Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The results of a divided education system in Northern Ireland

Finally, after five months of waiting, the results of the viability audit of all primary, secondary and grammar schools in Northern Ireland have been published.

What they reveal is that we have an education system in crisis, with 538 of our 1,055 schools experiencing some degree of difficulty in either their quality of education, pupil numbers or finances.

That information will now be used to draw up an Area Plan for the future of the Northern Ireland schools’ estate, mapping out which schools will be needed in the future to meet the needs of all pupils. Some will survive, some will not.

Over the course of the next 18 months we should begin to learn which schools will close, merge and expand.

By the end of March an area plan for post-primary schools should be drawn up by the education authorities, while the end of June is the time frame for primary schools.

Those Area Plans are expected to go out to consultation in September. In January next year recommendations following consultation are due to be drawn up and any proposals for closures will start to be published in February with schools earmarked beginning to shut in August 2013.

But what we already know is there are 85,000 surplus places in our system — the equivalent of 150 schools.

That problem can be immediately addressed through shared education — be that cross-sector — controlled, maintained and integrated schools working together or grammars and non-grammars collaborating more.

The cost of division is evident in the number of surplus places and the duplication of resources, but there are also social repercussions of educating children from different backgrounds separately.

The best outcomes for all pupils are evident in education systems around the world where school intakes are reflective of society: a shared education system. Let’s hope the Education Minister and his department have the vision to create a shared education system fit for the 21st century.

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