School Estate: East Antrim

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 25th May 2021.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 4:00 pm, 25th May 2021

In conjunction with the Business Committee, the Speaker has given leave to Mr Gordon Lyons to raise the matter of the school estate in East Antrim. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

First, I thank the Business Committee for scheduling the debate. At the outset, I apologise on behalf of my party and constituency colleague Mr David Hilditch, who is unable to be here. As most in the Chamber will know, he is getting chemotherapy treatment today. Of course, we wish him well with that and with the rest of his treatment.

I pay tribute to staff in schools right across East Antrim for all the work that they have done in what has been a very difficult year. I thank teachers, who have been put under huge pressure over the past number of months. We recognise that teaching from home and having to balance many different priorities at once has not been easy. I thank the senior management teams in schools, who have come under an awful lot of pressure and had to deal with an awful lot of uncertainty and a very fluid situation when schools were open and then closed, and all the additional pressures that came with that. I also thank other staff in schools, who have, perhaps, had additional responsibilities and work that they had to be involved in. They have done that work well. It is important to place on record our thanks to those who have done so much to try to ensure that children's education has continued, albeit in difficult situations and less than ideal scenarios.

As we get back to normal, the old problems persist. Many pupils in East Antrim are being educated in less than ideal facilities and poor accommodation. I want to raise a few issues with the House and the Minister. The first relates to the rationalisation of the school estate. Along with Mr Hilditch and other colleagues, who are here, we have all, in some way, been involved with Islandmagee Primary School and the long saga of getting it a new build. It has been over 10 years since I was first involved in meetings about Islandmagee Primary School. The school came about as the result of the merger of two schools: Kilcoan Primary School and Mullaghdubh Primary School. The new school building had been talked about for a long time. The new school has been operating on split sites since 2016. Here we are, five years later, and it is still on split sites.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Of course, I will give way to Mr Beggs.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Is the Member aware that it predates even that date and that the school originated from a proposal to merge three schools?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Yes. Indeed, that is the case, although I think that the third school had closed down quite some time prior to that, and it was the two schools that I mentioned that merged in 2016. However, the Member is absolutely right.

Progress has been made. I am pleased that I was able to host the chairman of the board of governors and the principal, Arlene Cambridge, who, by the way, has done a fantastic job for that school and has been very determined over the last number of years, and that we were able to meet the former Education Minister, Mr O'Dowd.

I am pleased that progress has been made and that the application is in the system. However, five years after the schools merged, never mind all the time that has passed since it was originally discussed, there is still no building. That shows some of the problems with rationalisation.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP 4:30 pm, 25th May 2021

I thank the Member for giving way. I, too, pay tribute to Arlene Cambridge for the work that she has done.

I was speaking to a pupil who was in primary 1 when the merger went through who has now graduated from university. That is the length of time that we are talking about. My fear — I am sure that it also that of the Member — is that the pupils at Carrickfergus Academy might well see something similar. I fear that no one who is at that school will see a single new school site come to fruition. Does the Member share those fears?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I absolutely agree with the Member. In fact, the second example that I was coming on to was Carrickfergus Academy. Again, we have all been involved with that school. We were there when the Minister was there and had other meetings together. Mr Dickson was ill at the time of those meetings, but he sent a representative to them, and it is good that there is cross-party agreement.

Carrickfergus Academy is a very poor example of how to do things. Two schools amalgamated — they are now in their third year of amalgamation — and the school is on a split site. As a result of that split site, there are 318 staff movements between the junior and senior sites every week. That is staff moving back and forward for different periods and subjects. Of the 83 staff members, 73 of them travel, and some teachers teach in 10 different classrooms each week. That is a waste of teacher time and a duplication of provision and overheads. It also restricts opportunities for young people.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

That is before we even start on the condition of the existing buildings. I will give way to Mr Dickson on that point.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

This will be a very brief intervention. I wholly appreciate and thank Mr Lyons for securing the debate.

On Carrickfergus Academy, in particular, it is not only a split site but the two sites are on opposite sides of the town. Staff not only travel between the two schools, which sounds very easy, but taxi between the two schools to meet the teaching timetable. That situation is untenable.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The Member is absolutely right. If you consider a teacher sitting in his or her classroom, what would normally happen in most of our schools is that a class would go out and another one would come in. What happens in Carrickfergus Academy is that teachers finish their classes, get packed up, walk out to their cars, get into their cars, drive across the town, park their cars, get out of their cars, taxis or whatever and then walk to class. A huge amount of time is wasted doing that, and, as one of the teachers said to me recently, there is no time at the end of class to stop to talk to those pupils who may have a pastoral issue or need a little bit more support.

I am glad that there is a recognition of the issue and that extra funding is given to schools that are on split sites. However, certainly last year, the available funding did not even cover a quarter of the extra costs that were incurred by Carrickfergus Academy because of its operation on the split site.

I am also glad that the Department of Education's protocol for the selection of capital works programmes gives extra points in its scoring mechanism to schools that are part of a development proposal (DP) and have had to rationalise or that are on split sites. However, that needs to be greater. Such is the impact on the education of and outcomes for our young people and the additional burden that is placed on teachers and the senior management teams in those schools that a reasonable case could be made for giving additional weight to schools such as Carrickfergus Academy that have had to wait for so long. It is also important to put it on the record that it was promised that priority would be given to Carrickfergus Academy if Carrickfergus College and Downshire Community School merged. That has not been the case, and I fear that Mr Stewart is absolutely right and that pupils who are at that school will experience the split site for the rest of their time there. I would appreciate the Minister looking at the funding mechanism when schools operate on split sites and the scoring mechanism for the capital works programme.

It is not only about rationalisation. When schools are forced to close, such as Carnalbanagh Primary School on the edge of my constituency, can we please make sure that there are spaces available in nearby schools? Many pupils from Carnalbanagh would like to go to somewhere such as Hazelbank, which is only a few miles down the road, but there is no space there. It is already overcrowded, and I made those points when the announcement was made that Carnalbanagh was to close.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Carnalbanagh falls directly outside East Antrim, but it has a draw from East Antrim. When the development proposal was signed off, it was done on the specific condition that additional transport and space would be made available if required. That instruction was given as part of the conditions of the DP to the Education Authority, so, if there is an issue there, I am happy to contact the Member about it. As I said, however, that was part of the sign-off. It was put down in writing as part of the development proposal decision.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I appreciate that intervention from the Minister. It is very important. Yes, you can make transport available, but, from a place such as Carnalbanagh, which is still in East Antrim, it can be a long journey at certain times of the year, particularly to Larne or Glenarm. Hazelbank is nearby, however, and if the decision goes ahead to close Carnalbanagh Primary School, I am glad that the Minister has given that commitment again today that children can go to a school that is as close as possible to them.

As well as closure and rationalisation, there are issues for the school estate more generally. Simply put, improvements are needed. Some schools will need new builds, while some will need enhancement programmes. We will hear about many different schools in this debate, but I will mention a couple that I have been able to visit recently. The first is Larne High School, which is a fantastic school. It is really doing its best by its children and providing opportunities for the young people who go there. It has seen greatly improved results and is really innovative in what it does, but, unfortunately, significant improvements are needed. It has a very high maintenance budget, so we need to look at the existing problems and make sure that we allocate the funding to where it needs to go so that we are not just racking up bills for years to come on maintenance but, rather, are spending the money smarter and sooner.

Capital expenditure is required, and I know that the Minister visited the school and was able to see that for himself. Spend needs to reflect the protocol that is in place. It needs to reflect where the need is, so I ask the Minister to look at that again. If it is the case that more funding is needed, we need to provide that funding, and I urge the Minister to lobby and bid for more funding for places such as Larne High School and Greenisland Primary School, where resource is much needed so that it can provide a quality education for our young people.

Why is that so important? There are a number of reasons. First, it is about equality. Why should some pupils get the opportunity to be taught in a state-of-the-art facility when others are in decent, adequate or inadequate accommodation. Let us make sure that all our children feel that they are getting the same treatment. Secondly, we want our children and young people to aspire to more and to better. We want our young people to be inspired by their surroundings. If we do not have the facilities in place and if our young people do not have confidence in the buildings in which they are being taught, how can we expect them to take pride in their work?

I am coming to the end of my time, but I want to raise one other issue, which is sports infrastructure. In many of our schools, especially our secondary schools, we do not have the facilities that are required. We have a great sporting history and tradition in East Antrim. We have much to be proud of, but we want to develop it. In some of our schools, we have gravel hockey pitches that are no longer fit for purpose. We have football pitches that have become waterlogged and unusable. We have some tennis courts that have had to be condemned, because they are no longer safe to use.

We want to encourage people to take part in sport, fitness and physical activity. That requires those facilities to be in place. I urge the Minister to look at funding specifically for much-needed sports facilities. I also ask him to work with colleagues to see how sports facilities in our schools could be used by the wider community. All too often, sports clubs come to me because we have a shortage of pitches and training areas in East Antrim, certainly in Larne and Carrickfergus. It is important that, where schools have those available, they share them with the local community. A lot of the time, they come up against insurance issues or problems with the Education Authority (EA). Our schools are a fantastic resource that could be used outside of school hours as well. I urge the Minister to look at that.

I thank the Business Committee for allocating the time for this Adjournment topic. I hope that we will hear more from other Members about the great need that we have in East Antrim. I know that the Minister will get that from all constituencies, but some of the accommodation that we have is completely unacceptable. I ask the Minister to look at this favourably. If he is inclined to get his chequebook out, I have no doubt that we will find many projects that could use those funds.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

It is my intention to call first constituency Members, who will be allocated seven minutes each. All other Members will be allocated five minutes each. That is in order to facilitate a 10-minute response from the Minister, should he wish to offer one.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank Gordon Lyons for bringing forward this Adjournment topic. It is right that the difficulties that exist in the school estate in East Antrim are aired. I hope that they will be addressed subsequently.

Young people in East Antrim over the years have not benefited to the same extent as other constituencies have in terms of the funding of new educational premises. I am not entirely sure why. Over the past 20 years, there have been repeated announcements of new builds, but very few have been in East Antrim. It may be the fact that the constituency has an older, settled community and has not expanded to the extent of requiring a new build. Clearly, however, there has been a dearth of investment, and there is a need to correct that. Perhaps the Minister will allude to what might come in the future. I hope that he, having viewed the condition of some of our schools, recognises that there is a need to ensure that there is suitable accommodation in which our teachers and young people are able to thrive and reach their full potential.

I pay tribute to the teaching staff and other support staff in our schools for their work over the past year and a little bit longer. It has been a challenging time for everyone. They have had to learn new skills to continue to support young people through remote learning and adapt to new technology. They have done their best to try to support young people. I, like most people who are associated with schools in East Antrim, am really pleased that we have been able to return to more normal school activity. I hope that we will be able to maintain that and keep on top of the dreadful pandemic that we have faced.

As I said, we have had a lack of investment over the years. Many of the school buildings are really quite tired and no longer fit for purpose. The standard specification in terms of space in a classroom, lighting levels and lots of things no longer applies. Yet many of our schools have an excellent reputation. There is demand for the schools. I think of Greenisland Primary School and Whiteabbey Primary School. Those are older premises, but there is still huge demand for those schools because of the quality of the teaching that occurs. However, if we are to give the teachers the full tools and the young people the full benefits and opportunities, we should provide the right facilities for them.

Mr Lyons mentioned Islandmagee Primary School. It really has been a saga. It was in 2003 that the then three schools agreed to amalgamate. In 2007, the site was bought on the Low Road, and then it sat for years and years with changes in policies. I am pleased that that has now progressed through planning. I would be interested if the Minister could update us on the tendering for the actual building, when we can expect the foundations to be laid, when we can expect completion and when the community can expect to have a facility for which they have yearned for so long.

The remaining two schools in Islandmagee, Kilcoan and Mullaghdubh, are operating on split sites. Again, that causes problems for teaching. It causes problems for families, picking up perhaps two young people of different ages having dropped them off in the morning. It causes complications.

As was alluded to, in the post-primary sector, there are extra costs associated with this. It is vital that, if the Department is encouraging school amalgamation, it ensures that the budget is appropriate and that young people and teachers are not caught out and suffer as a result. The budget should be appropriate to operate in such conditions. It is not only that. Significant priority should be given to schools that agree to amalgamate.

Turning to Carrickfergus College, which is operating on that split-site scenario, there are significant time factors resulting from teachers and staff having to work across two sites. That is costing the public money. It is costing the school funds as well. It is not good management. We have made the point previously to the Minister that the funding arrangements should, again, be reflecting the priorities in the area plan and good value for money in how public funding is spent. I am concerned that, whilst we have not yet had an announcement of our new build to allow all those children to amalgamate in a new build on one of their sites, we are wasting money and failing our young people. I urge the Minister to ensure that that issue is progressed.

Equally, Larne High School is no longer adequate. There has been great success there, with pupil numbers increasing in the last few years from 430 to over 700. The school is not fit for purpose. My dad actually started working at Larne High School in 1957, and some of the premises are still being used. Facilities from 1957 are still being used, perhaps with a lick of paint and that is about the height of it. It is no longer fit for purpose.

I have to say that there is a question of equality. I am very happy that Ulidia has had an announcement of a new build, but its school was built 20 years ago — was it 20 years ago? — and significant parts are being knocked down. We are knocking down a 20-year-old school, yet we are forcing others to continue to use 70-year-old premises. I urge the Minister to ensure that there is appropriate funding and an equality of funding so that all our young people can reach their full potential.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 4:45 pm, 25th May 2021

I appreciate Mr Lyons bringing this debate; it is an important one.

First of all, I associate myself with his opening remarks with regards to our colleague David Hilditch, and I wish David very well in the treatment that he is going to have. David and I go back many years on Carrickfergus Borough Council, and I count him as a good friend.

Like all the Members in the Chamber today, I have been in touch with many of the schools across the constituency. To be truthful, we all have and will continue to express very serious concerns about the dilapidated state of many of our schools. Simply, it is not an acceptable situation. Pupils in East Antrim deserve much better from the Department, from the Executive and from the Assembly.

Just two weeks ago, like others, I was invited to visit Larne High School. I am highly impressed by the work that goes on in that school, but it happens in conditions that are literally unacceptable and, in many cases, may be described as Third World. Today, I posted photographs of the school on my website so that the Department and the public can see the circumstances and facilities in which the principal and staff have to work and teach. It is a building that goes back to the 1950s. There is damp and water damage across the school building, as well as missing parts of ceilings, leaks, missing floor tiles, electric sockets that cannot be used because water pours into them, a gymnasium that is not fit for purpose and changing facilities that have to be shared by both sexes because the male changing rooms were closed a number of years ago as they were not fit for purpose.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member agree that, with sport being an important aspect of the school's curriculum, particularly in its sixth form development and links with Larne Football Club, it is scandalous that there are not adequate changing places there for the important work that it is carrying out?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you. I totally agree with Mr Beggs's comment. For example, it is great to see a new 3G pitch being built at the school, but how do you get changed to use those facilities and how do you shower afterwards? That is part of the problem and the conundrum.

We need to value our children and their education and provide a great deal more for them. It is not just secondary schools. For a number of years, I have been working with the Education Authority and the Department to address the unacceptable state, which Members have recognised, of Greenisland Primary School. I have visited the school on a number of occasions — in fact, it is the school that I started my education in — and its list of problems is endless and very similar to Larne High School: damp classrooms, inadequate toilet facilities and a severe lack of daylight. It was a school that was built for 200 pupils but today has over 400. There is no space for a library or for parking, and it is wholly inadequate for the traffic mayhem in the mornings around the school. I am hopeful that things will move forward for Greenisland Primary School following the allocation of school enhancement programme funding. However, I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Department will endeavour to move those projects along at speed and get the school up to a standard quickly.

In addition, reference has been made to Whiteabbey Primary School, which is of the same vintage and has broadly similar problems. Monkstown Community School and Newtownabbey Community High School had the promise of a new school building when they merged, but nothing has materialised there either.

Moving to the other end of East Antrim, St Killian's College in Larne is in a beautiful historical building that is no longer fit for purpose and, again, is crying out for a new building. It is facing many of the same problems, but one of the major problems that it faces is access to the internet: it has to rely on a microwave link. Let us hope that Project Stratum will at least help in that respect.

I would be grateful if the Minister could advise how he is working with the schools across East Antrim to develop the school sites and school buildings and ensure that they have 21st century facilities like high-speed broadband. I also note my concern at the very slow pace of the building in Islandmagee, which Members have made reference to. Again, I have been involved in a number of the meetings on that. I am pleased that the matter is progressing to seek planning permission, but we need to know when it will move beyond that point to the actual contract to build. People have been waiting some 10 years for that.

We should also look to some of the successes in East Antrim. For example, the wonderful new build at Corran Integrated Primary School provides a modern and spacious school environment for the children who attend it. I hope that that success can be replicated in many more schools in the school estate across East Antrim.

We have to invest in our school estate. Children, teachers and staff deserve much better than what has been provided. It is a great credit to the staff and the pupils who work and are educated in those buildings in East Antrim. While the credit goes to them, the poor marks have to go to the Department of Education for the way in which it looks after its estate. I encourage the Minister to grasp the problem for the school estate across East Antrim, work with school principals and school boards of governors and help us deliver the education facilities that our young people deserve going into this century.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I echo the comments about our colleague David Hilditch. It is hard to believe that it is 10 years since I was elected to Carrickfergus Borough Council: I enjoyed serving with him there and I have enjoyed serving with him here. We all wish him well in his recovery.

I thank Mr Lyons for securing this topic for the adjournment debate. I think that this is my first adjournment debate in the House since we came back, so it is quite novel to take part in it. However, it is on such an important topic.

Our pupils and parents in Carrickfergus and Larne and across East Antrim are spoilt with the quality of education that is provided by our amazing schools, our teachers and our principals. That is without doubt. When anyone comes to me saying that they have been turned down for their first choice, I have no hesitation referring them to another school in the area because I know that the quality of education is fantastic. However, it always falls down with the infrastructure and the quality of the facilities that are provided. We could wax lyrical today about the list of issues in many schools in East Antrim. I know that the situation is the same across the entire school estate in Northern Ireland and that money does not grow on trees, but we are here to discuss schools in East Antrim, and it would be remiss of us not to bang the drum on their behalf.

This has been a hugely difficult year. I am a governor on the boards of two schools, Silverstream Primary School and Nursery Unit, and Woodlawn Primary School, and I am also a trustee of Carrickfergus Model Primary School. When I drop my son off there every day or when I visit as a governor, I know about the staff's workload, their passion and the difficult circumstances that they have operated in over the last year. However, that has not deterred them one bit, and they have cracked on and got the job done. The pupils are smiling, even though things are not easy and it has been a difficult year. My hat goes off to each and every one of them for the amazing work that they have done.

We have proved that we have been able to work together as MLAs. Mr Lyons referred to a number of examples of that. I can think of a letter that I put together, which was sent to the then permanent secretary, Derek Baker, on behalf of all our colleagues in East Antrim, about the delays at Islandmagee Primary School. The discussion on that has been well rehearsed, but, for the record, I will make the point again that I was speaking to a former pupil who is about to finish a master's and was in primary 1 when that amalgamation happened. It is hard to believe that the school has had to wait for 20-odd years. The kids of the pupils from that time are about to start school, and it is still not complete. We take our hat off to Arlene Cambridge and all the staff at Islandmagee Primary School for their tenacity. It will come about eventually, and we look forward to the first brick being laid and to the school being complete. It is very frustrating that that has not happened yet and that so much time has gone by.

When you compare that with other sites where things have gone quite quickly, you find that there is often no excuse for things not happening. To go back to my original point about Carrickfergus Academy, I fear that that is where we could end up. The whole idea of that amalgamation was predicated on the notion that it would be prioritised for a new build. When the vote on it took place, the governors and the parents were carried on the momentum that there would be a new school very quickly.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Of course. Always.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member agree that, unless the Minister and the Department prioritise such amalgamations appropriately, very few schools will come forward to seek an amalgamation in future?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Thank you for that. Absolutely. Given the way that things are going, maybe because there is a changing strategy for education and the prioritisation of sites, more schools will be asked to look at mergers. They will certainly think twice if the experience of Carrickfergus Academy and the schools that formed it is anything to go by. I fear that there are pupils in that school, now in year 8, who will not see that site. If the experience of Islandmagee Primary School is anything to go by, their kids may not see the site.

It costs money, teaching hours and logistics. The entire weight of effort to transfer between those two schools — it is two and a half miles — means that hundreds of teaching hours are lost every single year. What is the result if you multiply that by what could be 10 or 12 years or however long they have to wait? The uncertainty of it all has an impact. We should at least know where the site is, but that has not even been confirmed yet. There has been a nudge and a wink that it will remain where it is, but that has not even been confirmed.

Because of that, Carrickfergus Grammar School, which I left in 2000, is still waiting for new sports facilities, as Mr Lyons mentioned. We do not know whether we can invest in the site itself broadly enough to share across two school sites because we do not know whether, in the long term, the new school at Carrickfergus Academy is going to be there. Even getting certainty that it will be located there would mean that we could start to build the infrastructure around it so that shared facilities at least could be developed while we wait for the new build. With every piece of strength that I have, I urge that we at least try to give certainty as quickly as possible to the pupils, parents and staff at Carrickfergus Academy.

I referred to other schemes that have gone well. The rebuild at Corran Integrated Primary School and Nursery in Larne was announced in 2013 and has long since been built. It is up and running, and hats off again to the staff there. However, the focus goes back to the other schools that are still waiting. There is a disparity that I can never get my head around.

Aside from those two schemes, there have been other projects in recent years. Woodburn Primary School has been a roaring success and a really good asset, and its numbers are up because of that. When I visited recently, all the pupils and staff were overjoyed by the standard of their new building, so we thank the Minister for getting that completed. The same applies to Acorn Integrated Primary School.

I have some concerns. Recently, the Antiville Primary School and St Comgall's College sites were sold off. Local taxpayers had put money into those schools. In future, when schools are closed and the land sold off, it would be nice if that money could be reinvested in the local school estate. In that case, it went to building houses. Maybe that could be looked at. I do not know whether that is pie in the sky thinking.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I do not have details of the individual sites. However, when any public land is sold off, there will be some restriction on where the money goes. It will depend on whether direct money has been provided for the site in the first place. Generally speaking, the money from sales goes back to public finances and the Treasury. The Member makes a reasonable point. Unfortunately, however, the money cannot be ring-fenced for reallocation within the Department of Education. My job would be a lot easier if it could.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Maybe we can look at that collectively. I do not know whether that can be done. As I said, maybe it is pie in the sky, but it was just a thought.

In my last minute, I want to comment on a couple of points. A number of rural schools have been added to the latest round of area planning, which, in my opinion, is a euphemism for earmarked for closure. It would not be right to mention particular schools. Those governors and staff are working tirelessly, and they fear becoming victims of death by a thousand cuts, Minister. It is really sad to see that. They provide a vital service in the rural community and should be given every opportunity to continue doing that. They should, at least, be kept informed, rather than having this year-on-year uncertainty.

Finally, in my last 30 seconds, if you will indulge me, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I have a real fear about the loss of our traffic patrolmen and women. There have never been more cars on the roads, yet every school is being told that, if their patrol person retires or, sadly, passes away, they will not be replaced. We had that at the Model Primary School with the tragic death of its patrol person last year.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Of course, yes.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I want to comment on that particular issue with the Model Primary School. When travelling to my constituency office in Carrick, I strictly observe the 20 mph signs that are there to replace the patrol person, but I am constantly passed by other cars every time I make that journey.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am afraid that the Alliance Party has stolen your last 10 seconds, Mr Stewart.


Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank Gordon Lyons for securing the debate. I echo the comments from others in praising the school staff across the constituency of East Antrim for their work and commitment every year, but particularly this year. East Antrim is not my constituency, of course, but it neighbours my constituency of North Antrim. A small number of pupils in parts in the glens of Antrim, for example, attend schools in East Antrim. Therefore, I have a few issues pertaining to the debate that I want to put on record.

St Killian's College, on the coast road, is on one of the most picturesque and beautiful sites anywhere on this island. However, it has a building meant for 600 pupils and a current enrolment of 850. When my party colleague John O'Dowd announced and committed to a new school building in 2014, no one expected that, by 2021, no sod had yet been dug. I echo and agree with all the commentary from other Members on other schools. St Killian's is in stage 3 of planning with Mid and East Antrim Council and, hopefully, is on track for Christmas 2022. However, more than a whole school generation of pupils has missed out on a modern school environment because of bureaucracy and delay in the process. In a similar situation in another school in my constituency, I recall a member of the board of governors describing the process as trying to wade through treacle. Minister, that needs to be streamlined. We need to ensure the speedier delivery of new school buildings when they are announced.

Parts of East Antrim are particularly rural, and, whilst this is not an issue specific to schools, planning constraints and infrastructure deficits in parts of the glens of Antrim are having a major impact on our rural school estate, and I echo the commentary from John Stewart on rural schools.

Given the issues with planning and infrastructure in places like Cushendun, Cushendall, Glenariff etc, young people have to build away from where they were brought up or buy outside the community in which they were reared, and that has an impact on primary school enrolment in those places. While that is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, he needs to help to address that with his Executive colleagues.

School transport in the constituency is another issue that has been flagged up to me, particularly for children attending special educational needs schools in Ballymena and Larne. Some of those children are being picked up as early as 8.00 am and are not getting to school until after 9.00 am, and they are not getting home until after 4.30 pm. Some are spending as much as three hours travelling to and from school, perhaps because they are being taken, as it has been described to me, on a tour of East Antrim rather than via the most direct route. Again, Minister, that needs to be reviewed to ensure that those children spend less time travelling and more time at school and at home.

This is a general point about all schools, which has been raised by Gordon Lyons and others. I spoke earlier about St Killian's new build. New builds need to take account of more than just the educational needs of our school community, given the lack of sporting and other facilities, particularly in rural parts of the constituency. The Department needs to make provisions to allow schools to have excellent sporting facilities and to open up those facilities to the general public. Communities in rural areas should be able to access, after 5.00 pm, at the weekend and during the two months over the summer, good sporting and other facilities that are on their doorstep. For example, why not incorporate state-of-the-art facilities in St Killian's and allow the numerous GAA, soccer, rugby, rowing and athletic clubs in the constituency to use them? Those are just a number of things that I would like to see.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I am chancing my arm because I think that you are about to finish. I will use 30 seconds of your time to get in a point that I was going to make earlier, so please indulge me. Does the Member agree that the plan by the EA not to replace traffic patrol people outside our schools, particularly those with dual carriageways outside them and even those in rural communities, is dangerous and is not in the interests of pupil safety? We have to be rightly obsessed with pupil safety inside and outside school. Given that there are more cars on the roads now than ever before, surely now is the time to invest in safety in getting to school as well as safety inside it.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I congratulate the Member on his use of that intervention. I wholeheartedly agree. We should be passionate about making travel to school safe for our children. I agree with the point about school patrols. I also agree that that is outside this Minister's remit, but there should be a 20 mph limit outside schools. We need to work to ensure that there is active travel provision so that our children can walk and cycle safely to school. I totally agree with what the Member said.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. On Mr Stewart's point, it does not help in other ways either. For example, if parents know that a patrol person is there to help the children get safely across a road, that may encourage them not to drive to school. I know that a number of schools, including Linn Primary School, Greenisland Primary School and Whiteabbey Primary School, face problems with traffic, as do the residents. That is a big issue, and it should be taken into consideration before planning approval is given, because it can cause a real hassle for residents. Corran Integrated Primary School got that right with the parking on its site.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Just as Alliance stole the Ulster Unionists' last 10 seconds, the DUP has now stolen Sinn Féin's last 10 seconds. I now move on to the next Member on my list, and that is Daniel McCrossan.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Member Lyons for securing the debate. I am all for such debates, particularly when it comes to putting a very bright spotlight on the school estate, its dilapidated condition in many parts of Northern Ireland and safety issues inside and outside schools. Various constituents right across Northern Ireland have shared with me, as the SDLP's education spokesperson, many stories that are truly shocking and definitely question the safety at some of the schools and the condition of some of the estates.

I do find it quite strange, however, that a Member who is in the same party as the Minister has to bring an Adjournment debate to highlight those issues. Perhaps the best thing to do is to have a conversation directly with the Minister to resolve the issues in your constituency, because I can tell you that they are not unique to East Antrim. The condition of the school estate right across the entirety of Northern Ireland is in question, and, although it is easy for all of us to point the finger at the Education Authority, the buck certainly stops with the Department of Education and the Minister, and not just Minister Weir, who has been in office for just over a year since the three-year collapse of the institutions, but consecutive Education Ministers, who have failed to grasp the nettle and resolve the issues with the school estate.

That having been said, I am not a Member for East Antrim, as Members will know, but all the issues that have been shared by Members today are reflected in schools by school leaders, principals and parents right across the entirety of Northern Ireland. I have done a fair bit of research on some of the issues, and I have looked at some correspondence from principals in East Antrim. I share Member Lyons's disappointment at the lack of commitment and willingness from the Education Authority to invest in Carrickfergus Grammar School and the disappointment of Members across the Chamber who echo his concerns. The Minister is best placed to resolve those issues and could very quickly, with a phone call or the stroke of a pen, add pressure to ensure that the steam is taken out of the delays.

Some of us might blame the Minister, and some would say that I continually blame the Minister. I understand, however, that, politically, it is a big issue. It is an issue in all our constituencies that needs to be resolved, and it is one that has been going on for many decades. I have written to the Minister in recent times about similar issues that exist in the school estate in West Tyrone and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The Minister will know that St Conor's Primary School in the heart of Omagh is suffering similarly. The school was built many years ago and accommodates 400 young people and many teachers. As Mr Dickson and Mr Stewart outlined, the issue lies outside the school estate. The higher volume of vehicles on the roads brings into question the safety of our children and young people. Similar to Carrickfergus Grammar, there is a very serious issue with traffic management at schools such as St Conor's in my constituency, where the main road, which is surrounded by hundreds of housing estates and residents, sees a logjam every single day. Children are coming straight out of the school gate to go to their parents' cars or to buses or taxis and are running in between and behind cars, putting themselves at risk. The issue is that there is so much congestion that it is threatening the lives and safety of those young people.

Members have highlighted Larne High School, which was built in 1957. Member Beggs said that it needs work, as it is 64 years old. In West Tyrone, Strabane Primary School is another example. It is 50 years old and has been waiting for a major refurbishment since 2004. I declare an interest, because my former primary school —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Order. Let me bring the Member to order briefly. His contribution to the debate on schools in East Antrim has been tangential to say the least. This is an Adjournment debate on the school estate in East Antrim. I am sure that, if the Member wanted to at some point in the future, we could have a similar debate on West Tyrone, but can we try to return to the theme of the Adjournment debate?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with respect, the theme of the debate is the school estate, and that is not unique to that specific constituency.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Order. The title in the Order Paper is "School Estate in East Antrim". The Member is veering dangerously close to questioning a ruling of the Chair, and I am sure that that is not his intention.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

As I stated previously when mentioning Larne High School and Carrickfergus Grammar School in the context of the school estate, I am all for debates about the condition of the school estate in East Antrim, but, equally, Adjournment debates by themselves do not solve the issues.

Fluffy conversation around the issues will not resolve the school estate problems in East Antrim; what will resolve them is swift action by the Minister of Education. Less debate, more action, more money, more investment in the school estate and swift leadership are absolutely necessary to ensure that our children in East Antrim and every other constituency have the best possible access to high-quality provision.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 5:15 pm, 25th May 2021

I am afraid that the Member's time is up. I call the Minister of Education to respond to the comments that have been made.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

First, I associate myself with the remarks of Members who sent their best wishes to my colleague and friend David Hilditch for his treatment.

I am delighted to respond on this Adjournment topic. I am sure that Members will forgive me if I keep my remarks on the school estate to East Antrim. Road infrastructure, traffic management and safety on our roads may lie outside the scope. If only there were some other Minister from a different party who could answer on those issues. One assumes that there will be a quiet word rather than a debate on the subject.

I appreciate a lot of the frustrations and concerns. In the 10 minutes that I have, I hope to deal with as many as possible of the issues that have been raised directly by Members. If, however, particularly in relation to individual schools that have been mentioned, I inadvertently omit a school or do not have the time to complete a response, I will endeavour to write to Members with the specifics.

Members will be aware that the broader school estate, including special schools in the system, comprises about 1,100 schools. Part of the frustration comes from the sense that the budget for capital expenditure could, if the money were there, be spent three or four times over. That has resulted in a range of schools not being in the best possible condition.

Area planning was mentioned. I do not intend to touch too directly on that because, while we are moving to a longer-term cycle for area planning, specific decisions on individual schools are a legal process to which I have to directly respond and on which I am forbidden from commenting.

Mr McGuigan commented on special needs transport. While it does not cut down the travel time, the EA has recently launched a series of new buses with a much greater level of comfort and safety for children, with a particular focus on special needs schools. Tomorrow, I will visit Roddensvale special school in Larne. It will be interesting to see whether those transport issues are raised.

The school estate in East Antrim comprises 52 schools, with 14,000 pupils being educated in them. Under the major capital programme initiated in 2012, work on five schools in East Antrim was announced. While mention was made of the slightly quicker progress at Ulidia, that work was announced under the Fresh Start programme, which has enabled the money to be levered in directly. Of the other school projects, two — Woodburn Primary and Corran Integrated — with an investment totalling £8·7 million, are complete.

Every school would like a new build, of course, but sometimes that is not possible. The other device that has principally been used is the school enhancement programme (SEP), which enables investment of up to £4 million. Four SEP programmes have been announced for East Antrim: Roddensvale, as I mentioned, Carrick Grammar, Thornfield House and Greenisland Primary. I will come to Carrick and Greenisland in greater detail later. Two SEP programmes have been completed in recent years at Acorn Integrated, which was mentioned, and Belfast High, with total investment in the region of £5 million.

In the past three financial years, over £6 million from the minor works programme has been invested across schools in East Antrim. From the broader perspective, it is, obviously, the responsibility of the managing authorities to plan sustainable provision and, as I will touch on, to be the gateway for building applications.

I turn to some of the individual schools that have been mentioned. Islandmagee Primary School and Carrickfergus Academy share the particular pressures of being split-site schools. I was recently at Carrickfergus Academy, and I will look to see whether there is any scope for additional funding to be looked at for split-site schools. That will impact on a limited number of sites across Northern Ireland, but any adjustment to the common funding formula by way of additional money for split sites will mean, effectively, a different division of money. Any money going to one school will always have a knock-on effect on others.

There has been frustration at Islandmagee. The business case was approved in July 2019 and identified a new-build school on the Low Road. I can update Members that the design of the new build progresses well and that stage 4, which is the technical design report, was submitted by the integrated consultant team for approval by the Department on 17 May 2021. Members will be aware that the planning application for the project has been lodged with the council. We hope that it progresses.

As for Carrickfergus Academy, in the last capital call prior to devolution, mention was made of incentivising amalgamations. One of the problems, to some extent, was that nearly all the schools that went forward at that stage and were approved in that capital call were amalgamations. Carrickfergus Academy fell just a little bit below the radar in numbers. However, it is the intention for there to be a fresh capital call later in 2021. That will be scored independently by officials, but Carrickfergus Academy is well placed for it. Strong consideration will be given in the scoring. I cannot make any direct promises in relation to that; in the past, sometimes, too many promises have been made.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Minister for giving way. Will he confirm whether he thinks that there will be changes to the protocol, the scoring mechanism?

In response to Mr McCrossan's point, I say that I am glad that he was able to visit many schools in East Antrim. Mr McCrossan, whose default position seems to be outrage right now, can be assured that I raise these issues not only with the Minister but on the Floor, which is appropriate.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am glad that one Member is raising the issue of the protocol without it causing quite the level of controversy that it does in other subjects.


We will examine the protocol to make sure that it is fit for purpose. At times, not enough credit is given to the state of the school buildings. I assure Members that I believe that it is critical that there is a high level of scoring for split sites. As Members have pointed out, there is an inequity, and it raises the pressures that are there.

I have been to Larne High School, and I am aware of the very good work that is going on. One of the important things to note is that, in any process for capital build, be it SEP or major works, the managing authority will put forward a range of schools to be considered. The Education Authority did not put forward Larne High School in either the latest school enhancement programme call or the latest major capital works programme. Therefore, it did not even make the starting gate for consideration. That is why, I think, there needs to be continued engagement.

Greenisland Primary School has been announced in the SEP. It is at an early stage. An initial site visit has been undertaken by the EA, and procurement of a design team for the project is well-advanced. Once a design team is appointed, formal steering group meetings will take place, and that will allow the school to make an impact directly.

Good work has gone on with the sports pitches at Carrickfergus Grammar School. I know that there has been the situation in the SEP. I visited with the mayor, and there has been good work between the council and Carrickfergus Grammar School. That should be advanced.

An application was submitted for Whiteabbey Primary School, but it did not get a green light for a full announcement. However, some work has been provided for in minor works. Those projects are expected to go to tender over the next week or two.

St Killian's College was mentioned. It was announced under a major works programme in June 2014.

The business case was approved by the Department with a total capital value of £32·9 million. The current position is that the developed design stage 3 submission is being reviewed by the Department's technical advisers. Therefore, there is a level of movement there.

Abbey Community College —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Minister, this debate is scheduled to end at 26 minutes past the hour. Therefore, you have an additional minute, if you want to take it.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

If I had known that earlier, I could have spun this out a little bit better.

Mention was made of the Abbey Community College project as well. It was announced in 2014. The integrated consultant team has been appointed and a feasibility study completed. It identified a number of feasible options to provide accommodation for the college. A business case is being developed by the Education Authority to determine the preferred option to be taken forward.

The valid point was made that we need to look at how the process can move more quickly. Balanced against that is a need to ensure value for public money, particularly with major capital works, and that creates a need for a level of checks. As part of that, with any new build, there is a requirement to look widely for any potential venues, which means that any capital build, by its nature, will tend to be a lot more elongated than, for example, the school enhancement programme.

I thank the Members for their contributions today. I will continue to work with schools in East Antrim and beyond, because every student deserves the best possible facilities for their education.

Adjourned at 5.26 pm.