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Publication of school viability audits

6 March, 2012 - by John O'Dowd

Education Minister, John O’Dowd, has announced the publication of audits examining the viability of every school in the north.

In October last year, John O’Dowd MLA, Minister for Education, commissioned an audit of primary and post-primary schools to ascertain the levels of stress schools were experiencing in three areas – quality of education provision, stable enrolments and financial viability.

The Minister has received and considered the reports submitted by the Boards and he said:

“Firstly I would like to thank the Boards and CCMS for these reports. My main interest is to ensure that all pupils are accessing high quality education in schools that are viable and sustainable. I commissioned this exercise as a precursor to Area Planning because as we move forward into a collective approach to strategic planning, we must have a sense of the levels of stress facing schools.

“The audit reports have set out clearly for every school the position based on three criteria – quality, enrolments and financial position. This is not new information for schools, they already have all this information and many are acting on it. What I wanted from the audit was an overview of all schools so that we have a firm platform of knowledge on which to build Area Planning.

“The overall picture is a serious one and it confirms the need to move quickly on the area plans and to put in place the network of viable and sustainable schools that will deliver high quality education for all pupils. There are a number of schools, both primary and post primary, that are evidencing stress in one or more area. In the primary sector 390 schools out of a total of 839 are evidencing stress in at least one category – that is 46.5% of all primary schools. Similarly, in the post-primary sector 124 out of a total of 148 secondary schools - that is 83.8% of schools are evidencing some degree of stress. The grammar sector is not immune to stress, with 24 out of 68 (35%) evidencing stress in one or more areas.

“These reports will be of concern to a lot of parents and staff in our schools. I must emphasise that it is not the case that where a school is demonstrating stress that it will close – indeed given the number of schools that are stressed this would be impossible. It must also be recognised that this is a complex matter and the viability audits only presents part of the picture. What it does is highlight where the support needs to be targeted and where the priorities lie as we begin to area plan. My Department’s Sustainable Schools Policy recognises that every school has its own unique set of circumstances and we need to consider these carefully before finalising the area plans. But we cannot ignore instances where the pupils are not accessing high quality education and this is why in some cases we need to take swift action.

“In the time ahead I will be writing to the school managing authorities to seek assurance that steps are being taken to protect the educational wellbeing of the pupils in those schools evidencing the greatest degrees of stress in regards to educational attainment.

“I would ask those in education, parents, politicians and the media to look at this information in the round rather than focus in on individual schools. I would ask that they consider the facts and ask themselves – what is this saying about our education system? And what should we be doing?

“We are making progress in improving the educational outcomes for our young people. However, we must address the unacceptable impact that poverty and disadvantage has on educational attainment. That is why the Executive’s draft Programme for Government contains a specific commitment to increase significantly the proportions of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve at least five good GCSEs including English and Maths. A commitment that I am determined as Education Minister to deliver – and one with which I shall need help and support from my Executive colleagues, as well as all the partners which make up our education system.

“We know that achieving at this level not only unlocks the door to further and higher education and to well paid and fulfilling jobs; it is also linked with better health, lower rates of offending and provides arguably the best means of reducing child poverty in the longer term. All of society benefits from these gains.

“We know that the best outcomes for all pupils can be seen in systems around the world where school intakes are reflective of society: a shared education system, with children from affluent and disadvantaged areas educated together.

“In our system, we have selective schools that are adjusting to a wider range of academic ability but not to a wider range of social backgrounds: on average just 7% of pupils in our grammar schools are entitled to free school meals compared to over a quarter (27%) of pupils in non-selective schools.

“We need to move away from academic selection and rejection, informed by the experiences of those high performing systems around the world where academic selection and rejection has no place in a school admissions policy.

“We must act now to remove educational disadvantage in all its forms within the system. That way we will make the education system better for all pupils.”

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