There has been widespread consternation in schools across the Province over the last two months since the appointment of the Minister of Education. Furthermore, his party has been actively engaged in the disruption of schools, disruption which the Minister has not condemned. He may like to run away from the fact that his appointment caused such anger, but the truth is that there have been unprecedented occurrences in schools since then.
We have witnessed whole schools being called together to debate this matter, schoolchildren voting not to have the Minister near their school, boards of governors meeting and resolving that he will not be invited to their schools and, indeed, on some occasions, protests. He may wish to forget all this, along with some other matters to which I shall come in a moment. The fact remains, however, that his appointment has been an embarrassment for the Department of Education and for the party — and I note that most of its Members are absent today — that was responsible for the setting up of an Executive which included Sinn Féin.
The Minister said yesterday that he wanted a quiet life. He said that he wanted a Dobermann to sit at his feet. He thought that I was going to do that. He must have mistaken me for someone else — the "pup" from East Belfast who is occasionally given to licking the Minister’s hand. Let me assure the Minster, however, that I do not intend to sit at his feet. In fact, I have made it quite clear that my role in the Assembly will be to snap at his ankles and, when I can, sink my teeth into his ministerial calf. We have set ourselves the task of opposing Sinn Féin, not co-operating with it.
When the First Minister announced the draft programme of legislation yesterday he said that he would be introducing a Dogs Bill. This Dogs Bill was to give the courts or resident magistrates discretion in all circumstances, including the circumstances of an attack, in determining the fate of a dog. I do not know if the Minister of Education had any say in having that included in the legislation. Perhaps he was merely preparing himself for the future. Perhaps, as we all suspect, members of IRA/Sinn Féin have their own methods of dealing with those who oppose them. They wish to hold on to their guns, because the tried and tested Republican methods of dealing with dissent are still close to their hearts.
I wish to look at the various ways in which schools have been disrupted. First, this disruption has been caused by anxiety at the Minister’s appointment. The Minister would love to believe that this was orchestrated, that it was politically motivated by parties with a point to make. Of course, he must believe this, for to accept otherwise would be to accept that there is widespread loathing of him because of his background and because of what he and his colleagues have done to the people of Northern Ireland. He chooses to believe that this disruption was not spontaneous but orchestrated.
My party has made it quite clear that we do not believe that youngsters should disadvantage themselves because of the appointment of a Sinn Féin Minister. They are quite right to make clear their opposition, as are parents, boards of governors and teachers. However, children should not be disadvantaging themselves by damaging their education.
The Minister’s appointment has caused widespread disruption. Of course, since then his party colleagues have been causing disruption in schools without any condemnation from him. Sinn Féin disrupted the school in Pomeroy because it dared to invite a duchess. The Minister has said that he will try to sort this out, but he has not condemned it because he is not against intimidation. One has only to look at the behaviour of Mr McElduff in Carrickmore to see that Sinn Féin is not opposed to intimidation. What he was annoyed about was that the behaviour of the ignoramuses in Pomeroy held IRA/Sinn Féin up to ridicule among their own.
The argument went something like this: as she is a duchess, she must be a member of the royal family and must therefore oppress Catholics. It is a bit like saying "Your name is Gerry, so you must be a German and a Fascist." I suppose the first and last parts are right, but not the middle part. That is what they were angry about.
Look at what happened in the Assembly yesterday. The Minister made it quite clear, in response to Mr Weir, that he is not against intimidation or interference in schools. He admitted that he pulled his youngster out of a class because the RUC was present. That gives the green light to all the Finbar Conways that lurk in the towns around Northern Ireland, under the guise of Sinn Féin. It will not be too long before they will be taking the lead from the Minister and pulling their children out of school, or maybe other people’s children out, or maybe the teachers. The Minister has said that if the RUC is in a school, it is OK to go in and disrupt it.
That must be a country term. I do not know what a hallion is.
It is quite clear that the Minister has laid himself wide open and that his party has been encouraged to behave in this way. It is no wonder that his activities have been condemned by teachers’ unions, by principals and by parents. It is significant that he will not publish what schools he intends to go to. That could be a relic of his secretive past when he was used to, as he bragged on his first public engagement, flitting from safe house to safe house. Now he is going to flit from safe school to safe school in secrecy. He knows that, because of his record, he is not accepted in this Province or in many of its schools.
The Minister has promised future disruption of the school system in Northern Ireland. He has promised to dismantle what is best about our education system. Yesterday he attacked the school system — a school system which, incidentally, people in other parts of the United Kingdom envy.
Ironically, the same Minister has praised our school system this very day in his statement about improved school performances. He said that 56% of pupils achieved five or more A to C grades at GCSE, compared to pupils in England, only 48% of whom reached that standard in 1999. I will not be able to go into this as my time is nearly finished, but he intends to disrupt a system, which is the envy of other parts of the United Kingdom, in his pursuit of socialist ideology. He and his colleagues have been good at levelling for the last 30 years. They have levelled towns and villages all over this Province. Now he wants to level down our education system, with all the disruption that that would cause.
The Minister of Education does not have the confidence of those whom he claims to administer. He does not have that confidence because of his behaviour and that of his colleagues, and he does not have that confidence because of what he is threatening to do to the system.
Two months ago the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party told us that in setting up an Executive which includes Sinn Féin he had got the best deal for Northern Ireland. Within two months we were to be rid of guns when we had Sinn Féin Ministers in Government. They would be poachers turned gamekeepers — all would be well. He has given the poachers the run of the estate. He himself has run away today from the debate on disarmament that he had promised the House. He did not deliver a good deal for the people of Northern Ireland. He delivered a rotten deal, and with it we have got a rotten Minister, who ought to go.
At the commencement of the debate I had almost no names of Members wishing to speak, save for Mr Wilson and, of course, the Minister, who will respond to this debate. Since then I have received a number of names. There has been no time limit, for I was unable to set one, not knowing the situation. I propose to the Assembly, so that those whose names are down can have an opportunity to speak, that we limit each Member to five minutes. I seek the leave of the Assembly on that.
The Minister will have about 10 minutes. It is normal practice to give the Minister 10 minutes for each hour. As you will recall, the last Adjournment debate lasted three hours, and the Minister had about half an hour to respond on that occasion. Do I have the leave of the Assembly to restrict Members to five minutes?
The difficulty is that I am very much aware that in such circumstances Members, seeing the time limit coming up, have the capacity to produce the longest sentences. They speak in paragraphs then. If Members know they have five minutes, they can watch the clock. If there is no limit, there will be arguments saying that one Member got more time than another, and so on. I ask the leave of the Assembly to restrict speeches to five minutes so that those Members whose names are down will have an opportunity to speak.
I am tempted to suggest that there was a fair bit of winding up in the first speech. There is no winding-up time in an Adjournment debate. I will therefore restrict all Members to five minutes. I advise them to watch the stopwatches and to match the length of their last sentence to the time they have left.
I am grateful for the opportunity provided by Mr Wilson, the Member for East Belfast, to speak in this important debate. The appointment of the current Minister of Education generated a very negative response in the entire community, and particularly in the Unionist community. This reaction was inevitable given the public persona and background of the individual concerned. Many people, including parents, governors, teachers, educationalists and pupils, expressed concern about the implications of the appointment.
Those concerns were manifest in the number of school protests, petitions and letters of protest by school children throughout the Province. Many representations were made to me as Chairman of the Education Committee, and I attempted to assist in what was an extremely difficult situation. I, along with Mr Wilson, the Member for East Belfast, met with groups of pupils, teachers and parents. I publicly appealed for restraint to be exercised by everyone, including the new Minister.
Many of the Minister’s actions and public statements were unhelpful — in particular, his reference to his having been on the run in County Leitrim. I am very satisfied, however, that most of the protests were spontaneous events organised by pupils and not orchestrated by any political party, as alleged at the time. I pay tribute to the important restraining influence exercised by teachers and parents in that emotive period. Their great common sense ensured that the issue did not adversely affect the long-term educational prospects of the children, who, understandably, felt very strongly on this issue.
My party has always believed that sectarian politics should be kept out of schools at all costs, and I believe that this view is strongly supported by parents everywhere. It was a matter of great regret that in January the disruption in schools took a very different turn with the events in Pomeroy. This episode proved to be remarkable in many respects. It was not so much an Aesop’s fable as a Grimm tale. It was deadly serious, and it could almost be told in the language of a fairy story — so let us have a go.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago and in a place not so very far away, there lived a man called Mr Finbar. Mr Finbar had red hair, and he appeared to eat well. He rested a lot in a comfortable armchair where he thought thoughts and heard voices. One day Mr Finbar heard voices tell him that a royal princess from a neighbouring land was coming to see some local children. Mr Finbar hated the royals from this land, but he had no objection to carrying around some of their pictures in his wallet. Mr Finbar objected to the visit of the royal princess and said that she was not wanted by local children. However, it turned out that the royal princess was not really a princess — she just knew some members of the royal family.
Thank you very much.
However, she was a very nice person who had a famous ancestor who was good at writing. She wanted to tell all the boys and girls about him. In fact, a local man called Seamus, who was good at verse, liked her and helped her. But Mr Finbar would not budge. He stopped the visit, and all the local children were sad.
Sadder than that. [Laughter]
Mr Finbar did not care, for he had an important friend called Martin, whom he sometimes saw. He knew that Martin would support him. But Martin had been very busy lately, for he had a new job and lots of new friends. He was very busy. But even though lots of people complained about Mr Finbar, Martin would not criticise his dear friend. So the very nice lady went off to other schools to tell the children about her story. And Mr Finbar and his friends lived not happily ever after but in an atmosphere of sectarian hatred, malice and spite.
I believed that we were here to debate a real problem in education, in a real way. I did not know that it was to be a highjacking of the Minister of Education or a party political table tennis match. There is a real problem, and educationalists who understand the situation in schools recognise it. However, since other Members have decided to go down a political-point-scoring route and ignore the serious nature of this problem, I would like to take the few minutes allocated to me to focus on that problem and on the plight of teachers, parents and children involved in it. I refer to the growing problem of disruption in schools.
This problem is not centred in Northern Ireland; it has European dimensions and is related to the changing nature of our society. We are moving from an old authoritarian, almost militaristic, way of dealing with education to a more democratic way and to a more democratic society. We are moving from a system that had strict diktats, order and discipline in the classroom to one which is more open and co-operative. In the old system, corporal punishment was used to attain and maintain control. As our society has changed, we have had to look at methods other than the use of force to get the attention of children. We are now trying to work with people and give them the support that they need. The teacher in the classroom is hard-pressed to cope with this changing situation.
There was an old academic argument about the origin of the word "education". It was accepted that it came from Latin. But there are two Latin words: "educere", which means "to drive", and "educare", which means "to lead". The new way of looking at education during the last few decades has been to try to lead the children to education. Society, however, still expects a disciplinarian approach — the old system — and that has led to conflict in the classroom.
I appeal to the Minister and his Department to examine this problem and not be diverted by the sort of political foreplay we have witnessed today. They should look at the matter seriously and try to find the resources that are required, for resources are needed. If action is not taken to deal quickly, and in a proper, supportive way, with a disruptive child in the classroom, the problem can grow. I do not particularly subscribe to the old adage that one rotten apple turns the rest of the barrel bad, but it certainly has an effect. One can see this when one is trying to maintain control for the benefit of the other 99% of the children, whose quality of education suffers because of the disruptive pupil. There is a great need to put those resources into place to help teachers. This is real disruption in education.
Our present system includes social workers and a whole stratum of other people to help. The children who need specialist help continue to fall between two stools. They fail to get the attention they deserve and the support they need simply because the necessary resources and expertise are not available. I appeal to the Minister and to the Department to ensure that they are made available.
The Member for South Down said that this is a very important issue. It is a very important issue for all who have a particular interest in the education of our children. It is also an important issue for many of us who believe that the protests that were held over the last few weeks were held for a purpose — and that purpose was not just to grab the headlines. There were spontaneous protests by secondary school children, who took it upon themselves to show where they stand on these matters. We need to understand why they did that.
We all know that the Sinn Féin spokesman, on his first school visit, used the words "fun on the run". This was highly publicised in the media. Of course, it was all right for him to grab the headlines on his first school visit but to grab them by telling children about the time when he was hiding from the security forces, glorifying terrorism itself. Is that what a Minister should be doing? After that can anyone really say that it is wrong for schoolchildren, many of whom were supported by their parents, to protest? I say "No." I am concerned that the Minister masquerades as a respectable person and a respectable Minister, when the reality is that he is anything but that.
Some criticism has been levelled by members of the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party about the protests that have taken place. Certain Ulster Unionists are symptomatic of a party that has made political ideals out of capitulation. They have said "We will go along with the process even though we know it is wrong." I exclude the Member who spoke today on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, for he has obviously taken a stand on this issue. The party’s decision-making body has become so used to surrendering principles that when individuals dare to stand up for justice they are heckled and in some cases ridiculed.
Pomeroy is an example of the so-called acceptable face of Sinn Féin. The Minister finds himself in a position where his own party members are trying to make capital out of a visit to a school by a friend of the royal family.
Does the hon Member agree that, given Cllr Conway’s in-depth knowledge of the royal family, it is just as well that the school was never given a concert by Duke Ellington or Count Basie?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it appropriate for Mr Shannon to attempt to misrepresent the situation? It is well known that he was an orchestrator of all the protests around some of the schools. Surely that is not —
That is not true. All the protests held in our area were organised by the schoolchildren themselves. If the Member had any knowledge of Strangford he would realise that, but he has no idea what goes on there.
The Member has no knowledge of Strangford, and his contacts in the area are obviously giving him wrong information. All the children from all the secondary schools in the area protested. Why? Because the Minister is not acceptable to them. They were concerned, and most of them were supported by their parents. That is the good thing. They were not on their own in this.
Those children who did go out showed a political awareness of what was happening far beyond that displayed by some of their parents and elders. They are not merely teenagers who decided to take a couple of hours off school. After the protests had taken place, they went back to classes. We want to see them excelling — that is important — but the Minister who is responsible for education is not acceptable to them. This group of mature young people deserve to be congratulated; they give us hope for generations to come.
Schoolchildren should be given the opportunity to put forward their points of view, and it is disgraceful that the Minister was appointed against their will.
This is a disappointing debate. As Mr ONeill said, it was unfortunate that Mr Wilson did not use his time to talk about the real disruption in classrooms and about how principals and teachers can maintain authority in schools to benefit and educate our children. One of the failures of the whole system has been — [Interruption]
Mr Speaker, does someone else want to speak? No? I thought that perhaps I had given way.
If a teacher like Sammy Wilson were really concerned about children’s welfare, we would be having a debate on the very relevant points raised by Mr ONeill. Today’s debate is about the protests, and, of course, the DUP was the driving force behind them. If the television cameras were at a protest, so was a DUP councillor, and some DUP councillors have children at the schools. They were at every protest, raising issues on behalf of the children. I have no problem with people having protests as part of the process.
Is it right for a Member to misrepresent the situation so blatantly? I ask him to name one councillor who took part in the protests in my constituency of Ballymena.
If the Member looks back at the film footage taken at the time he will see that several DUP councillors were involved in protests in various locations. I will leave the Member to do the research; he is good at doing research at other times.
Mr Wilson has failed to bring this debate around to what we are supposed to be talking about — disruption in schools. Although he is a teacher, he has failed to give his views on how we should be dealing with the disruption. It is difficult to educate pupils when there are no jobs for them to look forward to.
Is it in order for a Member to say that any Member who signs a visitor in is signing in a thug? This debate is getting out of hand. A Member who signs a visitor in is responsible for that person. The Member is talking about thugs. He should name them. I will tell him one thing: they were not armed, unlike some of the people he brings in.
It is not in order for the Member on his feet to make claims about others and not name them, or for the Member intervening to make claims about other Members’ guests and not name them. We should all concentrate on the debate.
It will not. Such reports are never brought before the House. They are brought to me, and I try to deal with them appropriately myself or in consultation with, for instance, the Commission.
The debate should be dealing with the points that Mr ONeill made. Some young people are not attending school; others do attend but disrupt classes, thus depriving others of the chance of a good education. If we were able to come up with a system to deal with that, if we were able to give pupils the chance of a career and a job to look forward to, that would be a great help to them.
I would like to congratulate St Patrick’s Girls’ Academy in Dungannon, which, for the second year running, has come top of the schools league tables. This is an example of a good school with good pupils, good teachers and a good educational system which has provided its pupils with good prospects. I would like to put on the record the Assembly’s congratulations to the school.
I hope that what I am saying will, if nothing else, send a signal to DUP Members that they cannot engage in street protests or disruption and then deny others the right to protest.
Mr Conway has come in for much criticism today. I am not here to defend him, but he is not here to defend himself either. All he did was request that the principal withdraw an invitation — [Interruption] Neither he nor the parents disrupted the education of the pupils in any way.
On the subject of disruption, surely the DUP should be setting a good example by not causing disruption when people are speaking.
Some of the jocular comments made today take away from what is a serious issue. The people of Northern Ireland are totally outraged at the appointment of a Sinn Féin/IRA Minister of Education. A large part of the blame must lie with the Ulster Unionist Party and the other pro-agreement parties who allowed them to get into the Executive and have never signed a motion to exclude them.
I have to warn the Sinn Féin/IRA Minister of Education that, despite his assertion that he aims to visit all schools, he is not welcome in all schools, particularly those in Unionist areas. He is certainly not wanted in my constituency. His visits will be opposed by parents and the general public alike. Many principals, boards of governors, parents and pupils to whom I have spoken are absolutely outraged at his appointment. In my constituency, some people whose children go to Methodist College have withdrawn their voluntary contributions in protest at the school’s invitation to the Minister. Pupils were put in the nauseating position of having to stomach Martin McGuinness in their classrooms. The Sinn Féin/IRA Minister sat beside pupils, and they were almost physically sick. Fortunately, Methodist College does not reflect the thinking of other schools, as can be seen by the spontaneous protests of their pupils, and its head must be condemned for his actions.
I agree with my Colleague’s comments about the activities of Mr McGuinness and his colleagues over the last 30 years, given the disruption they have brought to schools throughout the Province. I know children, including my own, who have had to dodge bombs and broken glass from the fronts of buildings in the centre of Belfast year after year. It caused disruption in schools, and parents had difficulty leaving their children off to school, wondering if they would be safe at the end of the day. These are things that the people of Northern Ireland will not easily forget.
With regard to the use of children in protests against the Minister’s appointment, I must say that these protests have come from people who may have more sense than their peers. The young people of this Province are not totally isolated from the reality of what has happened.
I notice that we have with us today the cheerleader of the Northern Ireland Office, Mr Quintin Oliver, who used schoolchildren to get the agreement accepted. I hope that he is ashamed when he sees what that agreement has done to the Province and its people.
I concur with everything that my party leader has said. Anything that Unionists do by way of peaceful protest is considered to be abusing and exploiting children, yet for 18 months we have had children, who are not even old enough to read the placards, standing outside Castle Buildings.
On any day, over 400,000 pupils in the United Kingdom — 5% of the school population — are absent, 50,000 of them playing truant. In many cases the parents are aware that their child is not attending school, and many think that his education does not matter. Government figures suggest that 80% of parents fail to turn up when asked to appear in court after their child has been absent for a considerable time.
However, the Sinn Féin/IRA Education Minister is hardly a suitable role model for reducing truancy, having spent part of his school days on the run. In fact, in today’s ‘News Letter’ it is reported that he kept his own son off school. Why? Because the RUC was giving a talk on road safety. We have had 30 years of disruption, bombs and bomb scares throughout our towns and cities. We have had schools wrecked by explosions, yet Sinn Féin/IRA Members have the cheek to talk in the House about disruption in schools.
On an academic level it is more likely that truants will leave school without qualifications. Only 8% of persistent truants obtain five GCSEs or more, compared to 54% of those who have never played truant. What sort of example does the Sinn Féin/IRA Minister give to the young people of Northern Ireland? In an Audit Commission report entitled ‘Misspent Youth’ it was suggested that 23% of people sentenced in court had engaged in truancy at a significant level. The police have indicated that almost 40% of street robberies and 20% of criminal damage is caused by 10- to 16-year-olds.
How can a Member who is inextricably linked to a terrorist organisation hold this position? The people of Northern Ireland will not tolerate it. He must go.
I would like to respond to the scurrilous remarks of Members opposite about the nature of the schools protest. I want to nail the lie that this was organised, manipulated or even encouraged by members of my party or any other Unionist party. As one who visited the first protest, when 400 children from Kilkeel spontaneously left their classes in protest against the appointment of a Sinn Féin/IRA Minister, I emphasise the facts.
I was in a meeting at Translink with the Minister for Regional Development when I got a telephone call telling me that the children had been out for two hours and wanted me, as their local Assembly Member, to come down, collect a petition and address them. I told them that having made their protest, they should go back to their classes and that when the school bell rang I would meet them to collect their petition and speak to them. That is exactly what I did, because I was concerned that some of them were outside the school grounds. The Sinn Féin/IRA Minister knows that. I took their petition, which I know has the support not just of the children but of their parents as well.
A few weeks earlier in Kilkeel we had unveiled a memorial to 11 members of the security forces murdered by Sinn Féin/IRA. The nieces, nephews and grandchildren of those people were in that school. As citizens of this Province, they have a right to protest against this individual’s being the Minister of Education.
We must remember that this individual’s organisation murdered bus drivers in front of school children, murdered a headmaster in front of 40 seven-year-olds, murdered people who were delivering to and building schools and murdered ancillary workers in schools. The individual no doubt knows the names and addresses of those who carried out these deeds. Has he given them to the security forces? He has not. There is a great deal of anger throughout the Province. The Minister is not welcome in any state school in South Down. The only way he can come to these schools is if he forces himself upon them, as he did with Methodist College —
Does the Member agree that having Sinn Féin in charge of the Education and Health Departments is like having King Herod and Dr Crippen running them — except that Dr Crippen would have put in a more competent performance at health Question Time yesterday?
His Colleague Ms de Brún — Ms Brown — rivalled his incompetence in her dealing with Assembly questions.
Immediately after the Kilkeel protest we were told by the First Minister, Mr Trimble, not to worry. Our strong Scrutiny Committee would be able to bring this man to heel and control what he did. We learned yesterday that under this agreement the Minister can do what he likes. There is nothing the Committee or the Assembly can do to stop him. The Assembly has handed total and absolute control of our children’s affairs into the hands of this man — a man who boasted during his first visit to a school in Londonderry that when he was on the run in County Leitrim he met a certain lady who was the cousin of the headmaster. What a thing to be proud of. We would like to know what he was on the run from.
I would like the Minister to comment on the massive damage caused by a bomb attack on buses parked in school grounds in Castlederg, on the disruption caused when pupils attended the funerals of five past pupils of the same school and on the deaths of 22 others who had relatives in the school. Bus drivers have been attacked on four occasions, and staff on three. One of these attacks resulted in the early retirement of the headmaster.
The Member is incorrect. I kept my eye on the clock. I noticed how much time was passing, which is why I intervened. The Member’s eye was not on the clock — he was making reference to someone in the Gallery. This is becoming a habit. It is not appropriate to refer to people in the Gallery or to civil servants in the Boxes.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
I congratulate the Minister, Martin McGuinness, for the efficient and professional way he has carried out a very difficult job to date. I also congratulate him for taking the time to attend the debate and the manner in which he has responded to what was obviously a shoddy attempt by the DUP to have some sort of rant. However, he took the time to attend and showed respect to the House — respect that was not shown earlier today by people who claim to be defenders of the democratic principles. Those people showed up to lead us all a merry dance, to pull a motion and to leave us all high and dry.
I congratulate him for doing what the Assembly mandated him to do, and that is to carry on with his job at a very difficult time when others are threatening to pull the institutions down around us.
It is not just DUP stunts that have disrupted schools. Jim Wells may have shown up spontaneously at Kilkeel school, but the television cameras just happened to show up along with him. Perhaps the pupils had their own PR operation. However, it is not only the silly protests which the DUP organise that are disrupting schools. There have been instances in my own area, an area with which the Chairman of the Education Committee should be quite familiar. At Forkhill Primary School a helicopter flying overhead to a British Army base, which dwarfs that primary school, dropped its full cargo in the playground. At St Paul’s in Bessbrook, O level and A level students were forced to protest publicly on the road outside their school about disruption during their exams caused by the constant hovering of helicopters above the school. [Interruption]
It may hurt some people to hear this, but there are two sides to every story.
Last December a heavily armed British Army foot patrol entered the grounds of St Joseph’s Primary School, Bessbrook, much to the distress of children who were leaving the nursery. In January this year another British Army foot patrol entered school grounds during class time, and when they were challenged by the staff —
Does the Member not accept that the terrorist warfare organised and instituted by Sinn Féin/IRA, particularly in an area such as south Armagh, has caused all these things? It is very important that security considerations be met and that there be a response to the security requirements. These situations were brought about entirely by the actions of Sinn Féin/IRA and the Republican movement.
The Member is well aware that in the last four years, since the ceasefire has been organised, there have been no such events in that area, and I am not aware of any allegation that the nursery school children of Bessbrook primary school were carrying out activities against the British Army.
When the school staff challenged members of the foot patrol about walking through school grounds they were met with indifference and hostility. Sadly, the Chairman of the Education Committee — I am glad he intervened — found this case a source of great amusement when it was brought to his attention in the council chamber. He did not even express concern that this should be happening in a primary school in his own constituency. However, that does not surprise me, given his ‘Alice in Wonderland’ speech earlier. It seems that he is not attached to this planet by very much.
Another case is that of Glassdrumman Primary School. The British Army decided to build a spy post close by and fly dozens of helicopter flights above it daily. The parents organised themselves in order to oppose this. They have banded together and taken their case to the NIO Ministers, but so far it has fallen on deaf ears.
To add insult, in December last year the RUC asked if they could attend Glassdrumman Primary School. When the principal told them that they would not be welcome the RUC turned up and forced their way on to the school grounds. This incident was brought to the attention of the media, but for some strange reason they did not find this a worthy news story. I have to compare that with the hullabaloo they created around Pomeroy, Carrickmore and other such places.
It is unfortunate when time in Adjournment debates is wasted, and I regret that I had to put the counter to the disruption that the DUP talked about by raising the matter of the disruption that happens from their friends in the military. I agree with Francie Molloy and Eamon ONeill. Time in the Chamber should be spent on debating the important issues in education — issues that cause real disruption in schools.
Once again I congratulate the Minister for not being deterred by such silly motions or by so-called spontaneous protests organised in schools, but for getting on with the job that the Assembly mandated him to do.
A Chathaoirligh, I am grateful to Mr Wilson for raising the issue of disruption in schools and providing an opportunity for discussion of this important issue. I was appointed Minister of Education as part of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which, as we all know, was overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate, both North and South.
That agreement created new political arrangements under which locally elected representatives of all parties can work together to create a better future for all of our people, and I intend to play a full part in that.
I understand that many people continue to carry pain and hurt from all that has happened in the past and that many have fears and concerns about the future. These uncertainties affect all of us. However, I would like to stress, as I have done on a number of occasions since my appointment as Minister of Education, that I am totally committed to promoting the interests of all our children and ensuring that they are treated in a fair and equal manner. I will do my utmost to ensure that our education service continues to improve the standards of teaching and learning for all.
While I recognise the concerns of some parents and pupils, I was disappointed that pupils in a minority of schools decided to leave their schools to protest against my appointment. I support the right of young people to express their views through protest, but I am also concerned at the effect that these disruptions may have on the education of the children involved and at the risk potential when pupils are out of school without authorisation and supervision. These disruptions have caused considerable distress and anxiety to staff in the schools affected. They have worked hard, and with considerable success over the years, to keep the focus within schools firmly on education. They have done, and continue to do, a fantastic job, and I would like to express my thanks for and admiration of their work.
For their sake, and for the sake of the pupils, I am glad that these disruptions have ended. It is regrettable, however, that those politicians who mysteriously appeared within minutes at the supposedly impromptu protests did not bear these considerations in mind. One wonders whose interests they really have at heart.
Of course, not all pupils who protested chose to leave school; others took a more constructive approach and wrote to me. They protested, and they set out their concerns. Some of them actually asked to meet with me, and I was pleased to discuss the issues face to face with young people from a controlled secondary school. We had a productive and civilised exchange of views. That, I believe, is the way in which these matters should be resolved.
It is dialogue that my visits to schools are intended to promote. As a new Minister, I have a lot to learn about education, but I am learning fast. I am anxious to learn about the issues from those who are at the chalkface, those who are delivering the service in the schools, as well as from my departmental officials and others involved in the administration of education.
I intend to visit as many schools as I can, and I have many outstanding invitations. However, I will be visiting only schools to which I have been invited. My visits to date have been extremely enlightening. I have seen the excellent work which teachers are doing, often in difficult circumstances and in poor conditions, and I have listened to the issues that concern them and their pupils. I intend to build on this constructive dialogue so that collectively we can ensure the best education possible for all our children.
A number of issues were raised. Sammy Wilson’s contribution was generally good-humoured, and I thank him for that, although he did somewhat confuse the towns of Carrickmore and Carrickfergus. Nevertheless, I totally agree with him that the performance tables which were published today by my Department are good news. They show a steady rise in standards. I would like to congratulate all in the education system, both teachers and pupils, for their hard work and success.
The issue of the proposed visit by the Duchess of Abercorn to St Mary’s Primary School in Pomeroy was raised by Sammy Wilson. I believe that I made it clear during Question Time yesterday that who visits a particular school is a matter for the school principal and the chairman of the board of governors. This is a well-established departmental policy, and it will continue.
Where there is a disagreement over a visit, I hope that it will be settled amicably by the people directly involved. As Members will be aware, I have spoken to the principal of the school, and I am confident that this matter can be resolved satisfactorily.
Indeed. On Mondays the requirement is for interruption at six o’clock. That is in Standing Orders. As the Member will be aware, Standing Orders were suspended today, so time is not quite so tight. In any case, it is a Tuesday.
I should also like to thank Danny Kennedy for his contribution. I do not imagine that he will ever win the Pushkin Prize, but I look forward to hearing many more of his yarns at the Education Committee.
Eamonn ONeill made a particularly thoughtful contribution on discipline in schools. This is an important issue. Each school is required to have a policy for the promotion of good behaviour and discipline among its pupils. The content of a school’s discipline policy and its rules and sanctions are matters for the school. Guidelines on what should be included are in preparation and will be issued later this year. Resources have been made available for the development of pupil referral units to help schools deal with particularly disruptive pupils.
Norman Boyd raised the issue of my visits to schools. As I said earlier, I consider school visits to be an important aspect of my job, since they give me an opportunity to listen to the views of teachers and pupils. I shall visit only those schools to which I am invited, and I have had invitations to schools of all management types.
There are many challenges facing the education system as we move into the twenty-first century. We have to deal with low achievement; there are challenges in the school estate; we want to increase access and participation; and we want to promote a culture of tolerance and respect for diversity among our people. In addressing these challenges, I shall be guided by the principles of promoting excellence, providing choice, enhancing accessibility and ensuring equality.
It is indeed vital that our schools provide the skills and knowledge which children need to enable them to be fulfilled and to succeed in life. The economy and society need them to in order to thrive. That is the agenda to which I am working. It is an education agenda. It is an agenda for all our children, and I hope that Members will judge my success as Minister of Education against it. Go raibh maith agat.