Mr Robin Swann, the Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman for North Antrim and Stormont Public Accounts Committee Chair, has called on the Stormont Executive “to do the decent, sensible thing and suspend the consultation on the proposed closure of the much-needed Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre”.
Assemblyman Swann, the UUP Chief Whip and North Antrim UUP Chairman, issued his challenge following an Assembly debate on the future of the centre.
Calling for a suspension of the consultation, Mr Swann said in a major Assembly speech: “The information from the Education Authority has been misunderstood, or possibly misconstrued. All North Antrim MLAs will be well used to that from our experience of the North Eastern Education and Library Board. We have seen how they managed other consultations to achieve their desired outcome.”
Mr Swann also acknowledge that MLAs from South Antrim, East Antrim, and East Londonderry shared similar views on the former North Eastern Board.
Mr Swann added: “A number of us were invited to Bushmills Education Centre a couple of Fridays ago. I was pleased that we had representation from four parties. Knockloughrim Primary School and St Brigid’s Primary School, Mayogall handled the invitation and tour of the facility well.
“They brought down a pupil from each school to guide us round in groups of two. They showed us round and really relayed to us their experiences and how worthwhile their time at the centre has been.
“The young people told us, for example, ‘This centre has touched our hearts’, and, ‘This centre has stretched my boundaries’. It was very much a real life experience.
“It is the ethos of the centre itself that is important and crucial, and that came through very clearly in a point made by one of its former employees, Dr Robin Rodduck.
“He said that outdoor centres are not just about fresh air and running about; they are about the whole concept of outdoor education, what it means to our young people and how that develops team building, sharing and an understanding of the world at large.
“What really struck me on that visit was that the Bushmills Education Centre was delivering shared education long before ‘shared’ was a buzzword in the Education Authority, the North Eastern Education and Library Board or even in the Department itself.
“That is its strength. What concerns all of us who were there on that day is this: if Bushmills is to close, even temporarily, in five years’ time, some great educationalist sitting in the Education Authority will dream up the concept of a residential education centre and have to start from scratch.
“By that stage, the personnel, the experience and the quality of provision currently at Bushmills will have been lost to generations.
“When we were interacting with the pupils and the teachers there, we were struck by the ability of the trainers to truly engage with schools and youth groups to ensure that their three- or four-day programmes were fit for their purpose.
“It is not some bland voluntary education centre where they offer the same programme this week, next week and the following week, meaning that the young people have to fit into that box.
“The centre provides a bespoke service to each one of the young people attending. Also, because it is part of the Education Authority, the centre can look at how its activities interact with the curriculum. It can ensure that it offers a bespoke, specific service.
“One of the truly remarkable things that was pointed out to us on that day, almost as an aside, was that Bushmills and associated centres are inclusive and, for the young people who go there, affordable. A concern shared by teachers and parents is that this will price young people out of going to outdoor centres.
“A centre run by the Education Authority can make allowances and provisions for those entitled to free school meals, whereas other educational centres cannot. That support alone is worth some of the savings that the proposed consultation will talk about.
“There is the supposed £1·3 million saving proposed by the Education Authority. If the Minister does not stop this consultation now, there are so many other avenues where that money could be found, such as through shared educational programmes, T:BUC and the summer camps.
“The Executive already run summer camps and are looking for ideal situations and places to run them. In Bushmills, we have a place that you are denying the voluntary and community sector access to,” said Assemblyman Swann.