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New single education body ESA hit by fresh delay

The long-delayed Education and Skills Authority (ESA) Bill will not meet its latest deadline of April 1, it has emerged.

Stormont's powerful education committee has been given approval by the Assembly to extend its scrutiny of the Education Bill until April 8 — seven days after the ESA deadline set out in the Programme for Government.

It will then have to go before the Assembly to be rubber-stamped.

Sources have indicated that it will be the autumn before the controversial Bill, needed to make ESA a reality, finishes its legislative journey.

It is the latest in a long line of delays for ESA which has been on the cards for seven years and has had millions of pounds spent on it to date.

The first deadline of April 1, 2008 came and went, as did the second one of January 1, 2010.

Progress has really only been made since Sinn Fein’s John O'Dowd took over as Education Minister in May 2011.

The education committee yesterday began its consideration of the Education Bill with five hours of evidence from the teaching unions, who are supportive of ESA but want to see amendments to the Bill.

Gerry Murphy, the head of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), said that a lot of the Bill lacked clarity.

Scott Naismith, principal of Methodist College Belfast, told the committee: “We are faced with a Bill that — if it comes into existence — will do a lot of good... but at the minute there are sections of the legislation that are far too open-ended.”

Deborah O'Hare, principal of Wallace High School, warned that if voluntary grammar schools lost their autonomy “efficiency and effectiveness could suffer”.

But John Devlin, president of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, expressed concerns that the ability for any sector to opt out would “totally weaken this whole procedure”.

Story so far

The Education Bill for the ESA was brought to the Executive in March and agreed in September; it passed stage one of the Assembly in early October and stage two on October 15. It is now at committee stage until April 8, 2013. It will then have to go the Assembly for consideration, further consideration and then the final stage. Its last legislative hurdle will be royal assent.

Questions and answers

Q What is the Education Bill?

A It is the legislation, made up of 69 clauses, which allows for the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority.

Q What is the Education Skills Authority?

A It is a new, single education body that, if approved by the Assembly, will replace the five education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the staff commission and the Youth Council for Northern Ireland.

Q Why do we need an Education Skills Authority?

A It will cut down on duplication of resources and save money — an estimated £20m per year. The Department of Education has also claimed a single education authority will raise educational standards.

Q So has the ESA been approved?

A The draft legislation has been agreed, however it is now before the Education Committee, which has the power to amend the Bill. The amended Bill will then have to go before the Assembly.

Q And what is the |timescale?

A It was supposed to be operational by April 1, 2013. In reality it may not be signed off before the 2013 summer recess.

Q What will the make-up of the ESA be like?

A It will be headed by a chief executive, chairman and a board of eight politicians, four trustees from the Catholic Church, four transferors from the Protestant churches and four community representatives. It will employ 50,000 people including 23,000 teachers.

Q What will happen to academic selection?

A It will be up to schools' boards of governors if they choose to exercise that right.

Belfast Telegraph