By Sheelagh Carville-McGivern, Northern Ireland Executive Committee
At a recent meeting of Voice’s Northern Ireland Executive Committee, the issue of class sizes and pupil numbers in Northern Ireland schools was raised, following media reports that some schools, particularly in Belfast, had been given permission to increase their pupil numbers as a ‘temporary variation in enrolment’ to cope with increased applications. However, the Northern Ireland Education Authority [EA] argued in its consultation for a more permanent, strategic approach.
Voice Executive Committee members expressed their concerns that these issues were closely linked to more widespread problems in Northern Ireland’s schools. With the publication and ratification of the New Decade – New Approach document, and the relaunch of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Committee members were keen to express support for politicians to put a sharp focus on the many pressing issues related to the languishing education system in Northern Ireland.
Schools, undoubtedly, need to be adequately funded with a sustainable core budget, but consideration needs to be focused on how such funding can address pressing school place shortages in areas of dense population.
Contrary to practice in England, which can see planning permission for housing developments linked to the provision of local services, including education, under a Section 106 planning obligation, the NI equivalent, Section 76 planning agreement, does not make provision for any benefit to a local community in terms of extra school places. Effectively, this means that large housing projects can go ahead with little or no thought given to the pressure this might place on existing school places. It is no coincidence that those schools needing extra places are largely within such areas of development.
These difficulties are, of course, part of the wider, systemic challenges at the heart of Northern Ireland’s education system. Voice’s Executive Committee members urge the politicians in Northern Ireland to capitalise on the opportunity created by the re-establishment of local, devolved government to bring about real change in the development and organisation of school services here.