Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

Education body 'to miss deadline'

primary school

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has admitted a new single education body is unlikely to be in place by the deadline in six weeks' time.

The Education and Skills Authority was due to take over the functions of the education and library boards and other bodies like the CCMS on 1 January.

Ms Ruane said interim measures would be put in place to avoid a vacuum when the boards are wound up on 31 December.

She said it was neither practical nor desirable to keep the boards in place.

The Sinn Fein minister's statement marks a change of tack for the Department of Education, which was insisting as recently as October that the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) remained on track for New Year's Day.

'Political will'

Ms Ruane insisted on Friday that the 1 January deadline could still be met "if the political will exists".

"I will however in the coming days, announce interim plans to ensure a smooth transition between the current structures and ESA, in the absence of political goodwill in achieving the Executive decision to have ESA in place by 1 January 2010," she said.

Her comments came a day after a warning by the heads of the education and library boards being phased out that the uncertainty was creating chaos.

They blamed the assembly's failure to pass the law needed to create the ESA, which was conceived as part of the Review of Public Administration which was designed to streamline bureaucracy.

The DUP has refused to back the new authority because it is unhappy with the treatment of controlled schools, attended mostly by Protestant children.

A delay in assembly members debating the necessary legislation meant there was not enough time for it to be passed before the Christmas recess at Stormont.

Ms Ruane said: "The delay in establishing ESA has meant that savings of £21m in total costs of excess bureaucracy, which are already factored into our financial plans, have yet to be achieved - savings that could have gone straight to frontline services in schools.

"Those savings will now have to be found in other areas and this will be a huge challenge."

Low morale

Education bosses warned in a strongly-worded letter to the Department on Thursday that no contingency plans were in place and a freeze on appointing new staff had created serious problems.

They said morale was very low, with staff not knowing if they would still have jobs on 1 January.

Their concerns were echoed by Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) chief executive Donal Flanagan, who has advised his staff to "disengage" from assisting in the creation of the ESA.

It is planned that ESA will eventually be the future employer of all school staff in Northern Ireland.

The single body is to replace the five education and library boards and four other bodies including the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and the CCMS.

It was originally supposed to come into operation in April 2008, but the date was put back to January 2010 amid complaints by politicians and trade unions that the timescale set by direct rule ministers was not achievable.

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