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Northern Ireland schools 'must co-operate or face closure'

By Lindsay Fergus

Economic uncertainty will drive an increasing number of schools in Northern Ireland to share teachers, resources and facilities, it was claimed last night.

It comes as two Mid-Ulster schools, from separate traditions, become the first in the province to share a teacher who takes joint classes at both schools.

However, as schools here slowly see their surpluses eradicated and almost 200 have fallen into deficit, more principals and boards of governors will have to look at innovative ways of sharing to survive.

Both the chairman and vice-chairman of Stormont's education committee have warned that schools are struggling to balance the books and urged more of them to look at sharing as a means of freeing up vital resources.

David McNarry, vice-chairman, said: "There's a lot of economic uncertainty. Schools are finding it very tight at the minute. The schools are really only getting into the budget cuts now and they are a big worry to them."

Some primary schools here are £200,000 in the red and some post-primary schools as much as £600,000 in the red.

And the situation will only get worse as the Department of Education announced at the end of November a 5% cut in 2011/12, 1% in 2012/13 and 5% in 2014/15 to the Aggregated Schools' Budget.

That will mean less pupil funding - £250 for primary, £396 for post-primary and £513 for sixth formers.

For primary schools with 300 pupils that is a loss of around £75,000 from their budget, and for a post-primary school with 850 pupils including a small sixth form it could be approximately £350,000.

Chairman Mervyn Storey explained: "They face a very difficult, if not impossible, task. The current financial plan in some ways is unworkable."

He added: "There needs to be a reduction in the duplication of services. We can't continue to have four of everything in every town and part of the country. It does not make logic or economic sense.

"I think in the situation we are currently in any decision for change is better coming from the schools and boards of governors themselves, rather than from the top down."

"If the decision has been reached by the parents and the schools it will be successful because it's a local solution to a local problem, that (sharing) is a way forward for some of the problems that face us in education."

Teaching unions have warned that thousands of teaching jobs will be lost as a result of the budgetary pressures. Schools have also suffered a series of other blows after the Department of Education saw its funding slashed by £126m including high inflation, which makes it more expensive to purchase goods and services, rising energy costs which means more money spent on heating, lighting and fuel, and the reduction and phasing out of Entitlement Framework monies.

Mr McNarry praised Desertmartin Primary and Knocknagin Primary for coming together to maximise resources.

He said: "Those people are pacesetters.

"I hope in the not too distant future that we will go and visit them and get feedback which can be relayed to other schools.

"That is something I am keen on as there's also a community benefit, particularly when schools and communities come together.

Schools are going to have to look under the carpet for every resource that they can manipulate."

Background

Under the Primary Integrating and Enriching Education (PIEE) project, operated by the North Eastern Education and Library Board with funding from the International Fund for Ireland and Atlantic Philanthropies, the two schools have been working together. As well as enriching the curriculum, the PIEE project has given pupils the chance to visit Bushmills Education Centre, a samba drumming course and a joint Christmas concert. There are 10 cross-community partnerships involving 27 small, mainly rural schools in the board's area.

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