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Education: Area Planning Process 2/6/2014

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I suppose that, when I looked at the motion, I asked myself what aspect of it we had not debated before and on a number of occasions.  I asked myself these questions in the context of what has happened in east Belfast:  what is the current approach to area planning and what has it achieved?  I want to focus on the east Belfast area plan and ask why the Minister is so hung up on an area planning process and exercise that has let him down on so many occasions.

I do not think that anybody would argue that area planning is unnecessary.  Of course, it is necessary, but there needs to be a number of ingredients to it.  It needs to be open, transparent and professional, and the advice given from the area plan needs to be shared on an equal basis with the parents and boards of governors of the schools that are impacted on.  It also needs to be consistent across all the sectors, and it needs to be more than what it was described as by a number of schools, parents and boards of governors in east Belfast, who felt that it was disastrous.

I want to take a couple of examples.  In Orangefield High School, the board of governors approved the closure of the school and recommended it to parents.  It approved it on the basis that the area plan would allow the pupils in Orangefield High School to go, by and large and in the main, to Ashfield Boys' High School and Ashfield Girls' High School.  At the end of the day, the Minister knows that that was unachievable.  The parents were then encouraged to make other decisions about other schools, and the life of the school had to be extended for a year beyond what was anticipated.  That was one example of area planning and how misinformation was given to parents about what would be achieved.

Newtownbreda High School is in south Belfast, but it serves quite a number of pupils from east Belfast.  Parents were to be convinced that the area plan was workable through the amalgamation of Newtownbreda High School and Knockbreda High School, but they now feel so strongly about it that they are seeking a judicial review.  At the other end of the scale, parents of pupils in Knockbreda High School are also unhappy about the situation with the schools working together.  It seems that the way in which the area plan has worked has let down the children in both schools. 

The consultation process for that area plan was done by the South Eastern Education and Library Board, and I have raised the issue of there being no representation from parents, the public or political representatives on the South Eastern Education and Library Board with the Minister before.  I am pleased that he has rectified that situation in the Belfast Education and Library Board and that it now has the political representation that it did not have until a few weeks ago.  That situation cannot be allowed to continue.  That process also affects the school in Dundonald, where, thankfully, the Minister took the decision to reverse the recommendation of the South Eastern Education and Library Board and allowed the school to remain open.  Those are a number of examples of area planning being ineffective and, indeed, letting the Minister down. 

That situation cannot be allowed to continue.  We need a democratisation of the South Eastern Education and Library Board with representation from parents.  The system — I will come to a conclusion — needs to be tested, tested and tested again to indicate that it is fair and representative.  Area planning can be professional in those circumstances.

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