Strule Shared Education Campus

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 18th October 2021.

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Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 18th October 2021

2. Mr McCrossan asked the Minister of Education to outline what action she is taking to advance the Strule Shared Education Campus in Omagh. (AQO 2579/17-22)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I am fully committed to delivering this educationally and strategically significant programme. Following Executive endorsement last year, I have issued a ministerial direction to move to the next stage. Pre-tender engagement with the construction industry was completed in August. The next step is to formally commence a fresh main works procurement competition to build five post-primary schools and shared facilities, with the release of the invitation to tender scheduled for autumn this year. At that point, progress will be reviewed on a number of important elements of the programme, including the ongoing development of the work required to realise the educational benefits and the outcome of engagement with the construction industry.

The memorandum of agreement, which details the arrangements for the management, ownership and governance of the campus, has been reconfirmed with the Education Authority and trustee bodies of the schools moving to the Strule campus. The Department continues to work closely with the six school principals and their teams to build on the culture of sharing in Omagh, albeit within the context of ongoing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Work is also progressing across a number of other work streams, including the development of detailed arrangements for the ownership, governance and management of the campus; consideration of how best to plan for and manage the future use and/or disposal of the existing school sites following relocation; and ongoing liaison with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council on the Department's planning application for the proposed development works on Gortin Road and Mountjoy Road.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answer and for providing some clarification on the process. Will the Minister agree that this has met with considerable delays? It needs to be given considerable prioritisation by the Department. Can you provide a definitive date when you expect work to begin on the site so that the schools that have been waiting for so long, the children in particular, can benefit from those much-needed facilities in Omagh?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. The site is incredibly significant, hence I was keen to move forward with a ministerial direction. A considerable amount of money has been spent to date — over £46 million. It is an incredible investment in that area that I am keen to see progress. I understand that work will continue to move forward to tender. I still hope that the construction can complete in 2025. We are looking for works in advance of that, particularly around sports facilities and so on; at least they will then be on site. It is a positive news story for the area. While it is overdue, I am confident that we are moving in the right direction.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

The Strule Shared Education Campus will transform education provision and provide great opportunities for young people throughout West Tyrone. As you have already said, the development of the campuses has had lengthy delays. Will you ensure that the campus is still a top priority for your Department?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. In response to Mr McCrossan, I mentioned that I had shown my commitment early in my tenure by issuing a ministerial direction to move the project forward. I know that it has been welcomed by the schools and by those in the vicinity. It certainly is a priority and will remain a priority while I am in post.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I thank the Minister for her commitment to the ongoing works at the scheme in Omagh. The Minister may be aware that there are concerns about the prospect of substantial sites being left vacant when the new campus opens. Can the Minister give us an update on what work has been done in relation to those sites and the works to widen the Gortin Road?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. There will be five post-primary schools relocating to the campus, which will leave significant gaps in the area. Two of the sites are owned by the Education Authority and three by individual trustees. It is for the site owners to decide on the future and/or the disposal of those sites. In recognition of the significance of the vacated sites to the town, the Department established the vacant sites working group in November 2016. The working group comprises members representing the site owners, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and relevant government bodies. The working group is actively considering how best to plan and manage the future use and disposal of the existing sites. Site-specific disposal strategies have been prepared as a first step in determining plans for their future use. Those plans have been developed in line with and feed into the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council local place-shaping plan and the Omagh opportunity sites task force.

The Gortin Road scheme relates to the widening of the existing route on the Mountjoy Road and Gortin Road immediately adjacent to the Strule campus. That was discussed at the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council planning committee meeting on 21 October 2020. It was agreed that the application would be deferred to enable discussions to take place between the Department of Education, Department for Infrastructure Roads and the council's planning department to allow for further consideration, clarification and resolution of the outstanding issues. I understand that a revised scheme has been submitted to the council that addresses those concerns.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Minister, by how much is the Strule Shared Education Campus over-budget, and what is the total amount by which the project is predicted to be over-budget?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. The estimated overall cost has risen from £169 million in 2016 to £228 million in 2021. The 2016 figure did not, however, include an allowance for inflation. The increase is due largely to increases in building and site-work costs and the potential impact of construction price inflation in future years. The additional cost is due to a number of reasons, including costs exceptional to Strule for site preparation works to transform a former military base into a site fit for schools; significant external roadworks; a changing pavilion; and a maintenance building. The designs also provide for teaching accommodation that is deemed to be within acceptable tolerances and for more ancillary accommodation that is deemed justified educationally and functionally than would be provided for five stand-alone post-primary schools.

To ensure that the campus promotes genuine sharing, equality and full inclusivity for all, the needs of SEN pupils were incorporated into the design from the outset. While that has added to the area size and costs, the most cost-effective design has been developed and can ensure that the campus functions smoothly, provides optimum facilities and supports learning for all students who use it.