Schools: Legal advice sought on development proposals

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A school classroom
Image caption,
School development proposals are not usually controversial

The permanent secretary at the Department of Education (DE) has sought legal advice on whether he can decide on school development proposals.

Development proposals detail changes to a school's enrolment or status.

Most are relatively routine but have to be approved by a minister or the permanent secretary.

Derek Baker has not been able to do that for six months and has sought legal advice on whether he can resume, BBC News NI has learned.

In October, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill was passed to give civil servants greater flexibility in making decisions.

That followed a court ruling that the Department for Infrastructure's permanent secretary did not have the power to approve plans to build an incinerator plant in County Antrim.

That led to doubt over which decisions civil servants were empowered to take.

Six proposals on table

While some development proposals involving school closures or mergers can be controversial, many are routine.

The majority involve increasing or decreasing the number of pupils admitted to a school or establishing additional facilities like nursery units.

However, Mr Baker has not felt able to make any final decisions on development proposals since May 2018.

As a result, six are awaiting decisions.

His department said: "Legislation was passed in November clarifying the powers of senior civil servants to make decisions on relevant issues in their departments on a case-by-case basis.

"Derek Baker... has since sought legal advice from the Departmental Solicitor's Office in the Department of Finance specifically in relation to making decisions on school development proposals.

"It is hoped that this advice will be received early in the new year."