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Education minister John O'Dowd hits back at PAC criticism

John O'Dowd says the issue of sustainable schools and surplus places is "complex".

A report by a public spending watchdog "failed to grasp the complex nature" of government's sustainable schools policy, the education minister has claimed.

John O'Dowd was speaking in response to an Assembly Public Accounts Committee report on the Sustainability of Schools.

The committee said the calculation of empty desks in schools "just does not add up".

It said it was concerned that the actual number surplus school places "may be substantially lower than the figure reported". The department has reported that since 2008/09 the number of surplus places fell from 83,376 to 71,540.

The PAC report followed an audit office report in June 2015 and a PAC evidence session in November at which the committee acknowledged the complex and challenging environment in which sustainable schools and area planning were being taken forward, Mr O'Dowd said.

"It is therefore all the more surprising that the PAC has failed to recognise this in its written report and indeed would appear to have completely failed to grasp the complex nature of the policy," he added.

"The sustainable schools policy has been tested in court on several occasions and found to be a competent policy upon which to make decisions both about the future of individual schools and area planning more widely."

Mr O'Dowd said he had already accepted the recommendations within the audit office report and these were being progressed by his department.

"Project teams have been established and steady progress has been made. I will now consider what additional action, if any, needs to be taken," he added.

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