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85,000 empty desks crisis to see Northern Ireland's failing schools shut down

By Lindsay Fergus

A process to identify failing schools earmarked for closure has begun as the full dire financial situation of our education system is revealed.

The Department of Education is struggling to implement £300m of budget cuts, and authorities including the library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), have now been asked to draw up a list of schools which are not viable.

It comes as it is unveiled that there are now a staggering 85,000 empty desks in Northern Ireland’s schools. Previously, the number had been estimated at 50,000. It is also understood that schools here will have run up debts of £100m by 2014.

More detail is expected to emerge on Monday when Education Minister John O’Dowd outlines his vision for the future of education to the Assembly in a major speech.

It is believed his long-awaited announcement will have little good news for schools.

“Schools have not realised the full implication of budget cuts,” said a source. “Some boards wrongly believe there is additional revenue. There is no cavalry riding over the hill on this one.”

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the minister is to adopt a more “aggressive approach” when it comes to schools with poor exam results, falling pupil numbers, poor leadership and financial difficulties.

Key changes expected to be unveiled include:

  • More focused school inspections, identifying unviable schools — some will go into formal intervention, others will be closed.
  • Challenging poor teaching standards, including removing principals, management teams and weak teachers.
  • New criteria for school builds — with any new build having to benefit the wider school sector, other sectors and the community.
  • Plans to encourage state and Catholic-maintained schools to co-operate or amalgamate.
  • Schools that are failing pupils are expected to be identified under a swift review that will be concluded within months of Monday’s announcement.
  • Education and library boards and CCMS to be given more support in challenging schools.

Although criteria for judging the viability of a school already exists under A Policy For Sustainable Schools, sources have said it and Every School A Good School will be strengthened and more rigorously adhered to.

There will be an emphasis on six criteria. Schools will be expected to demonstrate a good quality of education through achievements and qualifications, stable enrolment trends, be in a sound financial position, have strong leadership, which includes principals, boards of governors and heads of departments, accessibility and have strong links with the community.

A source said: “There has to be a clear message sent out — there are schools that are going to be closed.

“We have students leaving schools with no qualifications — this has been allowed to go on for years. There are schools with no improvement in leadership and educational achievement is awful.”

It is also understood that dozens of schools already on the Investment Delivery Plan will have to prove viability, including meeting the needs of area planning and A Policy For Sustainable Schools if they are to proceed.

Another source explained: “It’s not about the institutions, it’s about the children in these schools. The question that will be asked is ‘why are they not doing this?’”

Factfile

The six criteria that schools will be judged by:

1. Quality of educational experience; achievements and qualifications

2. Stable enrolment trends

3. Sound financial position

4. Strong leadership and management — including principals and heads of departments

5. Accessibility; location

6. Strong links with the community

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