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.
Draft Area Plan 2017-2020
The Education Authority’s public consultation in respect of the Providing Pathways Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020 has now closed.
The Education Authority will shortly present the Minister with a report of its findings on the public consultation and a final Area Plan. The Minister’s key objective in considering the Area Plan will be to ensure that its out workings will result in education provision being delivered to pupils through a network of educationally and financially viable schools. A further update will be published in due course.
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 draft 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 Communication 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 communication 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 Communication 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 Communication Strategy and report on these through the Area Planning Governance Structures.