EANI Draft Strategic Area Plan: Another false dawn for education?


What’s happened and when?

The Education Authority has launched a consultation on their Strategic Area Plan 2022-2027 which will set the strategic direction of area planning for the next five years.

Area Planning is the process of strategic planning of primary and post-primary education provision to support the implementation of the Sustainable Schools Policy which provides the framework for schools to consider the educational experiences of children and young people and make the best use of resources.

The mission of the plan is ‘Providing a network of viable and sustainable schools that are of the right type, the right size, located in the right place..’

Underpinning the strategy is the ministerial priority around collaboration both in terms of developing composite classes in small schools and a cross-sectoral approach in delivering education in shared settings.

In seeking to ‘maximise the use and sharing of the existing schools’ estate including potential for collaborative models of shared and/or co-located facilities (including colocation of mainstream and special schools); this could mean the reduction in the number of individual schools and a propensity to move to shared campus-style developments for undersubscribed schools.

What’s in it that’s relevant to me?

The Area Plan is based on four key themes.  For the built environment, ‘inform strategic infrastructure planning and investment’ focuses on the physical environment schools will operate in, and how the provision of the school’s estate may change during the lifetime of this area plan.

Four actions have been identified to deliver on this objective:

  1. Identify, for an Area Planning activity, the capital requirement essential to the activity’s implementation

The strategy is clear that this may not just refer to building new schools, but a change in how a school is managed in terms of, for example, creating a partnership between schools that may have a capital element.

  • Engage with the Department of Education to strengthen links between capital investment and Development Proposal implementation

Development proposals can rest with the Department for many years before movement is forthcoming on capital investment, the area plan recognises that these need to be realistically managed.

  • Seek approval to commence the business case for major capital investment in conjunction with Development Proposal approval

In seeking to address the delay to any capital investment in schools or their estate which often means a delay between development stages, business cases should be completed in tandem with development proposals.  More detail is required on how this can be facilitated with, for example, CPD.

  • Prioritise approved Development Proposals for capital investment

With a further focus on the speed of granting development proposals, this aim will seek to remedy the waiting for the schools in most need to see capital investment which could include new premises.

These actions have not been elaborated on in the document, and RSUA will be monitoring the forthcoming operational plans that will outline specific deliverables.

Three operational plans will be published throughout the life of the area plan;

2022-2024: Short and medium-term work streams

2024-2026: Short and medium-term work streams

2027: Completion of outstanding workstreams from operational plan two and identification of emerging priorities

What does RSUA make of it? Is there great news for the built environment?

The Area Plan itself leaves the detail of how each objective will be carried out and how each operational plan will be comprised to Area Planning Local Groups which represent sectoral bodies and stakeholders. This dilutes the value of the plan and means it struggles to set out solid commitments.

Disagreement between sectoral bodies on the future of the education system is well documented.

Despite an independent review of education being carried out as part of New Decade New Approach, only this week Dr Keir Bloomer who chairs the review said there was no agreement on a single education system in NI that would help address unsustainable schools.

RSUA will be responding to the consultation which closes on 12 April 2022.  We would welcome comments from members in contributing to the draft response.  You can send your comments to Emmet (emmet@rsua.org.uk) by Friday 11 February 2022.