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Nettle-grasping education body will snub parties


30/01/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

A planned string of school closures could be accelerated by a body being set up to replace education boards because it will exclude politicians.

The Education and Skills Au-thority (ESA), to be launched next year, will take important and often controversial act-ions free from political interference. While it is hoped that area-based decisions will be made locally with input from councillors and MLAs, the ESA will have the power to shut or merge schools itself.

Parties fighting for greater local accountability are re-sisting the plans but it app-ears that government's intention is to create a select "high-ly skilled" board at the ESA to prevent conflicts of interest.

The ESA's governing body will comprise 12 people, a huge reduction on the 150-plus board members - two fifths of whom are politicians.

Political members are reluctant to back closures. Some have told meetings there are "no votes in closing schools".

Now government looks set to follow the Catholic sector's example by creating a board with no political members.

This sector has been app-lauded for recognising that retaining a number of small schools in the same area is not viable - and other education authorities lag behind.

In 2006 every political member of the Belfast board's Controlled Sector Strategic Planning Sub-Committee, set up to plan for closures and amalgamations, resigned.

This was despite members being told of the urgent need to reduce thousands of costly empty desks in the city.

When the five boards were told to balance their budgets it was the elected members who resisted multi-million-pound cost-cutting measures.

As a result the entire south-eastern board was eventually suspended indefinitely.

It is hoped that the creation of the ESA, to replace the boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, will mean elected politicians no longer have to make compromising decisions.

It is proposed that a "small, highly skilled board", led by a chairman appointed by the minister, will oversee the ESA.

As in the existing boards, posts are likely to last up to four years and performance will be assessed annually.

If the ESA considers taking an action that will affect an area, such as a school closure or amalgamation, it will consult elected representatives but they will have no veto.

A Department of Education spokesman last night said any change to the planned policy "would be a matter for the minister and the executive".



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