Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

O'Dowd's agenda sending schools in wrong direction

The laudable objective of educational reform is being thwarted by a minister who can't resist meddling, writes Brett Lockhart

Whom do you trust to govern your children's schools? Civil servants? Or principals and governors? At the heart of the proposed new Education Bill is an audacious attempt by the Department of Education to wrest back control of a sector that has consistently delivered excellence and value for money.

There is no single formula for a good school, but the voluntary system in Northern Ireland has illustrated how the autonomy of individual schools has already delivered the educational success that the Education Bill aims to deliver.

A more detailed analysis of the legislation reveals that the Educational and Skills Authority (ESA) is but one piece of the department's overall strategy of command and control.

The combined effect of ESA, the new entitlement framework and area-based planning allows the department, through ESA, to gain a stranglehold on all educational provision.

As the minister, John O'Dowd, stated in response to a recent query about whether selection would still be with us in 10 years: "We will be in a different place. Area-planning will have kicked in. We will see a rationalisation of our schools estate. We are dealing more and more with restricted budgets ... Schools will be dealing with the entitlement framework and no school will be able to plan on its own in terms of its future." Quite.

How does this fit with the stated aim of introducing "maximised delegated autonomy with accountability" for all schools? Schools can be pressured in a myriad of alternative ways by the new arrangements to comply with a minister's ideological agenda.

A critical power that will be lost in the Education Bill is the ability of voluntary schools to employ all of their own staff. Section 3 of the Bill, currently before the Assembly education committee, states that ESA will be the employer of all staff in grant-aided schools.

The Governing Bodies Association has consistently argued that the failure to include an opt-out provision will change the essential nature of voluntary schools and fundamentally alter the education system. The minister simply responds that he is entitled to change the rules even if there is no obvious need, or public concern.

In November 2011, OFMDFM attempted to deal with the particular concerns of voluntary schools, by stating that there is nothing in the new arrangements which will undermine the principle that "where it is already the case, boards of governors will continue to employ and dismiss members of staff".

This introduces a fundamental anomaly if ESA is also to be the single employing authority of all staff. Ironically, it is this contradiction which represents the last chance of securing an opt-out for the voluntary sector before the Bill becomes law and the die is cast, possibly for generations.

Voluntary schools have employed their own staff and managed their own budgets, in some cases, for more than 150 years. Why the determination to dismantle a sector if it is demonstrably successful?

If the direction of travel in education in England and Wales under both Labour and coalition governments is to de-centralise, why are parties in Northern Ireland heading in the other direction? If the net result is more monies being expended on administration and less on schools, how is this in the interest of pupils?

The fact that the proportion of the delegated educational budget that reaches schools in Northern Ireland is significantly lower than in England and Wales should, in itself, be an incentive to reverse the trend.

In contrast, our legislators are proposing to set up the largest educational employer in Europe, with more than 50,000 staff. All stakeholders accept the good sense of amalgamating the education and library boards into a single education authority.

It is deeply regrettable that the initial aims and laudable objectives of a reform of educational administration have been thwarted by a department that could not resist the opportunity to meddle and a minister whose educational vision has no place for voluntary schools.

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