John O'Dowd defends ordering schools to redo audit
The education minister has defended his decision to tell education boards to redo the audit of schools which he asked them to carry out last year.
John O'Dowd said the work the five boards have done does not fulfil the requirements.
He has given them seven working days to complete and resubmit their reports.
They had been told to carry out the first stage of a viability audit into all 1,200 schools in Northern Ireland.
He wanted details on their finances, the number of pupils and the quality of education.
Mr O'Dowd said at the time that would identify those schools where action was needed in the short term and help with future planning on which schools are needed and which could close.
"The purpose of this audit is to identify where the current status of all our schools is and the audit has three main parameters - financial viability, current enrolment and educational attainment levels," the minister told Evening Extra.
"When the audit is delivered to me it will become public and be shared with the school.
"It is important that the information obtained in the audit is really explained and understood but also sets a criteria which all schools, all members of the public and assembly members can follow.
"Some critics have used the term 'hit list' but I think everybody in the assembly and everybody in the educational sector understands that we have to deal with an unsustainable schools estate and that there are a number of schools out there that are no longer sustainable going into the future.
"What I have done is put in place an open and transparent process where everyone can assist in identifying these schools and they will be identified on clearly understood data."
The results were given to the minister earlier this month, but it is understood he was not happy with way the financial information was presented and thought the boards did not go far enough in their proposals for the future.
"It is vital that we have a clear and unambiguous understanding of the extent of the financial and educational challenges facing schools now and in the future so that we can take forward work to plan provision for the future which is sustainable and effective.
"For this reason I have asked the boards to complete and resubmit the audits," Mr O'Dowd said.
"I have also asked them to set out proposals on how they plan to address the position in those schools demonstrating the greatest degree of financial stress."
However, Mervyn Storey, DUP education spokesman and chair of the Education Committee criticised the Department of Education's actions over the audits.
"This process to date has done nothing to allay the concerns of principals, teachers, governors and parents, that the real objective was to identify schools for closure," he said.
"Today's statement by the Education Minister will do nothing to dismiss that view but will only add to the suspicion and concern."
Another member of the committee, the SDLP's Conal McDevitt also criticised the minister.
"We have learned from media reports today that one of the reasons why Minister O'Dowd has rejected the audit submitted by the boards is because they do not include recommendations for school closures.
"This is despite numerous denials by the minister in the assembly that the viability audits were not about identifying schools for closure," he said.