During the Northern Ireland Assembly debate (6/12/2016) on the future of the Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre, SDLP East Derry MLA Gerry Mullan said the following:
“Mr Speaker, as an MLA for East Derry, I welcome this opportunity to contribute to today’s important adjournment debate as I know first-hand of the great work that is being undertaken by the Bushmills outdoor education centre as it serves many from my own constituency as well as so many young people from right across the North.
“But not only has it benefitted thousands and thousands of young people over the years by providing them with invaluable life changing skills but it has also been a centre of excellence for training people who are participating in the Duke of Edinburgh Award and other similar initiatives.
“Mr Speaker, we are all aware of the significant benefits of outdoor centres. It enhances young people’s self-esteem, and provides self-discipline and confidence, and gives children the teamwork skills that are essential for later life and for the workplace. It really is a lifelong learning experience and I cannot stress that point enough.
“Closing these centres, especially the one in Bushmills, would have a dramatic impact on the local economy as well with jobs being ripped out of the heart of the community, while our young people would suffer for generations, especially those who are struggling in the education system.
“And it is concerning Mr Speaker, that the path to getting where we are today has been one of deception and one of dishonesty from the Education Authority backed by the current Education Minister.
“When we look at the ranking of all outdoor education centres, in the review document supplied, the order has Bushmills 5th and in risk of closure. But the evidence document, the conditional report, has Bushmills ranked 3rd.
“Can the Minister explain this inconsistency and can he explain what methodology was used in the review document that differed significantly from the conditional report? What are the definitional terms used and will he give a commitment to publish the conditional report?
“Also Mr Speaker, despite many promises, staff at Bushmills have not been consulted with nor have service users – the children – been engaged with – who are supposed to respond to a complex consultation document.
“How is that fair? How is that open? And how is that transparent? It is my view Mr Speaker that the consultation document only contains pre-determined decisions which is disingenuous to all those who use and work at Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre.
“Mr Speaker, the Education Authority has stressed that there is duplication of services across the North. The closest centre to Bushmills is Woodhall, in Killrea in my own constituency some 20 miles away. An education centre that has maximised capacity. It is over-subscribed.
“It is clear Mr Speaker, that demand heavily outweighs supply in this area and this means one thing – that thousands of children will be losing out and that is a fatal flaw in this consultation exercise.
“We also have occupancy rates highlighted in the consultation document and I would like to set the record straight here too. Bushmills has gone from catering for 5000 children in 2012/13 to 3000 last year.
“But this is not evidence of a lack of uptake; what the Minister and the Education Authority have failed to state is that, during this time, they have cut part-time staff at the centre from 24 to 8 while full time staff have not been replaced which dramatically impacts on the service provided. Nowhere in the review is staffing mentioned.
“It is my view that such moves were intentional as it was always the plan to shut this centre by stealth in a cost saving exercise. One thing is for sure is that the Minister and the Department have a duty to look after the best interests of these children and the closure of such facilities as that in Bushmills flies in the face of that.
“We need to be realistic here, the Minister has a substantial budget at his disposal. A figure of £1.3 million is a drop in the ocean. Surely, if he is intent on cutting services, he should look at efficiencies within his own Department and within this Executive.”