Position Paper: Area Planning

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 01 June 2015

Committee: Education

Area Planning - Final Report.pdf (3.55 mb)

This paper was agreed by the Committee for Education on 13 May 2015 and is the property of the Committee for Education. Neither the paper nor its contents should be disclosed to any person unless such disclosure is authorised by the Committee.

Recommendations

1. The Committee recommends that the Department should adequately resource its Arms Length Bodies and provide with the Education Authority the necessary leadership, in order to ensure that Area Planning is undertaken in a transparent and consistent manner with clearly communicated sustainability criteria for schools and with Area Plans which are produced and updated wihin reasonable timescales.

2. The Committee recommends that the Department and its Arms Length Bodies: make greater efforts to ensure close alignment between Area Plans and capital programmes and engage with school communities in order to explain the benefits associated with relevant capital projects and the associated synergies flowing from Area Planning resolution.

3. The Committee recommends that the Department should recognise the shortcomings of its current measure of surplus places in schools and accept
that the application of the so-called Bain criteria does not provide a guarantee of excellent educational provision. The Committee further recommends
that the Department should base its assessment of the sustainability of the schools’ estate as a whole, and in respect of individual schools, on a dashboard of measures including financial viability indicators but which also reflect the context of the school and the quality of the educational provision as assessed by a professionally independent Northern Ireland Education Improvement Service.

4. The Committee recommends that the Department should accept the shortcomings of the Needs Model and revise it so as to recognise the increasingly
diverse school population and changes to traditional designations and so as to promote increased mixing in schools.

5. The Committee recommends that the Department should require its ALBs to plan educational provision on a truly area basis to a single timescale including all sectors and Further Education colleges where possible and that cross-sectoral solutions should be given consideration as appropriate.

6. The Committee recommends that the Department and its Arms Length Bodies should work with schools, communities and Area Learning Communities
to facilitate sharing, co-operation and innovative solutions to Area Planning problems particularly in rural areas so as to promote higher quality, better value for money educational provision.

7. The Committee recommends that the Department and its Arms Length Bodies review their consultation practices and consider the use of other
processes and supporting activities including policy development preconsultations and linkages to community planning activities in order to actively
explain policies and persuade stakeholders of their efficacy.

Area Planning - Background

1. In 2013-14, there were approximately 162k primary school pupils in 839 schools. Enrolments in one third of all primaries were described as falling below the DE sustainable schools threshold. Enrolments in one quarter of all primaries were less than 86 pupils. One in ten primaries had less than 50 pupils. The Department suggests that the overall number of primary school places exceeds the number of pupils by around 54k – the surplus being fairly evenly divided among ELB areas (with a few thousand more in the Western ELB area and a few thousand less in Belfast) and fairly evenly distributed between Controlled and Catholic Maintained schools with about 2k more surplus places in the latter. DE suggests that the number of enrolments in primaries has reduced since Area Planning commenced by around 4k.

2. In 2013-14, there were approximately 144k post-primary pupils. The Department suggests that the number of post-primary school places exceeds the number of pupils by around 20k – there was some variation across ELB areas with 2k more surplus places in the Southern ELB area compared to the Belfast ELB area and with 1.5k more surplus places in the Catholic Maintained sector compared to the Controlled sector.

3. The school surplus places figures given above are based on a comparison between actual enrolment and approved enrolment and do not include pupils with statements of Special Educational Needs or pupils admitted over and above a school’s approved enrolment level. Approved school enrolments - i.e. the number of school places - are set by the Department and are initially calculated using the physical dimensions of the classrooms etc. in the school. Thus it appears that if a school complies with the School Building Handbook in respect of the dimensions of its classrooms, the upper limit of its enrolment can be easily calculated – for a primary school this appears to be 29 times the number of classrooms. Conversely if a new demand for school places is identified, the size of school / number of additional classrooms required can be determined by simply taking the steady state demand and dividing by 29.

4. Approved enrolments can be adjusted using the Development Proposal process which among other things considers actual enrolment, anticipated demand, the impact on existing or planned provision in the same area and the physical capacity of the school to expand or contract.

5. In order to better manage the surplus places in schools and to improve educational provision, on 26 September 2011, the Minister commissioned the 5 Education and Library Boards (ELBs) to co-ordinate, with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and other sectors, the Area Planning process.

6. Area Planning appeared to begin with the production of Viability Audits for all schools. The Viability Audits were to rely on robust and verifiable information and focus on so-called stress indicators – namely: the quality of the educational experience (including the requirements of the Revised Curriculum and at post-primary the Entitlement Framework); enrolment trends; and the financial position of the schools.

7. The Viability Audits were published on 6 March 2012 and indicated at that time that:

  • 46% of primary schools were evidencing stress in respect of either:
    • educational attainment (FSME attainment in English and Maths) or were in Formal Intervention; or
    • enrolment (i.e. less than 105 pupils (rural) or 140 pupils (urban)); or
    • financial management (projected deficit of more than 5%).
  • 84% of secondary schools and 35% of grammar schools were evidencing stress in respect of either:
    • educational attainment (5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths) or were in Formal Intervention; or
    • enrolment (of less than 500 pupils in total or 100 pupils for the 6th form); or
    • financial management (projected deficit of more than 5%).

8. In response to suggestions that the Viability Audits were a prelude to a wide-ranging rationalisation of the schools’ estate, the Department advised that a school demonstrating stress was simply “..a trigger for discussion and review and would lead to consideration of other factors (including those identified in the Bain Report (2006)): school leadership and management; accessibility; and the strength of their links with the community”. Following
on from the Viability Audits, Area Profiles have since been produced by the ELBs in 2013 and 2014. These list each school and report key information. The information reported varies somewhat - with e.g. considerably less financial information published for Voluntary Grammar schools.

9. The Area Planning process was designed to:

  • ensure a network of sustainable schools within reasonable travelling distance;
  • identify and meet the needs of all children and young people in the area;
  • enhance the quality of provision and raise standards;
  • reduce surplus places and duplication of provision;
  • identify realistic, innovative and creative solutions to address need including opportunities for shared schooling on a cross sectoral basis;
  • identify potential for co-location of mainstream and special schools;
  • take account of relevant FE sector provision; and
  • explore opportunities for cross-border planning.

10. The Department established an Area Planning Co-ordination Group (APCG) later replaced by an Area Planning Steering Group (APSG) chaired by a Deputy Permanent Secretary. The APSG’s work programme is aimed at filling the gaps in the draft plans, embedding a single approach to Area Planning and identifying priority areas for action in the short to medium term. Membership of the Group was to include the Controlled, Maintained, Integrated
and Irish-Medium sectors. The new Controlled Schools sectoral support body is expected to be included in the APSG as well as the chief executive of the Education Authority.

11. The ELBs were charged with ensuring that the planning process is inclusive and that “all educational interests, including FE Sector and Trades Unions, have had the opportunity to present their views, consider the options and the final draft area plan for education provision”. The ELBs were also to “provide appropriate and timely information to schools, parents and the wider community.”

12. The Area Plans were to: outline education provision in an area; provide an analysis of past and projected enrolment and project the level of future demand given the strategic plans of all school sectors (and the FE sector); assess how existing provision is likely to address anticipated changes in need; identify changes to provisions to meet future needs; and take account of existing and emerging policies.

13. In order to assess demand for educational provision at primary and post-primary, the Department adopted the Needs Model. This is designed to provide long term projections of the need for places in grant-aided schools across all sectors in both primary and postprimary phases within defined geographical areas. Nursery and Special School provision are not included in the Needs Model. The Needs Model is not designed to predict the demand
for places in individual schools rather it is focused on the aggregate demand in a geographical area. The Needs Model does not calculate separately for gender nor does it provide separate totals for Years 8-12 and post-16 projections.

14. The Needs Model uses pupil population data in primary and post-primary schools gained from school census data and projections based on data from the Government Actuaries Department (GAD). The Needs Model categorises the educational sectors as follows:

  • Controlled – i.e. all Controlled schools excluding Controlled Integrated and Irish Medium Controlled schools BUT including Other Maintained Protestant church schools AND Non-Catholic Voluntary Grammar schools
  • Maintained – i.e. all Maintained schools including all Irish Medium units and schools AND Catholic Voluntary Grammar schools but not including the Other Maintained Protestant church schools
  • Integrated – i.e. all Grant Maintained and Controlled Integrated schools

15. The Needs Model does NOT differentiate between grammar and non-grammar provision in line with the Department’s policy of removing academic selection. The Needs Model indicates that it is “assumed that the current proportionate demand in District Council area for Controlled, Maintained (including IM) and Integrated education will carry forward in need projections unless there is agreement on variations for particular sectors.” Where changes are agreed these must be consistent with the existing pattern of so-called cross border flows i.e. the proportion of children travelling in and out of a district council area to attend school. The Needs Model also indicates that growth “in the Integrated sector at the Northern Ireland level will be assumed to be described equally from the ‘Controlled and Main- tained sectors’. …Any variation from this at local planning level must be agreed by the sectors.” The Needs Model assumes that growth in the Irish Medium sector will be derived solely from the ‘Maintained sector’.

16. The Needs Model indicates that the level of surplus capacity to be included “may vary across the sectors and geographically but must be agreed locally and must not exceed 10% of the total calculated need for Northern Ireland.”

17. DE also advised that it interpreted the recent Drumragh judgement as requiring it to avoid the inflexible/mechanistic use of the Needs Model which might prevent it from carrying out its Article 64 duty – to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. DE indicated that it viewed the Needs Model projections as reflecting current patterns of enrolment and that the Model would not necessarily cap growth in a sector. DE indicated
that it viewed the Needs Model projections as a starting point for planning and that “sectoral totals may be adjusted in discussion with the integrated sector to recognise the need for growth beyond that suggested solely through population changes.” The Department/ ELBs/CCMS have been unable to provide examples of when Integrated sector totals had been adjusted to recognise growth beyond that suggested solely through population changes.

18. There is understood to be no legislative requirement for the Department to approve Area Plans. To-date, DE indicates that it has exercised a scrutiny and challenge role in relation to Area Plans. The current Area Planning process is expected to be reviewed following the establishment of the Education Authority. 

Committee’s Approach

19. From 2012 until the present, schools, parents, school children and other stakeholders have contacted the Committee formally (and Members informally) expressing considerable concerns in respect of:

  • the methodological robustness of the calculation of surplus places;
  • the relevance of the Viability Audit/Area Profile information in determining the effectiveness or sustainability of schools;
  • the apparent failure to consistently and reasonably address school contextual issues including rurality and educational and socio-economic need;
  • the unsatisfactory nature of consultations relating to Area Plans; and
  • the application of and variation to arbitrary limits on school size.

20. Given the concerns that were raised and the complex nature of the above and in order to inform its understanding of Area Planning and the Viability Audits for schools, the Committee agreed at its meeting on 6 June 2012, to appoint a Special Adviser – Professor Tony Gallagher. The Special Adviser formally briefed the Committee on 6 September 2012; 10 April 2013; 22 January 2014 and 17 September 2015. The Special Adviser produced a
series of briefing papers which are appended.

21. The Committee also agreed to undertake a series of informal evidence sessions with a wide-range of stakeholders. These were held on 26 September 2012; 19 June 2013 and 4 February 2015. Papers summarising the feedback from these sessions are also appended.

22. In order to inform its understanding of related practices in other jurisdictions, the Committee undertook a visit to shared campus schools in Edinburgh on 2 October 2013 and met informally with the chairperson and members of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education in Scotland. A report on the visit is available on the Committee’s webpage.

23. The Committee also commissioned Assembly Research to produce relevant briefing papers. These are available on the Assembly’s website.

24. The Committee undertook formal evidence sessions with: the Department of Education (6 September 2012; 10 April 2013 (with the Minister); 2 April 2014 and 8 October 2015); the ELBs and CCMS (7 November 2012 and 8 October 2014) and Professor Knox, Ulster University with representatives of the Centre for Shared Education at QUB (15 January 2014).

25. At its meeting on 13 May 2015, the Committee agreed a position paper – this paper – setting out its views and making recommendations in respect of the Area Planning process.

Acknowledgements

26. The Committee wishes to record its thanks to all those who informed the Committee’s deliberations on Area Planning including particularly its Special Adviser, Professor Tony Gallagher and stakeholders who attended its informal evidence-taking events.

Area Planning – Progress to-date

Post-Primary School Area Plans

27. On 5 July 2012, the ELBs published, for consultation, their draft plans for restructuring post-primary education in each of their areas. The consultation closed on 26 October 2012. The proposals covered Controlled, Maintained, Integrated, Irish Medium and Voluntary Grammar provision and were produced with the help of CCMS. CCMS appeared to have produced its plans essentially independently of the ELBs. Consequently the plans included limited examples of cross-sectoral co-operation.

28. There were around 50,000 responses to the related consultation. The responses to the BELB draft plan were largely positive (60-90% approval on most questions). The responses to the WELB plan were largely negative (generally 90% disapproval). The feedback on the other plans was somewhere in between these 2 extremes. Half of the total responses were in the NEELB area and half of the NEELB responses were for a single petition (concerning plans for Ballee Community High School, Cambridge House Grammar School, Slemish Integrated College and Cullybackey High School). 84% of the responses in the BELB area came from St Louise’s Comprehensive College. 100% of the responses to the BELB consultation came from respondents based in the BELB area despite 41% of those pupils attending post-primary schools in the Belfast City Council area living in other district council areas. There were 7 petitions in total– these accounted for about half of all of the submissions.

29. The Minister received the revised post-primary plans in December 2012. These were published in February 2013. All of the ELBs proposed to varying degrees the development of local area solutions often where schools have enrolment or budget issues or where there is Formal Intervention etc.. The local area solution was described as a full review designed to establish the most appropriate level of provision - possibly involving a number of schools - in a defined geographical area. The ELBs, following consultation, were to produce a preferred local area proposal which is to be implemented before 2025.
30. The key findings of the post-primary Area Plans are summarised below. The designations of school types match those used in the Needs Model. However, it should be noted that the ELBs and CCMS, unlike the Department, include children with SEN in their calculations of surpluses. Thus, direct comparison between DE’s figures and those used in the Area Plans is not possible.

31. BELB’s post-primary Area Plan indicated that if the status quo was maintained, a present surplus of around 1400 post-primary places (around 400 in Controlled; 1,300 mostly in Catholic Maintained schools; and 100 in Integrated schools) will become a deficit of around 400 places (mostly in Controlled schools with other sectors roughly breaking even) by 2025.

32. NEELB’s post-primary Area Plan indicated that if the status quo was maintained, a present surplus of around 3,100 post-primary places (approx. 2,500 in Controlled schools; 450 in Maintained and Catholic VG; and 180 in Integrated schools) will fall to a surplus of around 1,000 (1,350 surplus in Controlled schools; a deficit of 300 in Catholic Maintained & Voluntary Grammars; and a deficit of 50 in Integrated schools) by 2025. The draft plan indicated that perhaps 3000 pupils leave the NEELB area for post-primary education and that around 1500 went to the Magherafelt district council area for education.

33. SELB’s post-primary Area Plan indicated that if the status quo was maintained, a present surplus of around 2,800 post-primary places (apparently largely in the Catholic Maintained and Controlled sectors with a current deficit in the Integrated sector) will become a deficit of around 4,300 by 2025.

34. SEELB’s post-primary Area Plan indicated that if the status quo is maintained, a surplus of around 1,861 post-primary places (roughly apportioned as approx. 1,200 surplus in Controlled schools; approx. 650 surplus in Maintained and Catholic VG; and a deficit of 150 in Integrated schools) will become breakeven by 2025 (the Catholic Maintained & Voluntary Grammars will have 300 surplus places and there will be under-provision of around 400
places in the Integrated sector).

35. WELB’s post-primary Area Plan indicated that if the status quo was maintained, a present surplus of 3,100 post-primary places (approx. 600 in Controlled schools; 2,600 in Maintained and Catholic VG; and a deficit of 145 in Integrated schools) will fall to a surplus of  2,200 (400 surplus in Controlled schools; a surplus of 2,000 in Catholic Maintained & Voluntary Grammars; and a deficit of 227 in Integrated schools) by 2025.

Primary School Area Plans

36. On 19 March 2013, the ELBs published, for consultation, their draft plans for restructuring primary education in each of their areas. The ELBs’ primary school Area Planning consultation concluded at the end of June 2013. The ELBs published the primary Area Plans in early July 2014 – roughly 1 year after the consultation closed.

37. There were around 7,800 independent responses to the consultation and a further 3,407 signaturies to petitions. For BELB, responses were generally positive – between half and two thirds of the respondents generally approved of the draft primary school Area Plans for BELB with around one quarter of respondents being unsure as to whether proposals would provide sustainable schools with reasonable travelling distances etc. Over half of respondents
felt that the draft plans would not support shared education or encourage crosssectoral schooling. In NEELB, there were 2773 responses to the consultation - about half of the responses were made on-line. Around half of all responses came from the Newtownabbey and Antrim District Council areas. 198 worksheet responses were received from pupils. Around 900 school-designed template questionnaires were received. In SELB, there were 2,251 independent responses to the consultation – almost all of the responses were made on-line. There were 3 petitions garnering a further 1700 responses. In SEELB there were around 700 responses – most of them on-line. In WELB there were 2300 responses – 95% of which were made on-line. Levels of approval varied very considerably from ELB to ELB and from district council to district council.

38. The draft plans identified a large number of schools for which further consultation or local area solutions were required. The final plans identified a number of schools for which further approved action was to be undertaken. The Area Plans often didn’t set out the approved action or the options which are to be explored.

39. Every primary school in Fermanagh which has low enrolment and a high level of vacancy appeared to be involved in a sharing arrangement. WELB appeared to have accepted this and was keeping the schools in question under review. One of the schools in Fermanagh - St. Mary’s Teemor is involved in sharing with a school in the Republic of Ireland - Fairgreen National School Belturbet County Cavan. WELB and SEELB both made reference to federative or possible federated arrangements involving a number of schools.

40. At least one of the final primary Area Plans indicated that the treatment of primary schools under Area Planning will depend among other things on some of the following factors:

  • If a school has over 105 pupils (rural) or 140 pupils (urban) – it will usually be consider sustainable and no further action will be taken;
  • If a school has less than 105 pupils but more than 85 pupils with 4 teachers – the school will be subject to annual consideration of its sustainability though geographical isolation and community engagement factors will be considered;
  • If a school has less than 86 pupils and 3 teachers – consideration will be given to reorganisation including amalgamation or federation if it leads to a 4 teacher school with limited pupil travel time;
  • If a school has less than 86 pupils and 2 teachers – a review will be undertaken. The WELB plan said that the “baseline” case will be closure unless a viable amalgamation option can be devised; and
  • If a school has composite classes; a low number of teachers; varying patterns of enrolment these may be a driver for consideration of further action.
  • The NEELB plan referenced the Formal Intervention Process as a driver for further consideration of the viability of a school. However the NEELB plan also explicitly referenced ETI inspection since 2009 - particularly where schools get 2 “unsatisfactory” ratings in a row or where a school regresses – as a basis for further consideration of school viability.

41. At least one of the final primary Area Plans made explicit reference to Article 64 – the obligation to facilitate and encourage Integrated Education – and further work to include proposals to increase Integrated Education provision in subsequent iterations of the Area Plan.

42. At least one of the final primary Area Plans indicated that issues in respect of Irish Medium Education are to be taken forward within a Northern Ireland strategy for Irish Medium Education which was to be formulated and that future Irish Medium provision would be discussed at the APSG.

43. The key findings of the primary Area Plans are summarised below. The designations of school types match those used in the Needs Model. However, it should be noted that the ELBs and CCMS, unlike the Department, include children with SEN in their calculations of surpluses. Thus, direct comparison between DE’s figures and those used in the Area Plans is not possible.

44. BELB has 32,393 primary places – half of these are in the Maintained sector; 5% are Integrated, 43% are in the Controlled sector. BELB advised that there are currently 8,239 vacant places when supernumerary places are included. The surplus places are split roughly equally between Controlled and Maintained with a small number of vacancies (119 less 49 supernumerary) in the Integrated sector.

45. In general terms, primary provision in BELB may be characterised by a number of Controlled schools below the Bain Threshold; a number of Maintained schools above the threshold but with many excess places; 500+ surplus places in the IME sector (actual enrolment is about 1000); and limited over-subscribed provision in the Integrated sector. BELB identified a Maintenance backlog of £22m in its school estate. The Needs Model
projects an overall increase in the school population by about 1000 pupils by 2018-19 which will reduce to current levels by 2025. 

46. NEELB has 47,184 primary places – approximately 60% of these are in the Controlled sector; 30% are in the Maintained sector (includes 1% IME); 6% are Integrated. NEELB advises that there are currently 10,815 vacant places. The majority of the surplus places are in Controlled primaries in Antrim, Ballymena, Coleraine and Newtonabbey and in Catholic Maintained schools in Magherafelt and Moyle.

47. As with BELB, in general terms, primary provision in the NEELB area may be characterised by a number of Controlled schools below the Bain Threshold; and a number of Maintained schools above the threshold but with many excess places. Unlike BELB, a Maintenance backlog figure was not provided by NEELB. The Needs Model projects an overall increase in the school population by about 1000 pupils by 2018-19 which will reduce to
current levels by 2025.

48. SELB has 48,421 primary places – approximately 40% of these are in the Controlled sector; 58% are in the Maintained sector; 3% are Integrated. SELB advises that there are currently around 10,000 vacant or surplus places. The distribution of surplus places is generally in proportion to the overall size of the sectors.

49. Unlike the other ELBs, the SELB area has a number of both Controlled and Maintained schools which are below the Bain Threshold. Very few school closures particularly in Dungannon & South Tyrone and Newry City had been proposed in the draft plan. Unlike the other ELBs, the Needs Model projects a steady decrease in surplus places in SELB to around 3000 by 2025.

50. SEELB has 43,027 primary places – approximately 60% of these are in the Controlled sector; 32% are in the Maintained sector; 7% are Integrated. SELB advises that there are currently around 8,558 vacant or surplus places. The distribution of surplus places is generally in proportion to the overall size of the 2 bigger sectors. There is a very low percentage of vacancies in the Integrated sector.

51. In the SEELB area, there are few schools below the Bain threshold but there many schools with a large number of surplus places. Like most of the other ELBs, the Needs Model projects an increase in pupil numbers until 2018-19 and then a reduction to present levels by 2025.

52. WELB has 39,741 primary places – approximately 68% of these are in the Maintained sector; 29% are in the Controlled sector; 3% are Integrated. WELB advises that there are  currently around 12,197 vacant or surplus places. The distribution of surplus places is generally in proportion to the overall size of the 2 bigger sectors. There is a very low percentage of vacancies in the Integrated sector.

53. WELB has many more Maintained primary schools than Controlled schools – particularly in the Derry City Council area. There are many schools which are below the Bain Threshold. A relatively small number of closures or amalgamations were proposed in the draft plan. Like most of the other ELBs, the Needs Model projects an increase in pupil numbers until 2018-19 and then a reduction to present levels by 2025.

Special School Area Plans

54. Area Plans for Special Schools were originally to be submitted to the Department in February 2013. As some of the draft plans referred to Special Units in mainstream schools and others included dedicated Special School facilities, the Minister indicated (February 2013) that this made it difficult to determine an overall regional picture of the highly specialised facilities which are needed to support vulnerable children. As the plans also pre-dated the finalisation of the Special Educational Needs Review, the Minister decided that a new co-ordinated regional assessment of future need for dedicated Special Schools was required. The Minister commissioned the development of a regional plan for these schools which was originally to be completed by September 2013.

55. The Department has indicated that the review was being undertaken by a small working group – including representatives of the ELBs, the Special Schools; the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) and the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Team in DE. The review’s terms of reference include a strategic assessment of current Special Schools provision and the development of a regional plan. The review was to consider: the nature and type of SEN provision for children aged 3 to 19; the location of Special Schools; journey times; provision for Early Years in Special Schools; provision of outreach services; and the need for improved accommodation to match growing and differing needs.

56. Following concerns raised by Special Schools about delays to permanent appointments, the Committee recently sought an update on the group’s progress. It is understood that the group has recently reported to the Minister.

Area Planning – Findings and Recommendations

57. The Committee considered the formal and informal evidence that it has gathered since 2012 on Area Planning and the reports produced by its Special Adviser. The Committee’s findings and recommendations are set out below. 

The Need for Area Planning

58. The Committee recognised the critical importance of education to pupils, parents, teachers, schools and wider society. The Committee accepted that the extensive costs associated with our highly sectoralised education system need to be judiciously managed. The Committee also accepted that demographic and other challenges will need to be appropriately planned for and met in order to deliver the best possible education for school children. The Committee agreed that planning on an area basis rather than on the basis of individual schools is a significant and necessary change management undertaking requiring resource, innovation and meaningful consultation with the stakeholders mentioned above. The Committee agreed that the process was impeded and greatly complicated by the ongoing and delayed re-organisation of the Education and Library Boards and their replacement by the Education Authority.

59. The Committee noted that despite some effort by the Department and its Arms Length Bodies and the generation of considerable angst in schools, Area Planning to-date appears to have had only a limited impact on the schools’ estate. Members commented on the lengthy timescales and the lack of definitive resolution in many plans. Members also noted with concern delays in the Special Schools Area or Regional planning process and the reported adverse impact on permanent staffing appointments in Special Schools. 

60. The Committee noted the Department’s contention that primary and post-primary Area Planning was not designed to save money but was instead a sincere attempt to improve educational provision. The Committee noted also that most stakeholders simply did not believe or accept the Department’s assertions in this regard.

61. The Committee has previously been aware of a level of discord between the Department and its Arms Length Bodies; schools and parents etc.. However, Members were greatly taken aback by the consistently high degree of frustration; lack of confidence; dissatisfaction and open distrust of the Department, expressed by stakeholders in respect of Area Planning. The Committee felt that this was the consequence of the Department’s failure to
adequately resource the ALBs to undertake the Area Planning process and to ensure consistency of approach by the ELBs and CCMS in the development of Area Plans coupled with a widespread perception – which DE failed to dispel - that Area Planning was a vehicle for a long planned school closure programme.

62. The Committee found no evidence that the Department was indeed employing Area Planning in order to implement a previously determined school closure programme. That said, Members were astonished that neither the Department nor the ELBs/CCMS appeared to understand that ill-defined Area Plans developed iteratively over excessively long timescales and including references to changing, poorly explained sustainability measures would feed ill-informed media coverage and undermine school staff and parental confidence and thus weaken the sustainability of some schools. It is therefore hardly
surprising that the perception, set out above, in respect of DE’s attitude to school closures persists among stakeholders.

63. The Committee recognised the key role that the Education Authority will have going forward in tackling the inefficiencies and promoting a more consistent approach for Area Plans. That said and given the roles of other Arms Length sectoral organisations which have differing responsibilities in respect of educational planning, the Committee felt that the Department will continue to have a critical responsibility for the development of an
overarching vision for and the delivery of Area Planning.

64. The Committee therefore agreed the following recommendation:
Recommendation #1: The Committee recommends that the Department should adequately resource its Arms Length Bodies and provide with the Education Authority the necessary leadership, in order to ensure that Area Planning is undertaken in a transparent and consistent manner with clearly communicated sustainability criteria for schools and with Area Plans which are produced and updated within reasonable timescales.

65. The Committee considered evidence relating to the Department’s efforts to incentivise Area Planning agreement through the capital programme. Officials indicated, in general terms, that the Department had had limited success in this regard with consequent delays to the new school building programme.

66. The Committee felt that if the benefits of new school building options had been properly explained to stakeholders – particularly parents – this would certainly have encouraged resolution of Area Planning difficulties in many cases. Members felt that the Department and its ALBs had failed to engage properly and imaginatively with stakeholders in this regard.

67. The Committee therefore agreed the following recommendation:
Recommendation #2: The Committee recommends that the Department and its Arms Length Bodies: make greater efforts to ensure close alignment between Area Plans and capital programmes and engage with school communities in order to explain the benefits associated with relevant capital projects and the associated synergies flowing from Area Planning resolution.

68. Some Members of the Committee highlighted with concern what they viewed as the Department’s failure to undertake any form of equality screening or impact assessment in respect of changes to priorities for capital expenditure. These Members strongly felt that this was entirely unfair and inappropriate as they believed that recent changes to capital priorities would inevitably disadvantage the Controlled sector.

69. Members generally agreed that going forward policy changes should take account of the changing dynamics of the education system and should ensure equitable access to resource and capital funding for schools.

Sustainability – Calculation of Surplus School Places

70. The Committee considered the methodology for the calculation of surplus school places and was surprised that DE and the ELBs/CCMS employed different treatments for pupils with SEN and other supernumerary enrolments. The Committee found this difference in approach - which might amount to a Northern Ireland wide over-estimation of surplus places by around 10k - to be unhelpful and inexplicable.

71. The Committee noted suggestions that the calculation of surplus school places is sensitive to both demographic projections and key assumptions in the School Building Handbook. Members were alarmed by the argument that much publicised predictions of over-supply could in some cases be re-calculated as under-supply following relatively small changes to classroom occupancy assumptions. The Committee also struggled to understand the underlying logic which could apparently translate a small number of unfunded surplus places in a school into real additional costs either to the Aggregated Schools Budget or to the capital or maintenance budgets for the schools’ estate. The Committee felt that if the latter was indeed the case, it was surprising that the Department appeared to have made no effort to encourage the active marketing of vacant school classrooms/buildings in order to
stimulate greater community use or even generate limited incomes. The Committee noted that in other similar jurisdictions e.g. Scotland, this calculation of surplus places in schools was not used.

72. The Committee therefore felt that given the different treatments for enrolments; the sensitivity of assumptions; and the questionable relationship between low levels of oversupply and marginal costs associated with surplus places, the much quoted 85k or 74k surplus schools places figure did not stand up to challenge and did not usefully inform the management of the schools’ estate. Consequently, the Committee agreed with stakeholders that measures of sustainability and planning for the supply of school places should be improved and should certainly not be based on classroom dimensions.

73. The Committee felt that although the Annual Area Profiles provide some useful information on the financial position of some schools, the information tended to over-emphasise easily measured indicators and may fail to recognise other more subtle educational value added measures which might also take better account of the socio-economic context in which schools operate. The Committee noted that the Department was undertaking work with schools on the development of a dashboard of measures in order to better evaluate the value added by schools.

74. The Committee was also surprised by the reference in an Area Plan to the Formal Intervention Procedure (FIP) or the receipt of a number of “unsatisfactory” ratings from ETI as a measure of the sustainability of a school. The Committee previously agreed that inspection was a vital component in school improvement and that although the Every School a Good School policy envisages possible school closures following a series of “unsatisfactory”
inspections and ineffective improvement support, this use of FIP could lead to an incorrect perception of the purpose of inspection and would thus undermine the school improvement process. The majority of Committee Members previously agreed that in order to combat erroneous perceptions of this kind a statutorily independent education inspectorate and improvement service was required. The Committee also previously unanimously agreed on the importance of professional independence for the education inspection and improvement service.

75. The Committee noted the assumptions in the Bain criteria which appeared to link educational attainment to school size. The Committee also noted contradictory evidence from some academics and from principals, teachers and parents from small schools who strongly argued that there was no correlation between school size and the provision of adequate access to the curriculum and who felt that a simple enrolment measure took no account
of a growing level of sharing between small schools which is often on a crosssectoral basis.

76. The Committee also noted the apparently arbitrary decision to designate all schools outside of the 2 largest urban conurbations in Northern Ireland as rural schools. This led to a different set of sustainability criteria being applied to urban schools in e.g. the City of Lisburn than those in similar circumstances in Belfast. The Committee has yet to receive an adequate explanation for this approach.

77. The Committee felt that in line with the Sustainable Schools Policy, the assessment of the sustainability of a school should be more complex than a simple comparison with an expected enrolment level including an apparently arbitrary designation of rurality. The Committee was also not convinced that smaller schools can’t – even when they engage in sharing - provide appropriate value for money access to the curriculum, as appeared to be suggested by the Department.

78. The Committee therefore agreed the following recommendation:
Recommendation #3: The Committee recommends that the Department should recognise the shortcomings of its current measure of surplus places in schools and accept that the application of the so-called Bain criteria does not provide a guarantee of excellent educational provision. The Committee further recommends that the Department should base its assessment of the sustainability of the schools’ estate as a whole, and in respect of individual schools, on a dashboard of measures including financial viability indicators but which also reflect the context of the school and the quality of the educational provision as assessed by a professionally independent Northern Ireland Education Improvement Service.

Needs Model / Sectors

79. The Committee considered the use of the Needs Model in Area Planning. The Committee noted the Model’s use of fairly unsophisticated separate linear projections of school demand for each sector based on population estimates etc.. These, it was reported, could be amended by a limited inflexible range of inter-sectoral transfers. The Committee noted however that no examples had been provided of changes to Needs Model projections e.g. for the Integrated sector based on parental demand. 80. Participants at the Committee’s informal stakeholder events commented that the Needs Model, with its inflexible linkage to religious designations was becoming less meaningful particularly in those parts of Northern Ireland where natural mixing in schools and newcomer numbers were increasing. The Committee noted recent Departmental policy developments in respect of Jointly Managed Church schools apparently reflecting demand from parents and schools and recognising greater fluidity in respect of inter-sectoral transfer and co-operation. The Committee agreed that changes to the Needs Model reflecting the reality of so-called supermixed schools and an increasingly diverse and motile school population were required.

81. The Committee felt that the application of separate projections of demand for each sector would inevitably tend to promote separate planning for each of those sectors. Thus as a consequence, all of the Area Plans were, in almost all cases, in fact 3 separate sectoral plans for the area in question. The Committee therefore believed that the Needs Model as currently formulated does nothing to support true cross-sectoral Area Planning.

82. The Committee felt that the above was compounded by the inexplicable decision to allow the Catholic Maintained and Catholic Voluntary Grammar sector to plan its development on a separate basis and to a separate timescale to the Controlled/non-Denominational Voluntary Grammar sector. This led to a perception of disadvantage for Controlled schools which was exacerbated by the absence, until recently, of a representative body for that sector.

83. The Committee also felt that the failure to include Further Education colleges in Area Planning was a significant missed opportunity to plan value for money post-16 provision.

84. The Committee therefore agreed the following recommendations:
Recommendation #4: The Committee recommends that the Department should accept the shortcomings of the Needs Model and revise it so as to recognise the increasingly diverse school population and changes to traditional designations and so as to promote increased mixing in schools.

Recommendation #5: The Committee recommends that the Department should require its Arms Length Bodies to plan educational provision on a truly area basis to a single timescale including all sectors and Further Education colleges where possible and that cross-sectoral solutions should be given consideration as appropriate.

85. Some Members also strongly felt that the Needs Model as currently configured had served to wrongly and severely restrict the growth of the Integrated Education sector. These Members contended that the larger sectors had failed to support or had sometimes even undermined constructive cross-sectoral solutions and had exploited the Needs Model and the Area Planning process to this end.

86. Other Members contended that obligations to promote different educational sectors were unfair and were wrongly exploited by those sectors to promote forms of education which were not actually popular with parents.

87. Still other Members contended that although the Area Planning process and the Needs Model had their shortcomings, it was not correct to assert that growth in Integrated Education had been wrongly restricted and that it was appropriate and in line with current legislation to promote some forms of education.

Innovative Solutions - Rural Areas

88. As indicated above, the challenges presented by Area Planning in terms of educational improvement; demographic and social change are substantial. The Committee felt that this was often particularly the case in rural areas where schools play a key role in the identity and sustainability of small communities.

89. The Committee’s consideration of Area Planning was greatly informed by the many eloquent and well-thought out oral and written submissions from rural schools and organisations. It was these consistently expressed views that convinced some Members that the Area Planning process had generally failed to recognise the unique character of educational challenges in rural communities. Although the Committee accepted that the focus of schools must always be on the educational experience of their pupils, Members also felt that consideration should be given to the central part that schools play in local communities. Some Members believed that the shortcomings of Area Planning in this regard were further evidenced by the ELBs’/CCMS’ failure to support more than a limited number of innovative cross-sectoral solutions in rural areas.

90. Given the difficult nature of some Area Planning issues, the Committee was very surprised by the patchy nature of the support from the ELBs/CCMS for Shared Education including shared campuses, federative arrangements or other forms of collaboration including crossborder collaboration. The Committee noted that despite concerns regarding cultural or identity issues, there was nonetheless considerable support in school communities for
more sharing and collaboration.

91. The Committee strongly felt that the Area Planning process had tended to promote an unhealthy level of competition between schools rather than sharing and co-operation. The Committee therefore felt that DE and the ALBs should do much more to facilitate cooperation between communities, parents, governors, and schools etc. through e.g. Area Learning Communities and should provide much clearer guidance on sharing and innovative
solutions to Area Planning problems including other school management options. 

92. The Committee therefore agreed the following recommendation:
Recommendation #6: The Committee recommends that the Department and its Arms Length Bodies should work with schools, communities and Area Learning Communities to facilitate sharing, co-operation and innovative solutions to Area Planning problems particularly in rural areas so as to promote higher quality, better value for money educational provision.

93. Some Members felt that the Department should do more to promote cross-border cooperation between schools so as to secure educational provision in remote areas of Northern Ireland and indeed in the Republic of Ireland. Other Members disagreed, arguing that differences in educational systems in the 2 jurisdictions generally precluded or would limit whole school sustained cross-border sharing.

Consultation

94. The Committee noted, with some concern, consistent and significant dissatisfaction with the Area Planning consultation process. Many stakeholders argued that consultations were tokenistic and failed to meaningfully engage with parents, schools etc.. Many stakeholders contended that consultation responses had no or very limited impact on Area Planning outcomes. Stakeholders complained about failures to explain terminology and inconsistent approaches by the different ELBs.

95. The Committee recognised that the planning of school provision would always be contentious – reflecting the need to improve educational outcomes; the sincere concerns of parents and schools; and the pressures of reducing budgets. The Committee therefore felt that it was perhaps not completely surprising that the consultation process proved to be controversial and unsatisfactory.

96. The Committee felt however that the Department and its ALBs have been unimaginative and ineffective in this policy area (and others) in respect of how consultation is undertaken or overseen. The Committee felt that the Department and its ALBs should consider how governments in other jurisdictions explains their policies and persuade stakeholders of their efficacy. The Committee recognised that that this may require supporting activities
including wide-ranging policy development pre-consultations linked to community planning activities at local government level including e.g. community audits and a more formal parental consultation platform. The Committee recognised that this may require a different Departmental mindset in respect of stakeholder engagement.

97. The Committee therefore agreed the following recommendation:
Recommendation #7: The Committee recommends that the Department and its Arms Length Bodies review their consultation practices and consider the use of other processes and supporting activities including policy development pre-consultations and linkages to community planning activities in order to actively explain policies and persuade stakeholders of their efficacy

Download the full report

The Department's formal response to the Committee's Report can be found here.

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