Ulster schools 'unfit for purpose'

MANY schools in Northern Ireland are not fit for purpose because of years of underinvestment, a government watchdog has said.

More than half of the estate is not ideally suited to deliver the new curriculum and many buildings need costly repairs, the Northern Ireland Audit Office added.

The 292 million maintenance backlog is equivalent to 900 per pupil. The report says there had been significant under-spending on the schools estate during the 1990s.

"The age profile of the schools estate at that time meant that over 50 per cent of the estate was not ideally suited to deliver the new curriculum and the condition of many buildings rendered them unfit for purpose and costly to maintain," it added.

The probe by Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly - School Design And Delivery - also identified significant problems with the general quality of the schools estate and the planning process for the delivery of the capital building programme.

The Department of Education and education authorities were taking steps to reduce temporary accommodation but there were still nearly 3,000 temporary units in use.

Other findings included:

Improvements to the schools estate were being hampered by delays in delivering projects, with most current schemes expected to take at least six years to complete from when they were originally announced;

In the five years to the end of March this year, total spending was 353 million below budget;

There were too many extra places in the system, with surplus capacity estimated at 54,000 places;

The potential for community use was not being fully exploited;

Timely evaluation of completed projects should be used to improve future performance, achieve best value for money and improve decision-

making.

Barriers to the delivery of schemes include legal issues around site acquisition, waiting for approval from other statutory agencies like the

Planning Service, reviews of long-term pupil enrolments and a legal challenge to the department's Construction Framework.

It said the planned establishment of the Education and Skills Authority presented a significant opportunity to address many of the issues raised. In the projects which were being delivered there was clear evidence of improvements in design quality.

The report said: "There is a pressing need to progress the capital investment programme in order to improve the schools estate and enable the effective delivery of the curriculum."

It added: "Improvements to the schools estate, while previously constrained by a lack of resources, are now being constrained by delays in delivering projects."