27/09/2011

Education Minister Threatens School Closures

There's division this week over the Stormont Education Minister statement that he is determined to improve the quality of education - even if it means having to close a number of schools.

On Monday, Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd ordered an immediate audit of every school, starting with post primaries.

He told the Assembly that it will look at pupil numbers, finances and educational quality and that the audit will report by the end of December.

The Minister insisted that whatever actions will follow to are to safeguard the education of pupils.

He has prompted immediate concerns by other politicians concerned over fairness and the overall outcome of 13 years of Sinn Fein dominance of education in NI.

Speaking in the Assembly on Monday, Mr O'Dowd said there are too many empty places, now up to 85,000.

He told the Assembly this equated to more than 150 empty schools, adding that "difficult, sometimes unpopular, but necessary decisions" will have to be taken to reduce that number and hinted of a possibility of popular, oversubscribed schools expanding to take more pupils.

"We must prioritise the needs of children over institutions," he added.

But, David McNarry, Ulster Unionist Education Spokesman and Deputy Chairman of the Stormont Education Committee, responded quickly and said: "He is the third Sinn Fein Education Minister in succession with Sinn Fein having presided over the Education Ministry for the past 13 years.

"His party has been responsible for those policies, that focus and the pace of change," he said.

"Their policies have given cover to schools they are now threatening.

"The Minister must spell out the consequences for the pupils in the schools he is now targeting for closure.

"Not only must he give detail of the number of pupils involved, he must also give detail of the 'hit list' of schools which speculation says each Education Board possesses and which are now faced with closure," he demanded, yesterday.

"The Minister has a great deal to say in his statement in an effort to sound decisive but what we are now seeing is the unravelling of Sinn Fein education policy over the past 13 years, during which time they have created uncertainty on top of uncertainty and, in many cases, chaos on top of chaos," he alleged.

Also reacting yesterday afternoon, the DUP Education Spokesman Mervyn Storey called upon the Minister to ensure that all education sectors in Northern Ireland will be treated equally and can compete on a level playing field as plans were outlined which will see all schools viability assessed.

The North Antrim MLA said: "The Education Minister said he had mentioned a number of questions in his statement to the Assembly.

"Those questions he said had been reviewed were looking at whether the focus had been correct, were the policies correct, are resources deployed effectively and are we moving fast enough.

"There can be little doubt in anyone's mind that the answer to those questions will be negative, and even in the Minister's statement there was little reference to the areas of Special Educational Needs and early years which are both vitally important to the future of education here," the DUP politician continued.

He underlined that the managing authorities of schools have been asked to conduct an immediate viability audit to identify those schools that may struggle to remain educationally viable.

"I believe that it is vital in this process that all the education sectors are treated equally and that he will ensure they are all well prepared to participate in this exercise.

"There are differences between the sectors, particular in terms of land ownership and other issues which could place on sector at an advantage.

"The Minister must demonstrate clearly that he will ensure there is a level playing field for all sectors of education as he takes this process forward," he concluded.

Alliance Education Spokesperson Trevor Lunn MLA has gone further and said that a revolution in the education system is needed to deliver more shared and integrated education.

"John O'Dowd seems to be missing the biggest opportunity that exists within our education system.

"Tackling division in education is the 'elephant in the room' and it must be addressed. Having more shared and integrated education provides our system with the best chance of delivering value for money.

"Alliance is and has been leading change for shared and integrated education and we will continue to keep the pressure on all parties on this issue," he added.

"Segregation in education is one of the biggest wastes of money in our system and the opportunities that sharing and integration provide must be seized as quickly as possible.

"The Minister has made his proposals whilst admitting disappointment at the lack of progress on the Education and Skills Authority," he said, adding more specifically: "We believe that it would be easier to implement the wide ranging changes which we all want if ESA were in place.

"The real next steps for education simply have to be removing segregation in our system. To fail to take the opportunities that tackling segregation provides will not help Northern Ireland move towards a shared future."

(BMcC/CD)

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