Education Minister, John O’Dowd, has set out his vision for the next steps in education locally.
Mr O’Dowd spoke of the requirement to
prioritise the needs of children by creating a strong, sustainable
network of inter-dependent schools designed to deliver a modern
education service. Among the actions he has decided to take are to
commission an immediate audit to identify schools which are not
educationally viable, to commission an exercise to shape the future
pattern of education delivery across each Board area, to set out new
criteria for future capital investment, and to make the requirements of
the Entitlement Framework statutory by 2013.
The Minister also emphasised that his main
priority was to raise standards and tackle underachievement and
inequality in our system. He described as unacceptable the gaps in
achievement, especially between those pupils from disadvantaged areas
and those from more affluent backgrounds
Addressing the Assembly this afternoon, the Minister spoke of the scale of the educational challenges ahead and said: “At
the core of this challenge is how we plan our provision. The Bain
report spelt out unambiguously that we have inherited a pattern of
provision that is now unsustainable.
“We have too many schools that do not
have the capacity to give children the broad and rich educational
experience they deserve. Schools which, in some cases, have lost the
confidence of the parents, pupils and communities they were built to
“Our latest enrolment figures show that
our schools have almost 85,000 spare places, that is the equivalent of
more than 150 schools. A third of our 863 primary schools have fewer
than 100 children enrolled and a fifth of our 217 post-primary schools
have fewer than 400 pupils.
“However sustainable schools are not
simply a numbers game. Schools will be measured against the six
principles of the Sustainable Schools policy”
The Minister went on to highlight the work he wants taken forward, and said: “I
am asking the managing authorities to conduct an immediate viability
audit to identify clearly those schools which are evidencing stress now
in remaining educationally viable. Key criteria will be enrolments,
standards and financial viability. I have asked for this to be
submitted before the end of the year along with short and long term
proposals to safeguard the education of the children currently attending
The Minister went on to outline a second
piece of work the five Education and Library Boards would undertake with
CCMS to plan a sustainable and affordable pattern of schools.
The Minister continued: “I
am therefore commissioning them to co-ordinate a strategic exercise
based on each Board area to shape the future pattern of education
delivery. As part of this process there will be close consultation with
the other sectors.
“It is important however that a
comprehensive strategic approach covering all children’s needs is
adopted within the parameters flowing from what I have set out today. I
want to see the first phase of this work completed, within six months
of the formal commission from my Department. This work will have an
early focus on post-primary provision.”
The Minister moved on to signal how he was
going to deal with the capital build programme, given the drop in
available capital funding and said: “Action
is needed to restructure our schools estate to ensure it is capable of
meeting the needs of our children in the future, is affordable and
represents the best and most effective use of tax payers’ money.
“I must be certain that we are investing
our resources in the right schools. It is my intention to set out clear
criteria for access to capital investment in the near future. These
criteria will be founded on the Sustainable Schools policy and the
requirement that any proposal is founded in an area plan agreed by the
sectors and approved by my Department. Linked to this I will put in
place a new explicit process for capital planning.
“In taking forward this new approach I
have given careful consideration to how to deal with the remaining
projects on the Investment Delivery Plan.
“I need to be assured that these projects are consistent with the overall plans for the area they are situated in.
“To have confidence in future priorities
for capital investment these projects must be critically assessed as
part of the area planning exercise. They can of course come forward
again if, after testing against the new processes being established,
they remain the highest priority in the context of the area plan and
against the new criteria.
“In addition to those
remaining projects on the Investment Delivery Plan, the further 100 or
so projects which have been logged with the Department by School
Managing Authorities will also be tested as part of the area planning
“This has not been an
easy decision but I am convinced that it is the right decision. Only by
doing this can I be assured that limited resources are being invested
in the highest priority projects which will ensure we are building the
right type of schools, in the right place and of the right size to meet
the future needs of children and young people.”
Among other moves, the Minister signalled
his intention to trigger the legislation to put the Entitlement
Framework on a statutory basis from September 2013. To help schools
complete the implementation of the Entitlement Framework requirements,
the Minister has decided to phase the introduction so that the full
entitlement of 24 courses on offer at Key Stage 4 and 27 courses at post
16 will be a requirement by 2015.
The Minister also commissioned a major
review of the Common Funding Scheme, which allocates money to individual
schools, to ensure the scheme fully supports the Department’s policy
objectives, including targeting social need. The Minister plans to have
a new scheme operational by 2013.
The Minister concluded: “Today
I have set out a comprehensive and ambitious work programme for the
months ahead. I have responded to the challenge to deliver a more
sustainable and strategically planned schools estate. I have responded
to the need to provide certainty about the Entitlement Framework and I
have set out a clear course of action designed to deliver results.
“This next year will be a year of change
in education, change designed to bring greater certainty in the longer
term – for schools, for parents, and, most of all, for the young people
that the education service is here to serve.”