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Report on Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 02 March 2016

Reference: NIA 314/11-16

ISBN: 978-1-78619-201-1

Mandate Number: 2011-2016

Report on Department of Education Sustainability of Schools.pdf (667.6 kb)

Executive Summary                         

In December 2006, an independent Strategic Review of Education (the Bain Review) indicated that, because of falling pupil numbers and Northern Ireland’s many school sectors, there were too many schools in Northern Ireland.  In response to the findings of the Bain Review, the Department of Education (the Department) introduced its Policy for Sustainable Schools in January 2009. 

Main Findings

The Policy for Sustainable Schools identifies six criteria for assessing sustainability (three quantitative criteria and three qualitative criteria).  In practice, in producing area plans, the Department focused its efforts on assessing schools against the three quantitative criteria with less of an emphasis on the qualitative criteria. The criteria within the Policy for Sustainable Schools were aimed at ensuring transparency, consistency and equity in decision making.  This has not happened and needs to be addressed.

Since the introduction of the Policy, the Department has reported a 14 per cent reduction in the number of surplus school places (from 83,376 in 2008-09 to 71,540 in 2014-15).  Approximately half of the reduction is as a result of demographic changes with only half being attributable to the work of the Department. Progress in reducing surplus places has been frustratingly slow and there is considerable scope for further improvement. 

The Committee is, however, concerned about the reliability of the Department’s data and remains unconvinced that it has calculated surplus places accurately.  The Department’s calculation of surplus school places is based on approved enrolments less actual enrolments.  However, the approved enrolment figure is, in many cases, based on historic data and not on current standards.  Further, the calculation does not take into account those pupils admitted to a school over and above the approved enrolment level.  The figure of approved enrolments also excludes pupils with special educational needs who have a statement.  As a result, the Committee is of the view that the figure for total surplus school places is likely to be overstated.

It is unacceptable that the Department is not able to provide statistically accurate data on the number of surplus school places.  As a result, the evidence base supporting the sustainable schools policy falls far short of acceptable standards and the Department is basing decisions about the future of schools on inaccurate information. 

Although the Department has reported a steady but modest improvement in educational achievement over the last two years it is concerning that there is a long tail of underachievement, which applies particularly to disadvantaged pupils.

In 2012-13, 38 per cent of all school leavers failed to achieve five GCSEs including English and Maths and 372 school leavers did not achieve any GCSEs.  This level of underperformance is unacceptable - our education system is failing too many of our young people.

A lack of community support for a local school provides a strong indication that parents are concerned about the leadership of the school and the quality of education offered.  In the Committee’s view, the Department and the Education Authority have not done enough to identify and address poor performance to ensure that local communities are properly served.  Such poor performance cannot be tolerated and schools should be supported to help themselves, or through collaboration with others.

Good schools have strong leaders and it is concerning, therefore, that the Education and Training Inspectorate reported that leadership at all levels in post-primaries requires further improvement.  In June 2013 this Committee published a report on Literacy and Numeracy stating that ‘the Department must develop a more strategic approach to succession planning and the development of future leaders and leadership roles at all levels in schools’.  It is disappointing that greater progress has not been made in this area.

The Education and Library Boards published area plans for both the post-primary and the primary sectors in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Engagement with key stakeholders around the area planning process was poor and the Department failed to develop a communication strategy.  The lack of engagement represents a missed opportunity to, for example, pursue ways of offering shared educational provision.

Almost 3 per cent of the total school budget (£36 million) is allocated to supporting small schools and the cost per pupil varies significantly across schools.  Although there are no plans to revisit the small schools support factor at this time, the Committee is nevertheless concerned that the Department cannot demonstrate that the £36 million investment in small schools always represents value for money.


Progress to date in delivering the Sustainable Schools Policy has been modest, as evidenced by a number of indicators.  There remain too many surplus places; there is a clear need for improved leadership in post-primary schools; there still remains a long tail of underachievement, which applies particularly to disadvantaged pupils; and lack of community support for some local schools indicates that parents are concerned about the quality of education offered. 

It is also disappointing that the Department has failed to recognise the fundamental flaws in its own management information.  Policies should, as a minimum, be evidence-based and underpinned by accurate information.  It is concerning that the Department’s calculation of surplus school places is inaccurate and that the number of surplus places may be substantially lower than the figure reported.  This is no basis upon which to implement such an important policy.

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