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Knockbreda High School And Newtownbreda High School 4/6/2013

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I also thank Michael McGimpsey for securing the debate.  Like others, I welcome the presence of the Minister.  I know that he has given a lot of time to the issue, and he attended the debate that we had on East Belfast issues.  I also thank Mervyn Storey, because, as Chair of the Education Committee, he also has concerns in this regard.

As an East Belfast MLA, I will concentrate my remarks on the Knockbreda school, but this also obviously has implications for Newtownbreda.  Like Mr McGimpsey, I attended the parents consultation night at Newtownbreda, and I was struck by the concerns of the parents, and quite rightly.  Having also spoken with parents and teaching staff from Knockbreda, I know that there is no appetite for the proposal that the board has come forward with to amalgamate Newtownbreda and Knockbreda on a split site.  There is no appetite for it among parents or staff.   

Anna Lo has indicated what the statistics say about amalgamations.  She said that 68% of mergers saw a drop in performance and 51% of schools that merge never return to pre-merger standards.  The Minister has met delegations of parents, and you know, Minister, that the parents have raised with you how this would affect their children, particularly the merger situation.  In your reply to them, you indicated that you believed that the amalgamation itself would not make any difference, and it is about how it is handled by the board and the teaching staff.  However, the history of mergers indicates that they are not overly successful.  Anna Lo quoted the same figures that were made available at the consultation evening for parents at Newtownbreda.  

It also struck the parents there and, indeed, the parents in Knockbreda that only one proposal is being put forward.  We raised that with you, Minister, in the debate around East Belfast.  It is nearly "This is what the board says, and this is what we are going to do".  That really causes concern for the parents.

There is a lack of a real plan and a real vision.  Jimmy Spratt made the point that there is not the necessary consultation between the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the Belfast Education and Library Board to see a real plan come through.   

Knockbreda school has suffered over the past number of years.  It has suffered because there were proposals to invest in the school and those proposals were withdrawn.  It has suffered through a turnover of staff.  You can understand that, when there is a lack of money in a school for the investment that was promised, staff will start to say to themselves that maybe their career interests would be better served elsewhere.   

I know, Minister, that you have made comments about the bad press reports.  Whether we like it or not, the press like a bad story and highlighting a school that is in intervention and whether it should be there or not.  That is a debate that Jimmy Spratt and I had with the principal of Knockbreda.  Bad press reports tend to sell newspapers.   

Another interesting statistic was quoted to me, and I hope I get this right: the principal of Knockbreda said that 175 pupils travelled past the front door every day.  I imagine that some of them are going to Newtownbreda and some of them are going to other schools.  However, there is something essentially wrong when parents travel by bus or whatever and take pupils past a school door when they should be going into the school that is closest to them.   

Given the circumstances we are in and where we are with the planning process or lack of planning process, there are concerns that the parents immediately have for their pupils as they sit their examinations this year to determine which class they go into next year.  There is a plea.  There is a plea for extra help, given the circumstances that we are in.

There is chaos in the system at the moment.  There are unsettling circumstances, real concerns and real tensions with the pupils in the lead-up to the examination period.

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