Area Planning - Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) aim to provide information to parents, Boards of Governors (BoG), Principals, teachers and education stakeholders about Area Planning and the Development Proposal (DP) process.




Q:        What is a ‘sustainable school’?


A:        A sustainable school is one that is educationally and financially viable providing high quality education that meets the needs of all enrolled pupils.


Q:        How is sustainability assessed?


A:        The Department’s “Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools (known as the Sustainable Schools Policy (SSP)) - - aims to ensure that all children get a first class education in fit-for-purpose facilities, regardless of background or where they live, making best use of the resources available for education.  The SSP sets out criteria and indicators designed to inform assessments of the sustainability of a school’s education provision and act as a prompt for more detailed investigation; this is central to the Area Planning process. The 6 criteria relate to the:-


  • quality of a pupil’s educational experience;
  • enrolment trends at the school;
  • school’s financial position;
  • leadership and management;
  • ease of access to a school’s education provision; and
  • strength of links to the local community.


Q:        Does the SSP apply to all schools?


A:        It applies to all primary and post primary schools.  It does not apply to pre-school or special school provision which are covered by separate policy and planning arrangements.




Q:        Where can I find information about the sustainability of individual schools?


A:        Annual Area Profiles are published by the Education Authority (EA) on its website -.  These contain information for every primary and post primary school in each Local Government District (LGD).  The data includes pupil numbers, the financial position of schools and, for post primary schools, educational attainment and Entitlement Framework compliance data is also included.  The purpose of the Area Profiles is to provide a clear picture of the sustainability trends in schools in an area and to encourage informed debate on local education provision.





Q:        What is Area Planning?


A:        Area Planning is the process of strategic planning of primary and post primary education provision that supports the implementation of the Department’s SSP which aims to ensure that all pupils have access to a broad and balanced curriculum that meets their educational needs and in a sustainable school.


The Department has published Area Planning guidance to explain the process in detail including the support structures in place and the Area Planning Cycle or timetable.


Q:        Why is Area Planning important?


A:        Area Planning ensures the SSP is consistently applied to establish a network of viable and sustainable schools.  It is important that schools are efficiently and effectively managed to secure delivery of the curriculum and maximise available resources in the best interest of all pupils.


Q:        Who is responsible for Area Planning?


A:        There is a range of key contributors to the Area Planning process.


The Department’s role is to provide the strategic and policy context for Area Planning; to provide advice and guidance to the planning authorities and to scrutinise, challenge and endorse Area Plans for publication by the EA.


The EA and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) are statutory planning authorities.  The EA has overall planning authority for primary and post primary schools of all sectors and operational responsibility for planning efficient and sufficient schools.  Other education bodies participate in the planning process as advocates for particular school sectors but are not statutory planning authorities in their own right.  More detail on the roles and responsibilities is available in the Area Planning guidance.


Q:        How is an area defined?


A:        The areas defined by the EA are consistent with the 11 LGDs established following the reform of Local Government.  However, account is taken of the natural flow of pupils across LGDs as many pupils live in one area but attend school in another.  The 11 LGDs are detailed below:-



Q:        What is an Area Plan and where can I see it?


A:        The EA’s “Providing Pathways” Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020 highlights sustainability issues identified from a range of evidence, both historic and forward looking.  It sets out high level priorities for action over the 3-year period.  The Providing Pathways Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020 and the supporting Annual Action Plan can be viewed at the links below.


Q:        Why is there an Area Plan and an Annual Action Plan?


A:        The Area Plan is a strategic 3-year document which sets out key priorities, issues and challenges for each LGD.  The aim of the Area Plan is to focus on the key issues affecting the sustainability of schools in an area rather than focusing on individual schools.  The Annual Action Plan is the annual work programme for school managing authorities, ie the EA, CCMS and BoGs to address identified issues.


Q:        How can I make my views known on the Area Plan?


A:        The next Area Plan will be developed for 2020-2023 in 2019.  The EA will launch a public consultation for anyone to provide their views and comments.


Q:        What happens after consultation on the Area Plan?


A:        Following the consultation period, the EA will analyse the responses and present a report on the issues raised during the consultation along with their final draft strategic Area Plan to the Minister for consideration.

DE officials will assess the draft Area Plan for alignment with the Department’s policies and guidance and advise the Minister.  The Minister will endorse the Area Plan for publication by the EA on its website.


Q:        What will be in the Annual Action Plan and will it be consulted upon?


A:        The Annual Action Plan is a work programme of proposed actions for the school planning and managing authorities to address sustainability issues, including increasing places where they are needed.  Individual schools can be named, groups of schools or an area.  The Annual Action Plan must reflect the priority identified in the Area Plan.

The EA does not consult on the Annual Action Plan as any proposed significant changes to schools go through a statutory DP process which involves a 2-month objection period when anyone can make their views known.

The managing authority, as proposer, will engage with school communities at an early stage to consider options and if a DP needs to be published.


Q:        How will the Area Plan be implemented?


A:        Actions will be taken forward by the school managing authorities.  Any significant changes will require the publication of DPs which will be subject to the pre-consultation processes and then a statutory 2-month objection period.


Q:        Why are there actions for special schools in the Area Plan if the SSP does not cover this phase of education provision?


A:        Inclusion of special schools in the Area Plan allows all planning issues to be accessible in one document to ensure the public have a complete picture of potential changes to all types of educational provision for pupils in an area.  The EA is responsible for special school provision.  For those children and young people with statements of special educational needs (SEN), education is provided through special schools or through Learning Support Centres (LSCs), Autistic Spectrum Disorder Centres (ASDCs) and Speech and Language or Behaviour Support units attached to mainstream primary and post primary schools or through provision provided in mainstream primary and post primary schools.

Through the Area Plan, the EA aims to move special school provision towards a more consistent regional structure to support learners with significant and /or complex needs.


Q:        Pre-school is not in the Area Plan but actions for pre-school are in the Annual Action Plan.  Why?


A:        Changes to statutory pre-school provision are included in the Annual Action Plan to have a complete picture of potential changes to all types of provision.  Pre-school education is not compulsory education.




Q:        What is a Development Proposal (DP)?


A:        A DP is a statutory process by which proposed and significant changes to education provision are made.  The changes proposed must align with the current Area Plan and Annual Action Plan for education provision.  The Department has published detailed guidance on the DP process.


Q:        When is a DP required?


A:        A DP is required for any significant change to the character or size of an existing school, eg to establish a new grant-aided school; to discontinue (close) a grant-aided school or to make a change to a school which would have a significant effect on another grant-aided school.  The Department has published detailed guidance describing the DP process.


Q:        Who can bring a DP forward?


A:        DP are brought forward by proposers, usually the EA, CCMS or a BoG.  Full details of the proposer for different school types are contained in the guidance describing the DP process.


Under Article 14(3) of the Education and Libraries Order 1986, the Department also has the power to direct the EA to submit a DP for controlled and voluntary schools.


Q:        Can a number of significant changes be published as one DP?


A:        If the proposed changes relate to the same school they can be brought forward as one DP or more than one DP, eg to establish a nursery unit and establish a Learning Support Unit (LSU).  Separate DPs are required for proposed changes that impact on more than one school, eg an amalgamation requires a DP to close each school and one to establish the new school.  The Department advises proposers how many DPs are required.



Q:        Where are DPs published?


A:        The EA publishes all DPs on its website and in relevant daily and weekly newspapers.  They can also be found on the Department’s website.


Q:        Can a DP be withdrawn after it is published?


A:        Yes.  The proposer can withdraw a proposal after it has been published and before the Minister or Permanent Secretary has taken a decision on it.


Q:        What is a Case for Change?


A:        A Case for Change details the case being made by the proposer in support of significant change.  It provides the evidence to support the proposal and help those affected by it to understand the educational and other benefits of the change proposed.  Further information can be found in the DP guidance.


Q:        What consultation arrangements apply to DPs?


A:        There are 2 key phases set out in legislation.


Firstly, a statutory pre-publication consultation carried out by the proposer targeted at school Governors, parents and teachers directly affected by the proposed changes.  The Proposer collates all responses received and includes a summary of the issues in the Case for Change.  When a proposer completes the pre-publication consultation and Case for Change they submit these with a draft DP to the EA.  The EA will then conduct further consultation with schools that may be affected by the proposal.  The Education Committee of the EA considers all DPs and related comments received during the consultation and approves them for publication.  Any concerns about the pre-publication consultation should be raised with the proposer at the earliest opportunity.


Secondly, once a DP is published, a statutory 2-month objection period starts, during which anyone can submit their objections to the proposal directly to the Department.  Early engagement is important to ensure views and opinions are heard and considered at the most relevant stage of the process and before a final decision is taken by the Minister or Permanent Secretary.


Q:        Does the Minister or Permanent Secretary meet with interested or affected parties during the DP process?


A:        The Minister or Permanent Secretary considers all requests for meetings received during the 2-month statutory objection period of a DP, subject to the usual constraints on availability.


Q:        What account does the Minister or Permanent Secretary take of the views and opinions expressed during the statutory 2-month objection period?


A:        All views submitted to the Department during the statutory 2-month objection period are collated and details presented to the Minister or Permanent Secretary in a submission which officials prepare to inform decisions on DPs.


Q:        What information does the Minister or Permanent Secretary see before making a decision?


A:        The Department compiles and assesses all relevant information in relation to the DP before making a recommendation to the Minister or Permanent Secretary.  The recommendation takes account of:-


the proposer’s case for change;
objections and  representations from interested parties;
advice from policy teams within the Department;
the professional advice of the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) for the Department; and
any other information considered pertinent to the proposal.


The Minister does not have to agree with the recommendation.  It is for the Minister to decide what weight he/she attributes to particular evidence or analysis.


Q:        Can the Minister or Permanent Secretary change a DP?


A:        The Minister or Permanent Secretary can modify a DP under Article 14(7) of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986.  Section ‘Modification of a Development Proposal’ in the DP guidance provides further detail about the exercising of this power.


Q:        How is the decision communicated?


A:        Once the Minister or Permanent Secretary takes a decision on a DP, officials from the Department contact the proposer and, if applicable the sponsoring body, to notify them.  This is followed up with written confirmation and a press release.  The submission informing the Minister’s or Permanent Secretary’s decision (with appropriate redactions) is published on the DE website.




Q:        Can the implementation date of a DP be delayed?


A:        The aim is that the BoG and managing authority implement the proposal on the effective date stated in the published DP or as soon as possible thereafter.  Only in very exceptional circumstances will consideration be given to a request for a delay and this must be decided on by the Minister or Permanent Secretary.


Q:        What is the difference between a school closing, discontinuing or amalgamating?


A:        There is no difference in meaning between a school closing and discontinuing.  The term ‘discontinue’ is included in the legislation underpinning the DP process (Article 14 of the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986).


The term amalgamation is described in the SSP which states at section 6.13 that a new school is formed to replace 2 or more schools of similar size coming together and usually means a new name, uniform, etc.  An amalgamation is achieved by the closure/discontinuance of 2 or more schools and establishment of a new school to replace them.


Q:        Who decides on the location of schools which are to be amalgamated?


A:        The implementation of any DP is a matter for the school’s managing authority and BoG.  When a new school is created through an amalgamation an interim BoG is created; therefore, the location of the new school would be a matter for them as they have the responsibility for the operation and management arrangements required to effect it.  Circular 2015/06 Guidance on Implementation of Approved Development Proposals for School Amalgamations provides guidance on the implementation of approved DPs for school amalgamations.

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