Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Letters reveal rustration as Northern Ireland's schools fall to bits

Thousands of children are being taught in ageing, run-down, crowded and dilapidated school buildings across Northern Ireland.

Dozens of letters sent by political representatives to the Department of Education highlight the poor condition of the schools.

Planned and much-needed new builds have been put on hold following a controversial review of school building projects by Education Minister Caitriona Ruane.

The letters and emails — released to the Belfast Telegraph under Freedom of Information legislation — also reveal serious concerns raised by Assembly members and councillors about decisions taken by the department and how it handled the review.

Copies of 67 pieces of correspondence from June 29 this year have been handed over to this newspaper after the department was forced to reverse an earlier decision not to release documents relating to its school capital building review.

The correspondence reveals a series of concerns:

e Northern Ireland’s largest primary school is “outdated and unsuitable”. More than half the pupils are educated in mobile classrooms;

e A Co Down school has a leaking roof, damp ceiling tiles, toilet facilities in need of complete refurbishment and holes and cracks in walls throughout the building;

e Forty per cent of pupils at an Antrim primary school are being taught out of six mobile classrooms which were built in the 1960s;

e The facilities at a Co Londonderry school are primarily temporary and in a very dilapidated condition;

e A Magherafelt primary school has only one classroom which is fit for purpose;

e A Co Down school has serious sub-standard accommodation and over half the pupils are educated in mobile classrooms, many of which are in a poor state of repair.

The letters show that some schools faced the frustration of meeting all of the department’s sustainable schools criteria but were still put on hold for other additional reasons — for example to consider the project “in the wider area context”.

In the politicians’ letters, many requested meetings with the Minister to discuss schools in their constituency, and all of them asked for clarification about decisions taken in relation to schools.

However, in many of her written replies, Ms Ruane said she could not provide any specific detail on the progression of particular projects due to severe constraints on the capital budget.

And last month she said in one letter that the “prioritisation exercise” for the 54 school projects given the green light for building work “remains work in progress”.

In response to a request for a comment on the situation, the Minister said: “Since I took up office in May 2007, 48 major capital school projects have been completed, representing an investment of over £400m in our schools estate. A further eight major capital school projects are currently on site, representing an additional investment of over £108m.

“I will continue to push for much-needed capital investment in our schools. However, we are in very difficult financial times.

“My priority is always to protect front-line services as far as possible but I, along with my Executive colleagues, have difficult decisions to make over the coming months and years.”

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