In recent months the Education authority have taken the decision to cut the provision for residential outdoor education. At the stroke of a pen they have taken a decision that will result in the closure of at least four of the outdoor education centers. Ardnabannon, Bushmills, Delamont and Killowen Outdoor Centers, and probably a fifth at Killyleagh. These are the centres which many of us as teenagers spent a weekend during the summer months going hiking in the Mournes, canoeing on the Bann or sailing in Strangford. Or went on our gcse and A-Level Geography and Biology field trips.
These closures apparently going to better meet the ‘needs of young people’. These closures will result in a saving £1.3 million (I can’t seem to get a breakdown as to whether this is an annual saving or a one off), either way it seems a relatively small sum when taken against the total 2.8 billion education Budget. And seems very small against what the cost would be to acquire the sites and build the infrastructure already in place at these centers. To take for example Killowen Centre. It is a 30,000 sq ft facility at with Jetty, boat yard, workshops, residential accommodation, field studies laboratory, class rooms, kitchens drying rooms etc. It is on a coastal site, with a suitable tidal range on a main road beside the mountains would be practically impossible for the education authority to acquire such a suitable site in that area today.
If this infrastructure is dismantled and sold off it is most likely to be replaced by a few large expensive coastal residences, as the entire rest of the Killowen – Warrenpont road has now become, and once gone it can never be replaced.
Through the course of my education I was lucky enough to visit Killowen Outdoor education center on Many occasions. The very first was in primary 1 being brought to see the Ulster Orchestra play a selection of music in the hall there. Including very memorably the pink panther theme tune which struck a chord with my five year old self.
I went back a number of times as a teenager doing the multi activity and sailing courses. I was never much good at Football, and as a result usually got a C in PE. However once Introduced to other sports at Killowen including Rock Climbing, Mountaineering Sailing I excelled. In sailing, I was lucky enough to go on to represent Ireland in a world championships at. And in the Mountaineering it fostered a lifelong love of hill walking through which I met my wife and most of my social circle, and maintain a healthy lifestile to this day. There is no doubt that as a teenager it gave me and others the confidence and belief that just because we were not very good at Football or other mainstream sports. We could still excel and be fit and sporty.
I attended an almost exclusively Catholic Secondary school and at the time had no contact whatsoever with any of the Protestant pupils in the school in the same town. There were very few places that we would have had any opportunity to meet. However through the courses I did at Killowen I met and made strong friendships that I maintain to this day with Protestants I never would otherwise have met.
In my late teens I went back every summer as a voluntary sailing instructor. I remember taking cross community groups from Portadown, Lurgan and Belfast sailing. The fact that these were residential and could take 11-14 year old or 15-18 year old groups out of their everyday environment, many of them for the first time away from home and offer them new challenges such as sailing or orienteering where they needed to co-operate to get anywhere was very important. I remember especially one group from Portadown that were there during the Drumcree dispute. The contrast between the environment they were in at Killowen and the toxic environment unfolding on the Gravaghy road at the time was stark.
These are heavily used and valuable resources to our society. In my opinion the closure of these centers is very short sighted and is not in the best interests of the communities they are in or indeed the young people currently in the education system. The 1.3 million spend is easily offset by the savings to the health system by the boost to Physical fitness and mental well being of the hundreds of young people who pass through these centers every year.