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Alarm over Ulster shake-up

A local education authority in Northern Ireland is to be axed in the largest administrative shake-up since direct rule of the province from London began more than 20 years ago. In the same process, another of the area education and library boards will be split in two.

These moves have caused widespread consternation and prompted demands for an early debate in the House of Commons. Nevertheless the reduction in the number of authorities from five to four represents a victory for the area education and library boards. The boards fought a successful rearguard action against the Northern Ireland Department of Education's plans to overhaul the system, since the department itself virtually ruled out the "five-to-four" option in its own review, which was delayed for more than a year. Its consultative document had said that a change to four authorities had "little to commend it" and that gains in efficiency would be very small.

But South Eastern Board chief executive Tom Nolan accused Northern Ireland education minister Michael Ancram of a "lack of logic" in applying his own principles of community consent.

The new map of education in Ulster leaves two boards unscathed: the Western (the board covering the largest area) and the North-Eastern (in the Reverend Ian Paisley's heartland).

But the South-Eastern patch will be divided. The northern half will join a new Greater Belfast Board and the southern section becoming part of an extended Southern Board.

These changes will save an estimated Pounds 2 million a year and a number of job losses are inevitable, although Mr Ancram refused to indicate how many.

The creation of two or three boards would have resulted in largely sectarian blocs and the most radical proposal of a single board for the entire province was felt to be too unwieldy.

A number of executive functions, including the administration of grants, legal services, and architectural work which at present are performed separately by each board, are to be reorganised on a regional basis. Responsibility for the funding and planning of further education will be transferred from the boards directly to the education department, with each of the 17 colleges becoming corporate bodies. In return, however, the funding of voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated schools, previously dealt with by the education department, is being transferred to the boards.

Since the announcement MPs are demanding that the proposals, which are not due to come into effect for another three years, should be delayed until a new elected assembly for Northern Ireland decides the future shape of education.

South Down MP Eddie McGrady has tabled an early day motion in Parliament calling for the retention of the five boards and the suspension of reorganisation .

Mr Ancram said he had been struck by the extent of public confidence in the broad shape of the system and the conclusions of the review struck the right balance.

But Mr Nolan said the review had been organised on the principle of involving local communities which had not been applied in the South Eastern region.

"There is a lack of logic even in the application of (Mr Ancram's) own principles," he said.

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