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I wish to update the Assembly on the second call to the school enhancement programme (SEP2).
I launched a second call for applications to the school enhancement programme on 25 January 2017. The applications received by the closing date were assessed under the agreed protocol, and separate prioritised lists were created for primary schools, post-primary schools and special schools. The protocol indicated that those prioritised lists would be held open for two years. As the first tranche of projects was announced on 8 May 2018, the prioritised lists will expire on Friday, 8 May 2020. I am, therefore, announcing a final tranche of 16 projects to advance in design. The lists will then be closed, in accordance with the protocol.
Three tranches of projects have been announced to date, and 58 schools are currently being progressed under SEP2. Design teams have been appointed for 20 of those projects, and work is ongoing to develop detailed designs for those schools. The other projects are at earlier stages of scoping and design. However, the appointment of design teams for those projects is likely to be delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
The delivery teams in the Department of Education and the Education Authority are working to capacity to progress the projects. Therefore, it is likely that projects in the schools that I am announcing today will not be initiated before the 2021-22 financial year. Despite that, I consider that there is value in making a further announcement before the lists expire to ensure that a pipeline of SEP projects is maintained for the medium term. That will be welcome news for the 16 schools, the design teams and, ultimately, the construction industry, especially in the current difficult circumstances.
The 16 schools in today’s announcement will benefit from a total estimated investment of £40 million to enhance their facilities and improve the teaching and learning environment for each school community. The list comprises 10 primary schools, four post-primary schools and two special schools. The primary schools, in alphabetical order, are as follows: Christian Brothers’ Primary School, Armagh; Greenisland Primary School; Hart Memorial Primary School, Portadown; Kilbride Central Primary School, Doagh; Our Lady and St Patrick Primary School, Downpatrick; St Brigid’s Primary School, Mayogall, Magherafelt; St Comgall’s Primary School, Antrim; St Patrick’s Primary School, The Meadow, Newry; St Peter’s Primary School, Moortown; and Strandtown Primary School, Belfast. The post-primary schools are: Ashfield Boys’ High School, Belfast; Belfast Royal Academy; Carrickfergus Grammar School; and Clounagh Junior High School, Portadown. The two special schools are Hill Croft School in Newtownabbey and Clifton School in Bangor.
SEP2 is a significant programme that will deliver much-needed capital investment in 74 schools across the estate: 43 primary schools, 19 post-primary schools and 12 special schools. Typical projects that are being progressed within the programme include the provision of new teaching blocks to accommodate additional pupils or to reduce the reliance on temporary accommodation or the refurbishment of existing classrooms to address substandard or constrained teaching spaces.
SEP projects have an upper limit of £4 million, so it is important that the investment is focused on addressing the greatest need of each individual school. The delivery teams will consult extensively with each school to identify the deficiencies and agree the priorities for investment within the SEP funding envelope of £4 million.
While 74 schools will receive SEP funding, I am aware that many other schools across the diverse schools estate are in need of capital investment. Officials are continuing to undertake preparatory work in advance of an announcement of new major works projects to advance in design, and I hope to return to the Assembly to make that announcement in the coming months. The minor works programme will also continue to progress the highest priority schemes.
Improving the schools estate is one of my priorities, and, in the current, unprecedented and difficult times, I hope that this announcement will send a strong signal to the local construction industry that the Department of Education is planning for the future and is committed to supporting the local economy through the delivery of my Department’s capital programme. My Department’s capital programme aims to ensure that all our children and young people are educated in school facilities that are safe, secure and fit for purpose, enabling them to receive the quality education experience required to help them to fulfil their potential.
This announcement today represents another strand of the overall capital programme and, indeed, marks the last announcement of SEP2 projects. Over my term as Education Minister, I will review progress on the 74 announced projects, and, subject to satisfactory progress and available budget, I will consider whether there should be a third call for applications to SEP — that would be SEP3 — as part of the overall capital investment strategy.
I thank the Minister for his statement, which will be a much-needed boost to our education sector. I particularly welcome the investment in my constituency, with Strandtown Primary School and Ashfield Boys' High School, which are good examples of the scale of investment needed to replace mobile facilities and dining facilities in particular. It will be a boost to morale for our education sector, but one of the key concerns for our education sector at this moment is the outstanding matter of payment for substitute teachers. Will the Minister provide the Assembly with an update on that matter?
I appreciate that a bit of latitude is being given, as this is an announcement on the school enhancement programme.
In respect of substitute teachers, we continue to work with the Department of Finance. As indicated, we want to get the best possible package, and, if that is to be achieved, it requires something beyond what is available in the Department of Education. There is ongoing work, and I appreciate the frustrations and concerns. We find ourselves in a difficult position. As far as I am aware, in the Republic of Ireland, no particular provision has been given for casual substitute teachers, other than simply to say that, if there is a situation in which a school needs a substitute — it is the same as here — they can use a substitute. In England, the Department for Education is not directly involved in any payment, but, because a lot of the teachers work through agencies, the agency can furlough, and the same is true in Wales. That is not an option that is within the ambit of the Department of Education. In Scotland, there is provision. However, we should note that the levels of pay there for substitute teachers are massively less than what is available in Northern Ireland, to the extent that the overall bill for substitute teachers in Scotland is less than Northern Ireland despite the fact that they teach more than twice the number of children. That also needs to be borne in mind when we look at comparators, but there is ongoing work.
I would like to bring this to a conclusion as quickly as possible. The problem is that, if I were to bring it to a conclusion immediately without any assistance from outside, it would be a smaller package and a smaller level of support than it would be if assistance could be provided from beyond the Department.
I thank the Minister for his statement to the House today and thank him for his ongoing dedication and hard work during the current crisis. I welcome the statement, as it is good news for the education sector. It is also good news, as he said, for the construction industry. I particularly welcome the announcement of the enhancement for Belfast Royal Academy and thank the Minister for taking time to visit the school and meet me and the principal, Hilary Woods, some months ago.
Given the announcement today and the undoubted demand across the education sector in Northern Ireland, will there be a third call for the school enhancement programme?
On a third call, there will, as I said, be a review of progress. To some extent we are in quite a fluid situation, and that can have a good side to it and a bad side to it. Education spend on capital is a mixture of minor works, SEP and major works, which means that there can be a level of movement between that side of it. We have, obviously, completed this bit, and there is ongoing work in relation to that. I want to make sure that the flow of projects is kept sufficient. It is unlikely that there will be a third call before 2022, but we will keep the issue under review and, indeed, periodically. For the last number of years, the school enhancement programme has worked reasonably well for schools across the board. Therefore, it is a tool to which I or my successors will want to bear in mind. It can deliver very effectively for schools.
Minister, I thank you for your statement. I welcome your update on the school enhancement programme. For the 16 successful schools and their school communities, it will give a welcome boost to their morale at this time.
Minister, before the pandemic hit, I believe, the Department had nearly completed a round of capital applications. In your statement you say that you will return with that announcement in the coming months. Can you give us a clear indication of when that will be?
I thank the Member for her comments. I do not have an exact time frame. I suspect that I will want to liaise with officials. I suspect that we are probably looking at an announcement in the autumn. Obviously, we have less than two months of the summer term to go, and where we are has got to be factored in. I know that the Executive, as a whole, are looking at how they can help the construction industry and profile capital. That said, major capital spend tends to take quite a long time; for example, if there was a capital announcement for a range of schools, it would be a number of years before they were in a position to progress. I hope to make that announcement as soon as possible, but I will liaise with officials on the timing, the detail and what is available within that.
I thank the Minister for his statement, his ongoing engagement with Members throughout the crisis and the way in which he responds to us so openly. I follow on from what other Members have said in welcoming this enhancement programme, which will come as a huge benefit to the school estate. As we know, the school estate badly needs investment, and it has been long awaited. I welcome the fact that it is a priority for you and your confirmation of it.
Given that the school classroom has been replaced by remote learning from home, Minister, what are your thoughts on the figures for children who are engaging online? They are quite low and concerning. There are reasons for it. However, what is the Minister doing to ensure that no child falls through the gaps in the absence of the classroom in this crisis?
I will take it in the generosity of spirit of the question. In enhancing every experience in the school, obviously, we want to ensure that all children are given levels of access. There is ongoing work, and I know there will some degree of update tomorrow. One of the areas is working with the EA. There has been a level of misconception that, for example, although school IT equipment is compatible with C2k, it is not limited to what can happen in the school, and EA will clarify that with schools. There is an opportunity to use existing kit.
There is a wider context that will need to be looked at for the capital budget. Depending on how this rolls out over time, there may need to be a level of investment and procurement for kit, which, in the grand scheme of things, should not be overly expensive. Therefore, there may be an examination of whether there is any need for a small amount of reprofiling of the capital budget this year to provide that. I know that the Member is aware of that. What we are experiencing is less frequently a situation where, "There is nothing at all in the house"; it is the fact that you get pressure of competing demands for kit. There is an onus on schools to identify technical difficulties, because there are locations — the Member, being from West Tyrone, will be well aware of this — where, with the best will in the world, you can provide all the kit that you want and, because of the issues around the roll-out of broadband, a piece of IT equipment will be of no benefit. Where there is a substitute situation, for instance, providing paper copies of things, that will be factored into remote learning. It is a work in progress, an ongoing issue.
I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Kilbride Central Primary School and as the parent of my young children at that school.
I thank the Minister for the much-needed investment in all the 16 schools but, in particular, for the three in my constituency, Kilbride, St Comgall's and Hill Croft. Where possible, I would like him to commit to expediting the construction work on the schools, because it is vital for our construction sector and what we are trying to do.
Obviously, in making the announcement, I had the Member very much in mind
In all seriousness, yes, the work will be ongoing. The next stage of the process is discussion between officials and the schools. Obviously, there will be a bit of delay because of the COVID situation. The school makes an assessment of its needs and is scored against that. In most cases, that is what happens, but, in all cases, when that discussion takes place, it is not necessarily what the school puts as its priorities that are considered objectively as such. A little work needs to go on there.
The Executive, as a whole — I am not breaching confidentiality — are looking to see how they can support the construction industry and align its priorities with the capital budget. They recognise, as well, the particular short-term pressures from a capital point of view. With this year's budget, there will be some level of impact because of the level of disruption that has taken place already. There will be ongoing disruption, as construction firms comply with social distancing regulations. We should realise that the announcement today will be something for the future. It should not be particularly impacted, other than the pipeline being slightly slowed in the short-term. As much as possible, we are looking at what can be done directly in Northern Ireland and at international examples to see whether there are any areas that can be expedited; for instance, issues around procurement that could be made easier. Across the Executive, we are all acutely aware, particularly in the education sector, of the extent to which the broad construction industry not only is a major employer in Northern Ireland but acts as an engine for overall growth, stimulating the economy. The Executive as a whole are acutely aware of that, and they want to respond positively.
Thank you, Minister, for the statement. Perhaps you can clarify how the schools included in your speech were selected. I will push the boat out a little bit: Omagh High School is awaiting an enhancement programme for a new school on the campus site in Omagh. Maybe you can give us some indication of when that will commence.
I am not aware of the exact details of the Omagh Academy issue. They say that all politics is local, and, when you get a school enhancement programme announcement, that is particularly the case.
As indicated, a major capital build clearly goes beyond SEPs, and there will be an announcement in the forthcoming months. Those will be assessed against that. The Member asks about the process side of that. The process is fairly lengthy. A call was put out, effectively, to advance with design. It is judged against the protocol and the criteria, which, for example, deal with issues such as area planning, meeting unmet need and where it is essential to address significant and substandard accommodation. There is then what is called the "gateway check" to ensure that the school is sustainable. Those that pass that check — there were 165 applications — will also have had issues around split-site operations and the condition of their existing accommodation considered. Officials will then — this dates back two or three years — do an assessment in each of the three categories — primary, post-primary and special — and rank each of the schools. There is a scoring mechanism. The schools are scored individually and ranked within their category so that, if you like, a primary school is competing against other primary schools. As each tranche has been released, a combination of schools from each of the three categories have fulfilled part of that. Social issues also impact on the process, such as the number of children in a school who are on the SEN register. The number of pupils in a school who take free school meals will also impact on the broad level of assessment.
I have an incomplete list, so, if Members want to ask a question, please indicate that to me either by approaching the Table or rising in your place. I will then add you to the list and make sure that everyone is called.
I thank the Minister for his statement. We are well aware of the additional pressures that the economy will face as a consequence of COVID-19, so announcements like this, as the Minister pointed out, are a positive signal. Given that the Department may need to calibrate its budget as the COVID-19 situation progresses, when will the Minister be able to give us an update on a timeline for work to begin and be completed on Strule shared education campus?
It is important that the work on Strule happens as quickly as possible. I have signed off on a range of things in relation to that project and will get back to the Member with the details. There are particular time frames, given that the Strule project is tied in with Fresh Start money and that the longer the delay, the more likely it is that construction inflation will happen, which will impact on spend on the ground. This is the biggest education project undertaken in the history of the state, so there is a level of priority. There will be delays because of the COVID-19 situation, but I am happy to get back to the Member with the detail as soon as possible.
Yes. As I indicated on the cost, an SEP project is effectively a mid-range project that runs between a minimum of £0·5 million and a maximum of £4 million. There will then be a scoping exercise, and the Department will ensure that the agreed projects provide value for money. It should be remembered that there is a assumption of, broadly speaking, a capital budget moving forward. The timescales are such that, even at the design stage, it is doubtful whether anything will directly happen as a result of today's announcement in this year's budget. So, there will be a level of disruption from the COVID-19 situation, but there is an ongoing budget and there is an opportunity for variation between SEP projects, minor works and major capital works. Part of that is to ensure, then, that we have flow as we move forward. Anything that has been announced is likely to take time, but it can be guaranteed that it will happen and there will be, therefore, money in the budget for it.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the announcement, especially for the Christian Brothers' Primary School in Armagh and St Patrick's Primary School in the Meadow. When will there be boots on the ground commencing construction? Will the Minister also commit to ensuring that schools that were not successful in this tranche receive investment in the not-too-distant future?
On the first question, the aim is that those projects would be initiated in the 2021-22 financial year, with detailed design work probably taking place the following year. We are talking about, probably, four years before there will be boots on the ground for construction. There are other projects ahead of them in the pipeline. However, they will move as quickly as possible. Again, if additional capital resources are available, things can move quickly. This is, ultimately, about trying to give certainty to those schools. Completion will be a little way off in that particular case, but it will be quicker than a full capital build.
The Member mentioned other schools. The current assessment of bids under SEP effectively ended this week. Initially there were, I think, 59 in total, but that shrank to 58 as one withdrew to be part of a wider capital project, and there are 16 more today. Therefore, 74 schools are benefiting through the SEP. Other schools will be assessed when there is a call for a new SEP. However, some of those may be seeking a full capital build, and they would be part of that overall situation.
I suppose while it is the case that there is no guarantee of any school getting anything from a fresh call, the fact that schools have been getting improvements means the chances for other schools will increase also. There is a knock-on effect. While there is no bar on any school applying for a second SEP project — some may need it and may get it — in many cases that will mean that schools that were ahead of those on the list will, effectively, have moved out of the way, so that will provide greater opportunity.
I thank the Minister for his statement; there was welcome news for many schools. As you will know, Minister, it is well documented that to improve pupil and teachers' mental health, the environment needs to be therapeutic. Whilst there is some good news for many schools, do you have any worries about any schools that have missed out in this trance? Do you have any idea, as another Member mentioned, about the programme moving forward after this tranche?
Look, along with a level of success for particular schools, there is always a level of disappointment for schools that do not get anything, and I appreciate that. There will be further opportunities through major capital build and future school enhancement programmes. One of the things to note is that anyone who visits schools, particularly those that were built over the past 10 or 15 years, will notice some of the impact on design that has been made, in part to try to create that positive environment. Some of it is about use of space and light, for instance. I think that incorporating some of that thinking can be quite useful.
Although there will be individual action taken in each school, for quite a number of the schools, there is a common factor, which is that they were built at a stage when classroom size was below that suggested in the current handbook. Part of this is about providing expanded classrooms and expanded space, which, from a design point of view, can create light and good feeling. There is much wider recognition within schools and society, as the Member is obviously acutely aware, of the need to tackle issues of mental health. If, albeit in a small way, school design can help as part of a broader, holistic process, I think that it is something that people will bear in mind when it comes to the detailed design work that goes into schools.
I join Members in welcoming the statement. It is indeed a pleasant experience in the House, given what we have been hearing in the past few months regarding COVID-19. I particularly welcome the two additions in my constituency, namely, the Hart Memorial Primary School and Clounagh Junior High School. As has been mentioned, this benefits not only parents, teachers and pupils but the wider school community and the construction industry, so it is indeed welcome news.
Does the Minister have any further detail on the bids from Hart Memorial Primary School and Clounagh Junior High School in my constituency and what they entailed?
I thank the Member and I know that he has been assiduous in his support for those schools. At present, as I indicated, schools outline what they see as their priorities. Therefore, there is a caveat to be added to anything that I say on the grounds that the next stage will be a meeting between departmental officials and the schools to scope out what needs to be done.
Hart Memorial Primary School lacks the required accommodation for a 14-class-based primary school. A number of its classrooms are undersized, there is no resource area, there is a lack of storage and there are traffic management issues. Those are what the school sees as its priorities. Clounagh Junior High School in Portadown is aiming to look at deficiencies with regard to the DE handbook. A lot of schools are in a similar situation; there are many issues with undersized classrooms. At the moment, Clounagh Junior High School does not have a sports hall or fitness suites. There is a lack of sports pitches and, again, it has traffic management and car parking issues. A lot of schools will also be looking at pupil and staff safety, so they will have to consider not just what work can be done to the school buildings but what needs to be done externally.
I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Priory Integrated College in Holywood. I thank the Minister for his statement and for his announcement in relation to Clifton Special School in Bangor. Can he give us a bit more detail on what progress has been made on special school area planning?
I will come to the specific issue of Clifton Special School in a moment. The Member will be aware that the Priory Integrated College project is one of those that is moving ahead under Fresh Start. Things may be moving a little slower because of the COVID-19 situation, but that is guaranteed.
Broadly, there has been a level of investment in special schools. Although Clifton Special School is one of the newer special schools in Northern Ireland, the uptake of places has increased significantly in recent years. Again, Clifton Special School has identified deficiencies according to the building handbook; for instance, it has undersized classrooms and it has issues with its library. There are inadequate toilet facilities and there is a lack of mobility bays and storage for heavy equipment. It also has traffic management issues and a lack of play facilities.
Special schools have particular challenges, which is why there has always been a three-stage division of SEPs between primary, post-primary and special schools. Different levels of assessment are required at each level. As part of the process, while Clifton Special School has identified its key priorities, a sequence of work will go on between officials and representatives of the school to scope out what needs to be done. That will be agreed, and the project will move to the design stage.
I welcome the Minister's statement and the inclusion of moneys for Our Lady and St Patrick Primary School in Downpatrick. I hope that it is a good precursor to, maybe, moneys for a full rebuild of that merged school, which will help to address the lack of facilities and deal with the terrible traffic issues in Edward Street outside the school.
Following on from the previous question, will the Minister give some comfort to those special schools that have limited capacity? Many of them have a considerable list of pupils who need to get entry to them, but they do not have the additional facilities. Will it be possible to have a school enhancement programme for the special schools sector to increase its capacity?
As I indicated in my previous answer, there is a separate section of the school enhancement programme for special schools in order to address their particular needs. As with all things, if actions can be taken — there is a differentiation here — where a school has an SEP, that means that, effectively, it will not get a full rebuild. To some extent, it is an either/or situation. In the meantime, however, it does not disqualify a school from carrying on with minor works where they are required or where particular individual actions are required to facilitate them.
I am grateful to the Minister for the announcement and the strong signal that it is of his commitment to the educational environment of our children. As you would expect, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I am particularly delighted to hear the announcement for Strandtown Primary School and Ashfield Boys' High School, which are richly deserving of the programme and have worked extremely hard to get it. Strandtown school is unique in Northern Ireland, and Ashfield Boys' is always oversubscribed and is an extremely popular school in my constituency. The announcement will make an enormous difference to those schools and their pupils.
I note that the Minister mentioned a forthcoming announcement about major works. Is he in a position, at this stage, to outline how that scheme will differ from this one and potential differences in the criteria?
The detail on that has still to be brought to a point of fruition. The two principal differences are, first, on the grounds of what constitutes major works. In the system, things are graded into three categories. Anything below £0·5 million will be counted as minor works, and that is particularly driven by health and safety issues. A project in the school enhancement programme is projected to be between a minimum of £0·5 million and £4 million. The other principal difference between the school enhancement programme and major works is that a project in the school enhancement programme is always a change to the school on its existing site. It might be, as mentioned in a number of the cases, the rebuild of some classrooms or the provision of additional classrooms to replace temporary facilities. It may be, as we have seen in the past, that a post-primary school gets a science block, a sports hall or something of that nature.
Essentially, for anything to be major works, it is required to be, at a minimum, above £4 million. Quite often, particularly in post-primary schools, that could stretch to £20/25/30 million; it can be quite large. It will take a lot longer, because it is entirely a new build, and a site search will be part of the process. That will apply, for example, in a number of the Fresh Start cases. Part of that will be an examination of what land is available and a range of options, and then there will be a business case. Even if the option of doing it on the current site exists, there has to be consideration of other locations, and it may well be that the school, in doing major works, will have to move to a different location or premises. That, in and of itself — the scale and the fact that that adds a layer of complexity and time — means that, generally speaking, a major works project is not only much more substantial in terms of money but will, quite often, tend to take considerably longer than an SEP one. There may be a certain level of disruption for SEP projects due to COVID, and we fitted in as many as we could, but, generally speaking, they will be delivered more quickly than would be the case for a major capital build.
I thank the Minister for his statement and the announcement of much-needed investment and, in particular, for the commitment for Clifton Special School in Bangor. As the Minister will be aware, there are a number of schools in Northern Ireland, and specifically in north Down, with outstanding needs. Will he confirm that minor works will not be affected by this SEP and outline how he intends to address the issue of minor works to enhance schools?
There is always a flow between minor works and other works. I indicated that we are looking at a timescale of design teams starting to look at some of the issues within about a year. Certainly, there is no immediate impact. Indeed, consistently, over the last number of years, there has been a flow between the major capital works, the SEP projects and the minor works. Depending on circumstances, there may well be movements between budgets. Some of that will be on the basis of how much can be delivered in some of the major works and the knock-on that quite often happens. It is undoubtedly the case that, because they tend to be more agile in nature, minor works can sometimes fill a void, when some of the major works are not able to progress as quickly as possible.
Obviously, again, there was a minor works call a considerable time ago. The volume of minor works identified was massively more than could be met.
The other thing with minor works, as a number of Members will be aware, is that, to some extent, there is an analogy with the Housing Executive list. You can be in a particular place on the list, but if something is then identified as an emergency situation — particularly a health and safety issue — which was not previously part of the call but needs to be dealt with urgently, then that urgency may supersede the list. There is a continual flow of minor works. Allied to that, although it is not a capital issue, is school maintenance. To some extent, if maintenance can take place, it can obviate the need for particular capital actions to be taken. I would not say that there is blurring of the lines, but there is a level of interaction between minor works and maintenance as well.