Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

ESA preliminary costs hit £10m

Education Minister Catriona Ruane is under fire over the Education and Skills Authority

The cost of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) in Northern Ireland has reached £10 million without beginning work.

Its establishment has been delayed by political divisions at Stormont.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said £10.2 million had been spent since 2005/6 on the centralised administration on preparations.

Ulster Unionist Sam Gardiner obtained the details in an Assembly question.

"If she (Ms Ruane) has so far failed to get Executive agreement to her proposals while at the same time pouring public money into this project, you have got to wonder: at what point she will stop spending?" Mr Gardiner asked. "This looks like another spectacular Sinn Fein failure and another failure for their Education Minister, hard on the heels of the fiasco she produced over school 11-plus transfer."

The minister has described the costs as an investment to save. She believes it will release £20 million a year in unnecessary bureaucracy, raise standards and more effectively plan the education estate.

The ESA would take over the functions of organisations like education and library boards. Creating a single finance and accounts system is among measures already taken by the ESA. The minister's enthusiasm for a new single education authority has run aground in the face of opposition from the Catholic and state sectors and some unionist politicians.

The ESA had been an organisation-in-waiting and had recruited staff to run it. With no resolution in sight, and none likely in the coming months, many of those staff returned to their original jobs. The ESA was due to take over the functions of the education and library boards and other bodies like the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) on January 1 2010, but the necessary legislation has yet to go through the Assembly.

The DUP has refused to back the new authority, conceived as part of the Review of Public Administration designed to streamline bureaucracy, because it is unhappy with the treatment of controlled schools, attended mostly by Protestant children.

The Department of Education said the Executive agreed to the establishment of the ESA in its Programme for Government and at the second stage of the Education Bill to establish ESA, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill. A spokesman said: "It is an agreed Executive commitment to support the priority in its programme to deliver modern high quality and efficient public services. It is certainly not a 'lone wolf' policy of any particular party. The Department remains ready to implement the new authority which would realise significant savings at a time of unprecedented pressures on public services."

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