A viability audit for schools

John-O-Dowd-2010 Education is to change “from this moment on,” John O’Dowd has stated. agendaNi examines his plans for the system.

A viability audit within six months will identify schools experiencing difficulties in enrolments, standards and financial feasibility, following an announcement by the Education Minister.

Schools will be judged against the six principles in the sustainable schools policy which have not been implemented rigorously to date: quality education, a stable environment, a sound financial position, strong leadership, strong links to the local community, and stable enrolment trends. This overhaul comes as the region faces “the most challenging budget settlement in modern education history.”

In the absence of an Education and Skills Authority (delayed due to political wrangling between Sinn Féin and the DUP), the strategic planning of the schools estate cannot be put off any longer. Therefore, John O’Dowd has commissioned the five area boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) to work together on a strategic exercise that will shape the future pattern of education delivery. They will look at the post-primary sector first. The CCMS’ post-primary review and previous reports by the boards will contribute to the exercise and it will be completed in six months.

As schools identified in the audit could close, proposals on safeguarding the education of children at those schools will also be made in six months.

The region has 85,000 spare places; one- third of the 863 primary schools have less than 100 pupils and that one-fifth of 217 post-primary schools have fewer than 400 pupils. However, O’Dowd said this was “not a numbers game.”

He quoted the 2006 Bain report which stated that Northern Ireland’s education provision is both educationally and financially unsustainable.

On oversubscribed schools, O’Dowd said they would be allowed to grow, only if they “accept the responsibility to provide a curriculum that meets the needs of all the pupils it accepts.” He added that pupils being asked to leave schools because they don’t meet the needs of a school is “untenable”. Future provision would be dictated by the needs of the 21st century i.e. “an economy that requires a diverse, educated workforce with an array of skills.”

Targeting social need is not sufficiently considered in the current funding scheme, and a major review will be undertaken. Its recommendations will be implemented before the 2013-2014 school year.

Criteria for new build projects will be outlined soon and will be based on the sustainable schools criteria. New school builds will need to be part of an area- based plan, agreed by the sectors and approved by the department. A new process for capital planning will be put in place and all proposals for new builds, including those in the investment delivery plan, will be assessed accordingly. The Minister clarified that schools could consider amalgamations and must remember that “we simply do not have the resources for a new build solution on every occasion.”

The impact on teachers’ jobs will be discussed at a later date, O’Dowd claimed, however, a “flexible school workforce” will be a necessity.

The entitlement framework will be phased in because of Budget constraints. From 2013 it will be put on a statutory basis and schools will be required to provide between 18 and 21 courses. This will rise to24in2014andto27in2015.

Alliance education spokesman Trevor Lunn noted the absence of a reference to segregation, claiming it is “the elephant in the room [that] must be addressed.”

SDLP’s spokesman Conall McDevitt claimed that 380 schools “face the axe”, which the Minister denied.

DUP MLAs Mervyn Storey and Jonathan Craig called for fairness when deciding closures. The Minister replied that he has made CCMS and the boards work together because he wants a concise policy across the board which will ensure “equality of educational provision for young people regardless of what sector they attend.”

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