School Estate: Upper Bann

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 29th September 2020.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:30 pm, 29th September 2020

In conjunction with the Business Committee, the Speaker has given leave to Mrs Dolores Kelly to raise the matter of the school estate in Upper Bann. The proposer of the topic will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I assure my colleagues from Upper Bann and, indeed, my colleague from the Alliance Party that I do not intend to take the full 15 minutes, but I welcome their attendance, and particularly that of the Minister, for the debate. I think that we will all be on the same team in championing the needs of our schools in the Upper Bann constituency.

Fundamentally, we all recognise that, historically, school maintenance and our school estate have been underfunded for several years.

Consequently, we are throwing good money after bad in trying to find solutions when a much greater level of investment is needed. Certainly, patching is not sufficient.

During this debate, I want to highlight some common threads. In preparing for the debate, I reached out to all the schools in the Upper Bann constituency and examined the responses. I found that there were a number of common themes in those responses. I will begin by taking those and using the examples from the experience of some schools in relation to the particular circumstances that some of them find themselves in.

I will start with the backlog of maintenance. There is a particular worry around trying to apply the measures to mitigate COVID restrictions. I ask the Minister to give an indicative time frame on catching up on some of those minor work schemes that have been agreed but which have not all been followed up on because contractors have been able to come on site. By way of example on the cost of backlog that some schools are experiencing with their assessed needs, Lurgan Model Primary School in the Brownlow area has a £900,000 maintenance backlog. That is just one primary school in the Lurgan area. So, we are not underestimating the challenge that the Education Minister has before him in convincing the Finance Minister to part with some cash to help those schools. An example of a problem is that some schools have no hot water in some of the classrooms. Some of the mobile classrooms, which are quite old, are 20 square metres smaller than the new mobile classrooms that are supplied, and that is another worry for school principals.

I have written recently to the Minister, and hopefully he will have received my call for his assistance and intervention with Tullygally Primary School. The Education Authority occupies one of the buildings. For a number of months now because of lockdown, it has had its staff working from home and has said that they will be working from home for the foreseeable future. The school principal of Tullygally, Kirsty Andrews, and I have both written to the Education Authority asking for it to vacate the building so that the school would be able to use that building to help with some of the COVID mitigation measures. The Education Authority has refused to do so, so I ask the Minister to take that under consideration. The Minister will also know that development proposals have been put on hold as a consequence of some of the COVID work. Can he give a time frame for when those proposals might reopen?

The Minister will be particularly familiar with the ambition of St John the Baptist's College in Portadown to be able to teach at GCSE level. That development proposal had got through to the Department, and, as I understand it, it was going to the education committee at the Education Authority. However, because there were no meetings, that has been placed on hold, yet parents are canvassing for support from me and other representatives to get some surety around their children's future. That would be of comfort and would enable plans to progress.

Road safety is another recurring theme, both with dropping children off and with collection points. Earlier decisions were made to cut the number of school patrols. Last week, I attended Bridge Integrated Primary School in Banbridge and saw for myself the risks associated with the fact that it is situated in an area where there are a lot of new developments. There are five new housing developments in the immediate vicinity, and more than 418 children now attend that school. The entrance is quite narrow, and parents start to gather a good half hour or more before collection time and there is a build-up of traffic. Some children from P6 upwards want to be a bit more independent and walk home, but they have neither a road crossing nor a school crossing patrol person to assist them.

My colleague Nichola Mallon recently awarded some schools in the constituency funding of £2 million to introduce a 20 mph limit. However, this has to be looked at again, and there must be collaborative working across the two Ministries to look at the particular needs of some schools. Interestingly, in Banbridge, just around the corner, Abercorn Primary School has two crossing patrol people at the bottom of the road, yet one cannot come round the corner to assist at Bridge Integrated Primary School. Maybe the Minister will have an opportunity to examine road safety there.

Other issues include long-running problems with blocked drainage systems, which is a particular problem for St Francis' Primary School in Lurgan, as is traffic management. Millington Primary School in Portadown has a leaking roof. It has been that way for some time and had several repairs over the years, but these have had no real consequence. It needs a new roof. That is the only thing that will help.

During discussions in the Assembly before lockdown, I asked the Minister whether there could be devolved decision-making on some small repairs, such as light bulb replacement, where a school principal could make the decision rather than having to go through a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. Some of this is, I think, about a new way of doing things. It is about greater delegation and devolving the decision-making on small jobs, as opposed to having to apply, two or three people then coming to look, accepting that the bulb has blown and agreeing to replace it. A bit of common sense is needed when it comes to small-scale repairs.

On safety and security, many schools, as the Minister will know, have quite a role to play in the safeguarding of children and preventing the access of unauthorised adults to the school estate. They must also ensure that younger children, in particular, are safe while on school premises. St Francis' Primary School in Lurgan, for example, which has more than 810 pupils, needs a fob system to be fitted to its entrance and exit doors. The school also has a faulty heating system, which leaks, and mobile classrooms that are 20 square metres smaller than the newer ones provided nowadays.

I think, from my discussions with principals, that there is a disconnect between the Education Authority and some schools when it comes to timely responses, decision-making and turnaround times.

Over the last few months, I have been working with St Ronan's College in Lurgan, for which my colleague John O'Dowd, when Education Minister, announced a new build in 2015. We expected and anticipated that that would be in place and that the school doors would be open for 2019-2020. There has been a lot of toing and froing between the Planning Service and Roads Service. It is interesting, and I am delighted to say that, as a consequence, I believe, of knocking a few heads together, asking a few Assembly questions and having this debate, we will see, by Friday, the concerns being ironed out, and I hope that a recommendation of approval for the new build will go to the October meeting of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. St Ronan's College, being an amalgamation of three former post-primary schools — St Mary's High School, St Paul's Junior High School and St Michael's Grammar School — is, of course, one of the largest post-primary schools. The school is quite an ambitious project, and it is important that we see the new build move forward at pace, not least because young people are currently educated between two sites, which is a nightmare for pupils and, indeed, the management of the school. In addition, it is, I think, fair to say, following a recent meeting with a police superintendent, that policing the site is a security nightmare.

Before I finish, I want to touch on the integrated sector. Portadown Integrated Nursery and Primary School is busting at the seams and does not have a site for a new build, which is its ultimate aim. However, some integrated school principals have said to me that the authority and system under which they work, even for small projects in respect of their budget, is set against them in their trying to get work done. That is a particular concern for them.

These are all stresses. Many people now recognise that teaching is no longer only about imparting knowledge. Teachers have to be the social worker, the policeman, if you like, in the school playground, the budget-maker, the financial decision-maker, the crisis counsellor and all sorts of things. Our teachers need our support to remove some of those stresses and strains to try to get the best educational and learning environment for pupils and students

I will finish here. I had a lot more to say but I know that other Members will want to have their say. I am also interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 29th September 2020

We now move to the other Members, each of whom will have around six minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank my constituency colleague Mrs Kelly for bringing the debate to the Chamber. It is very important, and I speak in it in my capacity as an MLA for Upper Bann.

Like other Members will probably do, I begin by paying tribute to the staff and leadership of schools across Upper Bann for their commitment to providing a first-class education to pupils during this extremely difficult time. Our schools adapted to provide home learning when circumstances dictated, and this has won the gratitude of parents and guardians across Upper Bann.

I would also like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Education Minister for the work that he has done in collaboration with schools to ensure a safe and timely return to classroom teaching. The importance of ensuring young people's return to school cannot be underestimated. The benefits of classroom learning are well-documented, not just for education but for our young people's heath and broader life skills. Returning young people to the classroom was a significant piece of work, and I commend the Minister, teachers, principals and parents for the work that they did together to ensure this. Since taking my seat in the House, I have had the pleasure of engaging with many schools and pupils across Upper Bann, and the return to classroom learning has been very warmly welcomed.

I wish to take this opportunity to raise with the Minister a number of issues around the school estate. Before I do that, I want to put on record my thanks for the number of positive announcements for schools in Upper Bann that have been made in recent weeks, first in relation to nurture units. I am a long-time advocate for this model within our schools. Nurture is a key element of supporting our children and young people to make the best start in life and help to improve their educational outcomes. The Minister's investment of up to £4 million for the creation of new, and maintenance of existing, nurture groups is good news. I was delighted that Carrick Primary School and St Anthony's Primary School in Upper Bann were included among the 15 new nurture units to be created. I am in no doubt that this funding will have a transformative impact for the pupils who will benefit from the service. I would be grateful if the Minister could provide an update on the work being carried out to ensure that pupils in Carrick Primary School and St Anthony's Primary School can benefit as soon as possible.

I also want to highlight the recent £40 million announced by the Minister as part of the second call to the school enhancement programme, which is aimed at delivering a modern, fit-for-purpose school estate. The Minister has my thanks for listening to the compelling cases made for Hart Memorial Primary School and Clounagh Junior High School. This will transform the school estate on both sites, bringing much-needed and long-overdue improvements. Since this announcement of funding, I have been working with other schools across Upper Bann to prepare for a possible third call for applications. I encourage the Minister to look carefully at the proposals put to his Department by Donard Special School and Abercorn Primary School in Banbridge, and also the needs of Portadown College.

Those schools provide an amazing education to the young people of the area and continue to provide a vital role in the community. The need for improvements to those schools cannot be overlooked, and I invite the Minister to visit them to see the work that they do.

I know that the Minister has funding constraints. However, I welcome the proposal for the third call of applications for the school enhancement programme.

I thank the schools and parents who have been in contact with me in recent days. First, Craigavon Senior High School: there can be no doubting the need for investment in Craigavon Senior High School. It is unacceptable for the children attending the senior high school to make do with lesser facilities. The previous proposal in the Education Authority's development plan for the future of the school received a widespread rejection from the local community. As the Lurgan campus of the senior high school is the only non-selective Key Stage 4 school in the Lurgan area, it is vital that an acceptable solution is found, and it is incumbent on the Education Authority to deliver an outcome for the senior high school that commands the support of the local community. The Dickson plan has proved successful in our local community for over 40 years and commands strong community support. I invite the Minister to reaffirm his support for that plan and for parental choice.

Secondly, St Ronan's College: much progress has been made by the school in preparation for its new build. Having spoken with the school principal last week about the issues around planning —.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00 pm, 29th September 2020

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I will draw to a conclusion. I am glad that the issue is being sorted out very quickly.

Quality education is vital for our young people, and quality facilities will help to improve their chances of receiving that education. I commend the Member for bringing the debate.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank Dolores Kelly for bringing the debate forward. I declare an interest as the vice chair of the board of governors of Lismore Comprehensive School, and I sit on that school's project board for the new build.

I come at this from an angle of experience of trying to deal with the maintenance backlog and with the new school build programme that is required out there and trying to ensure that, when decisions are made, they come to fruition. I have concerns. This is not a matter solely for the Minister, and it dates back to my time in the Executive. The public sector is far too slow in delivering building programmes across a wide range of issues, and there is a variety of reasons for that. One is that the system feeds itself. I often recall how, after making an announcement in the Chamber about a programme of school builds, I was questioned on it by the Assembly and the Education Committee, and, several months later, I asked for a progress report, only to be told that officials were carrying out a business case to see whether my decision was the right decision. I politely went back and said, "Wait just one second. That is not your purpose. Your purpose is to deliver the decision that I announced to the Assembly". Of course, we need business cases and to make sure that public funds are properly spent, but the system should not feed itself.

On one occasion, I asked for a copy of the guidance notes on business cases. On a Thursday evening, they arrived in my office: two large, thick folders with guidance on how to deliver a business case. I looked at the folders, and they sat and looked at me for a while

[Laughter.]

I scanned them and came across one word that I went back to the permanent secretary with: "proportionate". That is what is has to be: proportionate to the task, to the announcement made and to the benefit that it will bring to the children, teachers and community to have a new school build. That is where we have to get to. Collectively, as an Executive and in our scrutiny Committees, we have to get to the point where we, as a public-sector body, deliver public-sector projects in a reasonable time.

Mrs Kelly referred to the delay to St Ronan's, which has been unacceptable, and the delay to Lismore, which has also been unacceptable. However, I commend the Department of Education staff, who, in both instances, have worked tirelessly with the schools, and the other agencies, such as the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the Education Authority, that have also worked tirelessly with the schools to get the projects nearly over the line. I welcome Dolores's comments about heads being knocked together in order to get reports sent around for transport etc. That is a welcome development, and it will help to move the project on.

One of the best developments over recent years in delivering the new school estate — Upper Bann has benefited from it in a number of announcements that the Minister has made recently — is the school enhancement programme, with builds of up to £4 million. If you invest £4 million, especially in a primary school, you have practically built a new school. Four million pounds will deliver a major rebuild for our post-primary schools. I have often encouraged schools that are lobbying for complete new builds to look at the school enhancement programme, because it delivers significant changes to the school estate. As I said, schools across Upper Bann have benefited from it and have seen the difference that it has made for their young people.

I will also mention St John the Baptist Primary School. That is a case where a development proposal benefits not only the local community but the education system and does not require an investment. It is a major school at the minute. It has significant buildings that are not being used. I encourage the Minister to open area planning again and make sure that the relevant EA committees and his own structures are meeting and that decisions start to be made on development proposals, particularly on St John the Baptist Primary School in Portadown.

This is not connected with capital, although capital may be required, but I welcome the announcement of the nurture units. The nurture units are a fantastic development in our education system. During my time at the Department of Education, we were slow at the start in getting them off the ground for a variety of reasons. I think that there was some suspicion of them in officialdom at the time. However, the benefits of the investment in them were seen, and there should be more investment in nurture units. They will deliver long-term changes for our young people.

I want to mention the controlled sector in Lurgan. There are plans to bring three post-primary schools in the Catholic sector in Lurgan together at St Ronan's College. Why was that decision made? It was made because it was dealing with all the children in the Catholic sector. The same decision needs to be made about the controlled sector in Lurgan. A proposal needs to be brought forward that meets the needs of all the children in the controlled sector, and that then has to move to a building programme to meet the needs of all the children in the controlled sector in Lurgan. I am not getting into a debate on selection, but, to date, I have seen proposals that meet the needs of selection. There are ways round that that will meet the needs of everyone. Imagination and leadership need to be shown for the controlled sector in Lurgan.

Minister, as you know and as is our job, we will continue to lobby for the variety of schools that are out there. Whenever you listen to announcements from the British Government and others, you find that capital is available in the time ahead.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I support the Minister in bringing forward proposals that ensure that the public sector builds more quickly and builds more.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Minister for being here. It is nice to be in the Chamber with the five Upper Bann MLAs to talk about something that is important to us all; it really is. I sometimes wish that the five of us could get together. John, you could maybe buy the beer, if you are up for it.

We can all talk about our pet projects, and we all have them, whether we realise it or not. They may be about the controlled sector, the maintained sector, the selective sector and the non-selective sector and the primary and the post-primary sector. There are issues across Upper Bann. Some of them are normal and are issues that you would expect to see as property gets older. Some of them are issues that have been generated when there was no requirement to generate them. The maintenance budget and how it is delivered could be looked at and fixed. I thank Dolores for bringing this forward; I really do. I am glad, and I hope that we all speak with the same voice because what we want is a school estate for Upper Bann that is good for all our pupils no matter their academic ability.

I went to St Ronan's last week and met the principal and some of the governors and some of the teachers. It is an absolutely fantastic school, with 1,600 hundred pupils and 200 staff over two sites. They have had their planning application in since 2018, and we have now got to the stage where we are having to squeeze it in by October because of bats settling in one of the sites that they need to demolish. We should never have got to that last-minute hitch, but I believe that it has been overcome by a degree of pragmatic thinking, in that it will go before the planning committee next month and any outstanding issues and caveats can be added to the planning approval. That is good news for St Ronan's, and I commend them for taking a strong, visionary look at what they were trying to produce for their pupils and for the maintained sector in that area.

Of course, I also know St John the Baptist's College well. I worked closely with Noella when they went through that change of name from Drumcree College to St John the Baptist's, and Noella had a real vision of what she was trying to achieve. Not being able to develop the development proposals is knocking back the imagination that we want our principals and teachers to have to help our schools. I can say the same about Portadown Integrated Nursery and Primary School, and I can talk about Clounagh Junior High School, the Hart Memorial Primary School and Banbridge Academy.

There are many issues, but you will know, Minister, that I have really hammered the drum about the Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High School, and you will know that I will not apologise for doing so. I do not think that the children there are being given the service they deserve. There was a critical review of that site in 2016 — four years ago. It has no playing fields, so children wishing to do after-school activities have to be bussed into Portadown. The pupils have to eat their lunch between parked cars — eat their lunch between parked cars. They share some of the facilities with the Southern Regional College, so the kids have to move around that campus escorted by teachers. There is oversupervision. When they go to PT, they have to leave and walk to other facilities dressed in their PT kit. It creates stress, fright and vulnerability for the pupils. It is truly awful, and it needs to be addressed. It can be addressed with some imaginative thinking, while retaining the Dickson plan. If people want the Dickson plan, they can have it and we can retain it, but imaginative thinking can improve the lot of those kids. To leave it for another 12 months just would not be right.

I am a product of a failed education system to a degree. I went to Craigavon Senior High School, the only two-year school in the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no other two-year school in the whole of the United Kingdom. I went to it, and I was disenfranchised when I went there. I did not feel that I had an identity, and I left school at 16 with absolutely no educational qualifications. I do not mention that as a badge of honour; I still do not have them. It is a failing as much on my part as anything else, but part of that is because it was a school for only two years. We need imaginative thinking, but what is going on on the Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High School is just not right. Those pupils deserve better, and that is done not by destroying a system but by being imaginative in creating something better for them. I hope that we can do that, Minister, and I hope that we can drive that forward. There are solutions there, and the people of Lurgan have brought those solutions forward. What we have to do now is listen to them.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 5:15 pm, 29th September 2020

It feels as if I am winding up the debate as the last Member for Upper Bann to speak; I have never spoken in an Adjournment debate before. I thank Dolores Kelly for bringing this important topic to the House.

We can never talk about education enough in this place. It is the cornerstone of constituency life and it is the heartbeat of our constituencies. Whether it is my party colleagues or the representatives of other parties, everybody has the right to champion the needs and aspirations of our young people and, indeed, the requirements of our school estate.

I also thank the Minister for coming along today. As has already been mentioned, there have been some great announcements for Upper Bann in relation to nurture units and the school enhancement programme. The Minister has seen us through a very difficult time with COVID-19 and we pay tribute to the work that he has done in his engagement with school principals, parents and children as they try to adjust to these very different and surreal times.

I would also like to thank school principals and parents for their resilience throughout COVID-19; that cannot be said enough. Teachers went out of their way to provide education for our young people when, 10 months ago, that would not have seemed possible. They improvised and were innovative in their solutions and we thank them for doing so. It is only right that we come to the Chamber to champion teachers' needs and address some of their concerns. Dolores Kelly has, quite rightly, outlined many of the issues that face the school estate.

I am a proud product of the Upper Bann Dickson plan. I attended Richmount Primary School, Clounagh Junior High School, Craigavon Senior High School and Lurgan College. Many people who look at the system do not understand it when you talk about the plethora of schools that you went to, but I can say, heart in hand, that the Dickson plan was a system of education that I was proud to be part of. There are many thousands of people across the Upper Bann constituency who are playing their part in many walks of life because of the educational provision through the Dickson plan.

The school estate in Upper Bann is vast. There are 66 schools in the constituency with over 24,000 pupils. We know that the problem is not going to be solved overnight. Whether they have held the Education portfolio or not, every Member here understands that there is a difficult balance to be struck in managing the school estate within the realms of a limited capital resource budget. We get that, and we understand it, but that does not stop us from calling out what we see as massive failings in the school estate, which date back over a long period.

There is no doubt that the school estate in Upper Bann is in need of significant investment. It is important for us to point out that there are buildings that are beyond their sell-by date. COVID-19 did a lot to show that to the wider public. Quite rightly, Mrs Kelly outlined some of the challenges, whether in relation to mobile facilities, classroom sizes or toilets. We have seen how unfit those buildings are for their educational purpose and it is to be hoped that, in the days ahead, we can start to address those problems.

It is only right to give some examples, but I know that the Minister will, probably, elaborate on some of them in his remarks. I am thinking in particular of Portadown College and Lurgan Junior High School, which has been talked about in relation to works and new builds since I was at that school 10 years ago. Those plans were knocked out at the gateway stage, but the need for work to be done in those schools is only increasing, whether that is through school enhancement programmes or major capital works; those problems need to be addressed.

Craigavon Senior High School has been mentioned today. Mr Beattie talked about the educational failures of the system, but as somebody who attended that school, I can say that it was a fantastic school, as were its teachers. I can only say that it suited me at that time and I felt that the teachers were best able to cater for my needs so that I could go on and excel after that. I pay tribute to the teaching staff at Craigavon Senior High School who, throughout hard and uncertain times, whether on the Portadown campus or the Lurgan campus, stuck by their pupils and were always at the forefront in championing their needs.

I also want to think about King's Park Primary and Nursery School. Again, perhaps the Minister might want to make some comments about that school. I go back to Mr O'Dowd's comment about the time taken to make decisions, particularly in relation to resource capital builds in the school system. Those decisions take far too long. We know that the need is there. The need is there from the moment that an initial call is made, so for it to be in the system for six years, seven years or longer is simply not good enough. While the buildings are bad when they are first talked about, they are even worse by the time the pupils who were taught in them leave.

Maybe the Minister will outline when the next major capital call will come. There is no doubt about the serious need for investment in the system, be it major capital investment, school enhancement programmes, minor works or, indeed, the school maintenance budget, as has been mentioned. I know that the Minister understands the issues, and I look forward to working with him and, indeed, colleagues from Upper Bann in trying to address those issues and provide an educational school estate that is fit for purpose and delivers Northern Ireland output that is right at the top.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank Dolores Kelly MLA for making use of this Adjournment debate to raise school estate issues in the Upper Bann constituency. It is constructive to get into the detail of some of the issues, particularly those in Upper Bann. However, sadly, we could be having this debate about any constituency across Northern Ireland, demonstrating the scale of the challenge for the school estate across our region. There is, of course, a wide range of issues for schools and education across Northern Ireland at this time: school restart; the health and safety of teaching and non-teaching staff, pupils and parents; the unequal experience of disrupted learning; unequal educational opportunities; educational recovery; mental health and well-being; and SEN provision. As the Department grapples with those challenges, progress on key work streams such as area planning has been suspended. It is vital that we recommence area planning for constituencies such as Upper Bann, which has experienced, as much as any other constituency in Northern Ireland, the consequences of a slow and unacceptably ineffective area planning process. Hopefully, we will hear detail from the Education Minister on how that area planning process will be recommenced.

I would like to mention a number of school settings that have been referenced here today to put them on the Minister's agenda. Tullygally Primary School in Craigavon has been mentioned. It is my understanding that the Education Authority utilises space on the school's premises that, if vacated and released, could potentially enhance the social-distancing arrangements in that school. Craigavon Senior High School, particularly the Lurgan campus, has been mentioned. I was able to meet Councillor Peter Lavery and the Education Authority about that particularly urgent issue. As other Members have stated today, pupils at that site are experiencing an unacceptably unfit-for-purpose school estate, and that must be urgently addressed. It really does beg this question: why has radical action not been taken before now? We hope that we will hear of a radical plan for that site from the Education Minister.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I neglected to mention this: would you be surprised to learn that, for a number of years, St Anthony's Primary School has been operating a temporary heating system that is now required elsewhere? Perhaps I could also put that on the Minister's radar.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for her intervention. That is an example of the extreme maintenance issues that that school is facing and, indeed, that a number of schools are facing across Upper Bann and Northern Ireland.

Portadown Integrated Primary School has also been mentioned. It is my understanding that the school was given permission by John O'Dowd MLA in 2015 to increase its pupil numbers, going up to two classes in each age group. However, locating a new site for the expanded school is an ongoing challenge. Many of the classrooms are now modular in nature. It is my understanding that a potential site was identified, but that fell through. Perhaps there are opportunities for revisiting some of the previous proposals.

It is my understanding that Bridge Integrated Primary School in Banbridge, which I think Dolores Kelly mentioned, is facing some road safety challenges. There have been requests for the Education Minister to consult with his ministerial colleague in the Department for Infrastructure to see whether some solutions can be found for the site. I know that it was disappointed to miss out on the 20 mph pilot scheme recently, but, hopefully, the project can be revisited for that school.

Finally, I want to mention the situation at St John the Baptist’s College in Portadown. Sensibly, the Minister granted temporary permission for the creation of a year 11 cohort at the school, which has meant a great deal to a great many pupils and teaching and non-teaching staff at St John the Baptist. It is vital now that the same urgency is granted to the area planning process and, indeed, that expedited consideration is given to the development proposal for GCSE years at St John the Baptist’s College, Portadown. I understand that area planning needs to commence towards the end of October for the development proposal to be released for consultation in time for completion prior to Christmas and to allow GCSE subject choices early in the new year. Any other timescale could create significant challenges, anxiety and distress for the school community, and we hope to hear of urgent action from the Education Minister today.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Members. The Minister has up to 14 minutes to respond. There is quite a bit there; he might need a lot more time.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I may be looking for a hole in the space-time continuum at this rate. I thank the Member for bringing this to the House, all the Members from Upper Bann and the Chairperson of the Education Committee for raising the issues.

I have a few remarks. It is a sign of the extent to which all Members are committed on these issues. I may well have missed one or two but I identified a total of 25 separate issues. Where possible, in my remarks, I will try to address as many as I can. Unfortunately, maybe not in as comprehensive a manner as could be in 14 minutes. I will check the Hansard report and if there are issues that I have not been able to cover — I suspect that there will be — I will write to the Upper Bann Members with a direct response.

As Members have indicated, the importance of capital build in its various forms is critical. That is undoubtedly the case. Members have been around different parts of the school estate in Upper Bann, and others in a wider context. If the capacity and resources were available, we could spend three or four times the amount of money that is spent annually on the school estate, and still be on catch up.

Under the major capital investment programme that was initiated in 2012, eight schools in Upper Bann were announced to proceed to design for major capital investment. Three of those projects, Tannaghmore Primary School, St Thérèse’s Primary School and St Mary’s Primary School in Banbridge have been completed, and those projects have seen an investment of £18·5 million. A further five major projects are progressing: Portadown Integrated Primary School, St Ronan’s Primary School, Lismore Comprehensive, King's Park Primary School and St Mary's Primary School in Derrymore. I appreciate that Members raised specific points. If I have time, I hope to come on to some of those. Those five projects between them will involve a total investment of £94 million. The projects at St Ronan's and Lismore are two of the biggest projects on the Department's capital programme. A major works scheme is also progressing at New-Bridge Integrated College through Fresh Start, and the total cost of that scheme is estimated at around £23 million.

Mr O'Dowd mentioned the school enhancement programme, which has been a very successful innovation due to the fact that, in many cases, the best-fit solution for a school is an extension, a new sports hall or a new science block etc. So far, four schools in Upper Bann have received a total investment of about £7 million on the first call. Projects were completed at Millington Primary School, New-Bridge Integrated College, Ceara School and Donard School. A further six schools have been announced to advance in design under the second call. Design teams have been appointed at Presentation Primary School, Lurgan Model Primary School and Lurgan College, and the teams are working with those schools to develop those plans. Carrick Primary School, Hart Memorial Primary School and Clounagh Junior High School are in the early stages of planning.

There is also the minor works programme. Over the last three years, £10 million has been invested in minor works in Upper Bann. Particular mention has been made of minor works. When the last call was put out for minor works, around 6,000 applications were made. Mrs Kelly raised the question of the backlog, and we are in the position that, of those 6,000, about 600 projects have been completed, and they had to be prioritised.

It was said that in a number of schools, the top priority has been health and safety. There is a downside to that, in a general sense. We live in very different times. When Mrs Kelly and I were at school, that was not the case, though some of the younger Members for Upper Bann may have been at school more recently. There is a necessity for child protection that would not have been there 40 or 50 years ago, and it is right that that is the case.

I will address a range of issues that have been raised. I will try and go through those as quickly as possible. Area planning is being stood up again. Where there is a range of development projects (DPs) already in progress, they had to be suspended because of consultation issues, around the beginning of April, and because of COVID-19. That was not just because it was difficult to hold consultation at the height of COVID, but also because of departmental and EA staff resources. A range of activities were taking place across both organisations that meant we simply had to prioritise because of COVID. To restart the process, the Department has written to all members of the area planning steering group, the overall strategic body, to propose a meeting on 21 October. It is also the case that, where there is a range of development proposals that I think have a particular priority in terms of timing, I think we will move on those as well. .

At St Ronan's College, considerable progress has been made. I understand that, at a meeting yesterday with planners and DFI Roads, agreement on the remaining issues has now been reached. The project's consulting team are working to provide necessary documentation to enable the planning process to be concluded.

A point was raised about hot water in classrooms. The guidance recommends the use of lukewarm or tepid water and soap. Cold water is also effective. Hand sanitiser is not a substitute for handwashing, and it is important that we get that message across.

In terms of the provision of finance, Executive funding has been made available to schools, and that is working its way through the system.

These points are not necessarily addressed in the order in which they were raised.

Mention was made of delegated decision-making. That is something I am very keen on.

I move on to the introduction of new procurement. Mr O'Dowd raised the issues of procurement and construction. There is a wider challenge there, and we will be working with DOF colleagues on that. This is not simply a schools issue. Clearly, there has to be good value for public money from our processes, but we need to ensure that they work in a timely and proportionate manner.

There will be new procurement processes for maintenance and minor works from April 2021, where greater flexibility will be afforded to head teachers for small-scale repairs. That is about trying to introduce a level of common sense, although, as people have often said, common sense is not all that common.

On the issue of catch-up, a considerable amount of work has started. There was a blip, but there has been a small increase in the overall maintenance budget this year, and that can be channelled in as quickly as possible, and works progressed. I have seen sites where that has been happening.

On road safety, provision can be made in capital programmes for school site traffic management. We have seen that happen, for example at Bridge Integrated Primary School where such works are currently under review. The school crossing patrol is not a matter for us directly. It is a non-statutory function of the Education Authority. An assessment is always carried out when a school crossing patrol person retires. The EA has criteria for that.

We have to realise that active transport and children walking to school, is, unfortunately, probably more limited than it was. Perhaps the Member who secured the Adjournment debate and I would have gone to school in a horse and cart, but things have moved on since then.

Mention was made of Tullygally Primary School and, coincidentally, I will be there tomorrow, so you are all welcome. I have asked my officials to liaise with the EA, the CCMS and the school to review the current position and provide me with further information on the specific details of that case.

I want to touch on a number of other issues. Mention was made, I think by Mrs Dodds, of the nurture units. It was very good that I was able to initiate those at Carrick Primary School and St Anthony's Primary School, and they have been a considerable success story. It is not simply about the individual nurture units; it is about getting that level of intervention. The aim is to move on those as quickly as possible and, in most cases, I think that they will be in place from the beginning of January. A small number of schools will require a little bit of adaptation, but I do not believe the schools in Upper Bann would necessarily fall into that category.

Mention was also made of Hart Memorial Primary School. Projects were announced in May and work has taken place to advance the design of the scheme. The Education Authority will undertake site visits in October 2020 to discuss the potential scope for those projects and the pre-qualification tender design process for the design teams will commence thereafter. Based on the programmes for the early SEP2 tranches, we are probably looking at construction there in 2024. I do not have details about Clounagh Junior High School.

I think that mention was also made of when there would be a major capital call. The aim is to have that during 2021. The timing is not quite clear. There is a little bit of headroom with whether that will happen in this or the following financial year, but it will certainly be in the 2021 calendar year. In the third call, I think we will always be looking at trying to get a mix and a level of progress that is there in terms of solutions that will get a mix of capital.

Mention was also made of the Dickson plan. Let me make it very clear: I completely support the Dickson plan and want to see it continue. Allied to that, as was mentioned, there is a strong parental choice for the Dickson plan to continue. Therefore, any actions that I would take would never threaten it and would fully support it.

There are a number of specific issues with St John the Baptist School and I think that the flexibility that was given this year was the right decision. The plans for St John the Baptist Primary School and Craigavon Senior High School will, ultimately, come as development proposals, so I am very limited in what I can say directly about them.

Having been there a number of times, I know that the physical infrastructure of the Lurgan campus is simply not acceptable. If the question is, "Why has something not been done up to this point?", in part, that is because there has been a lack of consensus about what the specific development proposal should be. Ultimately, the actions, in whatever form, will have to flow from the development plan; they will emerge from that. I have to be a little bit cautious on that as I would be the legal authority, but I am fully cognisant of the problems in Lurgan.

I will try to get some details on St Anthony's Primary School's heating system. I do not have those directly to hand.

In January 2020, the Department approved a business case addendum for Lismore Comprehensive School and planning approval is place. The procurement for development and the build integrated study are well under way and an appointment of contractors is imminent. It is expected that the project will move on-site in April 2021 with a two-year construction period.

Kingspark Primary School Lurgan was also mentioned and the major capital investment project to provide suitable accommodation for a 23-classroom base there is progressing. An integrated consultant team was appointed in October 2019. The team has prepared a draft technical feasibility study on all options, including refurbishment and new build. Following advice from planning officials, the report is being updated for submission to the Department. On approval, that report will form the basis of the business case to determine the —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I appreciate that there are a number of issues that I have not been able to cover, but I will write to the Upper Bann Members with full details. I thank Members for both the content and the tone of the debate tonight.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much indeed for that, Members and Minister. That concludes our business for today.

Adjourned at 5.40 pm.