DUP MLA Mervyn Storey angry budget cuts could force school science bus off road
An MLA has voiced his disgust at the potential scrapping of a bus designed to inspire children to study science, technology, education and maths - STEM subjects - due to the current Stormont impasse.
The STEM Module, which was launched in 2009, is a mobile laboratory and workshop equipped with everything required to deliver a high-tech learning experience to schools.
The Department for the Economy and the Department of Education fund it, and it is run by the Education Authority (EA).
However, the EA has now revealed that, due to a £22m reduction in its budget for 2016/17, it has started "a number of strategic reviews of its services", one of which is the STEM bus service.
In 2014/15, 33,825 post-primary pupils used the service - nearly a quarter of the total school population for that age group.
The service was also used by 4,960 primary school pupils during that period.
In a statement the EA said: "One of the reviews looked at the operation of the STEM Module. At this time no decision has been taken in relation to the future delivery of the STEM Module."
In a letter to North Antrim DUP MLA and former education committee chairman Mervyn Storey, which has been seen by the Belfast Telegraph, EA director of education John Collings said funding for the bus was "no longer ring-fenced".
He added that, because of the cutbacks, "the EA board agreed to a savings plan for 2016/17 which included the possible decommissioning of the STEM Module as one of a range of options for making savings".
Mr Storey said scrapping the bus would be "short-sighted" due to its future effect on Northern Ireland's economy.
The letter also indicated that an options paper would be brought before the EA's education committee for consideration after a meeting of the directorate's management team and the Department of Education.
It further revealed that staff of the STEM Module have been "advised that normal service delivery is to continue, at least to the end of this academic year, by which point future plans should be clearer".
Mr Storey, who championed the project, said he was "disgusted the STEM bus could be mothballed by the end of June".
"I wanted to see an extension of the service, not the end of the STEM Module," he said.
"Schools are struggling in relation to their own budgets and they can't recruit staff to cover certain subjects, so this is an invaluable resource.
"It gives schools access to equipment they wouldn't have the resources to purchase in their technology departments, and it is used in GCSE and A-level work, so its loss would have a huge impact.
"It creates another challenge for hard-pressed principals in how to give access to courses and facilities.
"I have never seen the STEM Module as a luxury.
"The staff have been told that no decision has been made beyond June and it is a difficult time for them too.
"We are one of the only education authorities in the UK that has this and for it to be mothballed would be a dereliction of responsibility and duty on behalf of the EA.
"STEM subjects are key to employment and something which employers are looking for."
He laid the blame for the EA's budget squeeze at Sinn Fein's door.
"This is where the real inequality lies - pupils will now be disadvantaged due to Sinn Fein's failure to form a government and make difficult decisions," he claimed.