NORTH Antrim DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, who is also his party’s education spokesman, has accused the Education Minister John O’Dowd of trying to “bully many small rural schools out of existence”.
Mr Storey has voiced his concern about the latest consultation exercise launched by the Minister just before Easter on Area Planning for Primary Schools.
Mr Storey “fears that this consultation is a crude attempt by the Minister and his Department to bully many small rural schools out of existence whilst deflecting discussion from the real agenda of reshaping the Education landscape through a major change in how schools are funded.”
Commenting as primary schools return from their Easter break, Mervyn Storey said: “As primary schools return from the Easter break, their attention will inevitably be focused on the consultation by the Education and Library Boards on Primary Area Planning.
“Regrettably the Minister did not take the advice that many including myself offered that this process should be delayed until the outcome of the previous Post Primary Area Planning exercise was clearer.
“It was evident that this exercise was seriously flawed, but despite this, the Minister has ordered the Boards to publish the Primary plans using the same process.
“At a time when the focus of principals, teachers and governors should be on the continued improvement of education outcomes for our children, they will have to turn their thoughts to responding to these draft plans, many of which are vague and ill thought out.
“The plans show little sign of strategic thinking and offer little to the debate about a sustainable schooling system for Northern Ireland that reflects the educational and community landscape.
“Indeed, they look like documents designed to create the maximum disruption within the system in the vain hope that large numbers of schools will panic and voluntarily offer themselves up for closure or change.
“I encourage schools and communities to stay calm, and to ensure that they make clear their views on this flawed process.
“It is concerning that the Minister has launched such a consultation at this time when there is little prospect of capital funding for new school builds – a prerequisite for any widespread change to the system. However, perhaps there is another agenda at work.
“Some months ago the Minister received a report from Sir Robert Salisbury on the Review of the Common Funding Formula. This report made a number of key recommendations including changes in the way small schools were funded.
“The report recommended the removal of the small schools support factors within the formula. It also recommended a simplified formula which would increase the funding of schools which had high numbers of pupils in receipt of free school meals.
“These two factors together are likely to change the education landscape much more fundamentally than the current area plans for primary schools.
“Not only will they financially strangle small rural schools, but funding will also move between rural and urban schools and controlled and maintained sectors.
“The Minister and his Department are saying little about the review. There has been almost no discussion in public about the Report, and I believe that the current consultation is merely a smokescreen to deflect everyone from the key agenda of restructuring the system by amending the funding system.
“In view of this, I would encourage schools to seek the views of the Minister on his proposals for the Review of the Common Funding Formula before making any decisions about their school’s future.
“Bringing that into the open at this time will provide schools with a proper assessment of Area Planning and begin the real debate of how we incentivise success within our education system,” added Mr Storey’s statement.