Education funding in Northern Ireland Contents

4Area Planning and the school estate

92.In this chapter we consider:

The Northern Ireland School Estate

93.As we noted in Chapter 2, the Northern Ireland school system is complex and comprises many different types of school. Several witnesses told us that this led to unnecessary duplication of provision, and that there were too many schools in Northern Ireland. Deirdre Gillespie explained:

We have a fragmented system of education in Northern Ireland, which is far too costly. We have five competing sectors, duplication across the sectors, lack of co-operation and lack of co-ordination, and it is leading to the pressure pot of an unsustainable system. We have financially and educationally unviable schools in Northern Ireland. We have far too many schools in Northern Ireland, and we are not able to release the money that we need for viable schools, because we have not tackled the elephant in the room, which is about area-based planning.191

Sir Robert Salisbury gave us a typical example of duplication:

Omagh, where I live, has six post-primary schools with six principals, six building costs and six staffing costs. Retford in Nottinghamshire, with a similar population, has two. If you replicate that across the whole of Northern Ireland, you have your funding crisis in one view.192

94.A particular concern we heard was that there were a large number of small schools and schools which did not have sustainable enrolments.193 Witnesses pointed out that some of these schools had an important role in serving rural communities, but there was nevertheless an acknowledgement that there was a large amount of wasted capacity in the system.194 Several witnesses took the view that there were a significant number of schools that were not viable without direct support, either because they were not financially sustainable or because they were unable to offer the expected curriculum.195 The most commonly given examples of unviable schools were small primary schools and small sixth forms.196

95.The quality of the school estate was another key concern for several witnesses. Witnesses described classrooms which were too small or outdated.197 Some schools gave evidence that they had been using temporary mobile classrooms on a permanent basis, in one case for 30 years.198 We also heard that facilities for certain subjects, like music and physical education, were often inadequate.199 Witnesses told us that the school maintenance budget had come under pressure, and that the condition of some schools had deteriorated as a result. One principal wrote that she had needed to close three classrooms due to health and safety concerns, as it had not been possible to secure funding for repairs through the Minor Works Programme. She argued that it was a “false economy” to defer maintenance spending as the deterioration of buildings would increase costs in the long run.200

96.The Department and the Education Authority shared these concerns about the structure of the school system. The Permanent Secretary of the Department, Derek Baker, said:

Were we starting afresh with a blank page, we would not have the estate that we currently have for schools. We have too many small schools—we probably have too many small primary schools, and probably too many small sixth forms.201

97.The existence of so many types of school partly stems from Northern Ireland’s divided past, but also reflects the demand that exists for different models of education. Many parents make a choice to send their child to a school with a particular ethos, be that an Integrated school or an Irish medium one. Selective education, meanwhile, remains a mainstay of the Northern Ireland system, whereas it is rare in England and non-existent in Scotland and Wales. Deirdre Gillespie stated that, “while there is an appetite for integrated education, there is likewise an appetite for non-integrated education in Northern Ireland.” She added that many parents and children preferred a Grammar school education, regardless of background.202

98.We heard examples of excellent education being delivered in all sectors, and witnesses—while acknowledging the structural difficulties in the school system—generally did not express a preference for a particular model of provision. The Integrated Education Fund argued strongly for developing integrated education, for both economic and social reasons.203 However, others believed that both integrated education and shared education—in which schools from different sectors share resources and collaborate to deliver the curriculum—was a valuable approach.204 Koulla Yiasouma shared her concerns about the attainment gap between selective schools in the Grammar sector and non-selective schools.205

99.Many witnesses concluded that there was a need for fundamental transformation of the way education in Northern Ireland is organised, and reorganisation of the school estate.206 However, it was acknowledged that this would involve difficult conversations with parents, schools and communities. Koulla Yiasouma, said a long-term conversation was needed about reform:

The nearest school should be the very best school and it should provide the same quality of education as any other school. That will require a conversation in Northern Ireland, inclusive of all the people in Northern Ireland, including the children and young people.

If you look at what has happened with healthcare in Northern Ireland [ … ] 10 years ago it would have been unconscionable to close the local hospital. All these reform processes—Transforming Your Care, Bengoa and Donaldson—have got people to the place, “If I have to go a little bit further to get a better level of healthcare, then maybe my local hospital should provide different sorts of services”. We are getting there. That is part of a conversation we need to have.207

Nigel Frith, Principal of Drumragh Integrated College, suggested that this change did not necessarily have to come at the expense of community choice, acknowledging that “some communities may be ready for integrated education; some may not.”208 He said:

The Department should say to every community, ‘Would you like integrated education or quality shared education? It is an either/or. Let’s go down one of these pathways, begin somewhere and begin the journey towards reconciliation.’ [ … ] What is unacceptable is the lack of vision to say it is an either/or, and we will resource either, whatever the community believes is right for them.209

100.A number of witnesses stressed the importance of constructive engagement with schools and communities when taking decisions on how education is delivered. The CCMS said it was important to “win the hearts and minds of the communities, the parents, political partners and everybody who would have a vested interest in a particular school.”210 The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council gave evidence that:

Where schools are at risk of being closed or new schools are planned, local communities should be kept fully informed of the opportunity for possible collaborations. Wide scale direct debate with parents and children should be encouraged and facilitated at area-based planning level.211

Previous research carried out by Professor Tony Gallagher for the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Education Committee found that DE was fulfilling its duty to consult with relevant stakeholders, but expressed concern that “The consultation process appears to have had limited impact on official recommendations or final decisions.”212

101.The EA noted that it was easier to win support for proposals when they could clearly demonstrate new investment and a clear timetable. John Collings, the then Director of Education, said:

I can have a very different kind of conversation with governors, local community leaders, local politicians and school leaders if we are talking about change that is accompanied by a significant amount of capital investment in a new school in a new area, which sustains the local community engagement, rather than a school potentially going on a waiting list, which is going to be five to 10 years.213

102.The NIAO has also argued for the importance of sectoral engagement, reporting that “Without full participation of all major education sectors, Area Planning will not produce solutions which are complete and appropriate to all localities.” Its Sustainability of Schools report found that the Irish-medium and Voluntary Sectors were not as closely involved in planning decisions as other sectors.214

103.There is widespread agreement that the way education in Northern Ireland is organised does not make the best use of resources. We heard that better allocation of resources could improve the quality of education for all children, and there remains scope for change while continuing to meet the demand for different models of education that exists in the province. Based on the evidence we received, we believe that a broad ambition for the education sector should be to consolidate the school estate so that resources can be concentrated in fewer schools, giving greater scope for an enriched, broadened school experience. The Department and the Education Authority should use this as its guiding principle when taking decisions about school provision.

104.Ultimately these decisions are for the people of Northern Ireland to take, and no single approach will be right for every community. Consultation is therefore an essential part of this process, so that parents and communities are truly included in these decisions and their concerns respected. The Department of Education should use part of the public sector transformation fund allocated in the 2019–20 draft budget to run community consultations on school provision, so that communities have a real stake in decision-making rooted in their desired outcomes.

Area Planning policy

105.Area Planning is the strategic process used to manage the Northern Ireland school estate. It is part of the Department of Education’s Sustainable Schools Policy, published in 2009.215 The Sustainable Schools Policy lists six criteria for a sustainable school, one of which is “Stable Enrolment Trends.” The policy sets minimum enrolment requirements for new schools: 140 for a primary in an urban area (referring to schools in the Belfast and Derry City Council Areas); 105 for a primary in a rural area; 500 for years 8–12 in a post-primary; and 100 for a new sixth form.216 The policy says that primary schools should be reviewed when their enrolment falls below 60, and post-primaries when enrolment falls below 300, although it does not require that action be taken in either case.217 EA figures show that 36 per cent of rural primaries have fewer than 105 pupils, 21 per cent of urban primary schools have fewer than 140 pupils, and 47 per cent of post-primaries have fewer than 500 pupils.218

106.We also heard examples of schools which were oversubscribed. Geri Cameron of the NAHT explained that:

The geographical distribution is very uneven. There are parts of Northern Ireland where it is impossible to get a child into a parent’s first or second-choice school.”219

In some cases schools’ lack of capacity was linked to staffing or demographic pressures: Comber Primary explained that although their school had surplus places overall, budget pressures had reduced their staff numbers, and this meant they were not able to accept new students into P2 or P3 classes. They pointed out that this deprived the school of a potential source of income.220

107.The Department measures the number of surplus places in the Northern Ireland school system. In 2014–15 it estimated that there were 71,540 surplus places in the system, of which 49 per cent were in Catholic Maintained schools and 45 per cent in Controlled Schools.221 However, the accuracy of DE’s calculations was questioned by the Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee, and some witnesses believed the official figure was too high.222 Geri Cameron told us that “There may well be some empty school desks, but there are not as many as there were in the past.”223 The Northern Ireland Audit Office’s own estimate is that there were 35,910 available places in primary schools and 13,718 in post-primary schools in 2017–18.224 DE has begun work to review the way it measures capacity in the school system, with a view to resetting schools’ approved admission numbers.225

108.As noted above, witnesses broadly acknowledged the need for changes to the organisation of Northern Ireland’s school estate. The EA stated that this was a key challenge for the sector, explaining:

In many areas there are too many school places for the size of the population, and in others there are not enough, or they are not of the right type. Investment in Area Planning will be needed to address this.226

However, some witnesses felt that Area Planning could not make progress because there was insufficient capital budget to support it. Gerry Campbell of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools told us that without capital funding to support transformation, it could be difficult to win support for change from schools and local communities and that, at the moment, “capital investment is not running concurrently alongside and parallel with the reorganisation of schools.”227 We also heard that there was a perception that integrated education had received more capital investment than other sectors, and some witnesses stressed that investment should be based on objective need.228

109.Other witnesses had more fundamental concerns about the rationale behind the current Area Planning approach and the way change had been managed. Geri Cameron questioned the evidence base behind some decisions:

We would contend that the Department is not looking at whether or not it is viable to close small rural schools, for example. Is that a cost-saving exercise? Has amalgamating two schools that fall below the sustainability level in terms of the set criteria been costed? Is it viable? Is it something that is going to do what it sets out to do? We are not aware that the Department is doing that.229

110.Some of our witnesses cautioned against what they saw as an assumption within the Area Planning process that larger schools delivered the best and most cost-effective education. Sir Gerry Loughran of the Governing Bodies Association230 made the point that Northern Ireland is a largely rural community, and that the definition of sustainability should therefore be different from other parts of the UK.231 Koulla Yiasouma expressed concern that under the Sustainable Schools Policy there was a risk that only very large schools would qualify as sustainable, and that this “may have a detrimental impact on education in rural areas.”232 A previous review of the Area Planning process carried out for the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee by Professor Tony Gallagher argued “there is little or no correlation between school size and performance levels.”233

111.The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 requires that a Development Proposal (DP) must be approved before significant changes can be made to education provision in an area, including opening or closing schools or making significant changes to a school’s enrolment.234 DPs are usually brought forward by the relevant planning authority, although in some sectors parent groups or boards of governors may bring forward proposals.235 Following a statutory consultation process and objection period, the Department decides whether to approve the proposal. In the past decisions on DPs were made by Ministers; however, in the absence of an Executive the Permanent Secretary has taken decisions on proposals, based on analysis by departmental officials.236 DE confirmed that the Permanent Secretary had taken 33 decisions on DPs in 2017–18 and 19 decisions in 2018–19.237

112.We heard that progress on Development Proposals could be slow. The Department previously had a target for progressing DPs of six weeks from the end of the statutory consultation period. It has stated in its annual reports that a large number of proposals have been initiated in recent years (for example, 55 in 2015–16) and that consequently this target had often been missed.238 Koulla Yiasouma said that “we have a process in place that is far too slow.” We heard that delays can lead to schools operating on split sites for a prolonged period, a situation which we heard can create significant costs.239 The Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee previously identified schools where a closure had been proposed but where no final decision had been taken, leading those schools to “wither on the vine” as they struggled to retain or attract pupils.240 The Permanent Secretary acknowledged that there were delays in the Area Planning process and decision-making, and told us “we are not moving ahead fast enough and we need to accelerate the pace and tempo.”241

113.The Permanent Secretary raised a related problem concerning Major Capital Works funding. This is one of three main strands through which capital works in schools are funded (together with the Schools Enhancement Programme and the Minor Works Programme). Major Works refer to new builds, extensions or refurbishments costing more than £500,000. The Department normally announces a new tranche of capital projects each year (except for Controlled Schools, where the EA is responsible for capital works). The Permanent Secretary stated that as existing projects near completion he might need to consider whether to issue a call for new projects, but that the criteria for these would normally be set by a Minister. He explained:

It is the criteria bit that gets a bit tricky for me, because it could take me into the territory of policy decisions and ministerial decisions, and I do not want to go there. On the other hand, it is a good thing to have a pipeline of major capital projects, because there is such a long lead time for these and we need to get those going. My disposition would be towards issuing a new call for capital projects sometime this calendar year, but I will have to give careful thought to the criteria.

114.Departments in Northern Ireland have been without ministerial direction for more than two and a half years. The Department of Education has judged—in our view correctly—that it should still take decisions on school Development Proposals. Throughout our inquiry we heard consistent evidence on the urgent need for improvements to Northern Ireland’s school estate. This is clearly an immediate strategic priority for the sector. We recommend that, if no Executive is formed by October, the Department of Education should issue a call for new capital projects, consulting with key stakeholders and the political parties to ensure widespread confidence in its approach.


193 Q256; Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (EDU0057), p 3

196 Association of School and College Leaders (EDU0009)

197 APTIS: the Association of Principals in Integrated Schools (EDU0032)

198 St Kieran’s PS (EDU0002)

199 Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (EDU0056)

200 St Patrick’s College (EDU0049), p 1

203 Integrated Education Fund (EDU0021)

206 Association of School and College Leaders (EDU0009); Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (EDU0056); Education Authority (EDU0044); Integrated Education Fund (EDU0021)

211 Northern Ireland Community Relations Council (EDU0051), p 2

212 Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Education, Position Paper: Area Planning, Annex 1

214 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Sustainability of Schools,30 June 2015 p 36

215 Department of Education, Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools, 14 January 2009

216 Department of Education, Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools, 14 January 2009, p 34–35

217 Department of Education, Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools, 14 January 2009, p 22, 25

220 Strategic Primary Principals Forum (EDU0026)

221 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools , 30 June 2015, p 25

222 Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee, Report on Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools, 2 March 2016, p 6 ; Q131

224 Northern Ireland Audit Office, The Financial Health of Schools, 16 October 2019, p 38

226 Education Authority (EDU0044), p 8

230 Sir Gerry was also a member of the EA Board, but appeared in his role as Vice Chairman of the Governing Bodies Association

232 Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (EDU0057)

233 Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Education, Position Paper: Area Planning, Annex 1

236 Department of Education, Publication of a Development Proposal, 26 September 2014, p 28; Department of Education, Guidance on the Publication of a Development Proposal (Replacement for Circular DE 2014/21), 14 September 2018, p 28

238 Department of Education, Annual Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2016, 1 July 2016, p 44

239 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 3–4

240 Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee, Report on Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools, 2 March 2016, p 11




Published: 22 July 2019