Editor's Viewpoint: Education is in dire need of an overhaul
Education Minister John O'Dowd, undoubtedly, has one of the toughest jobs in the Executive.
He is set to unveil his blueprint for the future of the sector on Monday, but the range of challenges facing him is enormous and pressing. Whatever his vision for the future, it is bound to attract criticism as education is replete with vested interests determined to protect their own niches.
Like other big-spending departments, education is facing a serious shortfall in its budget, losing £700m over the next four years. It is estimated that some 20% of schools are already in debt and that figure is rising. Add into the mix the current over-supply of teachers, the huge number of empty desks in schools, possibly as many as 85,000, and the shocking figure of 4,000 pupils who leave school each year without achieving five good GCSE qualifications.
Mr O'Dowd's task is not just to try to bring some balance to the books but also to address the inequalities in education which mean that we have some of the highest achievers in the UK and also many who are failed by the system. And always lurking in the background is the inherent structural problem of the sector - the parallel Catholic and state school systems which unnecessarily eat up scarce resources never mind perpetuate societal division.
This is a time for the minister to make tough and radical decisions. There are compelling financial reasons to streamline the education system, sharing resources and creating schools which serve the needs of all pupils regardless of their academic abilities.
Of course any such moves will be resisted in some quarters but shirking the issues will only postpone a crisis in education and will not serve the interests of oncoming generations of children. Mr O'Dowd has made encouraging noises about shared schools and meeting the educational needs of all and now is the time for him to start delivering on that vision.