Secretary of State Owen Paterson has attacked Northern Ireland’s segregated schools, claiming the policy involves a “criminal waste of money”.
But his comments have been swiftly slammed by Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane.
Mr Paterson told Conservative Party members in Birmingham that British taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for schools, such as one Belfast primary that had no pupils and another that had more staff than pupils.
Last week a report claimed that shared education between Catholic and Protestant schools could help schools survive imminent budget cuts
Although responsibility for education is devolved, Mr Paterson told a Conservative Party fringe meeting he had a duty to “comment from the outside” and was now raising the issue publicly after holding private discussions with First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Mr Paterson also urged Stormont’s politicians to seize on the dire economic situation as a “golden opportunity” to ditch the policy.
“I have had a report this morning that there is a school in Belfast with no pupils and a school in Belfast with more staff than pupils,” he said.
“That is a criminal waste of public money. We cannot go on bearing that cost of segregation and I don’t see why the British taxpayer should go on subsidising segregation.
“It is entirely in the hands of local ministers. We have a golden opportunity now, under economic pressure, to do what actually would be very good long-term for Northern Ireland.
“This is for local ministers to negotiate. We believe in devolution, but we have to comment from outside that when you have got every MP at this conference representing British taxpayers they are going to wonder why there are empty schools in Belfast being paid for by the tax payer.”
But Ms Ruane said: “It is irresponsible to make ill-informed comments about areas which are not your responsibility. Mr Paterson is thankfully not in charge of any department in the north of Ireland. He is attempting to divert public attention away from the fact that his Government is proposing to slash public spending.”
Mr Paterson’s comments were welcomed by the Integrated Education Fund. Its chief executive Tina Merron said: “All over Northern Ireland we have duplication or over-administration of public services. With regards to education the existing configuration is not fit for purpose if measured against economy and efficiency; we have schools with empty desks across all management types, offering the same curriculum and often in neighbouring locations.”
She added: “What we, and our children, now need, is the political will to challenge the fundamental structure and delivery of education. And the desegregation of our society offers a long-term economic dividend: an open and confident Northern Ireland is more attractive to inward investors and to potential employers.
“There is a growing body of evidence which demonstrates a high degree of support for more shared education, and the number of cross-sectoral projects between schools in Northern Ireland shows a willingness at grassroots level to reach out. The sooner our politicians realise this, the easier it should be for them to make decisions about saving and spending on education.”