's statement, he indicated that some 59 schools, over a three-year period, had benefited from £145 million. Will the Minister advise how that, along with the new build programme, prioritises and encourages school amalgamations, which can bring about improvements to educational outcomes for our children and young people as well as savings for the Department? At the same time, Minister, can you give an update on the progress in the redevelopment of Islandmagee Primary School, which has already taken over a decade?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First, on the last point, obviously, I do not have direct details here in connection with Islandmagee, but I will be happy to write to the Member on that. I do not know whether he was briefly excited when he saw the announcement because there is reference to "Carrick Primary School"; of course, that is the one in Lurgan, not in the Member's constituency.

The Member makes a good point about the broader rationalisation of the school estate and, indeed, where we have, for instance, mergers, and we will look at that in connection with the transformation side of it. Often, a merger can lead to a better longer-term solution, but Members will also be aware that, often, particularly where there is a split site, mergers can create a lot of upfront costs, so we need to look from a transformation point of view, particularly, in connection with that.

With regard to it playing a role within the decision-making process, mention was made of the fact that these were decided on the existing protocol. A range of priorities are built into that protocol. Amongst those will be the enhancement works that are essential to effect rationalisation projects, so it is, if you like, part of a wider area plan. Where there are, for instance, split sites, ensuring that things can actually be brought together can also be part of that. We are looking at where there are unmet needs and significant substandard accommodation.

What we need to ensure — I think that this has been happening in the Department — is that, as we move ahead in area planning, for instance, particularly on major capital works, we have an alignment and that it is, if you like, in step with the wider position of trying to ensure that we get the best overall layout of schools as part of the overall position.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Like others, I welcome the Minister to his appointment and welcome his statement. He mentioned the additional 18 schools under the school enhancement programme. Obviously, I welcome the investment in Riverside, which I had the opportunity to visit in June last year. Much investment is required there. I appreciate, Minister, that your statement today was relatively short and that you, possibly, will not have the detail with you, but will you write to me with further detail on what Riverside is to receive? Given that it is a special school, it is in a difficult and cramped location. Will the Minister get us more detail on that?

When I am on my feet, I take the opportunity, as others have done, to be parochial and discuss Crumlin Integrated. I extend an invitation to the Minister to Crumlin. It has come under difficulty from the Education Authority. Currently, over a thousand pupils leave Crumlin daily to go to other schools, but we would like to see the long-term viability of Crumlin sustained.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First, I am happy to correspond with the Member about Riverside. I am happy to try to accommodate other invitations, but I fear that we may have to speak to the people who have the technology to clone Dolly the sheep, because I may need to be in several places at the same time for school visits. However, we will certainly take every offer and try to accommodate as many school visits as possible. I appreciate that a range of schools put in for the school enhancement programme and others did not. There will be opportunities for other schools as part of that.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I too welcome the announcement today of funding for the schools that have been listed, but it would be remiss of me and it would be conspicuous by its absence, if I failed to mention one school in particular in my South Down constituency: St Louis Grammar School in Kilkeel. It is in dire need of major capital investment. I extend an invitation to the Minister to pay a visit to St Louis to see the situation at the campus.

In his statement, the Minister alludes to the fact that he intends to continue the advancement of major capital builds. When will he announce the next tranche of funding for capital projects so that schools such s St Louis' in Kilkeel, in lower Mourne, can get their business case in order and avail themselves of the next tranche of funding?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

From that point of view, there are a couple of issues there. As I mentioned, I think, possibly 165 schools initially put in, so we have seen tranches happening. First, I think, the current prioritised list is due to expire in May, but I will consider whether there should be a further tranche of SEPs announced by then or whether we should look to a new call as part of that. Mention was also made of major capital works. I hope to make an announcement on the potential prioritisation of projects for major capital works in the coming months.

It is also the case that, because we have these categories — and the way they are subcategorised — there is a ceiling of £4 million on an SEP. Clearly, if there is a major new build that would be above that, it may be that a school may feel that it is not appropriate to put in a bid for that particular bit; they may look simply towards capital. So it is a certain amount of horses for courses on that basis, although there is also the case that the school could put in for a school enhancement programme and apply for major capital works.

All those projects will be assessed, and we hope that, within the coming months, we can actually move on major capital projects. It will be a completely open process where people can apply on that basis.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 14th January 2020

Before I call the next Member to speak, can I just remind Members that there are quite a number of Members due to speak and requesting to speak, and we will not get through them at this rate. I am just letting Members know that they should try to keep their remarks as brief as they possibly can.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I will try to be brief. I thank the Minister very much for telling the public that we actually have money that can be spent on our schools that are in crisis. I welcome him, of course, back into his ministry. I am delighted that a number of schools in our constituency, such as Killinchy and Glastry, are included. Much-needed work needs to be done there.

The Minister talks about the immediate impact, and I know it could take a bit of time for this to happen, but we need to think also towards the long-term delivery of investment. All this needs to be fed into the root-and-branch review of education that we have agreed on in the new deal document. How will the Minister ensure that that is fed through? How many schools that have already applied and have been awarded money — probably under the permanent secretary — are yet to receive funding? Will he, at some stage, publish the funding that each school receives?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Taking each of those in turn: in the wider picture, any examination of reform will have to be of a holistic nature. There is no point in different aspects of that going down a silo route. Consequently, while a lot of this will probably focus on educational structures and resource finances, the capital has got to marry in with that.

On the state of play of the existing schools, it referred to the earlier provision, and I am sure that an update can be provided on each of the individual schools in the earlier tranches. If we can produce that, we will lay it in the Assembly Library.

For the individual amounts, we are still at the stage where, in the detail of that, a certain amount of work will go on, because, again, part of that will be ongoing discussion about the projects with the schools. I am conscious of the fact that, if we said, "Here is a very definitive amount for each school", that may end up giving a false impression. It may underestimate, sometimes, what money there would be. The only thing I will say for absolute certainty is that all school enhancement projects will be between half a million and £4 million. As Members can suggest, the fact that we were talking about a tranche of money of £45 million across 18 schools means it will tend to be on the higher side of that in general. Obviously, as individual details become available and agreed, that will then become transparent between the Department and the schools.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Like others, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I also welcome today's announcement. In relation to an answer to a previous question about new tranches of funding for capital programmes: schools in need of major capital investment might be inclined, and understandably so, to apply under the schools enhancement programme. Would that have any impact on an application for major capital works?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

In that situation, no school is barred from applying for both. Indeed, even if there is a school enhancement programme, it does not automatically rule them out. Obviously, in broader capital works, there are a range of factors that are built in to any protocol, one of which is the physical state of the buildings and the facilities that are there. So, I suppose, to some extent, there is always some impact because it may mean that a scoring mechanism, for instance, on the physical state of any —. I am just checking that that is correct. Maybe not. Just give me a moment here. There will be a —. Sorry.

There is, ultimately, a situation that, if a school has been approved for an SEP, it is likely to lead to a period of time in which it would not be eligible. The normal rule of thumb is that there is a seven-year period for that, and, again, in the wider context, people will look at it. As I said, that is not to say that schools cannot apply for both, but clearly, if they are successful, there will be a certain times when schools have to take a little bit of a strategic decision themselves about what they feel to be best. Sometimes that will be obvious, because a school may not be necessarily looking for a complete new build. It may say, "Well, actually, we need additional classrooms", because one of the other drawbacks for a school — sometimes this can be an advantage — if it is looking for a complete capital build is that there will be a site search, so it may not necessarily end up where it is at present. The SEPs give an assurance that the work can carry on and, indeed, that the school will remain at its current location, which also gives some certainty for the way ahead.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, like everyone else here, I wish you the best of luck in your portfolio as the Education Minister and every success in that going forward.

I thank the officials that have met with me over the one school that was here today, St John the Baptist. It borders on my constituency, but I was asked by parents to meet the board of governors and the school. I am delighted that this is now being put forward as a school enhancement project. Little St John the Baptist has had half its school closed. Minister, I do not want to infringe on your time, but, if at all possible, you will see what that will do and how it will transform that whole area. With that school being closed down, the vandalism and the children trying to go there, in the enveloping of that school, can you and your officials try to keep to a minimum the length of time and the disruption?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First of all, I pay tribute to the Member. I know he has been particularly assiduous in raising the case of St John the Baptist, and I credit him with doing a lot of work with the school. I also highlight, given the appointment of the new principal of St John the Baptist, that we have not given this just to get a favourable response from a social media commentator. I hope, like the original St John the Baptist, this is a forerunner of better things.

I am sure the Member will be assiduous in ensuring that the envelope is pushed out as much as possible in connection with this. Again, the aim is to try to deliver these as quickly as we possibly can. On that basis, there will be no undue delay, but, obviously, we want to have, from the Department's point of view, a clear discussion with the school on the exact details of what will be provided.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, and I also send my congratulations to Mr Weir on his appointment as Minister of Education. I welcome the statement from the Minister today, particularly in relation to the investment that is coming into St Kieran's and St John the Baptist schools in West Belfast. I also thank the Speaker, as I know he was involved in some of that work with St John the Baptist School locally. Can the Minister please outline when the work on these two schools will commence?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

As indicated, we have an overall timescale. We do not have the detail, because some of that will involve the wider discussions. We are hoping that, with the school enhancement programme, people will be on-site in '22-'23 and that, indeed, there will be the normal timescale, which is roughly about 18 months. There can be a fairly quick turnaround with SEP construction. One of the advantages is that — this again depends on the exact nature of the work that is being done — in the vast majority of cases, it should mean that there will not be any particular levels of dislocation. I cannot give a guarantee of that for every school. There may need to be some temporary relocation, but the fact that it is on-site and will be part of the school should mean that we can minimise the level of disruption for any of the schools. Again, I look forward to new facilities both at St John's and St Kieran's.

I look forward to the refreshing sound of Members welcoming the inclusion of a school that is outside their constituency. Pat Catney, to be fair to him, a Member for Lagan Valley, did break the taboo and welcomed the inclusion of a school in West Belfast, so he should perhaps get a special Speaker's prize.


Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I will consider that in due course.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I join the chorus of congratulations to Mr Weir on his reappointment as Minister. He has given some detail of the plan for Glastry College, the likely timescales, and the correlation between receiving school enhancement programme money and being granted money for a new build. On that basis, is Glastry College still in line for a new build? I declare an interest as chair of the board of Movilla High School. Does the announcement have any implications for area planning in Ards and North Down?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First, I have highlighted the timescale. I am not making any particular assumptions about the two schools that have been mentioned. What I have highlighted about the details of the project is based on what the school put in its application and what the asks were. In most cases, that will then be reflected precisely in the school enhancement programme, based as it is on the school's needs. As has been mentioned, in the normal process of the school enhancement programme, there may be a bar on a successful application for a new build, but we will want to look at everything in the wider context of area planning.

Similarly, the wider context of area planning will need to be looked at for Movilla High School. We will come back to that at a later stage. If a development proposal comes forward, there will need to be reassessment to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Sometimes, as I said, what a school says it wants may not necessarily be the absolute priority when it comes to what it needs. Sometimes, when a project is under way, it can even be found that priorities change a little bit.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I, too, congratulate the Minister of Education. I congratulate him on the investment in Cliftonville Integrated Primary School in North Belfast. It is very much welcomed.

The Minister mentioned procurement earlier in his answer to, I think, Dolores Kelly. I would like procurement procedures to be strengthened so that it is not the case that, if schools go down the CPD route, more money is spent doing minor works and replacing fixtures than would be if that work had been done independently. Significant money is being invested, so I ask the Minister, along with CPD, SIB and others, to bring forward enhanced procedures. That money is welcome. However, procurement certainly needs to be tightened up and to be more cost-effective and inclusive of social clauses and social benefits.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I take the point that the Member makes. The wider issue of procurement lies largely outside my Department's remit. CPD largely sits in the Department of Finance. We have to be careful that we do not talk at cross purposes. For any major procurement, there have to be clear-cut regulations and procedures. Where there can be a level of annoyance and where we need to look at this from the schools' point of view is where something they see as being a very minor issue has, at times, a long lead-in time, potentially creating a situation in which relatively minor work seems to cost a large amount of money. It is about getting that balance at the lower level. If we are looking at major areas of procurement, it should be universal throughout government to try to ensure a level playing field.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I echo the congratulations to Mr Weir on his appointment. I also congratulate my colleague Chris Lyttle, who has taken over as Chair of the Committee for Education.

I was delighted to see Botanic Primary School and Victoria College included on the list. I am very conscious that Victoria College is one of a large number of post-primary schools in my constituency that has the capacity, if given additional funding for such works, to take on more pupils.

In the last academic year, 200 pupils were not allocated their first choice, and, at the end of the day, seven were not allocated a place at all.

You mentioned the protocol and its principal criteria for amalgamation and split sites: I just wonder whether you are minded to change the protocol to reflect where there are pressures, such as I have outlined, to allow for more pupils to be taken on.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 12:15 pm, 14th January 2020

As regards the protocol mentioned, in terms of split sites, the fact that Victoria College operates on a split site was one of the factors that was a determinant in reaching that decision. If it helps to create, if you like, a more sustainable school estate, that is preferable.

As we look at the broader area of school numbers, we need to ensure that we get the right processes there, particularly for development proposals. The Member may appreciate that I cannot comment on an individual case, but, more generally, we have to ensure that the development proposals are fit for purpose, and, sometimes, that means that we look at things to see where there can be some easier wins. In some cases, there has been a converse situation — I know that the Department has been proactive on this — where schools have an artificial enrolment number that does not reflect the real situation. It was maybe a decision taken in the 70s or 80s. So, there has been an accommodation through downsizing. Clearly, with any individual proposal, we will look at the overall system. That has to feed in, and it will also be part of the wider review. How we manage that and the processes will play into area planning.

Obviously, I am under a legal duty to determine each individual application on its merits, so I will not comment on the individual case, and I assume that the Member will not expect me to anyway.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome you to your new role, and I welcome the Minister back into his role. First, Minister, may I thank you for a job that you did three years ago, just prior to the collapse of the institutions, at Cloughcor school? You kindly accepted my request to visit. Those works have taken place, so I would like to put on record my thanks to you. I also put on record my appreciation to Derek Baker, who has done a tremendous job in a very challenging situation over the last few years in the Department of Education.

Many points have been made about moneys awarded to schools. Mine is focused on a former school of mine: Strabane Primary School. I attended it 20 short years ago, and, since then, it has not changed very much. It was in line for a new school, and I know that there was hope that that would be the case. Will that still be the case, dependent on the level of funding given to the school, or will this simply replace that original proposal?

Also, just before I finish, a former principal of Strabane Primary School retired this year. Mr David Canning gave 38 years of his life to the children in Strabane, and he was principal of that school for 26 years, so I put on record my appreciation to him as well.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I echo a couple of points that the Member has made. First, it is right that we pay tribute to some of our retiring teachers and principals, many of whom have spent, perhaps, decades at particular schools and seen generations of children go through them. Without getting into any recriminations about the last three years, it would remiss of me not to say that, despite the limitations that have been placed on officials, a lot of good work has been put in by officials in all Departments to ensure that as much progress is made as possible.

I, too, remember the visit to West Tyrone. It was a bit of a Storm Brendan-type situation. I remember we almost had to borrow the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party's submarine to get back that day, so heavy was the rain on that occasion.

As indicated, if there has been a successful SEP, the general rule is that it will prevent a complete new build for a period; however, there can be the opportunity to obtain that via the other route. Obviously, in Strabane's case, a lot of the focus will be on issues around new classrooms and, indeed, the extension of that. Hopefully, I will be back in the Member's constituency visiting schools in drier circumstances.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

I welcome the Minister's statement and wish him well in the post. I am somewhat disappointed that there are no Gaelscoileanna on the list. It may be that none applied. I understand that there will be other opportunities for schools to apply, and I hope that the Minister will be inclusive of all sectors, including the Irish language sector.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

From that point of view, I do not know. All indications were, I think, that 165 schools applied. As others can bear out, it is undoubtedly the case that, if you were to visit schools around the country, you would find that a lot more schools would feel that they would benefit from either a new build or an SEP. In some cases, the decision will have been taken by the school as to which route they see as the more appropriate. The criteria are entirely objective, and schools are scored around those criteria and then, if you like, ranked according to the list. The only subdivision is not between any form of sectors but to getting a mix of primary and post-primary and having some indication of special needs schools. Quite frankly, irrespective of the sector that any school applies from, they are scored entirely by officials and entirely on the basis of those objective criteria. That will continue to be the case.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I congratulate you on your appointment as Minister of Education. I alert you to the fact that I have sent you an email requesting an urgent meeting about the proposed closure of Barnish Primary School in my constituency, and I hope that you look on that request favourably.

I welcome your statement and the investment of £45 million in our schools estate. In particular, I welcome the investment in St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena in my constituency. I was checking over and saw that I had had a meeting with the permanent secretary and departmental officials at the beginning of 2018 about the much-needed work at St Louis'. The school is in much need of a new canteen and outdoor sports facilities and repairs to windows and doors throughout the school. Will the Minister confirm that this is the work that will be allocated to St Louis'? Will he confirm when the school will get the full allocation of the money given to it?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

As indicated, as with all the proposals, there is an overall timescale for the SEP, so I cannot go into details on an individual school. That will slightly vary, depending on the discussions. The requests were highlighted in a similar manner to how the Member asked about them: the canteen, some replacements of windows, security and sports facilities. Those are the requests, and we will work with them on that. I appreciate the work that the Member has done, and I am slightly reminded of the phrase, "Victory has a thousand parents, and defeat is an orphan". A lot of good work has been put in by a range of Members across the spectrum.

Specifically on the potential school closure mentioned by the Member, I will take advice, as I do not know what stage that is at. The Member will appreciate that, legally, there are periods where a Minister, with a development proposal, can meet to listen to submissions and hear advice. Because the Minister — in the absence of a Minister, the Department — will take a final decision, they cannot particularly comment on that. There will also be a period in which the Minister is prevented from having that meeting, so I will need to look at that individual case, depending on where it is in the process.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate you on your elevation to the post of Speaker. I also congratulate the Minister on his reappointment to the post, and I look forward to a meeting at the earliest possible convenience to discuss some concerns that I have.

The statement is welcome, especially where it mentions St Paul's Primary School in Mica Drive. In its own way, it is a unique school, with over 25% of the pupils coming from the rich cultural and ethnic backgrounds that exist in the area. That enhances everybody's education in the area. I know that the Minister is being pressed to give timelines and dates, but is it possible that he could ask someone in the Department to correspond with me on a timeline for work to begin on that school?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Obviously, we will respond, and I thank the Member for his question. He will know about the constraints of finance as a former member of the old Finance Committee. In terms of the initial level of correspondence, the direct contact will be between the Department and the schools. I think that there is a need to keep the wider community involved with that. I had the opportunity, I remember, to visit St Paul's. It is, as the Member said, a particularly significant mix of people, which, I think, works very well in the school. As part of that, we want to make sure that the scheme at St Paul's and others can progress as soon as possible. Obviously, we will be able to respond to any correspondence that the Member gives us.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. First of all, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Department. I have no doubt that he will perform his duties as assiduously as before.

I have been in regular contact with St Patrick's College, Maghera. I have had visits, and I commend the Minister's officials, who took the time to meet the school principal, the chair of the board of governors and Councillor Martin Kearney on site to see the actualities of the school, so please convey that thanks to the officials for their time and commitment, Minister. We have heard some degree of detail around the commencement date, but — perhaps you would wish to write to me about this, Minister — could you provide me with details of the works that have now been approved for it and the level of financial commitment to those works as well, please?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am certainly happy to correspond with the Member. As indicated earlier, this is, if you like, stage 1; it is the approval bit. The next stage is the scoping out of the project between the Department and the school. Even once work starts, there can be a degree of variation. Once that project work has been done in terms of that scoping exercise, we will be in a better position to provide a little more meat on the bone about directly what will be done and what it is likely to cost. I seem to remember visiting St Patrick's College, possibly with the Member, previously. In part, that was an opportunity to see the state of the buildings, and it is good, therefore, that we are seeing, in terms of some of the provisions, a good news story as regards St Pat's.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I extend my welcome to the announcement today by the Minister, and I welcome him back to the post. I am certainly glad to see that three schools in the north Down area are to be included in the scheme, as well as across the board. As Members have said, we have much to do to address the education issues that we face here. I certainly hope to work alongside the Minister, especially to address the backlog of minor works that are much needed across the estate and, as the Minister will know, have continued to pile up. Will the proposed advancement of minor works address the current backlog of projects first, and how much will be made available through that?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I welcome the Member. I think that I am right in saying that she is a former pupil of Sullivan Upper, so I suppose that she will be particularly delighted to see her old school getting this advantage.

Some of the minor works will depend on what budget is available. There is also a decision to be taken because, to some extent, there are three areas — the school enhancement programme, the major capital build and minor works — and a wee bit of thought to be given to what the right concoction of the three is. It is undoubtedly the case, in terms of overall capital works, including minor works, that, while it is very welcome to see actions being taken and while the budget may be less pressed than the resource budget, it could be spent two or three times over, at least. Certainly, we will try to ensure that there is the right mix of all those elements.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I express my disappointment at the neglect of the controlled sector in north Antrim. Indeed, in the entirety of County Antrim, it seems that no controlled school has been found worthy of the improvements. What a contrast with County Down and the Minister's constituency, past and present, where four such schools are to be advanced.

Is there a particular reason why County Antrim is being ignored?


Since there have been 165 applicants and there are still over 100 schools waiting, will the Minister publish the list of those that are still waiting for inclusion in the scheme?

Finally, I join with Mrs Kelly in urging upon the Minister speedy action to restore autonomy to individual schools on minor works. It is preposterous that, when you have a broken window or door, you cannot simply get it fixed as you could before, and the expense to the public purse is escalating.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 12:30 pm, 14th January 2020

It would, perhaps, be surprising if the Member was not expressing some level of disappointment at whatever was being said. It may have escaped the Member's notice that, for instance, Riverside Special School in Antrim is in County Antrim.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The controlled sector, I said.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

A friend of mine has an expression: "Every day is a school day". It may surprise the Member to realise that it is also a controlled school. As part of the overall picture, 10 out of the 18 schools are from the controlled sector, and, indeed, without getting into a geography lesson, the boundaries of County Antrim mean that some of those schools that are in Belfast fall within County Antrim.

The schools were selected based on rigorous, objective criteria that were applied by officials. I did not seek in any way to interfere with those or adjust the list in any shape or form, because I think it is important that those criteria are there, fair and objectively. It will mean that, within any tranche, some schools will be successful and others will not.

I will consult with officials on the publication of any list. It may well be that that is not the basis on which schools put in an application, but I will contact the Member about what level of discussion there could be. It may well be that, from a geographical point of view, on a particular occasion, one area or another will benefit. That is based on objective criteria, and that is the way it should be.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Like others, I congratulate the Minister. His appointment is probably the most critical in providing continuity in what will be a worryingly short mandate with the time that we have left.

Generally, I am quite frustrated at how government spends money. More often than not, it feels like we are firefighting by trying to deal with issues as they are presented. We are quite reactionary, when, really, we should be trying to focus on investing to save so that we can try and save some money. Indeed, if the Prime Minister is not forthcoming with the money that we had hoped for, that is something that all Ministers will have to have a keen focus on.

Is the Minister considering the haemorrhaging of resources by many schools? I wish to pick up a point from the earlier questions from Ms Bradshaw and Mr Beggs on the Minister's consideration of split-site schools when he is considering capital investments. I appreciate that there are two different funding pots, but I think that we need to look at that strategically if we are to get somewhere with that issue.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I do not, in any way, disagree with the Member. It is part of the wider picture, and capital investment has to be aligned with the overall position.

As I said, we need to see levels of reform and transformation, and some of that will be within the schools estate. It may mean that, as the Member mentioned, there is a certain level of invest to save through that transformation, and certain moneys may need to be put up front to produce better finances and educational facilities. We should not, however, kid ourselves. If we are looking at transformation of the broader schools estate, sometimes that will mean difficult decisions. While people can buy into a wider picture, perhaps when it gets to their areas, it is human nature that they will be a lot more protective and supportive of those areas.

The Member is right: we need to provide a more strategic vision and something that is more long term in its approach.