Editor's Viewpoint: O'Dowd's lesson for other ministers
This newspaper has consistently argued that prevailing and predicted economic circumstances make a compelling case for a radical overhaul of our education sector.
And it certainly seems that Education Minister John O'Dowd has been listening and is convinced of the need to make the sector more effective and efficient. As an initial move he has ordered an audit of the viability of every school in the province, to be completed by the end of December. That will provide him with the base line on which to begin his efficiency drive.
Of course it is not just about the economic viability of each school, although a quarter of the province's schools are already in debt. It is also about the standard of teaching in each school, pupil numbers, and the management structure in each school. Armed with that knowledge the minister can then begin to make informed judgements on the school estate, which schools will get additional resources to help them improve or to take on more pupils, and their links with their local communities.
While the minister deserves credit for demanding a swift audit of schools, he must follow it up in two ways. One, he must take action against those schools which fail the viability test and he must also look at other ways of streamlining the sector - forcing schools to share resources across the Catholic and state systems if necessary and looking at ways of saving funding on bureaucracy. There will be a lot of tough decisions ahead for him, as schools are deeply embedded in communities and any closures will be strongly resisted.
But Mr O'Dowd has set an example for other ministers to begin addressing the realities of life in these austere times. Politicians don't like taking decisions which put them at odds with their electorate, even when there are compelling reasons for doing so. But the reduction in public spending means that unpopular decisions will be necessary in every department and ministers must make that clear to all concerned. They must set their priorities and then stick to them.