Fermanagh’s school communities were at the forefront as the Committee for Education brought forward their position paper to the Assembly on the Area Planning process. During the Assembly debate reference was made to the foresight and leadership of those 14 school partnerships involving 37 schools in Fermanagh who produced substantial submissions to the area plans requesting that their shared models would be recognised and further explored.
The Committee’s paper focussed on the need for greater transparency and clear communication, particularly within the consultation process. The report also called on the Department of Education to plan educational provision on a truly area basis and cross-sectoral solutions should be given consideration as appropriate. “The Department should work with schools and communities to facilitate sharing, co-operation and innovative solutions to Area Planning problems particularly in rural areas so as to promote higher quality, better value for money provision.”
The Area Planning process which the Department brought forward in 2011 was originally designed to identify realistic, innovative and creative solutions to address need, including opportunities for shared schooling on a cross-sectoral basis. Committee member Trevor Lunn MLA stated “There is a big momentum, at the moment, towards a shared solution. I notice that every primary school in County Fermanagh that is identified as being under stress, or, in other words under threat of closure, is involved in a sharing solution, that is how it should be.”
While noting how much the Committee were impressed by the evidence from parents and teachers from small rural schools, Committee Chairman Peter Weir MLA said “As we look to the future, it is important that the linkages are there between shared education and area planning and that many of the old assumptions about the numbers and the lack of robust statistics are tackled.”
Committee member Sandra Overend MLA stated she believed that the recommendation regarding cross-sectoral solutions being given consideration in area planning was actually “not strong enough” and that these solutions should explicitly be the norm, ending the unhealthy nature of competition amongst different sectors.
Education Minister John O’Dowd MLA agreed with most of the Committee’s recommendations, including the need to provide the new Education Authority with the necessary leadership to ensure that area planning in undertaken in a transparent and consistent manner; greater efforts to ensure close alignment between area plans and capital programmes; and more sharing, co-operation and innovative solutions to area planning problems particularly in rural areas.