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Time is running out to resolve political deadlock on future of schools system, warns John O'Dowd

By Lindsay Fergus

The Education Minister has warned his Executive colleagues that time is running out for them to sign off on a single education board to replace the five current boards due to dissolve early next year.

John O'Dowd, has outlined his Plan B – a single education board – after failing to get unionist backing for the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) that has been shelved after eight years.

However, he has told the Belfast Telegraph that four months after putting a paper before the Executive on the future of education administration, no agreement has been reached.

And he fears that unless a deal is done this month, he could be forced to implement his Plan C – a patchwork solution.

"To run an effective, efficient, world-class education system, you need the proper administration in place. We will not have the proper administration in place unless the Executive makes decisions in the very near future," he warned.

Mr O'Dowd has re-issued the May paper, with amendments, ahead of today's Executive meeting. He said: "There is no hope of bringing ESA forward in this mandate. I think the proposals I put forward now are a reasonable compromise in the sense that we have to do something ahead of the new council models. There has to be an administration to deliver education on the ground."

"What I am proposing is we reduce the boards down into one board to cover the entire north.

"That we use the model that came out of the ESA model in terms of representation, that gives equality of representation to all the sectors, and to sit round the one table and make decisions about the way forward."

Mr O'Dowd has also agreed to a new controlled sector body, which would champion controlled schools, traditionally attended by Protestant pupils, and would mirror the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) in terms of funding and power.

Although Mr O'Dowd admitted that some of the parties have had issues with his proposals, he would not be drawn on what they are. "I have presented the paper, I am yet to get it approved by the Executive so it is up to others to explain what their objections are."

Danny Kinahan, the UUP's education spokesman said: "The Ulster Unionist Party has no interest in holding up the reform of education administration but this needs to be done properly.

"Now it appears that because he is running out of time, he wants to rush through a bill for one education board with accelerated passage through the Assembly. This means no consultation with educationalists and no scrutiny by the Education Committee."

DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said: "The minister would be better employed working with my party and the Protestant churches to resolve the matter – streamlining education administration in a manner which does not treat the controlled sector as second-class citizens.

"If the Transferors, as the only body with any legislative voice relating to the controlled sector, are satisfied that progress has been made on the latest draft of a single board, then that is progress. We await to see if that is the case."

The deadlock is further embarrassment for the Executive, which has failed to live up to its Programme for Government commitment to make ESA operational in 2013.

Mr O'Dowd continued: "If we don't make a decision in September we are going to have to look for another solution. I believe the one board model is the way forward for that but if we do not get the one board model we may have to have a patchwork of proposals to bring us beyond April 2015 to make sure the boards are in line with the legislation. It certainly is not an ideal administration."

However, he added that he was confident there would not be an administrative collapse – schools would remain open, school buses would run and teachers would be paid.

Background

In April 2015, as part of the local government reform, previously known as the Review of Public Administration, the number of councils in Northern Ireland will decrease from 26 to 11 and there will also be a restructuring of health and education authorities. The Education and Skills Authority (ESA) was due to replace the five education and library boards. However, it failed to get political agreement.

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