Fears of school closures in wake of consultation plan

Education Minister Peter Weir, right, says that the status quo is not an option for Northern Ireland education. Pic: Press Eye.

Education Minister Peter Weir, right, says that the status quo is not an option for Northern Ireland education. Pic: Press Eye.

A consultation has been launched on plans which will see an increasing number of school closures and mergers across Northern Ireland.

The Education Authority (EA) is inviting responses on the ‘Providing Pathways 2017-2020’ plan which sets out the future needs and challenges for Northern Ireland schools.

Education minister Peter Weir said that the status quo is not an option

Education minister Peter Weir said that the status quo is not an option

EA’s Director of Education John Collings said: “The core purpose of area planning is to ensure a network of sustainable schools that are the right type, the right size and are located in the right place. Providing Pathways is the start of that process under the Education Authority.”

Since the last area planning process, started by Education Boards in 2012, a single Education Authority has been established which will ensure a consistent approach across all areas, he said.

Speaking of the plan, Education Minister Peter Weir told the assembly this week that change must happen: “We have too many small primary schools with more than two year groups in a single class. There are too many schools with too few pupils to generate sufficient funds to deliver the curriculum to an acceptable level. It is a real issue particularly in schools with very small sixth forms,” he added.

“We have schools that are too small to adequately provide for their pupils and ensure they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The current status quo is not an option.”

But UUP Education spokeswoman Sandra Overend, responded that she was opposed to any rationalisation of small rural schools.

The proposal is based on the Sustainable Schools Policy from two mandates ago, she said, adding that “it is clear that the changes proposed are motivated by the need to cut costs rather than a concern for the quality of provision”.

She added: “A study by the Ulster University shows that less than one percent of the entire school budget would be saved by closing small schools and dispersing thousands of pupils. Is this really worth it?”

SDLP Education Spokesperson Colin McGrath MLA said the announcement has already caused great anxiety particularly in rural primary schools.

“It is from bitter experience that rural communities have come to expect that it is their schools that will be unfairly targeted in this shake up and that this course of action will only serve to further isolate rural communities,” he said.

No specific proposals for individual schools will be made until early 2017.

See the plan at www.eani.org.uk/providingpathways or call 028 90 56 40 27.