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.
The Minister made a statement in the Assembly on 17 October 2016 to outline his priorities for Area Planning over the three year planning period from April 2017 – March 2020.
Area Plan 2017-2020
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 Plan for 2017/18.
The previous Minister endorsed the Area Plan and Annual Action Plan for publication on 2 March 2017 following approval by the Area Planning Steering Group, the strategic level of the Area Planning governance structures.
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 Annual Action Plan for 2017-18 identifies actions to address the key issues at a local level within each Local Government District Area including pre-consultation Development Proposal activity.
Both documents can be accessed on the Education Authority website.
Revised Area Planning Guidance
This revised Area Planning Guidance 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.
The last year 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 in due course, 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.