27 schools face mergers and one new Irish facility planned under education reforms
A new Irish language secondary school in Belfast has been mooted while 27 schools across Northern Ireland face the possibility of mergers due to sustainability issues, according to the Education Authority's latest annual plan.
The EA's 2018-19 Action Plan identifies challenges facing the entire education estate from nursery, primary, post-primary and special schools.
The report includes 70 work streams to be taken forward over the next year, including the expansion of some schools.
Ashfield Boys School in east Belfast, and Belfast Boys Model and Belfast Girls Model in the north of the city are to see an increase to their sixth form numbers.
There is also a proposal for the establishment of Autistic Spectrum Disorder Centres for children at Key Stage 1 and General Learning Support Centres for children at Key Stage 2.
Some of the other issues mentioned include the high demand for integrated education in the east Belfast and Castlereagh area, where Lagan College annually receives almost twice as many applications as it has available places.
And the plan envisages opening a new Irish language post primary school in north Belfast.
It will be the third Irish-medium secondary school in Northern Ireland alongside Colaiste Feirste in Belfast and Gaelcholaiste Dhoire in Dungiven.
The Board of Governors at Colaiste Feirste are set to consult over the new facility, which it is understood could initially be a satellite school.
While the actions are included in the EA's 2018-19 outlook, many of the proposals are unlikely to be realised within a year.
All proposed actions will be subject to detailed consultation with each school's Board of Governors, staff, parents, trade unions, community and political representatives, as well as other schools likely to be affected by any change and will explore all possible options.
The report also points out that the inclusion of the named school or area does not mean that there will be a development proposal, or if there is a proposal, that this will be approved automatically.
Each proposal will be considered against "robust and verifiable information", with the Minister (or the Permanent Secretary in the absence of a Minister) having the final sign-off.
However, the last Education Minister before the collapse of Stormont says that for such major proposals, there should be ministerial oversight.
DUP MLA Peter Weir also urged the EA to work closely with local communities over the proposals.
"There is a need for reform in the education system, particularly during a difficult financial situation," he said.
"However, we also need to ensure the best educational outcomes for our schools and the pupils within each school. There are a number of factors which need to be considered in this.
"There needs to be real and meaningful engagement with communities. The Education Authority must ensure that any future proposals are right for the school community, pupils and staff.
"The worst outcome for schools is when there is an axe hanging over a school with no decision. The EA should be cognisant of this.
"With any seismic reform of this nature, there should really be Ministerial oversight. Four out of the five main parties would restore the Executive tomorrow but Sinn Fein feel the Irish language is more important than fixing education."
The EA's director of Education, John Collings, said the body faces many challenges in terms of ensuring school places across Northern Ireland, with some areas having too many and others too few.
"In many areas of Northern Ireland there are too many school places for the size of the population, while in other areas, there are not enough places," he explained.
"It may also be the case that there are not enough school places of the right type - perhaps demand for integrated or Irish medium education isn't being met in a particular area.
"Area planning seeks solutions to these issues to ensure all pupils have the opportunity to fulfil their potential."
Meanwhile, the Ulster Farmers' Union has voiced its concerns over the 27 schools named as having sustainability issues, pointing out that half of them are in rural areas.
UFU rural affairs chairperson, Joy Rollston, said: "If a rural school closes, it has a major negative impact on the dynamics of that community. Our schools are the hub of many rural communities. It is imperative to keep rural schools open."
Last April, the EA published Providing Pathways - A Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020. The 2018-19 action plan is the second of three accompanying annual plans.
The following schools have this year been identified as having sustainability issues:
Antrim and Newtownabbey - Primary
Tír na nÓg PS
St Macnissius' PS
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon - Primary
St Michael's PS (Clady)
Causeway Coast and Glens - Primary
Causeway Coast and Glens - Post-primary
North Coast IC
Fermanagh and Omagh - Primary
St John the Baptist PS
Lisburn and Castlereagh - Post-primary
Mid Ulster - Primary
Mid and East Antrim - Primary
St Brigid's PS
St Colmcille's PS
Upper Ballyboley PS