Belfast Telegraph

School reforms will take less talk and more action

Another unelected quango will not solve problems in education. Elected politicians will, says Daithi McKay

One hundred and eight members were elected to the Assembly just four months ago. They were mandated to make key decisions and to agree a way forward in key areas - education being one of the most important.

That being the case, it does not make any sense to establish an unelected commission to bring forward yet another report and yet another set of recommendations.

We have seen numerous reports in recent years and I do not believe that it is justifiable to use money from a reduced education budget on duplicating previous work.

The fact of the matter is that politicians are elected to make decisions and the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, has made it quite clear that he wishes to resolve issues of concern by working in a mature and constructive way with the education committee and other political parties. That is the way forward.

There is far too much bureaucracy in the Education system and had other parties backed the establishment of an Education and Skills Authority (ESA), we would already be realising the financial benefits of that with efficiency savings being directed to frontline services.

That could certainly have eased the difficulty we face in this current period of financial austerity.

For example, it was envisaged that ESA would have been the single contracting authority for numerous goods and services and capital procurement.

That single, common approach would have ensured value for money and savings in a sector that has a procurement spend of hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Sinn Fein wants an education system which is efficient, effective and fit for the 21st century. That means tackling the 50,000 empty school desks that the public are currently paying for.

That also means schools working together to deliver a high-quality education for our young people which offers opportunity and choice.

Later this month, the education minister will make a significant statement to the Assembly on the way forward.

Over the next few years, there will undoubtedly be increased sharing between and within schools, amalgamations and a need for long-term planning.

In an environment of falling enrolments, high numbers of empty school desks and government cuts to the Budget, the need for area planning, sustainable schools and raising the quality of education for all our children is greater than ever.

The sustainable schools policy sets out criteria which includes a quality educational experience, enrolment trends and having a sound financial position.

Schools must meet these and it is the responsibility of managing authorities to implement the policy. There should be no procrastination when it comes to raising the standards of our children's education.

The entitlement framework will set a broader curriculum choice for students at key Stage 4 and 5. An area planning framework will ensure that the needs of local areas are included in forward plans and schools acting collectively could bring forward their own proposals.

The sharing of resources will undoubtedly increase both within and between sectors. In some instances, schools will amalgamate and/or integrate and that will be one of a number of choices that schools will be looking at in the time ahead.

Establishing another unelected quango will not resolve the outstanding issues in education. What is needed is decisive action, reform and rationalisation.

What will be key is constructive leadership from all parties around the Executive table on this issue. What will be of equal importance is the need for stakeholders within education to push ahead with further change and reform.

There are undoubtedly difficult decisions ahead for not only the education minister, but for the schools, respective sectors and the managing authorities.

However, an education system fit for the 21st century will not be achieved by making easy decisions.

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