Education: Area Planning
John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)
: Mr Speaker, with your permission I will answer questions 7 and 15 together.
The terms of reference for area planning issued last December. They clearly highlight the scope and timescales involved in the first part of that process. Area planning is a complex and multifaceted process, and this is the first time that it has been undertaken on this scale. It is therefore crucial that the approach developed for all aspects of the process is common and consistent across all board areas.
An area planning co-ordination group has been established. It is chaired by a senior departmental official and supported by other officials responsible for area planning. It comprises representatives from the five education and library boards and CCMS, as all of those organisations have statutory responsibility for planning. It is an operational group that provides a forum for the boards to engage directly with the Department to agree matters of process and to obtain clarification on issues as they emerge.
To date I have received from all boards draft area plans for stand-alone special schools and draft area plans for post-primary provision. Primary area plans will be submitted by the end of June. My officials are considering those plans against departmental policies and are engaged in dialogue through the area planning co-ordination group. The timeframe and processes for consultation will be agreed and the plans will be published for consultation. I am hopeful of having the final plans agreed by the autumn.
Paul Frew (DUP)
: Can the Minister give an assurance to the House that, when the area plans take place, the scenario that has faced Castle Tower School in Ballymena — which he will be aware of — whereby schools are forced to merge and take action, yet there is not enough facility or money for newbuilds, will not take place throughout the Province, with regard to schools being forced to move, although they might need the facilities for a newbuild, and that money will not be forthcoming?
John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)
: I am aware of Castle Tower Special School. One of the reasons that I brought forward the special schools area plan so early was because, after visiting a number of our special schools, I am of the view that they are not in proper condition and that their facilities are not modern and fit for purpose. That is why I have asked for the special schools area plan to be brought forward. The area plan is about what it says on the tin. It is about planning for the future to ensure that policy and money follow each other, and that schools and communities have an action plan in front of them and know the direction of travel for the schools estate and the provision of education going into the future.