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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Northern Ireland: Empty desks
Robin Sheeran
Robin Sheeran
Politics Show Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain
Peter Hain drew attention to the surplus places in NI schools

Since devolution ran into the sand back in 2002 the ability of direct-rule ministers to make major decisions has been held back by the idea that hard choices should really be made by local politicians.

Three years on, and this notion that big initiatives have to be put on hold until Stormont returns has worn thin.

When the Secretary of State, Peter Hain, made a major speech in Belfast on September 21 his comments about loyalist violence caught the headlines.

The meat of the speech, which outlined a series of public service reforms, was less widely covered.

This week on Politics Show from Northern Ireland our reporter Rosy Billingham looks at plans to make £120m of savings in the education service.

Drain on resources?

In his speech, Peter Hain drew attention to the 50,000 surplus places in our schools, and predicted that this would grow to 80,000 empty desks by 2015.

He identified the "diversity" of our school system, with its controlled, integrated, Irish-medium, and Catholic maintained sectors, as another drain on resources.

"We recognise and respect that desire for diversity and the richness it brings - but we must recognise the cost", he stated.

School closures and amalgamations are sure to follow. As the Secretary of State commented; "The current level of provision is simply not sustainable."

The Government is aiming for savings of £120m by 2008. The trade-off will include greater investment in childcare provision and vocational training.

Politics Show travels to Strabane in County Tyrone to see how the amalgamation of three Catholic post-primary schools has gone down with parents and teachers.

Schools suffering

The new Holy Cross College caters for 1500 pupils. The closure of the town's Convent Grammar school has raised hackles in some quarters.

In other areas grammar schools are taking up the slack caused by falling rolls. Frank Bunting of the Irish National Teachers Organisation says secondary schools are suffering as a result.

"We're now having grammar schools becoming 'comprehensive' schools by the back door," he tells Politics Show.

"And at the same time we've got secondary schools which the Secretary of State is saying must close because that's where the surplus places are - and that's where the working class kids are."

Earlier this year classroom assistants went on strike in support of a pay claim, Belfast's lollipop crossing patrols were only saved from major cuts by a sustained public campaign, and the education service has been rocked in recent years by massive overspends in some of the Education and Library Boards.

As the Government presses ahead with these latest cost-cutting plans and its pledge to do away with 11+ selection there are choppy seas ahead for Northern Ireland's schools.

Politics Show

Jim Fitzpatrick
Jim Fitzpatrick presents Politics Show from Northern Ireland

Politics Show from Northern Ireland presented by Jim Fitzpatrick.

Tune in to Politics Show from Northern Ireland on BBC One on Sunday 02 October 2005 at Noon.

You get a second chance to see the programme again that night, at 23.15 on BBC One.

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11 Sep 05 |  Politics Show


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