Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Education body delay to cost £21m, says Ruane

The delay in creating a new streamlined education body for Northern Ireland will see £21 million in efficiency savings squandered, the Education minister warned today.

That amount now has to be taken from elsewhere in the sector, as it has already been cut from the overall education budget on the premise that the bureaucracy-busting Education and Skill Authority would be set up as planned in January, Caitriona Ruane explained.

The Sinn Fein representative outlined the shortfall facing her department as she confirmed her plans for a transitional management arrangement, that will see the region's education boards continuing to operate, albeit in a radically downsized form.

ESA had been due to take over the work of the five boards and other schools and exams bodies, but the minister claims the DUP has blocked her proposals to modernise the system.

She told the Assembly that reducing the membership of four of the five boards from 140 to 60 (the South Eastern board is being overseen by commissioners after a long-standing dispute over its budget) would help cut some bureaucracy needed to make up the funding gap.

"Between this year and next more than £21 million (£21.3 million) has already been taken out of the education budget and thus any delay in establishing ESA has a direct impact on education services - this is something we simply can't afford to let happen," she told members.

"The longer the establishment of ESA is put off the longer education will have to await the benefits and absorb the financial loss.

"The planned savings from ESA must be made, so we face a simple, but stark choice: savings can be made by cutting bureaucracy; or by cutting back on teaching and learning. I intend to cut bureaucracy and raising educational standards. Both are vitally important."

Details of Ms Ruane's interim plans emerged yesterday. She fleshed out the details to MLAs this morning.

The current Education and Library Boards are made-up of 35 members each, including large numbers of councillors.

The Belfast board will be cut to ten members, the Southern board will be cut to 15 members, the Western board will be cut to 12 and the North Eastern will be reduced to 23.

The minister said she is also examining the membership arrangements for the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and exam body the Council for Curriculum Examinations and assessment.

The downsized boards will work closely with the two officials already recruited to lead the new ESA.

Chairperson Designate of the ESA Sean Hogan will chair meetings of the board chairs while Chief Executive Designate Gavin Boyd will work with the boards' accounting officers.

Ms Ruane claimed the political deadlock that has postponed ESA's establishment will already see £8 million in predicted savings lost this financial year, with the prospect of losing out on the remaining £13 million next year

The DUP has cited concerns over the ESA and in particular its implications for predominantly Protestant state controlled schools.

But DUP chair of the Stormont Education Committee said the failure to establish ESA was not his party's fault.

"The minister cannot deflect blame for her failure away towards the DUP," he said.

"The job she has is no different to any other legislature, where it is the minister's responsibility to build support and guide bills through the legislative process.

"This inevitably involves adding and conceding points to ensure sufficient support.

"The DUP recognises that the controlled sector has been the poor relation in education for too long and we are determined to ensure a level playing field for future generations.

"The DUP is not blocking the Education Bill. We will take no blame for the minister's failure. We have dozens of amendments which we trust can command wide support. Progress can be made when the minister has dealt with the areas of concern that she, her party and the department have known for many months but to date have failed to address".

Meanwhile, the two Ulster Unionist ministers in the Executive have accused Ms Ruane of failing to consult with her ministerial colleagues over the plan.

Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey said her statement to the house was an "incredibly worrying development".

"At no time has Minister Ruane sought the support of the Northern Ireland Executive for her 'transitional governance' plans for education," they said in a joint statement.

"This is despite the Ministerial Code requiring a minister to bring any cross-cutting and 'significant or controversial' matters to the Executive.

They added: "Devolution is meant to be about democratic accountability - not ministerial authoritarianism. We are now calling on the Executive to urgently convene and require from the Minister for Education an explanation for her actions".

However, the Association of Chief Executives of the Education and Library Boards welcomed the minister's statement.

"This announcement begins to address many of the issues raised by chief executives in their letters to the Permanent Secretary," said a spokesman.

"As secretaries to our boards, we will be seeking clarification on a number of practical issues outlined in the minister's statement and will be advising our boards accordingly."

end

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