Minister urged to ‘prioritise’ east Antrim school estate investment

New-build facilities for Larne High School and Carrickfergus Academy were urged during a debate in Stormont this week.

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 6:16 pm

The plight of other centres of learning in east Antrim was highlighted too as MLAs focused on the constituency’s school estate.

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons, who brought the adjournment debate, said: “Larne High 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.

“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. 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.”

Larne High School. Pic by Google.

Echoing these sentiments, Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said: “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.

“Turning to Carrickfergus Academy, 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. 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.”

In a statement issued ahead of the debate, East Antrim Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, said: “Much of our school estate was constructed in the 1950s, with the associated issues that can come with a building of that era. Schools such as Larne High, Greenisland Primary and Carrickfergus Academy face major problems with capacity, appropriate facilities, damp and an overall dilapidated school environment. Investing in our schools and education system must be a top priority moving forward. I am calling on the Education Minister to accelerate the work of the School Enhancement Programme, and engage directly with schools.”

Touching on the proposed new build for Abbey Community College during the debate, Mr Dickson said: “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.”

UUP MLA John Stewart praised teaching staff and addressed the issue of a number of schools being under threat of closure and safety provision. He said: “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.”

In response, Education Minister Peter Weir said: “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.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

Principal of Larne High Dr Stephen Reid welcomed the engagement from local MLAs. Dr Reid said: “The pupils in Larne High School deserve the best facilities and opportunities available, and it is unacceptable that in the 21st Century young people should be educated in a building which is so outdated and in urgent need of refurbishment.

“I was pleased to hear the minister acknowledge that significant expenditure is needed to improve the school estate in Northern Ireland and I note that the minster has called for further engagement. However, I dispute the minister’s assertion that in the last call for capital projects from DE the school ‘did not make it out of the starting blocks’, as no application for a new building was made by the school at that time.

“Because of the large increase in pupil numbers and deterioration in the fabric of the building more recently, the governors are now seeking support to create a new school facility in Larne for the benefit of the whole community.”

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Click here to read: Department ‘exploring options’ for new build for Newtownabbey school

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