Education Minister John O'Dowd has ordered his department to stop work on the controversial Education and Skills Authority (ESA), it has emerged – signalling the death-knell for the body.
he shock admission came at yesterday's Stormont education committee when Mr O'Dowd also revealed that he had reduced ESA's budget by 50%, taking more than £1 million out of its coffers.
In a U-turn, the department is now working on reconfiguring the five education and library boards that ESA had been due to replace in 2013.
As ESA has failed to become a reality following political deadlock, the education and library boards now have to be reconstituted to align with the boundaries of the 11 new super councils coming into effect on April 1 next year.
Mr O'Dowd told MLAs at the Stormont meeting that there was a "significant" amount of work to be done. He is to bring a paper to the Executive, expected to be next month, outlining his proposals on the way forward.
It is understood that at least 170 schools will be affected by the boundary changes if all five education and library boards are retained.
However, the minister signalled that the five education boards could be reduced to three – or even just one.
If that were the case, instead of an amendment to existing legislation, the minister would have to bring forward a new Bill, which would take much longer to pass through the Assembly.
It is a blow not only to the Education Minister, the second Sinn Fein minister who has failed to get ESA up and running, but also the Executive.
According to the Programme for Government, ESA should have been operational in 2013 – not only has that deadline been and gone, but ESA seems as far away as ever.
ESA, which has been in the pipeline for more than seven years, has also been a major drain on the public purse, costing around £17m.
Alliance's education spokesman Trevor Lunn described the situation as "frankly, ridiculous".
He also asked the Education Minister why work on ESA could not continue alongside the reconstitution of the education and library boards. Mr O'Dowd said he did not have the resources to continue working on ESA and prepare for the reconfiguration of the boards.
Although the minister would not be drawn on the ESA sticking points – saying they varied from "occasion to occasion" and depending on what sector you spoke to – the Belfast Telegraph understands a number of stumbling blocks remain, including concerns from the transferors about ownership/trusteeship of controlled schools, additional legislative support for the Irish-medium sector and additional powers for the Education and Training Inspectorate.
Mr Lunn laid the blame for ESA's failure at the door of unionism, saying it "was responsible for blocking this Bill".
However, chairman of the education committee, the DUP's education spokesman Mervyn Storey, said: "I do not think unionist politicians are responsible for education." Mr Storey said: "The issue is not as simple as getting political agreement but it is about ensuring that those key educational stakeholders believe that it is the right structure for education."
He added that "whether it is ESA legislation or an amendment to the existing legislation, it still requires political consent".
Speaking after the committee meeting, Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan claimed the failure of ESA was a victory for his party, and the minister had been left with "egg on his face".
A fortune wasted on the body that never was, writes Claire Williamson
It was in the pipeline for nearly a decade and has run up a bill of around £17million, writes Claire Williamson.
Plagued with delays, political disputes and controversy, now it appears the Education and Skills Authority's uncertain future is over before it even began.
It's one of the most expensive yet non-existent bodies in the history of Northern Ireland's power-sharing Assembly.
ESA was the single education authority that hoped to replace eight education bodies, including the five education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.
It has instead become a black hole wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
ESA was to be a leviathan with 2,596 staff but it stumbled at every hurdle and now it appears there is no possibility of it becoming a reality. The Department of Education's mantra had always been that when it became operational, it would save £20m through the streamlining of services, raise educational standards and lead to greater sharing in our segregated schools.
But following Minister John O'Dowd's shock admission yesterday, it seems the rocky road has finally hit a dead end.
It's proved an insurmountable obstacle for two Sinn Fein ministers.
Under former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, ESA missed the first three deadlines of April 2008, January 2010 and April 2010 – never managing to even come close to rousing the support of the unionist parties, and in particular the DUP, before being shelved.
In the autumn of 2011 – following the Assembly elections and the appointment of new Education Minister John O'Dowd– the wheels on ESA once again began to turn.
On November 16, 2011, the first signals that the DUP was on board the ESA train came when the First and Deputy First Ministers published the Establishing ESA: Heads of Agreement document.
Four months later the Education Minister placed the draft Education Bill for ESA before the Executive.
But three months passed with no sign of agreement on the document, which split not only the political parties but representatives of the Catholic Church and the voluntary grammars.
However, in an unexpected announcement on July 18, 2012, the First and Deputy First Ministers confirmed that discussions on the Education Bill had successfully concluded and that the approved Bill would be brought to the next meeting of the Executive.
Two days later in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr O'Dowd said that he believed ESA would be operational by April 2013 – at the time that was eight months away – but it was unachievable as Stormont's Education Committee had been granted an extension to scrutinise the Bill until April 8.
From there, other political moves were made to get agreement on ESA, but the black clouds hanging over the body proved impossible to shift.
Now ESA appears to be dead, with John O'Dowd banging the final nail into what's become a very expensive empty coffin with his announcement yesterday that work on the body has stopped.