Debate of the Week: sustainable schools and area planning

20 Oct 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 8 Nov 2016

This week’s look at Stormont plenary sessions focuses on Education Minister Peter Weir’s statement on future plans for the schools estate.

The Area Planning policy is not without its controversies. It is the method by which the Department for Education executes its sustainable schools policy (SSP), Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools.

Critics would say the process has proved sluggish and that Area Planning has not reformed issues within our overall schools picture, but instead has left them as they are, or even reinforced them.

Nevertheless, we have a new Education Minister, a new executive authority, and a new draft Area Plan for 2017 to 2020.

The Education Authority (EA) is the main statutory planning authority and it cooperates with the CCMS (which also has a statutory position in this process) and representatives of other schools sectors.

A consultation on the draft Area Plan has just been published by the EA, with the exercise running from Monday past until December 12. As such, Mr Weir stepped up to the podium to make a statement on the future of this policy, which he said was focused on delivering the best education for our young people.


With one eye on the outcomes-based future Programme for Government (PfG), the minister said his department is leading on four supporting indicators aiming to improve child development, educational outcomes, reducing educational inequality and improving the quality of education.

He said children’s educational experience is “greatly enhanced” at “educationally and financially viable” schools, and that the SSP is a framework for assessing sustainability of schools, using six criteria (and ultimately supporting indicators).

These include: delivery of a broad and balanced curriculum; offer extensive extra-curricular activities; high-quality pastoral care; and confidence of the local community.

Primary schools should be in a class with no more than two year groups, but ideally only one; pupils should be able to interact with peer groups and have “the best chances” for good transition to post primary.

Post-primary schools should have curricula that “provide a wide range of pathways to meet the needs and interests of all pupils”, with any sixth forms also self-sufficient; while pupils should have the “best chance to succeed and attain to prepare themselves for life as an adult and contribute to our community.”


He said many schools achieve these goals, but there are significant numbers that struggle, particularly in the primary sector – where composite classes can be a significant issue in smaller settings, although low pupil numbers and the resulting inefficiencies also affect post-primary schools.

“As a result, limited available resources are being spread too thinly in an attempt to ensure that, in small schools, every pupil has access to the curriculum. While this approach protects pupils' educational well-being, in some cases it has, without doubt, propped up schools that otherwise would have been unsustainable… It is a legacy due to the lack of strategic planning to proactively address the growing problem of too many unsustainable schools…

“We need to see an accelerated and more dynamic approach to area planning… to deliver the Programme for Government outcomes and benefit our economy and society. The sustainable schools policy envisaged a network of schools delivering, where needed, creative and innovative models of provision through collaboration and federation. However, the appetite to demonstrate this has not been evident, and there are opportunities that should not be missed.”

Mr Weir said he anticipates difficulties in making these changes, with sectors needing to cooperate, and also communities faced with difficult scenarios concerning major upheaval in their local schools picture.

But he was adamant this is all absolutely necessary and will ultimately be to the benefit of children across Northern Ireland.

“For the first time, planning will have input from all educational sectors, at all levels, in effect discussing the future shape of provision around the same table, collectively, at the same time. There is no doubt that this will present a major challenge for all our education sectors and must be embraced equally by all sectors to find sustainable solutions, both within and between education sectors…

“The area plan confirms that, in some areas, we have too many school places for the number of children and young people available to fill them; in others, it highlights that there is a sufficient number of places but they are not necessarily in the right place.”


Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend asked if the “inaccurate” calculation of empty school desks would be used as a measure; and whether Area Planning would avoid the mistakes of previous rounds “which, with individual sectors acting alone, lacked an overall strategic direction.”

The minister said the figures will be as accurate as possible and are also based on projections into the future, towards 2024, in a bid to anticipate future pressures – nothing the schools population is likely to grow by 4%, but this figure could vary significantly between different areas. On sectoral conflicts, he said that buy in was needed from everyone.

Barry McElduff, the Sinn Fein MLA who chairs the Education Committee, asked if there would be innovative solutions to help small schools, and whether the EA’s lack of a central database for children in early years requiring special educational needs support was a “surprise”.

Mr Weir said the plan is for a common system for special schools operating from three to 19, while special schools face a “major challenge” to come up with solutions, and that there will not be a blanket approach, but that closures are inevitable.

Lord Morrow, of the DUP, asked how parental choice would be safeguarded. The minister said a balance will have to be struck, and “more parents are realistic, but he is conscious that “we do not leave schools in any of the sectors in a position where the removal or closure of a school would effectively deny that parental choice”.

The SDLP’s Colin McGrath asked for assurances that rural schools and communities will be helped in “special circumstances that are uniquely geographical”. Mr Weir said there would be no “hard-and-fast rule” but there will be rapid changes in education in coming years.

The DUP’s David Hilditch asked if there will be any flexibility under the entitlement framework, and was told this would have to be looked at as we move ahead, and could provide some of the necessary innovative.

And so on

Jennifer McCann, of Sinn Fein, asked if pupils who do not sit a transfer test would have the same equality of access to high-quality education, to which Mr Weir replied “yes”.

Carla Lockhart, of the DUP, asked what impact Area Planning could have on the Dickson Plan. The minister said he did not want to pre-empt the plan, but that the Dickson Plan was “safe and here to stay”.

Ulster Unionist Rosemary Barton asked for an assurance this not “simply a smokescreen for pushing through a large-scale closure of small rural schools” – and was told the aim was to provide a system that is “best for all”.

Catherine Seeley and Michelle Gildernew, both Sinn Fein, also asked about rural proofing, with the latter noting the capability of some rural schools that might qualify as “unsustainable”. Mr Weir said there are some excellent schools that are very small but composite classes still disadvantage children and that, in general, small schools tend to receive less favourable appraisals than larger settings.

Alliance’s Chris Lyttle asked how many surplus places exist in schools right now, and for an assessment of the cost of this inefficiency. The minister said the gap is around 65,000, but drops to 51,000 when special requirements are taken into account – and this figure is heading in the right direction, adding:

“The Audit Office report talks about wanting a situation where the spare capacity in each sector is no greater than 10%. I will give the Member a breakdown of the concentration of spare capacity. At present, while there is still some work to be done on it, in the post-primary situation it is around 8%, and in primary schools it is around 18%.”

The UUP’s Steve Aiken asked whether there will be capital investments to go along with area plans, or are proposals based solely on cuts. The minister said capital opportunities will arise over time but the major issue is about the impact on schools budgets.

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