Primary Schools: East Belfast Adjournment Debate

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I am grateful to the Member for securing the debate. It is a timely debate and one which, I am very pleased to say, I was able to secure in December 2008, when we debated very similar issues. Before I make my remarks, I want to thank the principals of East Belfast primary schools for their commitment, leadership and skills. I also want to thank the dedicated teaching staff who bring so much to education in the east of the city, often in very difficult circumstances. Their dedication and enthusiasm for education deserves our support. Whatever we say about primary education during this debate and in the future, they deserve our thanks, gratitude and support.
 
This subject concerns not only political representatives but organisations like the East Belfast Partnership, which, in a document it recently produced, confirmed the beliefs of school principals that education is a partnership, that a partnership between schools and the home is absolutely essential and that, in order to allow our children to have the best possible chance in life, that partnership between those component parts has to be nurtured. That is particularly so in disadvantaged areas where there are high levels of deprivation and poverty and where, in many cases, there are parents who have difficulty in supporting their children at school. That is not the case throughout East Belfast, but it is certainly the case in some areas. Parents who have those difficulties can become distanced from the schools, and that increases the challenge for the principals and teachers to get parental involvement and, therefore, provide the opportunities for the pupils.
 
There is robust evidence that parental attitudes and home circumstances play a most influential role in the formation of the skills that children receive in their early years. Their aspirations are raised and their ability to learn is enhanced in those early years. Parents act as role models and build children’s self-esteem and confidence that they can succeed at whatever they want to succeed in. In the most disadvantaged areas in East Belfast, we need to see investment in preschool projects. We need to see places for children in preschool education, because those are the building blocks and the foundations on which every other aspect of education will be built, rather than parents scrambling around looking for places or, indeed, being offered places away outside East Belfast. They are even offered places across the city, which are totally impractical.
 
My three areas of concern about education involve the funding, the parental involvement and the education. Indeed, as has been mentioned, the strategy for preschool education, leading into primary education and the area-based approach, is needed. Pre-primary and primary school education are the most important periods in a child’s learning time. I have already said that they are the building blocks on which later education is supported and on which it flourishes or, indeed, where the light actually diminishes and goes out in many cases. There are strong feelings that many children are being failed by the system that is supposed to offer them opportunities. I believe that, if we do not have the holistic approach that I have outlined, that will continue. As the previous Minister recognised, and I am sure that this Minister recognises, there are many young children, particularly young Protestant boys, who are just failing at school. Overall, children spend a relatively small period of time at school. It is the family background, the cultural aspects and, indeed, even the material needs of the family that have a significant impact on educational outcomes.
 
I want to pay tribute to the fact that the Minister has announced the funding for Victoria Park Primary School, but I want to remind him of what was said back on 1 December 2008 by his predecessor. In a debate on primary-school education, she said that:
 
“Several major capital projects are being planned for schools in the East Belfast constituency. Those include the amalgamation of Strand Primary School with Sydenham Primary School in a new school on the existing Sydenham site, which will be known as Victoria Park School”.
 
Good so far. She went on to say:
 
“and a new school for Strandtown Primary School on its existing site.”
 
So, no funding is announced for Strandtown, yet in 2008, the Minister of Education committed herself and her Department to Strandtown Primary School being funded for a new school site.
 
Finally, pastoral care is an important part of education. If a child is finding life difficult at home, then primary schools in East Belfast need to have the support of the Minister to provide that pastoral care in order to enhance the opportunities of our children. That requires support and funding from the Minister.