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Cash squeeze throws plans for 22 new schools into doubt

By John Mulgrew and Michael McHugh

The Education Minister has given the green light to building projects at 22 schools — although they have yet to secure planning permission and are dependent upon funding becoming available.

John O’Dowd announced the new building projects yesterday.

Work is scheduled to begin on 14 primaries and eight secondaries by 2014.

However, a start to the construction work depends on both planning approval and “the level of capital funding availability at that time”.

The projects are expected to be worth £220m.

Last night, the announcement was greeted with cautious optimism by Education Committee chairman Mervyn Storey, who said he believed the changes to the way money is doled out is set to lead to “fewer and fewer schools” in the long-term future.

“I think the finance available will only be released from the department when they are convinced they have rationalised the school estate — and that is another way of saying we will get fewer schools,” the DUP man said.

“Economically, or more importantly educationally, that is not the right way to go.”

St Patrick's Academy voluntary grammar in Dungannon is one of the largest schemes given the go-ahead by Mr O'Dowd.

“The projects are aimed at either addressing serious or substandard accommodation inadequacies, or at effecting agreed rationalisation of the schools estate,” he said.

He said the work would address overcrowding and over-reliance on temporary classrooms.

The developments will now enter the planning process.

Mr O’Dowd approved around a third of applications for new-builds. He said six projects will involve permanent new-builds for integrated and Irish medium schools currently in temporary accommodation.

Fourteen developments are required to deal with previous or planned amalgamations or rationalisation of the schools estate.

The minister told the Assembly that authorisation to proceed with construction on each project would be based on the level of funding available at the time.

The Sinn Fein MLA also announced the opening of applications for the School Enhancement Programme, which will be available for refurbishing or extending schools and worth up to £40m over the next two years.

“I do not believe that in a modern, forward-looking society that we should accept a situation where children receive their entire primary school education in temporary accommodation, the majority of which is clearly outdated,” he said.

Mr O’Dowd said yesterday’s announcements provided a potential investment of up to £625m to the local economy and secured some 6,200 construction jobs.

Deputy chair of the Education Committee, UUP MLA Danny Kinahan, said it was “essential” that a “coherent and comprehensive plan is put in place for capital investment in our schools so that those in greatest need are prioritised”.

Belfast Telegraph


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