Activity centre closures 'would leave third-class service'
Proposals to close four residential outdoor activity centres in Northern Ireland will leave a third-class service, a union has warned.
Delamont Outdoor Education Centre in Killyleagh, County Down, is set to shut in March. Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre in County Antrim, Ardnabannon Outdoor Education Centre and Killowen Outdoor Education Centre, both in Down, could follow in August under measures out for public consultation.
Public service trade union Nipsa said the services provided are second to none and the alternatives fall short.
It said: "You can't bring the Mournes, Carlingford Lough, the North Coast or Strangford Lough to a school/off-site location."
Half of the eight large outdoor residential activity centres in Northern Ireland are proposed for closure.
The change could save the Education Authority (EA) around £1.3 million. It aims to minimise duplication, with any efficiency savings to be redeployed into front-line services and the focus would be on bringing courses into schools.
The activity centres provide training in orienteering, canoeing or bouldering for young people and adults.
In response to the proposed closures, Nipsa said: "T he educational and learning opportunities provided in these four centres are second to none.
"Peripatetic services, services provided on a school site, or off-site location, has its place but not as an alternative to the experiences and skills gained through these centres.
"The four centres being proposed for closure are well suited to the learning and educational demand that exists from schools and the full range of youth organisations, including a number of voluntary organisations."
Its submission said they also have the ability to provide formal and non-formal education opportunities which schools and the voluntary sector are not well placed to provide.
It added: "Statutory centres are considered to provide excellent value for money and to a very high standard beyond that of the voluntary sector."
It said the voluntary sector does not have as good a range of facilities or the quality of staff enjoyed by official centres.
"Often the voluntary sector are over-subscribed by volunteers who are there to gain experience but do not have the professionalism and standard of safety practice provided by the statutory provision.
"Why drop our standards from a first-class service to second or third class?"
Historically, centres were based around a number of education board areas and the rationalisation follows reforms in educational governance which helped promote greater centralisation.
The Authority's director of children and young people's services, Dr Clare Mangan, said it values the opportunities provided by residential and outdoor education centres to make a significant contribution to the development of young people and society.
She added: "The recommendations in this review will enable EA to meet the expectations of government policy, address issues of over-provision and ensure that Youth Service resources are deployed effectively to front-line services based on a composite regional and local assessment of need."