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Class sizes 'may increase to more than 30'

By Lindsay Fergus

Class sizes of more than 30 pupils could become common in Northern Ireland under plans for a radical overhaul of the schools’ estate, it has been warned.

Stormont Education committee chair Mervyn Storey fears that Minister John O’Dowd’s plans to significantly shake up schools provision will be asking for teachers to “do the impossible”.

The DUP man’s warning comes after John O’Dowd set out the next steps of his plan for the future of the education system — aimed at identifying schools, of all sizes, with unviable long-term finances.

Education and library boards have been asked to identify a network of sustainable schools that will enhance the quality of provision and raise standards. The plan must also reduce the 85,000 surplus school places in Northern Ireland — the equivalent of 150 schools — and the duplication of provision in some areas.

Mr Storey said: “Regrettably it seems to be the Department of Education’s way or no way. The key words I keep hearing are fewer, bigger schools.

“It will mean class sizes of 30 plus, asking teachers to do the impossible. Instead of super schools, they are asking for super teachers; there is far too much pressure being put on teachers.”

The viability audit of all schools, being carried out by the boards in conjunction with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is due to conclude on December 31. Last week the minister laid out expectations for a Northern Ireland-wide plan, to be finished by June.

Mr O’Dowd said: “It is essential that we consider and plan for the overall education provision required to meet the needs of young people in an area rather than individual schools.”

”We must ensure we have strong, sustainable schools that can provide a quality education to our children and young people.”

Under the department’s Sustainable Schools Policy, primary schools in rural areas with 105 pupils, urban areas with 140 and post primary with more than 500 were deemed to be viable.

However, that may no longer be the case, according to the latest guidelines issued.

They state: “The work should reflect the prevailing financial climate and the centrality of financial stability going forward and that the minimum number if enrolled pupils needed to secure future financial stability may be higher than the minimum thresholds set out in the Sustainable Schools Policy.”

The focus of the area plan will be to develop a planned network of viable and sustainable schools capable of delivering the revised curriculum and the Entitlement Framework.

This will be done by outlining current provision, examining its current and future viability, identifying over and under provision by sector and producing an area plan to meet future demand.

When the boards have submitted their findings to the Department of Education for approval, it will then be put out to public consultation.Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union said: “ATL are not against movement to fewer, bigger schools. Bigger schools from larger catchments improve social balance in schools, which research shows is beneficial to overall school and systemic performance. Larger schools are better equipped to deliver the breadth of the Entitlement Framework, also highly desirable.

“However, there are dangers. In efforts to shore-up finances, there is a risk that schools will composite classes, or run with higher pupil teacher ratios.

“Northern Ireland has a high pupil teacher ratio (PTR) of 25.4 in nursery schools (compared to 16.6 in England) and a PTR of 20.4 in primary (compared to 16.0 in both Scotland and the Republic).”

Story so far

On September 26 the Education minister announced that there would be an audit of every school. Issues being looked at include finances, enrolment and quality of education. The findings for secondary schools are to be with the department by December 31, special schools by the end of February, sixth form provision by March 31 and primary provision by June 30.

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