O’Dowd quit call over ESA £17m ‘mess’

Education Minister, John O'Dowd
Education Minister, John O'Dowd

Calls have been made for the education minister to resign after he gave orders to end work on the controversial Education and Skills Authority (ESA), which had cost the taxpayer £17m over eight years.

Minister John O’Dowd told MLAs on Stormont’s justice committee this week that instead of progressing ESA, he was looking at merging existing education boards into three or even one, with minimal legislative amendments.

But NI Conservatives spokesman Mark Brotherston on Thursday accused the minister of making “an almighty mess”.

ESA was originally intended to save money and improve efficiency by merging education boards, but there have been widespread concerns among unionists and various education sectors that the new legislation for it would have taken too much power away from local schools in running their own affairs and instead placed it in the hands of the minister.

“Under John O’Dowd and his predecessor, Catriona Ruane, the proposed body became a complicated, expensive bureaucracy, designed to take decision-making away from schools and parents,”

Mr Brotherston said on Thursday. “That’s why ESA, under Sinn Féin’s influence, became hugely controversial and why £17m has effectively been wasted.”

He added that it was “a scandal” that ESA is “more or less dead in the water”.

The Department of Education was invited to respond to Mr Brotherston, but declined to comment.

At the same meeting, Mr O’Dowd confirmed he was making available an extra £1m for schools in the Shankill area of Belfast, targeting children in social deprivation.

Other socially deprived schools will also benefit, under the reform of the Common Funding Scheme, he said. The money is not a one-off payment, but part of the school budgets.