Northern Ireland news

Education head criticises lack of 'proper' area planning

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

NORTHERN Ireland's most senior education official has highlighted the "failure of proper area planning" while rejecting a grammar school's bid for extra places.

Department of Education permanent secretary Derek Baker asked rival sectors to "redouble their efforts" to produce an agreed area plan.

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

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".

However, most proposals over the last 10-plus years, have been standalone with little or no cross-sectoral collaboration.

In some cases, this has meant two neighbouring schools - one Catholic and one state - both closing down.

This week, Mr Baker has made decisions on six separate `development proposals'.

They included approving the closure of St MacNissius' PS in Tannaghmore, increasing numbers at Campbell College in Belfast and refusing permission for a 26-place nursery at Gaelscoil na mBeann in Kilkeel.

Two proposals concerned Magherafelt, where a sharp rise in the population is driving demand for hundreds of extra places.

Four of five post-primary schools in the Co Derry town have more pupils than officially permitted, with many more children being turned away every year.

Close to 4,000 children are spread across the town's schools, and two sought to increase numbers.

Sperrin Integrated College asked that its long-term enrolment increase from 500 to 620 within five years.

A separate bid by Rainey Endowed School detailed plans to increase numbers in each year from 100 to 120. This would see overall enrolments rise in time from 700 to 840.

Mr Baker approved a modified proposal for Sperrin allowing it to grow to 600 but rejected the proposal from Rainey.

He addressed the issue of area planning while explaining his decision.

"It is without doubt an extremely popular, consistently oversubscribed school which comfortably meets the criteria in the Sustainable Schools Policy and provides a very high quality education," Mr Baker said.

"That said, this proposal, along with development proposal 578 for the neighbouring Sperrin Integrated College, presents me with a serious dilemma.

"It proposes an expansion in places when the evidence demonstrates that within a 15 mile radius there are 10 other post-primary schools, albeit of differing types, which between them have 921 available places. Furthermore, the analysis suggests that any impact from this proposal is likely to be felt most by post-primary provision in the controlled sector, in which there are two controlled post-primary schools within a 10 mile radius which between them have 457 places."

Mr Baker noted that the Rainey proposal had emerged, "not as part of an agreed plan for the area designed to address provision at post-primary level taking all relevant factors into account, but as a standalone proposal".

"This is disappointing and in my view represents a failure of proper area planning in conflict with our stated policy intentions in this regard. I would like to see this remedied," he said.

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