Northern Ireland news

Stormont officials again making changes to schools – but yet to approve closures

The Department of Education has again started taking decisions on 'development proposals'

STORMONT civil servants have begun approving changes to schools after a six-month hiatus – but are yet to touch a series of planned closures.

The head of the Department of Education had been signing off development proposals (DPs) since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed two years ago.

Such proposals detail changes to a school's enrolment or status, and most are routine. Others lead to closures or mergers.

Since May 2017, education department permanent secretary Derek Baker rubber-stamped 37 separate schemes. These included the closures of Tullycarnet PS in Belfast, Anamar PS in south Armagh, St Brigid's PS in Augher and Magheralough PS in Trillick.

In addition, he allowed the reorganisation of west Belfast post-primary schools and shutting of St Columban's in Kilkeel and expansion of St Louis' Grammar in the town.

Mr Baker stopped signing off projects last summer, with the department saying it was seeking fresh legal advice on whether it could continue in the absence of a minister.

A high-profile high court ruling cast doubt on major decisions being taken by civil servants. In May last year, a judge said that a senior official did not have legal power to approve a new £240 million waste incinerator following the collapse of devolution.

The department said it had received its legal advice saying it could now re-start the DP process.

In the last two weeks, five have been approved – all concerning changes to enrolments.

More potentially controversial plans remain on the table – including seven suggested closures.

This includes a plan to bring together four Catholic schools serving north Tyrone. Altishane PS, Loughash PS, St Patrick's PS and St Joseph's PS will amalgamate to form a new 133-pupil Catholic primary school.

Other outstanding decisions include the closures of Culnady PS and Bellarena PS in Co Derry, the establishment of an Irish-language primary school in Armagh City and the introduction of academic selection at an integrated college.

A department spokeswoman said the authority of permanent secretaries generally to take decisions that would previously have been taken by ministers "was called into question following a well-publicised legal case".

This later led to government introducing a Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 "to facilitate decisions", she added.

"The department received further legal advice which has allowed the permanent secretary to resume the taking of decisions on DPs, subject to a public interest test, in the continuing absence of a minister."

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