In minister's absence, unelected official can shut schools

Amid disquiet over plans to radically change special needs education in Belfast, Stormont's education department has confirmed that it believes a senior civil servant can decide to close schools in the absence of a minister of education.

Micah Jennings, a pupil at Glenveagh Special School
Micah Jennings, a pupil at Glenveagh Special School

However, the Education Authority (EA) – the body which operates at arms’ length from the department which employs teachers – has said that it does not believe that is possible and that a minister will have to take the decision.

The situation is another example of the confusion within the public sector in Northern Ireland as civil servants attempt to grapple with a situation which was never foreseen in legislation but which the Government has allowed to drift on for more than a year.

Last month it emerged that the EA is planning to close and merge seven of ten special schools in Belfast and replace them with larger special ‘super schools’, with each of the new schools expected to admit pupils from ages three to 19 with a range of widely differing disabilities, unlike the more specialised schools currently in place.

Department of Education permanent secretary Derek Baker can now decide to close schools, he believes.

Writing in today’s News Letter, the mother of a ten-year-old pupil at Glenveagh Special School questioned how those making decisions which will profoundly impact his life will be accountable.
Donna Jennings said: “Is it appropriate for the EA to publish their proposals, and proceed with consultations regarding these proposals while there is still no Minister for Education in place? To whom is the EA accountable throughout this process?”

However, the implications extend beyond special needs education and mean that any school could be closed without ministerial involvement.

Last year the Department of Education updated its 42-page guidance document on the publication of a development proposal – the formal process whereby major changes to a school’s enrolment or its closure are brought for approval – to address the issue explicitly.

In the updated guidance, which was issued last July after the department had been operating without a minister for four months, it said that the power to decide on development proposals rests with the department and “in the absence of a minister, the decision making powers of the department in relation to development proposals are exercised by the Permanent Secretary”.

Department of Education permanent secretary Derek Baker can now decide to close schools, he believes.

In effect, the new situation means that civil servants will advise each other on whether to close a school, with one of their number then being the final decision-maker. Only the High Court could intervene at that stage.

Unlike a minister, who could be voted out of office by the public, parents or teachers cannot remove unelected civil servants.

The Department of Education said that “if a development proposal in relation to a special school is published and a decision is required; if a minister is not in office the permanent secretary will make a decision in keeping with other decisions on Development Proposals. The Department of Education Permanent Secretary is Derek Baker.

“If the Education Authority, as managing authority for special schools, publishes a development proposal in relation to any special school it will be subject to the statutory Development Proposal process. This includes a two month statutory objection period during which the department also accepts any comments in support of a proposal.”

However, the Education Authority said it believed that “any significant change which emerges will require the publication of a full set of development proposals and ministerial approval”.

It added that it was “seeking to improve the quality of education provision for children with special educational needs in Belfast. Our objective is to create state of the art special schools that can meet the needs of these very special children and young people close to where they live.

“We want to provide modern facilities in line with new investment which has been made in other areas for example, Arvalee School in Omagh and Castle Tower School in Ballymena.”