“there are too many schools in Northern Ireland”

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The NIO minister Angela Maria Eagle seems enthusiastic about the 61 recommendations in George Bain’s Independent Strategic Review of Education while the BBC highlight the recommended raising of minimum enrolment levels for primary and post-primary schools, and that a third of schools – 440 in total – do not have the required minimum number of pupils. The Report is available here Adds Press Association report hereBain highlights what he sees as the problem in the introduction and summary of his report[pdf file]

CHAPTER 3: NORTHERN IRELAND EDUCATION SYSTEM

9. DE is responsible for the central administration of education and related services in Northern Ireland, with the exception of the Further and Higher Education sectors, which are the responsibility of the Department for Employment and Learning. DE’s main areas of responsibility are pre-school, primary, post-primary, and special education; the youth service; the promotion of community relations within and between schools; and teacher education.

10. Inspection and monitoring of all education and training establishments is the direct responsibility of the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). In keeping with key government principles for inspection, ETI provides an independent professional assessment of the effectiveness of existing or proposed policy.

11. Responsibility for the delivery of day-to-day education services within the policy, strategy and procedures set by DE currently lies with: the five Education and Library Boards, including the Staff Commission for Education and Library Boards; the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools; the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; the Youth Council for Northern Ireland; other grant-aided bodies, including the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta; and schools.

12. The system of schools in Northern Ireland comprises five main sectors: Controlled Schools – including Controlled Integrated Schools – Catholic Maintained Schools, Voluntary Grammar Schools, Grant-maintained Integrated Schools, and Irish-medium Schools.

13. The diversity of school type, the selective system of education, the existence of single sex schools, and the substantially rural nature of Northern Ireland largely explain both the relatively large number of schools that exist and the sizeable proportion of small schools. Although the range of provision is explained, and indeed justified, by the principle of parental choice, the inefficiencies manifest in the system need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

And from the foreword to the report

5. At the beginning of the Review’s work, I thought it would be mainly concerned with the issue of “surplus places” and the economic case – cost-effective
provision that gives good value for money – for rationalising the schools’ estate. As the work advanced, the economic case for rationalisation remained important, but two other arguments for rationalisation became even more important: first, the educational case – access for pupils to the full range of the curriculum, to high quality teaching, and to modern facilities – and second, the social case – societal well-being by promoting a culture of tolerance, mutual understanding, and inter-relationship through significant, purposeful and regular engagement and interaction in learning.

6. In short, the argument for rationalising the schools’ estate is not primarily about saving money – the savings, in any case, being difficult to quantify and, whatever their amount, being required for reinvestment in Northern Ireland’s schools – but about giving the children of Northern Ireland an excellent education that will benefit both them and the society in which they live. That is what the Review’s sixty-one recommendations are intended to achieve, and I commend them strongly to the Government and to the citizens of Northern Ireland.

The majority of his recommendations concern Planning: A Strategic Approach [recommendations 11-42] emphasising a local area based approach, some of those recommendations are

Planning: A Strategic Approach

11. The Education and Skills Authority should plan the schools’ estate on a local area basis, within a strategic framework of vision, policy, principles, and guidelines provided by the Department of Education.

12. Within the strategic framework established by the Department of Education, the Education and Skills Authority should have overall operational responsibility for the strategic planning of the schools’ estate.

13. Until the Education and Skills Authority has acquired the capacity to exercise its estate planning function, the Department of Education should act quickly and decisively to take forward area-based planning as soon as possible in the year 2007, with the full support of the relevant education authorities.

14. The Department of Education should establish a provisional timetable, to be refined and taken forward by the Education and Skills Authority, specifying target dates for the following key steps in setting up and implementing the area-based planning strategy: (a) the Department of Education’s strategic framework of vision, policy, principles, and guidelines; (b) the specification of local areas; (c) the review of local provision; (d) the initiation and conclusion of local planning; (e) the submission of area proposals to the Education and Skills Authority; (f) the finalised and approved area plans; and (g) the implementation of individual plans for the estate as a whole.

15. Future school building projects should be approved only after area-based planning is established, and previously announced capital projects that are currently underway should be reviewed, according to their stage of development, for their consistency with the area-based approach.

16. Local areas should comprise coherent sets of nursery, primary and post-primary schools, and, as appropriate, special schools, as well as accessible further education provision, and as far as possible lie within a single local council’s boundaries.

17. Planning should ensure that proposals for contiguous local areas are considered together, and that their interrelationships are identified and taken into account, before investment decisions are made.

18. Area-based plans should ensure that each area is served by sustainable schools that provide high quality education for all pupils and that, taken together, balance the expressed wishes of parents and the projected requirements of each school sector, with the cost-effective use of capital and recurrent funding.

and he makes a number of recommendations on integrating the education system

Perspectives on Integration and Collaboration

52. In undertaking its functions in relation to the planning of the schools’ estate, the Education and Skills Authority should be required to maximise opportunities for integrating education within a system of sustainable schools.

53. To encourage and support a more inclusive approach to integrating education, additional funding – in the form of (a) an enhanced unit of resource, and (b) special funding for particular areas of work such as staff development – should be provided to schools that are actively engaged in sharing with other schools, or a school that is developing an inclusive environment in recognition of the diversity of its pupils’ religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

54. Either through new arrangements under the Review of Public Administration, or through a dedicated strategic forum, the Department of Education should help education stakeholders to discuss issues pertinent to integrating education and improving collaboration, promoting trust and mutual understanding, and working to develop collaboration and sharing.

55. The Department of Education should make clear that, in discharging its legislative duty in respect of integrated education, it is committed to facilitating and encouraging a variety of approaches to integrating education within a framework of sustainable schools.

56. The Department of Education should develop a comprehensive and coherent policy for Irish-medium education.

57. The planning for Irish-medium education should make use of a variety of feasible options capable of providing the accommodation and facilities that support a high quality of education through the medium of Irish, including:

• creating new sustainable Irish-medium schools through new builds, adapting existing surplus capacity in the schools’ estate, and transformation; and
• collaborating and sharing within the Irish-medium sector, and with English-medium schools, including the provision of Irish-medium units or streams in English-medium schools.

The full list of recommendations is available separately[pdf file]

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