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Education body faces further delay after splits on clauses

By Lindsay Fergus

A split over Catholic versus state schools could scupper progress on a long-awaited single education body for Northern Ireland.

It has emerged that 41 of a total 68 clauses in a Stormont Bill needed to bring Education and Skills Authority (ESA) into operation have failed to win the backing of the Education Committee.

The Belfast Telegraph has learned that political parties represented on the committee, including Alliance, DUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein and UUP, have raised a number of sticking points which could delay the body even further.

These include:

• Concerns over teachers redeployed from controlled schools to Catholic schools being required to obtain a Catholic Teaching Certificate or risk losing their job

lOpposition to the promotion of Irish Medium education

• Opposition to additional support for integrated education

• Fears that the Bill threatens the autonomy of voluntary grammar schools

• Plans to rationalise the schools' estate through area planning.

The aim of ESA is to replace Northern Ireland's current five education and library boards as well as the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

It is designed to save £20m per year and was first planned to begin in 2008. But despite the boards being wound down, it has not yet come in to being.

A source said: "There remains major problems and serious concerns that have not been addressed as far as the Education Bill is concerned. Looking at the report from the committee it is clear that there was no consensus or agreement on most of the issues."

Alliance Education spokesman Trevor Lunn said that while clarity was sought on a number of clauses in the Bill, it had not been provided by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or by the Education minister.

He said: "We do not know what we are being asked to agree on. The question of who employs staff in schools has not been resolved."

The Lagan Valley MLA added: "I do not know where it goes from here. I do not see the Bill coming before the House until this happens. It does have the potential to scupper the Bill."

Many issues are split down party lines with familiar stand-offs over grammar schools and schools which traditionally educate one section of the community.

It has also come to light that as well as running into political problems the draft legislation has been hit with legal problems.

Sources have said that the Education Bill in its current format means "legally ESA can't be done".

Described as "technical and complex". Another source said: "The legal issues will push things back a bit".

One issue that needs to be resolved is a contradiction that ESA will be the single employer of all staff in schools while stating that boards of governors will be able to continue to hire and fire.

An Assembly question from UUP education spokesman Danny Kinahan has revealed that the non-existent body has now cost the public purse £15m.

Mr Kinahan, who sits on the Education Committee, said: "ESA is in trouble. The two main parties have got themselves into difficulties. They have done an unworkable deal."

The UUP, which wants a single education authority but opposes ESA, has issues with the Bill.

When asked about the fresh difficulties ESA has encountered a department spokesman said: "Since the agreement of the Executive to the ESA Bill in September 2012, work has been continuing on track to ensure the establishment of ESA in 2013 in line with the commitment within the Programme For Government."

The latest hurdles for the troubled body come less than three months before the Department is hoping the Bill will be given Royal Assent with the aim of being operational by September.

It is understood that behind the scenes meetings – including between the DUP and Sinn Fein – have been held in a desperate bid to keep ESA on track.

DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said: "The Bill has now completed committee stage. The DUP continues to work at the Bill to find a way forward which is in keeping with the heads of agreement. The Bill will be further amended through the Executive before we would support it in the Assembly."

The Programme For Government has made a commitment that the body will be up and running by the end of this year.

10 of the problems which are causing concern for parties

1 Contradictions within the Heads of Agreement —  the road map for the establishment of ESA — that was published by the First and Deputy First Ministers in November 2011.

2 Some Education Committee members strongly opposed the promotion of Irish Medium or integrated education claiming that it would disadvantage other sectors.

3 It was felt the absence of independent control and management of the Education and Training Inspectorate would prevent reasonable and valuable criticism of departmental policy.

4 Concerns expressed that there was conflict of interest with the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment being an exams body and also the exams regulator.

5 The committee requested sight of a list of assets, liabilities and staff posts which are to transfer to ESA and those which are to transfer to the Catholic Church. The department did not provide the information.

6 Members highlight concerns in respect of the requirement for teachers in Catholic Maintained primary schools to possess the Catholic Teaching Certificate. It was argued that in the case of a merger between a Catholic maintained primary school and a controlled primary school, it would be unreasonable to require teachers from the controlled primary to be obliged to obtain the Catholic Teaching certificate.

7 Some members felt ESA’s role and its involvement in employment schemes would have a negative impact on voluntary grammar and grant maintained integrated schools.

8 Concern was expressed about the absence of policy clarity on shared education.

9 The committee did not support suggestions for changes to the compositions of boards of governors.

10 Some members expressed considerable concerns in respect of the proposed enhancement of the powers of school inspectors.

Belfast Telegraph


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