I can see that there is going to be vast interest in this issue, but I appreciate that the hour is late.
The issue that I wish to raise tonight is one of great importance, that many of our constituents may raise with us over the next few weeks or months. I will give Members some background to it.
This year the criterion for entrance to nursery schools has been changed at the last moment as a result of a dictate from the Department of Education, and that has caused great uncertainty. Many parents thought that they had secured a nursery place for their child, because of the length of time on a waiting list, because of the criterion that the school had used in the past, or because of conversations with the headmaster. They now find themselves, until the end of April, not knowing whether or not their child will have a place in a nursery school.
This situation has arisen as a result of something which many of us would have no disagreement with: the Government have said that preference will be given to children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. However, people are complaining about the way in which this has been introduced and about the implications of the Government’s ruling.
The Minister sent a letter to primary schools on 20 January telling them that he had made a statutory rule. He said that the boards of governors would have to give priority to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances who were aged four before 1 September.
Many parents who thought that their children were at the top of the list, given the existing criterion, now find that that has changed, and in spite of what the Minister says, the change has been made without consultation.
The Minister claims that he consulted with schools and all interested parties when he was consulting with them on the Education Order in December 1997 and on the ‘Investing in Early Learning’ document, which was published in April last year.
However, no indication was given in those documents that this statutory rule was going to be imposed on the boards of governors. Indeed, Article 32 of the Education Order makes it quite clear that the board of governors of each school shall draw up, and may from time to time amend, the criteria to be applied when selecting children for admission to the school.
Suddenly, on the basis of that Order, the Government are imposing a statutory rule that will take precedence over all the criteria which schools have set down.
Understandably, parents, having been told by school principals what the criteria would be, and having examined the situation in previous years, assumed that they had secured a nursery school place for their children.
The rule includes a definition of social disadvantage, but that also gives cause for concern. The definition of social disadvantage in the statutory rule includes only those children whose parents are in receipt of benefit. That means that people in low-income jobs who have young children — and many people whom I meet in my constituency go out to work for a few pounds more than they would receive in benefit in an attempt to break out of the dependency trap — find that, although they are not at home to look after their children during the day they will be most affected by the new criteria. The effort to target those who should have priority has been poorly thought out.
This rule, which deals with the subject of admission to educational establishments, totally ignores children with special educational needs. They should be given some priority. Not only has an ill-thought-out rule been introduced without consultation, but it actually disadvantages those who are trying to break out of the dependency trap. It discriminates against children who, because of special educational needs, would derive most benefit from nursery education. The rule is yet another example of how the direct rule administration has messed up education in the Province.
Under the Belfast Agreement, all Assembly legislation and every action by its Ministers will be subject to human rights scrutiny. We have here a classic example of a Minister acting without considering the human rights implications. These regulations discriminate between children. I do not have time now to go into human rights legislation, but it is clear that there is a human rights aspect to this.
The Assembly should highlight the injustice of what has been done, and draw attention to the fact that we have a system of government which callously walks over people who, in a proper democratic society, would expect to be consulted and considered before such legislation is enacted. If power is ever devolved to the Assembly, it will be the responsibility of whoever becomes Minister of Education to look into this matter quickly.
Parents who currently have their children’s names down for a nursery school place in September are in a state of uncertainty. As a result of the change, they will not know about places for their children until the end of April.
The ruling will also mean that many schools which are vastly oversubscribed — I can think of two nursery schools in my own constituency which, for the past four years, have had 50% more applicants than they have places — will not, because of their location, receive any additional funding from the Department to expand their nursery provision, although there is a clear demand for that.
I am sure that there are schools in similar circumstances all over the Province. Even though there is local demand, and it is quite clear that a school is oversubscribed, the rigid adherence to Labour Party dogma means that schools, perhaps for the next two or three years, will be unable to provide extra places.
I will be interested to hear what other Members have to say on this matter. I hope that I have outlined the main facts of the case in as short a time as possible, and I ask the Assembly for its support.
I concur with everything that Assemblyman Sammy Wilson has said. I would also like to highlight some of the concerns which have been raised by the parents, governors and principals involved in the current controversy surrounding this new admissions criterion for children entering nursery schools.
I fully endorse the stated long-term aim of the Government to provide good quality educational places for all children in their pre-school year. Indeed, I am sure that every Member of the House has no difficulty in supporting that policy. However, as always, the devil has proved to be in the detail. This project has sought to give priority to those children deemed to be at a social disadvantage. Again, I am sure that no Member disagrees with that guiding principle even though there may well be 108 different views on what constitutes social disadvantage.
The problem which has arisen is that Peter appears to be being disadvantaged in order that Paul may overcome his perceived disadvantage. Unfortunately Peter’s parents have noticed this sleight of hand, and they are writing to, and phoning, Members of the House and of that other place as well. They are jamming the airwaves to express their displeasure. They are attending public meetings, filling the editors’ postbags of local and national newspapers and letting the Department know how displeased they are with the whole system.
The governors and principals of nursery schools, and primary schools with nursery units, are also less than pleased, but for different reasons. Over a number of years many nursery schools have evolved procedures which enabled parents to register their desire to acquire a pre-school place for their child. This was perhaps done by presenting the child, plus birth certificate, at the nursery school on the child’s second birthday. In other instances it was customary to queue up at the school to enrol the child.
These methods allowed the process to begin early and facilitated early notification that a place had been secured. They suited the school and relieved parents’ anxieties. This year that process had already started in many places. It is therefore easy to understand the anger and frustration which many parents felt when they were informed by the schools that new criterion was being introduced.
I have letters from parents, governors, principals and education and library board officers expressing their dismay. The method of implementing the new criterion, and the timescale involved, is putting extreme pressure on principals and schools. They are now asking, and I agree with them, that the Department urgently address these problems. They agree with the direction of Government policy, but believe that a transitional period would enable the maximum benefit to be derived by all concerned.
I therefore urge Members to contact the Department of Education to highlight the operational difficulties which this hasty implementation is causing for schools. I have written to the Minister, and I have spoken to several of his senior officials, expressing my concern that what should have been a positive step forward in educational terms is proving to be a disaster in public-relations terms.
I agree with what the Member has said and also with what the last Member said. Does the Member agree that the problem is not just with the difficulties that are arising from the criterion that has been introduced? The criteria themselves are essentially flawed as they fail to accommodate social disadvantage while attempting to accommodate open enrolment.
It has undermined the credibility of principals and governors, and many of them feel that they have not been adequately consulted. I have a copy of the consultation document and a list of the bodies which responded to it, and there seems to have been a good response, if patchy, across the country.
It has alarmed those parents who felt that they had shown some initiative and responsibility by enrolling their children using the accepted methods. It may have raised the expectations of parents who are in the target group, but whose hopes, wishes and aspirations may not be realised. As Sammy Wilson said, it has driven a wedge between working parents and those who are unfortunate enough to be in receipt of the designated benefits.
In some areas the location of the extra places may inadvertently lead to the demise of that natural integration which has been a source of pride and strength to local communities. It is incumbent on the Department to make it crystal clear that no nursery provision will be open exclusively to one part of the community. That is very important, since European Union special peace and reconciliation funding may be involved in the provision of the extra places.
It must be clearly seen that the extra places are used to benefit socially disadvantaged children from whatever section of the community, even though we may disagree on the definition of social disadvantage. There is some reservation about the July and August birthday cohort. It is felt by some that, perhaps on educational grounds, it is really the younger child that misses out through his lack of maturity when he finally enters primary school, rather than the older, more developed child who is the current focus of the criteria.
Further concerns revolve around the use of geographical limits. For instance, "residing within the parish of" may lead to a concentration of disadvantaged children, and may prevent that necessary social mixing which research shows is vital to language and special development.
A final group has grave reservations that the new regulation may be in breach of the legislation, and that is causing them difficulty in framing their new criteria. It is also leading to concern that the previous flexibility which governors exercised to enable places to be set aside for children with special educational needs, may no longer be sustainable.
I ask the Minister and his officials urgently to address those problems, which the hasty introduction of this legislation has caused to parents and schools. The need for a transitional period is now obvious to all. It would enable the new procedures to be adopted, and the laudable programme of expansion would then have full public backing. That would be an immense relief to all our weans.
Does the Member agree that the Government’s stated aim to ensure that every child has access to one year of pre-school education will not be met by the criteria? In my area there is a Catholic-maintained nursery school and a state nursery school. One is heavily oversubscribed and the other is about 25% undersubscribed.
The school that is 25% undersubscribed used to take an overflow from the school that was oversubscribed. That cannot happen this year. The undersubscribed school will be forced to take two-year-olds to make up the numbers. Registered three-year-olds will be deprived.
Regulation 2(vi) of the Pre-School Education in Schools (Admissions Criteria) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1998 gives priority to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances who will be aged two before 1 September in their penultimate pre-school year, if their parents are in receipt of income-based jobseeker’s allowance or income support. It does not take any account of those in receipt of family credit. The provisions allow two-year-olds to get places before three-year-olds, some of whom will be deprived of pre-school places even though they had registered with a school. That cannot be right.
That is a very real danger. The measure has been ill thought out. There are no guidelines to say that two-year-olds even have to be potty trained or able to feed themselves. What will happen if these children should have accidents at school? Under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, for their own protection teachers must be accompanied by an assistant when changing a two-year-old child. Who is with the other 20-plus children? Most of the play equipment in these schools cannot be used by children under 36 months. Do Mr K Robinson and Mr S Wilson agree that this whole situation is just a dog’s dinner?
I agree with Mr O’Connor on that point. It is causing grave concern to the teaching profession, which has qualified staff to deal with the children who need to be dealt with, those in their pre-primary school year, but is concerned about the lack of social training that some of the two-year olds have.
The hour is late, and I am far from home. I knew that I had the capacity for making moving speeches, but I did not think that most of the Members in the Assembly would move out of the Chamber. Indeed the entire Public Gallery has cleared, except for the Doorkeepers who have to steward it. I hope that I do not come into the same category as that described by Lord Byron when referring to his mother-in-law:
"She had lost the art of conversation but, alas, not the power of speech."
I am concerned about the new criteria for admission to nursery school units that have been established by Her Majesty’s Government. This is an important topic that has caused much concern among the people in my constituency of Newry and Armagh.
Many Members will have received representations from anxious parents. One such parent, Mrs Sandra McLoughlin, has written to me about the position of nursery places in the Hardy Memorial School in Richhill. Her daughter, Rachel, is two years old, and her parents are anxious to make provision for her education. Mrs McLoughlin queued outside the school from the early morning and eventually registered her child’s name at about 9.00 am. She returned home tired but pleased that she had obtained a place for Rachel in the nursery school. But all her efforts were in vain. That method of securing nursery school places has been superseded by the Government’s new proposals.
In many schools there are waiting lists for nursery places containing the names of the children of parents who queued to register their children for the 1999 and 2000 intakes. It is not acceptable that the Government have now effectively cancelled these registrations.
It is laudable that the Government should want to provide nursery-school places for all children, irrespective of class, creed or background. All parties in the House endorse that principle. However, the reality is that for the intervening period, before the additional nursery places can be provided, many problems have been created.
There is a real danger that the Government’s proposals, which are genuinely attempting to improve the lives of those people considered to be socially disadvantaged, will adversely affect many mainstream children. The Government should exercise care and discretion with this new allocation of child places, and it is in this area that I have some real criticism of the Government in general and of the Department of Education in particular.
The new arrangements appear rushed, and a glaring omission is the non-allocation of places for children with special needs. On this dog’s dinner — as it has been called — the Department of Education should liaise closely with the education boards, the boards of governors and the teachers and parents and take account of the prevailing local conditions before proceeding with these wide-ranging changes. I am happy to endorse the comments of my Colleague Ken Robinson and other Members of the Assembly. Although the hour is late and attendance is small, this is nevertheless a very important topic to which the Government ought to respond urgently.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, it was remiss of Members not to place on record their appreciation of the way in which you and your staff handled the debate on the Standing Orders Committee. It was extremely well dealt with, and though many attempts were made to wrong foot you, they all failed. Your colleagues at the front did an excellent job.
It is uncanny that I am the last Member here to speak this evening, as I was the last person in the Public Gallery when the Convention fell in 1976. I was the last Member to speak when the Assembly fell in 1986, and I was the last person in the Chamber before the fire in 1995.
Lo and behold, Mr Speaker, as I may now address you I am the first Member to call you that, and maybe the last, unfortunately — I find myself the last Member to speak tonight. Could this be an omen, not that I believe in such things? Could it be that this is the last speech of the last evening of the Assembly. I do not know, it could well be. That is pessimistic, but it could well happen.
Last Wednesday evening I spoke at a meeting in Kilkeel that was attended by 145 mothers. I was the oldest person in the room until another Ulster Unionist councillor arrived. They were all incensed by this decision to change the criterion for selection for nursery schools. Those mothers had queued from 4 o’clock in the morning in the rain to get their children a place in the nursery school in Kilkeel. Having sat out all night in very difficult conditions they then found a few months later, that the whole matter of placing children in nursery schools was completely up in the air.
The change means that those who are on income support or getting jobseeker’s allowance will have priority. That is the definition of the social disadvantage, according to the Department of Education. Never mind those who are claiming family credit, those who have decided that rather than sit on the dole they will take a lowly-paid job and try to do the best they can for their children. They may be bringing home exactly the same income as someone getting income support or jobseeker’s allowance, but they have chosen to go out and earn an honest day’s pay.
Those people are not being defined as socially disadvantaged, but people who are on income support are. Those who are on disability living allowance, mobility allowance, invalid care allowance and all the many other benefits which people claim but who do not meet the this new criterion will not get special treatment.
A week before the closing date for nursery place applications a man can walk out of a job and honestly complete an application form for income support in his social-security office. His child then goes to the top of the queue for a place in a nursery school. That is the obscenity of these regulations. Once the child is allocated a place, he can then go back to his job having got his child in. He will have satisfied the criterion, and that is totally unacceptable.
This is the problem in Kilkeel. In some lucky parts of the Province this is not an issue, because they have adequate nursery-school provision for almost all the children.
On the question of provision, one of the Minister’s defences, as I understand it, is that the number of places will rise. There are 45% of places at the moment, and that will rise to 55% and 75% by 2001. Does Mr Wells agree that it would have been better if the Minister had waited until those places were available before he implemented this scheme?
The Member makes a valid point.
Little does the Minister know that eight angry housewives from Kilkeel will be heading towards his office on Monday morning and, if he knew as much about Kilkeel people as I do, he would know that a good Mourne man is not born, he is quarried, and his wife has a strong character as well. Those people intend to demand that this scheme is put on ice for a year to enable the provision to be increased and, because the allocation system is in total confusion, to let the dust settle.
Kilkeel is an important part of my constituency and of south Down. If people in Moira or Lurgan were encountering this difficulty, it would not involve a journey to the ends of the earth to take their children four or five miles down the road to alternative nursery education. It might be inconvenient and difficult, but it is possible.
In Kilkeel, twice as many children as there are available places are chasing those places because there is no alternative. The nearest nursery provision is in Downpatrick, which is 24 miles in one direction, or Newry, which is 20 miles in the other. It is totally impractical for those parents even to seek alternative places, and those in Kilkeel are fully booked. Parents are in a difficult position.
I agree with Mr Wilson about special-needs children. It is totally wrong that the criteria have been drawn in such a way that a child with severe learning disability or physical disability is placed at the bottom of the queue, behind those on income support and jobseeker’s allowance.
I may be ruled out of order for what I am about to say, but it comes from the heart. It is grossly unfair that those who are working hard to keep their children and to give them the best possible start in life are being put in second place to those who have done little to support their children.
I was asked in Kilkeel on Wednesday night "Where are all of those people who are on income support and jobseeker’s allowance when the queue was on outside the school at 4 o’clock in the morning?" They were nowhere to be seen. They did not care enough about their children to come out and join the queue with the working people. But now, through no fault of their own, those people who queued are being penalised while those who did nothing to secure places for their children are going to the top of the queue. That is totally wrong.
At the meeting on Wednesday night, we agreed to take an all-party delegation representing all sides of the community and, in particular, the parents of children with special needs, to see the Minister. We intend to be forthright with him and tell him that the situation is unacceptable.
I apologise for yet another intervention. I agree with almost everything that the Member has said, but I should be grateful for clarification on his point about people queuing. I take it that he did not mean that every person on income support does not care about his or her children. There are sometimes good reasons why such parents are unable to avail of the opportunities to register.
That is an important point, and I am delighted that the Member has given me an opportunity to clarify the matter. I did not intend to imply that those on income support are any less loving or caring towards their children, but rather that when there was an opportunity to secure places for their children, very few of them took it. Those who had to go on to do a full day’s work had to queue to secure places.
I am not asking for preferential treatment for working parents or for those on family credit or income support. I am asking for fair treatment — for everyone to be treated equally in the allocation of places.
Just in case this is the last speech on the last day, may I thank you, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, for your tolerance. You have had to endure my rather twisted and strange wit, which is difficult to live with. It has been a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, and I hope that we will be back in a few weeks time and that you will be, in your rightful place as Speaker.
On behalf of my Colleagues, the Clerks, the Hansard staff, the interpreters, the Doorkeepers and those who laboured in the Business Office to produce that enormous list of Marshalled amendments, under great pressure at times, I thank the Member for South Down (Mr Wells) for his kind comments.
In having such an extended sitting, we have required the staff to do rather more than they would be expected to do even in other places where the hours are long. I take your kind words as being essentially for the members of staff too. They have served us exceedingly well.
Adjourned at 10.21 pm.