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Committee finds Department figures for surplus school places don't add up

Synopsis: The Assembly Public Accounts Committee today published its report on the Sustainability of Schools which has found that the calculation of surplus school places just does not add up.

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 02 March 2016

Reference: PAC 05/15/16

The Public Accounts Committee today published its report on the Sustainability of Schools which has found that the calculation of surplus school places just does not add up.

The Committee was concerned about the reliability of the Department’s data and remains unconvinced that it has calculated surplus places accurately. The 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 school capacity data and not on current standards. As a result, the Committee is of the view that the figure for total surplus school places is likely to be overstated.

Speaking about the report, Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, John Dallat MLA said: “We are concerned by the fact that the Department has failed to recognise the flaws in its own management information. It is concerning that the Department’s calculation of the actual number surplus school places may be substantially lower than the figure reported by the Department. This is no basis upon which to implement such an important policy.”

John Dallat MLA said: “The Committee noted that, while the Department has reported that there has been a 14% reduction in the number of surplus school places, approximately half is a result of demographic changes rather than as a result of work carried out by the Department.”

The Committee also found that progress in delivering the Department of Education’s policy has been slow, with considerable scope for improvement. .The Sustainability of Schools policy was initiated to develop a network of educationally and financially viable schools. In doing so it envisaged tackling the problem of excess school places as pupil numbers declined across the different school sectors and to bring about consolidation to improve the financial position for schools and educational opportunities for all children.

The report also found that the Department has reported a steady but modest improvement in educational achievement over the last two years. However, the Committee was unhappy that disadvantaged pupils, in particular, are still underachieving.

Mr Dallat continued: “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.”

The report highlighted the need to speed up the process once a school has been identified for closure as this often results in a lack of support for the school and a further downward trend in enrolment as the school is effectively left to ‘wither on the vine’.

Mr Dallat concluded: “Where a school is clearly no longer sustainable, the Department should ensure that the Education Authority and other school’s managing authorities must take action quickly to avoid a protracted period of decline.

“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.

“We are calling on the Department to address all these issues urgently.”


Notes to Editors:

  1. 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.
  2. In response to the findings of the Bain Review, the Department of Education (the Department) introduced its Policy for Sustainable Schools in January 2009. 
  3. The Department reported that since 2008-09 the total number of surplus school places had fallen by 11,836 from 83,376 to 71,540. However approximately half of the reduction is as a result of demographic changes with only half being attributable to the work of the Department.
  4. The calculation of surplus places 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. 
  5. 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. 
  6. Where a school has been identified for closure, or a number of schools have been identified for amalgamation the Education Authority publishes a ‘development proposal’ which is subject to a minimum of two months’ consultation. The Department told the Committee that prior to 2011 there were, on average, 10 or 11 proposals each year. However over the last four years this has increased to 40, and in the current year the number of development proposals stands at around 50. 
  7. The Education and Library Boards published area plans for both the post-primary and the primary sectors in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The area planning process has been widely criticised.  In January 2013, the Area Planning Working Group undertook a review of the process and found that oversight and governance arrangements were poor.  Queen’s University and the University of Ulster also reviewed the area based planning process and were highly critical of it. The lack of engagement, inclusion and consultation is of particular concern to the Committee. 
  8. The Department uses a common funding formula to calculate the level of funding provided to each individual school. However, the cost per pupil varies significantly across schools. In the former Southern Education and Library Board area the cost per pupil ranges from £3,183 to £6,957. 
  9. In 2014-15 school budgets included small schools support funding of £27.5 million and a further £8.3 million of funding was distributed to schools via the primary Principal’s release time factor. This equates to almost £36 million and accounts for approximately 3 per cent of the total school budgets.  

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