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I do not have a schools hit-list, O’Dowd insists

By Lindsay Fergus

Education Minister John O’Dowd has admitted that his department and the boards currently hold damning information on schools.

However, he has denied that those schools already identified as having falling numbers, unsatisfactory educational standards, poor leadership and financial deficits are the ones which will be axed.

The schools have come to the education and library boards’ and department’s attention through routine inspection reports and school returns.

Addressing the education committee at Stormont yesterday, Mr O’Dowd said: “Boards have quite rightly kept their schools under review”, but he added: “There is no list in my department or the boards which would refer to schools at risk.”

Committee member Jonathan Craig said he “strongly suggested” that the schools earmarked for closure following the viability audit would be the ones on those very lists.

“Yes, there will be lists within the boards and department on various issues.... there’s no list of schools at risk,” the minister responded.

The committee’s vice-chairman David McNarry challenged Mr O’Dowd’s claims and accused him of not being up to scratch on his job.

Mr McNarry said: “I have to convince at least 60% of schools in my constituency that there’s not a hit-list, because they believe there is.”

Denying that he was “misleading” the committee, Mr O’Dowd again reiterated “there’s no hit-list for closures”, but added: “You could identify quite quickly the schools at risk.”

And he told the committee that the focus should be on “educational quality” and “not be protecting institutions”.

Following claims by Conall McDevitt that rural schools with small pupil numbers were being targeted, Mr O’Dowd said: “I am not here to close rural schools. I am here to close schools that are no longer educationally sustainable.”

Despite some of the MLAs naming specific schools which could be at risk under the department’s criteria, the minister said he refused to be drawn on individual schools until the viability audit had been completed by the boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) at the end of the year.

Story so far

This week the Education Minister John O’Dowd unveiled the most radical shake-up of education in decades. His plans include an immediate viability audit of every school. He has also ordered an area plan be drawn up identifying schools that are sustainable in the longer term. The review of post-primary is to be completed by Easter and primary by the end of the school year.

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