This week’s statement by the Education Minister John O’Dowd on the future of education in Northern Ireland had the potential to make real change for every child in Northern Ireland. In his statement he highlighted the problem of empty desks in the system. He stated that the latest enrolment figures have revealed almost 85,000 spare places across the system, equivalent to more than 150 schools.
I see this as a real opportunity to tackle the problem of educational underachievement rife in some of our communities across Northern Ireland including areas within South Belfast. There has been much talk in the media and political spheres of the problems of educational underachievement but only when you get down to community level in areas such as Sandy Row where I have my Constituency Office, Donegall Pass, the Village, Taughmonagh etc. do you realise the devastating effect this is having on our young people and their communities. These young people are not only locked out of training and employment by their lack of basic skills such as reading and writing but they find it difficult to access services such as health, social security etc. as official letters and applications forms can seem daunting.
In his statement the Minister talks of creating an education system that ensures all our young people receive a high quality education that enriches both their lives and grows the economy respectively. This is indeed a noble aspiration. However I fear that the Minister may see this situation as an opportunity to simply save money.
The Minister needs to take this opportunity to target areas of serious economic deprivation and educational underachievement by using the additional teachers identified in this statement to reduce class sizes in these areas and allow the children the opportunity afforded to others across Northern Ireland.
I believe firmly in the principle that you have to invest to save. For example I along with the local communities in Sandy Row, The Village and Lisburn Road have worked and campaigned for a new primary school on a new site for many years. This would see the amalgamation of the three local primary schools on a single site I had identified on the City Hospital site while serving as Minister for Health. Despite the significant savings that could be made from this move out of three aging buildings the education department are dragging their feet. Meanwhile children from these communities are being educated in sub-standard accommodation.
Unfortunately it would appear the Minister for Education would rather close schools than look at the situation strategically and to the benefit of pupils. This is shown by his incorporation of an immediate viability assessment where schools can be closed quickly when no longer deemed viable by the department.
I am calling on the Minister for Education to show his commitment to the children of Northern Ireland and invest in their future. Redeploy teachers where they are needed most and ensure that before he throws out the old he has new facilities and schools in place so we can offer our children and our economy the best future we possibly can.