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Warning over area-based schooling threat to selection

Area-based schooling must not be used to drive through plans to abolish selection, one of the Education Minister's staunchest critics said today.

Stormont Education Committee chairman Mervyn Storey promised progress would be closely monitored amid the political impasse over school transfers.

And Assembly member Basil McCrea branded the system an example of "on the hoof" decision making.

Decisions like where schools are built and which classes are shared would be devolved to one central and five area groups under Education Minister Caitriona Ruane's plans, outlined in a recent consultation.

Mr Storey said: "The concern is that area planning could be used to get to a different point than we are currently at and that is the issue we will be paying close attention to if it's used to drive through a particular policy that there's no consensus on.

"Area-based planning must not be used as a mechanism to try to get to the same destination point."

An official from the Department of Education told the committee they were not dictating to schools. He added there was a need for clear strategy.

"The objective is to ensure that the educational experience of the children is paramount in providing the estate (schools) in the area and how the facilities provided meet the educational needs of the children," he said.

"That will be a key element of area-based planning in ensuring that the education children have access to is of the right standard and they have the broad range of curriculum."

Issues raised during the Department's consultation included questions about how the relations between sectoral interests (like the Irish language schools) and the central Education and Skills Authority (ESA) will affect decision-making and the mechanism for achieving consensus.

Others included:

  • Too significant a role for either ESA or the sectoral interests depending on who you talked to.
  • More detail required on how needs would be anticipated and a call for parental input at the beginning in determining need.
  • Bodies which at present are permitted to raise development proposals must still be permitted to do so.
  • Question marks surround the effectiveness of undertaking even small aspects of area-based planning before the ESA is in place.
  • The process could be "problematic" given current uncertainties over school transfer and admissions criteria.

There was concern the make up of the groups was "biased" against the controlled sector and warnings creation of specialist schools could work against greater collaboration between institutions.

Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea said: "Without clear parameters it won't provide the solution and it is another example of inconsistent, on the hoof decision making by the education minister.

"The accepted wisdom was that the first (consultation) exercise was no more than a sighting shot and no progress will be made until there is political consensus to move it."

Belfast Telegraph


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