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Post Primary Education: East Belfast 28/05/2013

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I thank the Minister and my colleague Mr Storey, the Chair of the Education Committee, for attending the debate.  This issue has raised some concerns throughout East Belfast over the past number of months.  Those concerns are largely about secondary level education across the constituency of East Belfast.  It also has some implications for South Belfast, but it is my intention to concentrate only on the east of the city.

I recognise that we have some excellent grammar schools in East Belfast, but I want to concentrate my remarks on those schools that are perhaps more vocational than academic.  Those three schools are:  Orangefield High School; the combined schools of Newtownbreda High School — in south Belfast — and Knockbreda High School; and Dundonald High School.  

At the closure of Orangefield High School, I and a number of East Belfast MLAs — I assume all of them — were visited on the matter.  It was made quite clear by the representatives of Belfast Education and Library Board that the parents on the board of governors had voted for closure.  However, a number of promises had been given to the parents.  Those promises were largely that the boys and girls from Orangefield would be accommodated in Ashfield Boys' High School and Ashfield Girls' High School.  My understanding is that the boys have been accommodated in Ashfield Boys' High School, but the girls have not been accommodated in Ashfield Girls' High School.  

I will deal with what happened to the girls.  Parents were asked to take their children on a tour of the Ashfield campus.  Travel to the school and school uniforms were discussed with them.  The girls sat a test to decide which class they would be going into in Ashfield Girls High School'.  Now, there are no places available for them, because the cap on the enrolment of Ashfield Girls' High School has not been lifted.  

I know from experience that, when parents were trying to get their children into Ashfield Girls' High School or Ashfield Boys' High School, the cap was always a problem.  My colleague Mervyn Storey and I raised that issue with the chief executive of the education and library board. 

I wrote to her after a meeting that Mervyn and I attended.  In a letter dated 17 May 2013, she replied to say:   "In this regard, the board has written to the Department of Education to ask for a temporary variation in enrolment number for Ashfield Girls' High School to allow them to accept additional pupils in year 11, with effect from September 2013.  This is still being considered by the Department."

That was despite the fact that parents were promised a number of months ago that the girls would be taken into Ashfield Girls' High School. It seems that the closure of Ashfield has been achieved nearly in a vacuum, without consideration to any strategy for the east of the city.  

Knockbreda High School is due to amalgamate with Newtownbreda High School in south Belfast.  All the figures indicate that, when schools amalgamate, performance suffers.  That merger has not found favour with the parents of either school.  They have looked at the statistics with regard to what will happen to their children when the schools amalgamate — on two sites; split campuses.  The figures show that 68% of merged secondary schools saw a dip in performance after the merger, and 51% of merged schools dipped and did not return to the pre-merger situation. 

You can understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, why parents are concerned about a two-campus situation and all the administrative chaos that that will bring about, such as headmasters, heads of departments and schoolteachers applying for jobs after the merger.   I turn now to Dundonald High School.  I advocate academic excellence, but it is not for every pupil.  There are other ways, thoughts, strategies, and routes for pupils to follow. 

I went to the consultation night when parents were in front of the South Eastern Education and Library Board.  I know that it is a bit of a cliché, but if I could have bottled the energy in the gym that was being used to host the meeting that night, I would have made a fortune.  There was standing room only, and the parents and teachers spoke with passion.  There was disappointment among those who attended that the only strategy that was being considered was closure of the school and merger with another school or schools.  You can understand, in a consultation process, the disappointment that was coming through from the parents.   With regard to those pupils who may find it difficult to achieve five GCSEs at A to C, including English and maths, there is another role for schools to play.  There is the role for a school to ensure that pupils acquire lifelong learning skills that prepare them for the future.  Schools also need to have a role in encouraging the development of the personal skills of their pupils to prepare them for the challenges of the future. 

Dundonald High School is integrated into its community; it serves the second-largest Housing Executive estate in Northern Ireland and tumbles over into the Tullycarnet estate and the wider Dundonald area.  Dundonald High School is a happy and caring school; that was obvious from what the parents were saying on that evening.  There is a feeling of pride, even to the extent where past pupils have become teachers in the school.  They have a sense of belonging to the school and to the community through the development of the personal skills of the pupils and through encouraging those pupils to achieve to the best of their ability before they move on from the school. 

The motivation of the staff and their personal care for the pupils was obvious.  That is not to take away from the pupils who go to the school and achieve academically.  The school encourages academic excellence where that is possible and where they can stretch the pupils.  Other pupils will follow a vocational route for their future careers.   

I know that the Minister and Mervyn Storey, in his role as Chair, recognise the importance of education.  The Assembly recognises the importance of education and our need to provide the best opportunities possible for pupils in our schools.  We need to recognise the competitive environment in which we live and the need for pupils to get their qualifications.  We also need to invest in education.  School facilities are important.  You may think that it is only a building, but the environment and quality of the building say something about the school.  The education authorities made promises to Dundonald High School and Knockbreda High School to invest in the schools, but those promises were reneged on and the potential funding was taken away.  Moreover, in the case of Dundonald High School facilities were removed.  The swimming pool was removed, playing pitches were removed and parts of the school were left to deteriorate.  You can imagine why parents did not want to send Johnny to that school, particularly when other schools are being built and invested in.     

It is right that we think about area-based planning.  I acknowledge that we have to have a plan that needs to be discussed and that we must aim for.  However, the only plan visible to parents in east Belfast is that at one end of the dual carriageway you will have Newtownbreda High School, and at the other you will have Ashfield Boys' High School and Ashfield Girls' High School, and there will be nothing in between.  Rather than one option, there needs to be involvement of parents and pupils in what happens.  There also needs to be involvement of elected representatives. 

As it stands, the Belfast Education and Library Board has not for a number of years now had one representative from Belfast City Council, as has been traditional over the years, to represent the views of parents and of political parties in terms of how education strategy is developed, how the working of education is delivered, and so on and so forth.  We all know the conversation and the discussions that took place a number of years ago, whee South Eastern Education and Library Board members — elected representatives — quite rightly refused to implement cuts.  Now the South Eastern Board is run by three appointed commissioners. There is not one word, not one strategy, not one input from an elected representative on the South Eastern Education and Library Board.  

I am going back to Belfast. The Minister asked for four representatives from the council. He has four people who went through a sifting panel, they were judged to be appropriate and appointable, and the Minister has refused to actually appoint those people to the Belfast Education and Library Board. Area-based planning is right, but it cannot be just one solution, and it needs an input from political people.  

In closing, let me say this:  the situation in East Belfast needs to be stabilised. There is nothing, only confusion and chaos, at this time. There is a need for an area-based plan, but there is a need for an area-based plan that the parents and the political representatives can buy into. Elected representatives need to play a positive role in the South Eastern Education and Library Board, which impacts on East Belfast, and the Belfast Education and Library Board, which impacts on East Belfast.

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