Education news

Pace of closing schools `too slow' says report

Area planning seeks to create a network of viable schools

THE pace of closing and merging unsustainable schools is too slow, a government review has found.

Scores of schools have been approved for closure or amalgamation in the last decade.

A new report on 'area planning' by the Department of Education, however, has raised concerns about the speed of change.

A total of 160 names have disappeared since the publication in 2009 of the sustainable schools policy.

No sector has been immune - grammar, primary, secondary and nursery providers in rural and urban areas have all faced upheaval.

Similarly, Catholic, state-controlled, Irish-medium and integrated schools have all been affected.

Area planning seeks to establish a network of "viable and sustainable schools that are of the right type, the right size, located in the right place and have a focus on raising standards".

To be considered sustainable, rural primaries should have a minimum of 105 pupils while those in Belfast and Derry need 140.

Post-primary providers must have at least 500 pupils while sixth forms should have a minimum of 100.

The new Department of Education annual report on area planning noted a considerable amount of time and effort was expended by planning authorities to identify "area solutions to planning issues".

Any change - this includes increasing pupil numbers - must be made by publishing a development proposal (DP). There were 31 such proposals in 2018/19 and decisions were taken on 19. Two were rejected.

One primary school - Bellarena PS in Co Derry - was closed and four Catholic primary schools were shut in Co Tyrone to establish one new amalgamated school.

"While recognising the positive impact that area planning has made, both in 2018/19 and since its inception, concerns persist about the pace of change," the report said.

"During 2018/19 this was not aided by uncertainties surrounding the authority of the department's permanent secretary to take DP decisions in the absence of an education minister, pausing the decision making process between July 2018 and January 2019 while the implications of the ARC21 legal judgment and application of the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 were clarified."

A High Court ruling that a senior official did not have legal power to approve a new £240 million waste incinerator following the collapse of devolution cast doubt on major decisions being taken by civil servants.

Permanent Secretary Derek Baker subsequently signed off several DPs.

The department report added that the "fundamentals of how area planning operates are currently under review".

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