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Shelving of ESA plans prompts call for Sinn Fein to leave education

By David Whelan

Calls have been made for Sinn Fein to step aside from the helm of education in Northern Ireland after it announced it was shelving its long-term education project.

The Education and Skills Authority plan (ESA), which was first proposed in 2007 and which has cost £17m to date, has been halted because of a lack of unionist support and the looming council switchover in 2015.

Education Minister John O'Dowd announced yesterday that he was now planning to replace Northern Ireland's current five education boards with a single body and one chief executive – providing new legislation is accepted by the Assembly.

Speaking yesterday, Mr O'Dowd denied that the plan had been scrapped.

"It has set aside, it can be returned to again and I hope it will be returned to, because I think it is a valuable tool not only for the administration of education, but for quality of education for all of our young people," he said.

"I am negotiating with certain parties who believe the only important element of education is the areas that they believe they represent or whose vested interest they have in mind – we can't move forward on that basis.

"I could continue in the false belief that we are going to reach ESA in the very near future, (or) I can be realistic about it and I can step forward and bring forward a real alternative.

"The reason why I brought forward this counter-proposal or this compromise proposal at this stage is because morale is very low within our education boards, it has been operating in very very difficult circumstances... but we need certainty moving forward within our education system."

Ukip MLA David McNarry last night called on Sinn Fein to vacate the position after what he described as "16 long years of failure".

The Strangford Assembly member said: "Seventeen million wasted is no laughing matter.

"One party controls a ministry for 16 years – is this power-sharing?"

DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said that until greater detail was made available, it was impossible to comment in any detail.

"John O'Dowd has recognised that he failed to secure the necessary political agreement to proceed with ESA," he said.

He added: "We await to see the details of his new proposals, but the same political agreement will be necessary for these to be successful."

Factfile

Sinn Fein has had a minister at Stormont in control of the Department of Education at since devolution. The ESA has been in both the 2001 and 2011 Programme for Government, but plans for a single education authority ran into problems over the question of who would represent controlled schools attended mostly by Protestants, and whether voluntary grammar schools would lose some of their autonomy.

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