Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 26th October 1993.

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Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 7:15 pm, 26th October 1993

It remains under the CCMS, but it falls under the arrangements that effectively apply to controlled schools in terms of their capital grant. To that extent, we are trying to put all schools on the same footing.

The option of 100 per cent. capital funding to the voluntary school sector reinforces the Government's targeting social need policy. Schools serving areas of social deprivation will not be prevented from providing adequate accommodation for their pupils because of difficulties in raising voluntary funds. The new arrangements will ensure equity of funding across all sectors and equality of funding for all pupils. Finally, they represent a new partnership between voluntary schools and the public authorities which reflects a degree of confidence and trust in one another.

I shall now discuss the amendments made by article 31. They are designed to complement the tighter controls being exercised in awarding premature retirement compensation to teachers, following a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee. I hope that the purpose is simple: to allow compensating authorities to impose a charge equivalent to all or part of the award made, when they have good reason to believe that the organisation responsible for deciding the award has not acted in accordance with the purpose of the compensation scheme, or has made an excessive award.

As a result of consideration during the consultation period, the recovery provisions have been further clarified, including the facility to phase recovery over a maximum period of 10 years. Their substance and effect are nevertheless the same as in the original proposal.

For some time, boards have been seeking authority from my Department to raise and retain revenue through commercial activities that would be complementary to their existing statutory services and activities. Article 32 is designed to meet that requirement. Any such activity will, of course, be subject to the approval of the Department and must not be detrimental to boards' primary educational responsibilities. Any revenue in that way will, as in the case of savings secured through competitive tendering, be available to boards for the improvement or development of the education services for which they are responsible.

The draft order also makes provision in article 34 and schedule 3 for the amalgamation of the Northern Ireland School Examinations and Assessment Council and the Northern Ireland Curriculum Council into a single body, to be known as the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment.

Following the 1989 Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order, the two councils were set up separately because at that time the Government felt that it was important that when the reforms were being introduced there should be separate organisations to ensure that the exigencies of assessment—in other words, what could be tested—did not constrain or determine what should be taught in schools. Now that the programmes of study and the attainment targets are in place, however, the Government believe that the time is right to take forward the development of the curriculum and the assessment arrangements in a holistic way so that each can be seen to be supportive of and consistent with the other. I believe that that will establish an effective and integrated system which will work to the best advantage of schools, pupils and parents.

In the proposal for the draft order, article 37 limited the number of boards of governors of which a person can be a member to three. The reason behind that was that being a member of a school board of governors is a challenging and time-consuming task and it is unreasonable to expect a volunteer—for that is what governors are—to be able to devote the time and effort necessary to sustain a worthwhile contribution to more than three boards of governors at once. That is especially true since most governors are already holding down jobs and many, such as education and library board members, also have other pressing demands on their free time.

Having said that, convincing arguments were made during consultation that I should be prepared to consider exceptions to that rule for individuals with particular expertise, categories of people who are required to be appointed, or simply in circumstances where it would be in the interests of schools to have certain individuals on more than three boards of governors at once. In response to those arguments, the proposal was amended to give my Department discretion to approve membership of more than three boards in individual cases.