The purpose of the Area Planning process is to implement the Department’s Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools, known as the Sustainable Schools Policy (SSP).
The SSP does not apply to pre-school or Special Education provision. However, Area Planning applies to primary, post-primary and special schools and ensures that provision is planned strategically to deliver sustainable, high quality education to all pupils.
The purpose of the policy is to ensure that children and young people have access to high quality education that is delivered in schools that are educationally and financially sustainable. The Education Authority, as statutory planning authority, has overall operational responsibility for planning of education provision and liaises with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (also having a statutory planning role) and representatives of other school sectors to embed a unified cross-sectoral approach to Area Planning.
Area Plan 2017-2020 and Annual Action Plan
The Education Authority (EA) has published the first regional Area Plan for education in Northern Ireland. “Providing Pathways - Strategic Area Plan for Schools 2017-2020” and the supporting Annual Action Plans for 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 (extended).
This is an important step in the ongoing Area Planning process designed to implement the Department’s “Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools” - (the Sustainable Schools Policy). The key aim is to ensure all pupils have access to high quality education that meets their needs in schools that are educationally and financially viable.
The regional and annual action plans can be accessed on the Education Authority's website: -
2nd Regional Plan - 2022 to 2027
The Minister made a written statement in the Assembly on 9 August 2021 to outline her priorities for Area Planning over the duration of the 2nd Regional Plan, which will cover the 5 year period 1 September 2022 to 31 August 2027. The statement can be accessed at the following link:
Revised Area Planning Guidance
This revised Area Planning Guidance (SAP1) replaces the Area Planning Terms of Reference published in September 2011 and Area Planning Guidance issued in February 2012. Since 2012 there have been significant changes to the administration of education with the establishment of the Education Authority.
From the launch of Area Planning, the statutory planning authorities and school managing authorities have been implementing the process. During this time issues have been raised and valuable lessons have been learned through the implementation process. It is important to build upon these and to bring further clarity on roles and responsibilities and the process to support those involved in it.
Time has been spent developing this guidance at a strategic, operational and local level through the Area Planning Governance structures which include the Area Planning Steering Group, the Area Planning Working Group and the Area Planning Local Groups. The guidance has been made available through its various stages of development to these groups and adjustments were made as the process was tested and refined.
The revised guidance now provides a comprehensive guide to the Area Planning objectives, governance structures, roles and responsibilities, parameters, process and consultation.
The Area Plan for 2017 – 2020 has been developed taking this guidance into account.
Revised Development Proposal Guidance has also been developed in this way and will be published in the near future.
Area Planning Communications Strategy
The Northern Ireland Audit Office published a Value for Money report in June 2015 - “Sustainability of Schools” which contained eight recommendations on Area Planning related matters. Recommendation six stated:-
“The Sustainable Schools Policy and the Area Planning Process lack a communications strategy. This is vital in a programme of this nature. We recommend that the Department develops a strategy to better communicate the aims of the Sustainable Schools Policy and the Area Planning Process to the wider public and elected representatives”.
The Department accepted this recommendation and has developed a specific Communications Strategy to act as a framework to guide all external stakeholder and internal Department staff communications on the implementation of the Sustainable Schools Policy through the Area Planning Process.
Those organisations with statutory and or advisory roles in Area Planning namely the Education Authority, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, Controlled Schools Support Council, the Governing Bodies Association and the Catholic Schools’ Trustee Service are expected to support and link into the Department’s Communications Strategy and report on these through the Area Planning Governance Structures.
Area Planning Annual Report
The Department has published its first Annual Report on Area Planning covering the 2017-18 planning period.
A second Annual Report on Area Planning has also been published, covering the 2018-19 planning period.
Area Planning Cycle 2022-2027
The Minister has established her priorities for the next Area Plan (SAP 2) which will cover the five-year period 1 September 2022 to 31 August 2027. In support of this process, the Department has published a Sustainability Baseline Report which the Education Authority, Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and sectoral body representatives will use to develop their priorities under the next Area Plan. The Sustainability Baseline Report was published in August 2021. It has now been updated using the 2021/22 school census data and the updated analysis presented at both Northern Ireland and individual Local Government District levels is accessible HERE. New Area Planning Guidance and a DE Circular ‘Developing Schools Frameworks (to be published shortly) have also been prepared to further support the development and implementation of SAP 2 (2022-2027).
Strategic Area Plan 2: Timetable for pre-planning year (2021/22)
In preparation for the next Area Planning Cycle and development of the second Strategic Area Plan (SAP2: 2022-2027), a timetable has been prepared to help inform all key stakeholders involved in the process.