Keeping education sustainable

Following the publication of the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s (NIAO) report on the Sustainability of Schools Adam Morton highlights its key findings.


The NIAO recently published its report on the sustainability of schools in Northern Ireland. The report evaluated the progress made by the Department of Education in delivering sustainable schools in line with the Bain review’s (2006) recommendations.


The Bain review found that there were too many schools in Northern Ireland and as a result, some of these schools would become educationally unsustainable.

In response to Bain’s findings, the department introduced the sustainable schools policy in January 2009 and an area planning process in September 2011 to develop a network of viable and sustainable schools.


Sustainable schools policy

The sustainable schools policy sets out the criteria and indicators for use by key stakeholders such as the department, the education authorities, school boards of governors and the wider community, to help assess a school’s viability.


Whereas previously a school might have only been considered unviable if pupil numbers had fallen to a critical level, the sustainable schools policy set out a number of criteria and indicators linked to the long term viability of a school:

•   Quality education experience;

•   Stable enrolment trends;

•   Strong leadership by management and boards of governors;

•   Accessibility;

•   Strong links with the community.


However, the report found that assessing the wider delivery of the sustainable schools policy is proving difficult due to the lack of quantitative indicators. The report found many of the categories are subjective, resulting in schools being measured on an inconsistent basis.


As such, the NIAO recommends that the department reviews the qualitative indicators attached to the criteria to ensure they are fit for purpose.


Area planning

In 2011, the area planning process was announced. The process aimed to ensure that the size of schools and their locations met the needs of pupils. With no single education authority in place at the time, the department commissioned the Education and Library Boards (ELBs), working closely with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) to carry out area planning.


This planning has taken the form of post-primary area plans from each of the ELBs, first published in 2013 and primary area plans first published in 2014.

However, the report found that whilst there had been some progress implementing the sustainable schools policy through area planning, not all stakeholders were clear about their roles and responsibilities.


The delivery of education involves a large number of stakeholders. In order to ensure that information is communicated in a consistent manner to everyone involved in the process, the report advised that a communication strategy should be put in place.



According to schools, the overall driver of sustainability is sustainable enrolment. Over the past eight years, the number of schools has decreased by eight per cent (89) and the number of enrolments has fallen by six per cent (24,000). The NIAO concluded that an acceptable surplus should not exceed 10 per cent across the school system or 25 per cent in individual schools.


However, in 2008-09 the method for calculating surplus places changed to bring both primary and post-primary calculations in line. Both calculations now use the same formula of enrolment number of each school less pupil numbers at the school census date.


However, the NIAO notes that children in receipt of a statement of special educational needs and children admitted to post-primary schools on appeal or by direction of the Exceptional Circumstances Body are not included in the actual enrolment figure. This, the NIAO warns, will lead to an over stating of the number of surplus places in the education system.


Two of the report’s recommendations are focussed on this area. The NIAO recommends that the department collect accurate information on school capacity that takes appropriate account of all pupils in mainstream schools.

The report also expressed concern that 70 per cent (50,389) of surplus places are in primary schools. To address this, the report recommends that the area planning process should be further developed so that the department, planning and managing authorities can agree prioritised and timetabled action plans to implement the proposals within the area plans.


School size

The report also addressed the cost of small schools versus their larger counterparts. It found that there is no evidence that educational attainment of small schools is better than those with larger enrolment numbers but did note that small schools cost more per pupil. Just over three per cent (£36 million) of the 2014/2015 school budget is allocated to schools because they are small. The report expressed concern that small school support funding often acts as a barrier to change.


The NIAO does admit that some small schools are vital for pupils in isolated areas, however, they feel support funding should not be applied across all small schools. They recommend the department work with planning and managing authorities to identify those schools in isolated areas.

Cost of surplus places

The report found that unused teaching space in larger schools is an inefficient use of resources. The Bain review stated that the amount of surplus capacity was an indicator of a school system’s value for money.

The NIAO noted that in Wales, the cost of a surplus place was £260 in the primary sector and £510 in the secondary sector. Currently, the department has no indication of how much surplus places cost and the report has recommended that this cost is assessed.

Advice for schools

For schools trying to enter into partnerships, the report found that support from the department, boards and the CCMS was lacking. With regards to area plans, the report claimed schools felt there was no support to improve their sustainability. For those school’s struggling with sustainability issues, some school Principals claimed they were given no support, feeling that schools that felt safe had no onus to


To tackle this issue, the report recommends that the department, in conjunction with the Education Authority and the CCMS, should ensure that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to provide advice and support to struggling schools.


Despite these recommendations, the NIAO do acknowledge that there are unique difficulties in delivering sustainable schools in Northern Ireland:

•   Education is delivered by a number of sectors: controlled; catholic maintained; voluntary grammar; Irish-medium and integrated;

•   Area planning was implemented in a more fragmented way than envisaged in the Bain review;

•   Area planning is a highly contested space and local communities have close attachment to the schools. This has led to some litigation and scrutiny by the courts;

•   The open enrolment policy – where parents can apply to have their children enrolled in schools outside their area – makes it very difficult to predict demand for places in schools.

With the recommendations in place the report is now in the hands of the department for its consideration.

Related Posts