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Putting pupils first: shaping our future

26 September, 2011 - by John O'Dowd

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 serve.

“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 those schools.”

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 exercise.

“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.”

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