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Education: Northern Ireland

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2007

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Peter Hain) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

This Statement sets out how the Government intend to take forward the recommendations from the independent strategic review of education in Northern Ireland, which was led by Professor Sir George Bain. The review report was published on 4 December. Copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

If Northern Ireland is to maximise the skills, the talent and the commitment to rise to the challenges of improving the economy and be truly world class, it will require reform to the education system. That is why last year the Government asked Sir George Bain to carry out an independent review. The review’s focus was on the quality of education of children and has recommended overall an estate of fewer, larger schools characterised by greater collaboration and integration across sectors, with better strategic planning of the schools estate. The review sets out educational, social and economic arguments for change.

The 61 recommendations in the review report—all of which the Government have accepted—taken together offer a strategy for how best to use resources to maximise their contribution towards delivering a world-class education while remaining focused on meeting the educational needs of young people. It will take time to realise the full benefits of change.

The review report recommends that the education system should move to a system of area-based planning which would tackle the problems of overprovision and lack of co-ordination created by the current system. Strong, clear and coherent planning is crucial and the new Education and Skills Authority, to be established as part of the reforms of public administration in Northern Ireland, will play the central role in drawing up proposals for area plans for each of the seven coterminous new strategic local authorities. The further education and schools sectors also need to work together on provision for the local area.

The review highlighted the benefits of having strong schools that are educationally and financially viable for the long term. The review recommended new minimum threshold enrolments for primary and post-primary schools and for sixth forms below which the provision should be reviewed. Changes will be planned carefully and sensitively and will take time, with the educational interests of pupils remaining paramount. The Government are issuing a policy paper for consultation, incorporating the recommended minimum enrolments from the report.

It is important that investment in the schools estate supports well developed area plans that reflect local needs. No new school building projects will be announced unless they are compatible with area-based planning. Projects already under way will need to be reviewed so that they are consistent with the recommendations of the review.

In response to the review, the Government will examine the way in which individual schools are funded. The factors that make up the local management of schools common funding formula will be reviewed to make sure that they reflect and are responsive to the main costs faced by schools. There should be a greater level of delegation to schools, giving power to school leaders.

Northern Ireland has, and will continue to have, a diverse education system that acknowledges the wishes of parents to have their children educated in settings that reflect their own individual values and beliefs. Many schools are already working tirelessly to foster and help nurture mutual understanding and mutual respect. The review recommended the provision of tangible support to schools that are actively engaged in sharing with other schools, or schools that are developing an inclusive environment in recognition of the diversity of their pupils’ religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The Government have decided that schools in all sectors will be able to apply for a new, shared future accreditation, developed with the sectors and a kitemark for tolerance and sharing, which will bring with it some additional financial and other support.

The recommendations set out in the review report provide a solid foundation for shaping future policy. They will act as a catalyst to change the way in which Government plan and fund education. They will lead to a stronger and more coherent strategic framework for planning and developing the schools estate, and they will promote greater collaboration and sharing, delivering educational and wider societal benefits in Northern Ireland.