NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY, Tuesday 9 October 2007
Mr B Wilson: Speaking as another unemployed member of the South Eastern Education and Library Board in the last year or so, I believe that this matter should not be decided by unelected commissioners but by the members of the South Eastern Board.
I support integrated education, and I have been involved in its promotion since the All Children Together campaigns nearly 20 years ago. This application for integrated status is valid because there is considerable demand for integrated education in North Down. As Mr Farry pointed out,StrangfordCollegeis over subscribed andPrioryCollegecould take more pupils. St Columbanus College inBangor, although it is not the same type of school, is pretty well integrated, 50:50, and could take more pupils if it were allowed to do so. However, its intake has also been capped. The demand for children to be educated together is there, and that fact should be considered in this instance.
I would like to think that this application could be successful, but I am concerned that several applications for integrated status have been submitted by schools because they are under the threat of closure. That strategy may save schools for a couple of years, but in the longer term it may lead to unviability and closure. It is totally unacceptable to use integrated education as an excuse to keep a school open. However, I do not believe that that is the case as regardsDonaghadeeHigh School. It will be important for the school to consider its long-term enrolment, because there are serious problems; and the issue of long-term viability must be considered and other options prepared, if the viability criteria cannot be met.
The South Eastern Board figures show thatDonaghadeeHigh Schoolenrolled 12 new mainstream pupils in September 2006 and did so again this year. If that situation were to continue, the school will have fewer than 100 pupils in five years’ time. Nobody could argue that that number would make for a viable post-primary school, because enrolment would amount to one fifth of the target set by the Bain Report, and we should be looking to implement that report.
As other Members have said, more building is taking place in Donaghadee, and the figures I have mentioned might be only a blip — but we must be honest and admit that an annual enrolment of 12 pupils a year — [Interruption.]
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for giving way — I think he needs a glass of water.
Will the Member agree that there is a particularly strong case for changing the viability criteria as regards the religious balance of pupils in the integrated sector in north Down and Ards? In particular, it may be difficult to maintain the 70:30 Protestant/Catholic split over the 10-year target period. The large number of people — within what is defined as the minority segments — who define themselves as “others” should be taken into account in order to improve the viability of every school in that area.
Mr B Wilson: I agree. The population of north Down is imbalanced. However, there are many “others” who would not identify with either tradition but who would be very keen on integrated education.DonaghadeeHigh School could provide a place for those children to go in the longer term.
However, it is not in the best interests of pupils to have a school with an enrolment of fewer than 100 pupils, which might be the case if present trends continue. Under such circumstances pupils might miss the many opportunities that would be available at larger schools. The Bain Report focused on amalgamations, or joining schools in partnerships so that they can use each others’ facilities and maximise opportunities for their students. That is the way forward.
I hope that the Department of Education will reconsiderDonaghadeeHigh School’s application for integrated status and that the application will be successful. There is a demand in the north Down area for such a school, and integrated status forDonaghadeeHigh Schoolwould allow it to look forward to a brighter future.