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John O'Dowd in line of fire over schools... with flak coming from Sinn Fein colleagues

But party swiftly backpedals and attributes quotes to SDLP

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 03/03/2016

John O'Dowd
John O'Dowd

An extraordinary row has broken out over a Government report that has seen a Sinn Fein minister criticised by members of his own party.

The controversy centres on a publication by Stormont's Public Accounts Committee examining education policy in Northern Ireland.

It strongly criticised the Department of Education's sustainable schools policy.

The department is headed by Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd.

The committee that produced the report is chaired by Sinn Fein MLA Michaela Boyle and includes two other Sinn Fein Members.

Its report said the policy was undermined by "flawed and inaccurate data".

However, in a statement, Mr O'Dowd hit back at the PAC, saying it had "completely failed to grasp the complex nature of the policy".

In an unusual move on Tuesday, an embargoed Press release that initially quoted Ms Boyle was withdrawn at late notice.

Journalists were contacted and told the comments should be attributed to SDLP MLA John Dallat, who is vice-chair of the committee.

It is usual practice for Ms Boyle, as committee chair, to be quoted in the Press release.

The word "fundamental" was also removed from a sentence saying "the department has failed to recognise the fundamental flaws in its own management information".

An Assembly source said the initial draft had been sent out mistakenly.

The source explained Ms Boyle, a West Tyrone MLA, had not been present at some sessions when the report was being compiled.

As Mr Dallat was chair in her absence, the source said it was usual practice that he should be quoted in the Press release.

Yesterday Mr Dallat hit back at Mr O'Dowd's criticism.

He said the report was "an excellent piece of research" identifying serious flaws in the methodology used by Mr O'Dowd's department to identify schools earmarked for closure.

"This report was unanimously agreed by all members of the PAC including the three Sinn Fein Members who did not attempt to put party politics before the need for critical change that will benefit schools and children," he said.

The PAC examined the Department of Education's sustainable schools policy, which decides whether schools should close or not.

The committee said the number of empty places in schools is "likely to be overstated". It called for up-to-date school enrolment figures to be gathered "as a matter of urgency".

But Mr O'Dowd said the sustainable schools policy has been tested in court on several occasions and found to be competent.

Before

Speaking about the report, chairperson of the committee, Michaela Boyle MLA said:

"We are concerned by the fact that the Department has failed to recognise the fundamental flaws in its own management information. It is concerning that the Department's calculation of the actual number surplus school places may be substantially lower than the figure reported by the Department. This is no basis upon which to implement such an important policy."

After

Speaking about the report, deputy chairperson of the committee, John Dallat MLA said:

"We are concerned by the fact that the Department has failed to recognise the flaws in its own management information. It is concerning that the Department's calculation of the actual number surplus school places may be substantially lower than the figure reported by the department. This is no basis upon which to implement such an important policy."

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