Hundreds of schools are facing the threat of closure after the Education Minister ordered an immediate review of the viability of every school in the North – and West Belfast is in the firing line. Post-primary institutions are the first to face the rigorous audit which John O’Dowd says is aimed at improving education standards here.

Announcing his proposals to the Assembly on Monday, Minister O’Dowd said he is not afraid to close schools in his bid to improve the quality of education.

Pupil numbers, finances and educational quality at post-primaries across the North will be scrutinised between now and December when the audit report will be made public. Minister O’Dowd says he will take action based on the review to protect pupils’ education.

There could be as many as 85,000 empty spaces in our schools, equating to more than 150 empty schools, he said, adding that “difficult, sometimes unpopular, but necessary, decisions” will have to be taken to reduce that number. Just as struggling schools may face the axe, popular, oversubscribed schools may have to expand to take more pupils, he said.

“We must prioritise the needs of children over institutions,” he told the Assembly. “We have too many schools that do not have the capacity to give children the broad and rich educational experience they deserve; schools which, in some cases, have lost the confidence of the parents, pupils and communities they were built to serve.

“A third of our 863 primary schools have fewer than 100 children enrolled and a fifth of our 217 post-primary schools have fewer than 400 pupils.

“However, sustainable schools are not simply a numbers game. Schools will be measured against the six principles of the sustainable schools policy.”

The Department of Education has been forced to tighten its belt after it lost £700m from its budget for the next four years due to cuts by Westminster. With that in mind, Mr O’Dowd says a more imaginative and flexible approach is needed in terms of how the reduced budget is spent.

“Action is needed to restructure our schools estate to ensure it is capable of meeting the needs of our children in the future, is affordable and represents the best and most effective use of taxpayers’ money.

“I must be certain that we are investing our resources in the right schools. It is my intention to set out clear criteria for access to capital investment in the near future.

"These criteria will be founded on the sustainable schools policy and the requirement that any proposal is founded in an area plan agreed by the sectors and approved by my department.

“I commend the Minister for his vision in relation to providing an excellent education for all students and indeed improve outcomes for young people across Northern Ireland. This is a challenge we must all embrace to ensure students are both qualified and skilled to meet the needs of a constantly changing workplace.

“The need for rationalisation is already being addressed through the Post-Primary Review of Education in the Catholic sector and falling enrolment is not just an issue to be shouldered by the non-selective sector in education but a challenge for the Church and political leaders to provide all-ability, high-quality education for all young people.

“The worry is that financial restraints will underpin the Minister’s policy and that sustainability simply secures the grammar schools over all others. I agree with the Minister that students should have a wide range of subject choice and no student should be prohibited from following their chosen career path because of the size of school. The smaller school very effectively provides the Entitlement Framework through collaboration and partnership with other schools and in West Belfast the models of best practice are already evident through the extensive Post-16 programme available and continuing improvements in outcomes for all the students in every school.”

“I agree with the Minister’s focus on putting the needs of children first and enhancing life chances through education.  We in Saint Louise’s are passionate about equality of opportunity, social justice and excellence in teaching and learning. Our shared vision has always been, and continues to be, the belief that every young person has talents and gifts which will be developed to their full potential in high-quality, all-ability, 11-19 centres of excellence.

“Indeed, the outstanding successes of our students in many areas, including examination outcomes, prove that children do not need to be segregated from their peers at the tender age of 11.  Furthermore, schools need to be large enough to offer the full Entitlement Framework which will allow us to grow the economy by developing a more flexible workforce.

“We need immediate action both from our Minister and the Church in terms of moving beyond the rhetoric to the abolition of an iniquitous, selective system which is morally, educationally and socially unjust. The reality in too many areas is that the selective schools continue to remain sustainable in terms of enrolment and budget at the expense of their non-selective neighbours.

“ I reiterate that our young people, their parents and the staff in our schools deserve concrete action which moves beyond the rhetoric to the creation of a fair deal for all our young people.

“It is imperative that future provision is based on what is morally, educationally, socially and economically right in the ongoing pursuit of excellence for all our young people in the twenty-first century.”

“This is a very comprehensive statement, which I welcome. At its centre is the welfare of and provision for children, which everyone would support. It seems to give urgency to policy positions the Department has outlined over a number of years.

At St Mary’s, we would hope that the review of the Capital Build Programme has positive outcomes. We are confident we met all the criteria as a sustainable school.

“We believe that Minister O’Dowd’s statement supports the ongoing work of the Catholic Commission’s Post-Primary Review, which is working to ensure that high-quality provision is available in sustainable schools.

“We view it as an opportunity to re-shape the educational landscape for the better and offer a phased approach to change.”

“The Minister’s statement recognises the range of challenges facing education today and the need for decisive and strategic action to be taken.

“I therefore welcome his determination to bring forward – with urgency – the Department’s plans for provision and the future schools estate which is underpinned by the right to excellence for all children.

“The frustration and uncertainty experienced by parents and schools needs to end now so that the financial resource available is effectively targeted and outcomes-driven. All will agree that children are our most important resource and high-quality education is vital to their future wellbeing and central to the rebuilding of our society. We have to ensure that challenges become opportunities in an era of financial constraint and our education system creatively responds to ensure equity and equality of access.

“Mr O’Dowd has emphasised that the planned viability audit will not simply be a ‘numbers game’ but will have quality and pupil needs at the core. Clearly, tough and unpopular recommendations will emerge, but I believe that the Minister has a clear understanding of the plethora of issues and the vision to bring our education system to a better place.”