I beg to move
I thank the Business Committee for allowing me to bring to the Assembly my concerns at the current use of free school meals as the sole means of determining a school’s entitlement to TSN funding.
At the outset, I declare an interest. As a parent governor in a small rural primary school, I am directly aware of the financial pressures on our schools, particularly those in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area, which result from inadequate funding arrangements. More than 100 teachers are being made redundant in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area, and the inequality in the current TSN funding mechanism has contributed to that situation.
Although I am not a member of the Education Committee, I am concerned by the report compiled by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, ‘Indicators of Educational Performance and Provision’ (NIA 48/01), which has been examined by the Public Accounts Committee. Through my membership of that Committee, and my role as a primary school governor, I have taken a particular interest in the inequality of school funding in the area I represent and in which I live.
I draw Members’ attention to the huge variation in funding per pupil between schools in different education and library board areas. Children in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area receive the second-lowest funding per pupil in the controlled sector, as recorded in the answer to my question for written answer, AQW 2390/01. What most concerns me about that answer is the degree of variation between various sectors and boards. According to figures for 2000-01, there is a variation of approximately 15% in the funding for primary school pupils in different sectors. How can that be justified? In the secondary school sector the difference is 18%. Such inequality cannot be justified.
I am aware of the development of a new common funding formula; however, the manner of directing the policy of targeting social need itself creates huge variations and inequalities between schools. That is because only one criterion is being used in determining allocations of TSN funding — the entitlement to free school meals.
In the consultation document ‘A Common Funding Formula for Grant-Aided Schools’, the Department of Education points out that a post-primary school of approximately 700 pupils with a 60% entitlement to free school meals could receive up to £166,000 a year more in funding for social deprivation than a similar school with a low entitlement to free school meals of, say, 10%. Clearly, that could have a huge impact on a school’s ability to address educational needs.
I support the concept of targeting social need. However, I question the appropriateness of using the free school meals criterion as the only measure when targeting TSN funds. I also question the degree of variation and inequality created by the current policy. I understand that approximately 5% of the education budget is top-sliced and distributed on the basis of entitlement to free school meals. That in turn is based on a family’s entitlement to either jobseeker’s allowance or income support. Is that an appropriate indicator of deprivation in education? Research by the Department of Education and Skills has shown that in England and Wales some 20% of parents do not take up their entitlement. I suspect that the figure may be even higher in Northern Ireland. This criterion is not picking up all the children in need.
Locally, according to the figures for 1997-98, some 26·1% of pupils were entitled to free school meals. However, that figure dropped to 21·9% in 2001-02. Therefore, although the educational budget has increased, the TSN budget is targeted at fewer children, and I suspect that as many as 20% of those who are entitled to support do not claim it. That reluctance to claim creates inequalities and fails to address educational need in many instances.
While researching for the debate, I read evidence heard by the Committee for Education. The principal of Ballynahinch High School said that
"there is a resistance among some rural families, even when eligible to do so. Thus, any use of FSM eligibility as an indicator of need will not benefit the school."
The principal of St Nicholas’s Primary School said that
"using only Free School Meals eligibility as an indicator of need is often limiting. It does not address the range of problems of deprivation, and means that some schools with low FSM levels do not get the necessary help".
The principal of Loanends Primary School said that
"children in the school are experiencing failure, and the school has neither the time nor resources to address these issues. There are no funds for a specialist teacher. One explanation for this is that, because the school has no entitlement to Free School Meals-based funding, high levels of educational need are not recognised."
Educational TSN funds could be distributed through, for example, the working families’ tax credit. That would widen the distribution of funds and, according to recent figures from the Department for Social Development, lessen inequalities by making an additional 45,000 families eligible.
Will the Department of Education consider using different indicators of deprivation, such as those that are used by other Departments? The Noble index was introduced as a result of rigorous research and academic work to replace the Robson index. It has produced detailed work to show deprivation in housing, income, employment, health and disability, and educational skills and training. Educational indices are used to measure educational deprivation. However, could other more objective indicators, such as assessment of Key Stage 1 and 2 in primary schools, or absentee levels, be used in the education sector? I would like to hear the views of the Minister of Education and other Members.
In developing additional criteria, we must ensure that schools are neither rewarded for bad results nor penalised for good results. Perverse incentives, such as the removal of resources when improvements are made, would demoralise staff. I support the view of some members of the Education Committee that Key Stage 2 is not a suitable indicator for the allocation of special education funding to primary schools. Given that Key Stage 2 is assessed at the end of primary school, it is an inappropriate means by which to measure need. Therefore, if a judgement were made on the strength of Key Stage 2 performance, bad results may be rewarded, while good results may be penalised.
I await with interest the results of the needs and effectiveness analysis of the education sector. There is concern about the outcome of current TSN policy, and it is to be hoped that there will be detailed analysis of how the money is spent and the outcomes that are achieved. Could the money be better spent in other ways?
During my time as an MLA, I have become aware of the relatively poor take-up of state benefits and grants in my constituency of East Antrim. Many pensioners do not claim the minimum income guarantee to which they are entitled, and recent figures show that take-up for the warm homes scheme is lower than was expected.
That is the case, despite there being socially deprived wards and pockets in my constituency, which was indicated in the Noble indices. Historically, for whatever reason —
For whatever reason, many people in my area have not embraced a claim culture and have been too proud or independent to claim state benefits. Children have been doubly deprived because their parents have not claimed benefits, and that means that those children have not gained the educational advantages that result from TSN. I ask the Minister to notice that I have not been prescriptive as to what are more appropriate criteria for determining future TSN funding. I shall listen to other Members’ comments before I take a view on the amendment.
I beg to move the following amendment: In line 1 delete all after "Education" and insert:
"to have his Department, in consultation with the Committee for Education, carry out an in-depth review of the way social deprivation is measured."
The motion deals with free school meals. Those meals have been used for some time as an indicator of social deprivation and, as such, the matter has gained international recognition.
The motion calls for the present system to be scrapped and for it to be replaced with an unspecified system that will direct funding to the most socially disadvantaged children in our community. Any inequalities that exist in the present system are unacceptable. However, the introduction of untried indicators will not improve the circumstances of those who experience social deprivation.
Targeting social need is crucial in education. The link between underachievement and social deprivation is well known and well researched. Schools in socially deprived areas need extra funding to improve literacy and numeracy, and to help children overcome disadvantages that arise from poverty.
As we know, the Department of Education and the boards allocate their funding for social deprivation to schools on the basis of the numbers who receive free school meals. The criterion used to determine who is eligible for free school meals is whether a child’s parents are on jobseeker’s allowance or income support. Those entitlements have long been recognised as good indicators of social deprivation. Although questions have been asked, no one as yet has been able to devise a better system.
The Committee for Education held an inquiry into the Department of Education’s proposals for a new common funding formula for all schools. Some submissions raised the TSN element of the Department’s proposed new formula. Teachers in some schools pointed out that not all the children who were eligible for free school meals availed themselves of that entitlement. Staff from those particular schools said that although they provided additional support for socially disadvantaged children, the schools did not benefit from any extra money. Consequently, they faced increased financial pressures.
At least one other submission questioned whether the free school meals entitlement took account of all the children from low-income backgrounds. Those comments suggest that the free school meals indicator could work better than it does.
Therefore, the logical step is to examine how the free school meals indicator can be improved. As I have said, targeting social need is a crucial element in the funding of our schools, and, indeed, many educationalists believe that the overall level of money for TSN purposes that the Department provides is less than what is required.
Where resources are scarce, the impact of any changes to the method of funding under TSN guidelines must be given careful consideration. We must work towards a situation in which all children from socially deprived backgrounds benefit under TSN arrangements, and in which schools with the highest levels of social deprivation derive the most benefit.
Much research, discussion and debate are required in order to deliver TSN money to the most deserving children. Under the terms of the motion, that will not happen. The SDLP believes that the issue is central and that the Department of Education and the Education Committee should revisit it for more detailed discussion.
The issue of TSN criteria is important, and it affects school budgets in each Member’s constituency. Some schools will be grossly advantaged by the application of the free school meals formula, and others will be grossly disadvantaged to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds and, in some cases, to the extent of one or two teachers.
The case against the use of free school meals as a means of targeting social and educational disadvantage is compelling. The use of free school meals as a criterion does not deal with the problem. The Department of Education came to that conclusion in a report where it is stated that
"the evidence does not distinguish between pupils’ under-attainment resulting from social disadvantage and under-attainment with its origins in a lesser capacity to learn, irrespective of social and economic background. It is therefore somewhat unclear as to which of these sources of under-attainment is the most important one and where the balance of TSN funding, between social deprivation and educational needs, should lie."
Despite that, the Department states that it wants to use free school meals as the measure and recognises that, even if free school meals were the proper way to fund those who are socially disadvantaged and, therefore, have an educational disadvantage, or people who are educationally disadvantaged, 20% of families do not take up the provision. Those figures come from the Department. It does not deal with the issue, which is to allocate extra money to help youngsters who, because of social disadvantage or an inability to learn, have educational needs.
When the criteria are applied, a totally unfair situation emerges if a pupil happens to attend a Belfast school and comes from a background where free school meals are an entitlement. Depending on the school, no money might be paid or an additional £525 might be paid. If other boards are taken into consideration, the amount allocated varies from £322 in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area to £298 in some grant-maintained schools. The money is not evenly distributed, with a variation of almost 100% between pupils.
The Committee received evidence from school principals, who made it clear that this was a very unfair measure. The almost universal experience of principals from rural schools was that pupils from farming backgrounds tend not to take up free school meals because of the stigma attached to them. Another principal who gave evidence said that the spending levels did not appear to coincide with the educational needs of the youngsters in the school. Therefore, she found herself at a disadvantage when it came to providing additional facilities.
Roy Beggs has already mentioned that the take-up of the provision of school meals is not a balanced indicator of social disadvantage. While only 9·2% of pupils in reception classes in controlled schools are entitled to free school meals, 18·9% of pupils in maintained schools are entitled to them. There is not even a balance in provision across education sectors. When the Committee considered this matter, there was criticism from all parties. A member of the Minister of Education’s party said:
"On the matter of free school meals, the Robson index, in my view, is a good enough indicator of social deprivation. In Fermanagh, for example, income levels are only 70% of those in places such as England or other areas of the Six Counties. That is a statistic anyone can work on. There are people who will not claim free school meals, even though they are entitled to them."
I will not name the Member who said that, because he may be punished for going against his own Minister. However, that was the view of a Sinn Féin member of the Committee for Education.
Despite what Tommy Gallagher said, there are alternative measures. There are many diagnostic tests that can be done on a one-to-one basis, or collectively, that are not intrusive. There are tests that study people’s linguistic and mathematical development and their ability to understand rhyme. All of those are better indicators of educational need than the blunt instrument of the take-up of free school meals.
It is important to consider the alternatives because the system disadvantages rural schools, some education sectors and some boards. There is no evidence in the work of the Department to prove that the way in which funding is targeted gets to the nub of the problem and makes available to schools the resources that are required to deal with educational need. This indicator is a blunt instrument that the Department cannot stand over. The Department’s own report states that people do not take up this provision, so how can it be used as a measure? The system does not distribute equal amounts of money to all pupils or to the various types of schools. Therefore, it is important to consider a different way of dealing with this.
Even the blunt instrument of the Warnock indicator, which says that 10% of youngsters in every school will suffer some educational disadvantage, is a better measure of social disadvantage than free school meals. At least that indicator would ensure uniformity across schools and that schools received the required resources.
I do not think that the Minister will change his mind. Despite the compelling evidence and the fact that the Committee for Education asked him to look for alternatives, he has refused to reconsider because he has another agenda behind his method for distributing funding to schools.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I do not support the thrust of the motion. Mr Sammy Wilson would attack Sinn Féin’s position, as usual, but Mr Roy Beggs may have some genuine reasons for the points that he made. The thrust of the motion is purely sectarian, so I will not support it.
TSN is important to everyone, and we all want money to be allocated to deprived areas. Quite often, Members — including Sammy Wilson, a member of the Committee, who discussed Belfast schools — use questionable statistics. Jobseeker’s allowance entitlement and other measures of deprivation do not always combine to create the best formula. The Noble index takes various factors into account, and most areas do quite well under that formula. The indicator of free school meals entitlement identifies children from low-income families.
The percentage of children who are entitled to free school meals has been used to indicate the level of socio-economic disadvantage in schools. That figure also correlates strongly to low academic attainment and the percentage of young people who leave school with few, or no, formal qualifications. More recent statistics link free school meals entitlement with poor transfer test results. Pupils who are entitled to free school meals have, on average, lower GCSE grades. Average pass rates in leaving examinations are about 50% higher in post-primary schools at which less than 5% of children are entitled to free school meals, compared to those where 20% or more pupils qualify.
Pupils at schools in the lowest free school meals band are more than two and a half times more likely to achieve a grade A in the 11-plus test than those in the highest free school meals band. Moreover, as the population of pupils who are entitled to free school meals rises, so too does the proportion of pupils who do not sit the transfer test.
Mr Beggs suggested that we replace free school meals entitlement with another indicator. The Ulster Unionist Party has argued that point for a long time, in Committees and elsewhere. Its argument is motivated not by a desire to find the best indicator of social need, but by sectarianism and a refusal to accept that the Catholic population experiences greater poverty and social need than Protestant people. One unhappy consequence of the Ulster Unionists’ campaign to have free school meals entitlement removed is that they are abandoning — [Interruption].
I have little enough time; I will not give way.
Belfast primary schools were mentioned. Seventy-seven per cent of pupils at Malvern Primary School are eligible for free school meals; 70% of pupils at Blythefield, Beechfield, Currie, Edenbrooke and Avoniel primary schools qualify. There is a long list of schools with a high percentage of entitlement to free school meals, and most of them are state controlled. The percentage of free school meals entitlement in post-primary schools is high also. Over 60% of pupils at Mount Gilbert Community College and Templemore Controlled Secondary School qualify for free meals. Balmoral High School, Castle High School, Newtownabbey Community High School, Dunmurry High School and Lisnasharragh High School all have a very high percentage of pupils who are entitled to free school meals. Twenty-three out of 80 post-primary schools —
I will confine my remarks to the motion and the amendment. I will not go into detail as other Members have done; I am sure that people have taken the points on board.
I am a member of two Committees — the Committee for Education and the Committee of the Centre. Both Committees have been investigating the targeting social need procedures from a number of aspects. All of the members of those Committees have agreed that while it is laudable in its intention, targeting social need is not as efficient or effective as it was designed to be. The Robson indices and the new, improved Noble indices, which determine the implementation of targeting social need, have been seen to be flawed. That means that areas of potential deprivation are ignored if they happen to be within larger, more prestigious areas.
In my local area there is a good example, which I have spoken about before. My constituency, North Down, the so-called "gold coast", includes large estates where underdevelopment and deprivation are the norm. The high incidence of non-take-up of school meals in these areas, as in others, makes nonsense of the idea that free school meals should be the sole criterion for much wider assessment and judgement. Colleagues have made that point more specifically.
Research has proved that there are many parents who do not avail of free school meals for their children, even in the most deprived areas. Therefore, using free school meals as an indicator of deprivation is questionable. To put it in plain language, Members have a simple choice: we either face up to our responsibilities as legislators and do something to get the current system radically reviewed and, if necessary, changed, or we look the other way and ignore the plight of those more needy than ourselves.
An urgent review of the whole school meal procedure is long overdue. If we really want all children to enjoy the best facilities for their education, we must look more carefully at a wider and more reliable range of factors. As the amendment states, I suggest an in-depth review of how the criteria of social deprivation are measured in schools. The Minister would not refuse to consider such an evaluation. Such a review should be undertaken so that we have the best method of ensuring that all pupils, whatever their background, can avail of TSN programmes that will benefit their education.
Pending such a review, the whole process of targeting social need must be dealt with seriously and sensitively. However, it would be dangerous to fully support the motion until we are sure that any replacement — tests or otherwise — would be adequate and efficient enough to replace the current system. I support the amendment.
"in order to deal with the complexity of identifying social disadvantage, alternative and additional indicators to the current Free School Meals indicator should be explored".
He may accuse the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party of sectarianism, but is he now accusing the employees of the Belfast Education and Library Board of being sectarian? They are involved in education, and they should know when a change must be carried out.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland) in the Chair)
Several indicators other than free school meals could be used. The Noble indicators have recently been produced. They are weak in many ways because they do not take into account the black economy that exists in Northern Ireland, which runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. Nevertheless, those indicators have outlined clearly that there is significant educational disadvantage, particularly in Protestant/Unionist communities.
I would not dare to accuse Mr Lombard from the Holy Trinity Primary School of being sectarian, but perhaps IRA/Sinn Féin would. He said:
"Free School Meals eligibility is a good indicator of social need, but there may be other needs in schools with lower levels of deprivation and these are not acknowledged through the formula at present".
Clearly, there is someone who does not come from a Unionist background or have a Unionist perspective saying that entitlement to free schools meals is not a satisfactory way of dealing with the matter.
It is also noted with regard to the basis of the levels of funding for TSN that
"spending levels and initiatives do not appear to have eroded the existing differentials between these and other pupils."
Thus it would appear that the differentials that were in place are still in place, despite the spending that has taken place over the past few years. Clearly, the current process is not working. So why is the Department so keen to engage in a process that, according to its own documents and papers, is not working, has not eroded the problem and is not about to erode it with the system now in use?
The Minister does not want to look at other options, because that does not suit him. If he went down that route he would ultimately have to put more money into the controlled sector and provide more for children in Unionist and Protestant areas. He often tells us how concerned he is about children on the Shankill Road, yet when it comes to providing funding for new schools, he will fund the schools in the controlled sector at about half the rate that he funds schools in the maintained sector. When it comes to TSN he will seek to have a mechanism in place that will target specifically schools within his own sector.
Other Members can say that the Minister is a bigot. People will make that judgement based on the work that he has done as a Minister and on the fact that he has not addressed the issue of social need in the controlled sector and has used every mechanism that he can to avoid it.
I support the motion and oppose the amendment. Mr Gallagher, who moved the amendment, did not deal with any of the issues, other than to say that the use of free school meals as the criterion is a good system and that he did not want to change it. There is clear, tangible evidence that it needs to be changed, and the Minister must take that on board.
I agree with my Friend, Mr Sammy Wilson, that this is a very important issue. I do not intend to speak extensively in the debate — I could not do that, as I have only five minutes.
Many schools face this major problem. I want to mention, in particular, the controlled sector in the North- Eastern Education and Library Board. Schools in the area are totally strapped for cash, and significant choices must be made before the simplest work can be carried out. Many teachers are being made redundant, and more will be made redundant soon. That is an important issue. Not only does it affect the schools, but it has a major impact on the education of the children at those schools. It is robbing children of the right to a good education. It is a blunt instrument that is denying children in the North-Eastern Board area the same right as other children across the Province to excellent schooling with the proper number of teachers on board.
My constituency is divided in two with regard to provision. On the one hand there is Cookstown, which is in one education board area, and on the other hand there is Magherafelt, which is in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area. There is, in the same constituency, a difference between the moneys that are available for schools. The main pressure is on Magherafelt, which is in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area.
Of course, it seems to be different in the maintained sector. The Minister is seldom in the constituency, although I am sure he receives news of it now and again. However, he knows full well that, as far as that constituency is concerned, although many of the schools in Magherafelt are falling apart, the new schools in the maintained sector are having millions of pounds spent on them. There is a great differential. In the Minister’s constituency, a different target for social need in the maintained sector from the one in the controlled sector seems to exist, even in relation to school provision.
I note with interest the remarks of Mr McHugh of the Minister’s party, Sinn Féin/IRA. He must have undergone a Saul of Tarsus-like conversion. I am sorry to link Saul with the said Member; when I get home to glory and speak to Saul I shall have to apologise to him. Does the Member think that we have not read the ‘Report on the Proposals for a Common Funding Formula for Grant-Aided Schools in Northern Ireland’? I noticed that there is a difference, and I shall tell the House what it is.
The minutes of evidence for Thursday 4 October show that when the report was being prepared, questions asked and evidence given, Mr McHugh mentioned the Robson index. The interesting aspect is that he was probably not reading from a script then. Today, however, he was handed a script to ensure that he was brought into line and kept to party policy. I wonder whether he thought that the Robson index, which he commended in the report, was a sectarian proposal, because everything else in the mind of the Member seems to be a sectarian proposal. That is an interesting statement, coming from the most sectarian party in existence in the Western World, never mind in Northern Ireland. However, that party uses it whenever it suits.
There must be equality of funding. The present formula is not adequate and denies the rights of the children in my constituency to a proper education. I support the motion.
It seems to me that the motion does not suggest the abolition of free school meals as one of the criteria for the targeting of social need and for additional money for the education of those so targeted. It suggests that free school meals should be replaced as the sole criterion. That is important when one looks at that in conjunction with Mr Gallagher’s amendment. Mr Gallagher clearly accepted that free school meals was not, and should not be, the sole criterion for deciding whether the additional funding should be made available.
The amendment suggests that free school meals as the sole criterion is not the correct one. If it were the correct one, what need would there be for the substance of his amendment, which is to have the Department of Education, in consultation with the Committee for Education, carry out an in-depth review of the way in which social deprivation is measured?
It seems to me that the free school meals criterion is indeed a blunt instrument. I am sure that it was originally, and more accurately, intended to measure the nutritional situation of the pupils rather than their educational need. One can think of many instances in which a sharp child who was not getting as much nutrition as he required was nevertheless able to cope, and one can think of a child not so intellectually advantaged, but well fed and well looked after, who most definitely was in need of additional educational facilities and help. That is a situation in which this blunt instrument would not apply.
It is nonsense to suggest that someone, by virtue of his circumstances, who needs additional educational help is entirely congruent with someone who is not getting as much nutrition as he needs according to some standard. This clearly maintains the advantage of those who take maximum advantage of the benefits system. As long as that system is related to paying additional money for education, those who are on benefit and in areas where they have been on benefit and are determined to remain on benefit will get this extra money. Look at the figures which show that Catholic maintained schools account for 18·9% of uptake while controlled schools account for 9·2%. If anything shows the nonsense of free school meals as the sole criterion for TSN funding it is some of Mr McHugh’s figures. He mentioned a number of controlled primary schools, such as Blythe Street, Avoniel and others, that have an uptake of free school meals of over 70%.
One must ask if there is evidence to show that the increased funding those schools receive — and similar schools in the maintained sector too — is of benefit to them. Do they get better results? Do more children from those schools pass the 11-plus or transfer test? The answer is almost certainly no. There is no more damning criticism of the free school meal criterion than that. In areas of west Belfast, on an entirely different basis, 15% of the working population were on a disability benefit, a benefit that is not attributable to social conditions but to one’s physical condition, while in north Down only 3% of the working population were on it.
I support the motion. Many parents who live in the lower income bracket grew up receiving free school meals and probably had the school dinner stigma attached to them, and that is where the problem arose. Free school meals are a good way of ensuring that children from lower income families have at least one nutritious meal a day, and I heard someone making that point on the radio this morning. Unfortunately, receipt of free school meals alerts a child’s peers to his family’s financial situation; perhaps that has not happened so much in the recent past. When I was at school, children who received free school meals became the butt of many a child’s prank.
There must be a way of allocating TSN funding to education that does not embarrass children. Schooldays are tough enough for children without their being set out as different from the beginning so that the Department of Education can monitor the need for TSN funding.
Many children who qualify for free school meals do not take them up because of the stigma attached to them. Targeting Social Need in education should not come down to how many free school meals are allocated in each area. Social need in education is an extensive issue and needs a more appropriate measuring tool. In the Strangford constituency there are pockets of affluence surrounded by areas of need. The two cancel each other out, and funding is missed out on, while the children of those two economic groups meet together at school on what should be a level playing field.
Some children can afford to have tutors when they need extra help, but those who are unable to afford such tuition often fail, so social need funding allocations to education should be more academically based. In 65% of towns across Northern Ireland most people over 16 have no formal educational qualifications. In my constituency of Strangford, the Ballywalter, Comber, Kircubbin, Westwinds and Portaferry areas have a higher than average percentage of adults with no formal qualifications. Areas where most adults have formal qualifications are highly likely to be wealthy ones.
One of the most important indications of social need is overcrowding, and that applies to schools as much as to houses. We have all seen the indexes of overcrowding in towns and villages, but what about schools? Some children in the Strangford constituency have to pass one school to go to another because the catchment area of the first school is so oversubscribed that it cannot take children from the housing development that is only metres from it. The criteria for social need funding for education should take the overcrowding in classrooms into account.
If classrooms are overcrowded, it is only natural that the teaching will be less effective, as teachers dealing with over 30 students do not have time to devote to students who are struggling. Students who leave such schools may not achieve their full potential and may join the 65% of people here who have no formal qualifications — thus adding to social need, as those without qualifications find it harder to get a stable job that will support them and their families. Overcrowding in schools is a valid, highly graphic indicator of where funding should go in education. It directly influences the qualifications that young people have when leaving school.
If we are to live together successfully, understanding and mutual respect are needed. That means eliminating the stigma and pain caused to children whose socio-economic backgrounds are revealed to their peers when they get free school meals. Funding must be allocated under criteria that show needs and areas of greatest need more efficiently and discreetly. Each community is different, so the criteria for funding must be adaptable so that those who get it will benefit from it. We need data that can be used to help children rather than categorise them.
Every child must be given the same educational opportunities. By removing economic barriers, children will be able to gain qualifications that will remove any need for a TSN fund for them and society. However, that dream is a long way off, so we need to remove the stigmas and put money into the heart of the problem that we are trying to address.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. It is right that we should spend time addressing matters that most closely affect the daily lives of many people. Poverty has, for too long, blighted the lives of individuals and whole communities. The Programme for Government highlights New TSN as its major way of combating social exclusion and poverty. New TSN means targeting our efforts towards ensuring that programmes and services are delivered in ways that are most helpful to disadvantaged people, and I am totally committed to applying its principles to address social deprivation wherever it is found.
My Department’s New TSN action plan concentrates on action that is designed to address the needs of children who are not achieving their full learning potential. As Mr Gallagher said, a substantial body of local and international research shows that there is a clear link between social disadvantage and low educational achievement. Children from socially disadvantaged circumstances tend to achieve less well at school, are less likely to stay on or enter further or higher education and in the future are more likely to be unemployed or work in lowly paid jobs.
The purpose of the TSN element in the local management of schools (LMS) formula is to provide additional resources to help schools address low achievement, underachievement and pastoral care problems arising from the social and economic characteristics of their pupil intake.
Some schools, particularly those with a high intake of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, face considerable problems in the daily management and pastoral care of their pupils; however, it is clear that a substantial proportion of TSN costs in schools arise in addressing the needs of children who are performing below the level expected for their age. That can manifest itself in low motivation to learn, behavioural problems, poor attendance and low attainment. Research and experience have shown that those problems can be successfully overcome by school-based strategies such as special needs teaching, numeracy and literacy programmes, attendance and discipline initiatives, and home/school liaison arrangements. However, those measures require staff time and resources.
It is important to bear in mind that the consultation document on the local management of schools common formula proposed that TSN funding should continue to be based on two distinct elements: social deprivation, which is based on free school meals; and special educational need, which is based on measures of educational underachievement. Those who are in greatest need must be identified objectively and targeted fairly, regardless of gender, religion or race.
Given that there is a clear correlation between social deprivation and low educational attainment, we need a robust and objective indicator that will enable us to direct our resources where they are most needed and where they will do most good in raising attainment levels. That will therefore give our most disadvantaged children the chance of a better life. Often, children do not attend a school in the area where they live. Pupils who live in areas that on a location-based indicator would be regarded as deprived often attend school in an area that is not so deprived, and vice versa. In addition, many pupils who live in one education and library board area cross board boundaries to attend schools that are situated in other board areas. For that reason, location-based indicators such as the Noble indicators, which are advocated by Roy Beggs Jnr and Edwin Poots, would not necessarily ensure that funding would be directed at those most in need.
Local and international research has confirmed that entitlement to free school meals is a robust indicator of social disadvantage among school pupils and is closely correlated with poor educational achievement. In the absence of any better, easily collected, readily updateable pupil indicator of social disadvantage, my Department will continue to use free school meals as a key means of targeting funding at schools with pupils with the greatest need. It is significant that the continued use of free school meals as an indicator of social deprivation was widely supported by schools in the recent consultation ‘A Common Funding Formula for Grant-Aided Schools’.
Roy Beggs Jnr, Tommy Gallagher, Sammy Wilson and others said that the uptake of entitlement to free school meals is not as high as it could be. My Department is keen to ensure that resources are directed towards the pupils in genuine need. The uptake of entitlement to free school meals will be researched in the family resources survey, which commenced in April of this year in conjunction with the Department for Social Development. The results will not be known until April 2003. Arrangements for determining entitlement to free school meals have traditionally mirrored those applicable in England, where consideration is being given to extending entitlement to include low-wage families in receipt of working families’ tax credit. If implemented, this will extend the coverage of the indicator.
Roy Beggs Jnr, Sammy Wilson and Eileen Bell spoke of the use of additional indicators for TSN. As I have said, research has found that entitlement to free school meals is a robust indicator of social disadvantage among school pupils and is closely correlated with poor educational achievement. The indicator or indicators used for social deprivation must be robust, objective and capable of being updated regularly as circumstances change. That narrows the field considerably; however, I am prepared to give careful consideration to the use of alternative indicators should they become available.
During today’s debate, as is typical in many of the debates that involve DUP Members, we hear the old chestnut of discrimination against the Unionist and Protestant communities.
I refute absolutely any allegations of discrimination, either with regard to that issue or to the allocation of funds through the schools capital building programme — [Interruption].
If those Members believe that there is discrimination, they are free to go to the Equality Commission or to the courts to seek redress. Why do they not do that? They do not do that because they know that they will not win.
These are important issues that affect all our children. Roy Beggs raised the issue of the proposals for the allocation of TSN funds within the local management of schools common funding formula. It is proposed to include educational indicators alongside entitlement to free school meals in allocating TSN funding, and to increase the proportion of TSN funding on educational need relative to social deprivation. That proposal is designed to take account of the extra support required by pupils who perform below the expected level for their age, regardless of their social background. The share of total funding allocated to TSN will also be increased from 5% to 5·5%. That will provide a further £4 million to help schools to provide additional educational support to underperforming pupils, while maintaining existing levels of support to schools with substantial numbers of disadvantaged pupils.
Roy Beggs and William McCrea raised the issue of the situation in the Northern-Eastern Education and Library Board area. As I have already stated, free school meals entitlement has been recognised for some time as the best available, and most robust, indicator of social deprivation in the education sector. Although I appreciate that the number of such pupils who attend North-Eastern Education and Library Board-funded schools is relatively low and has shown a relatively higher rate of decline recently compared with that of other board areas, the corollary is that North-Eastern Education and Library Board schools will, in general, face lower incidences of the problems, and the associated costs of addressing them, which stem from socially deprived pupils.
William McCrea also raised the plight of controlled schools in the North-Eastern Education and Library Board area in relation to redundancies. Department of Education officials are working closely with the North- Eastern Education and Library Board to gather detailed information on its financial situation. Once that information is received, and the Department has completed its assessment, consideration will be given as to what steps to take next. The Department is progressing the issue of the financial pressures that face the North-Eastern Education and Library Board, and other education and library boards, with the utmost urgency.
Sammy Wilson and Edwin Poots raised the issue of differentials in the levels of funding across boards. That will be addressed in due course in the common funding formula proposals. Sammy Wilson and Eileen Bell raised the issue of the stigma of claiming free school meals. I am as anxious as anybody else to ensure that resources are directed towards those pupils who have genuine need. The issue of the uptake of the entitlement to free school meals will, as I said, be researched in the family resources survey that started in April 2002 in conjunction with Department for Social Development. The results of that survey will not be known until April 2003.
From my perspective, it is important to point out that the existing methodologies for distribution of funding across school sectors and among the five education and library boards includes the skewing of 5% of available resources based on the relative incidence of pupils who are entitled to free school meals. My Department initiated a review of the assessment of relative needs exercise methodologies that are used for the distribution of resources among boards. The review will include consideration of the most appropriate indicators of social need.
I hope that what I have said will provide a measure of reassurance about my commitment to ensure that the problems of educational underachievement continue to be tackled seriously by ensuring that resources are targeted where they are most needed, irrespective of the community background of the children concerned.
I remain satisfied that entitlement to free schools meals remains the most robust indicator of social deprivation and, therefore, of the likelihood of educational underachievement. However, I am on record as having indicated my willingness to keep the issue under review and to consider using more effective indicators, should they become available. Very soon I shall write to the Committee for Education with the proposals that arise from the local management of schools consultation. I intend to work with the Committee in implementing the common formula.
Mr McCartney referred to my admission that there were some shortcomings about the current use of the free school meals criterion. From that, he seemed to imply that I should support the motion and, therefore, that there was no need for an amendment. However, it is not as simple as that. The issue is social deprivation in education. Many Members said that social deprivation in education has implications for other aspects of life, not least employment opportunities. The purpose of the amendment is to reflect what the SDLP thinks about the issue, which is that we should be careful about how we proceed. We should be cautious and should certainly not be in a rush to introduce untried criteria, which is what the motion calls for.
I will not give way during my winding-up speech.
The motion, according to some Members, is driven by concerns about the funding situation in the North- Eastern Education and Library Board area. I have great sympathy with a situation that affects so many parents, children and schools in that board area. However, it is not sensible to table a motion that states that resources should be taken from socially disadvantaged children in other board areas to address the situation in the North- Eastern Education and Library Board area. When North- Eastern Education and Library Board representatives came to the Committee for Education, they were clear that although the board faced difficulties, they did not want solutions that involved taking money from elsewhere in the education system to address their problems.
Other Members referred to the Noble indicators, stating that they would be a better solution. They would not be a better solution because even though there are some shortcomings in using the free school meals criterion — and we must bear in mind that no system is perfect — the Noble indicators are residence-based. They are based on the circumstances in electoral wards and district council areas.
The world of education transcends the boundaries of electoral wards, and many children go to school in a different council area from the area in which they live. Bearing that in mind, there would be huge problems, inequalities and inconsistencies in any system that was based on the Noble indicators.
It is encouraging that the Minister pointed out that research is ongoing on this issue and that the uptake of free school meals is being researched. Hence, the amendment is the right way to go. Both the Department and the Committee for Education will be involved in that debate until its conclusion in 2003.
I regret that I cannot support Mr Gallagher’s amendment, because it does not deal with the issues that I raised. It focuses only on social deprivation and does not recognise that educational need is inadequately addressed. Unless that need is dealt with, social deprivation will result.
Sammy Wilson highlighted the need to balance social deprivation and educational needs. Although that might not have been the spirit of some Members’ contributions, it is the spirit of this motion. Furthermore, Sammy Wilson highlighted the variation in TSN pupil funding: it is up to £500 in the Belfast Education and Library Board area and up to £300 in other board areas.
I regret that Gerry McHugh and others attempted to play the sectarian card; that was not my motive. Although the North Eastern Education and Library Board has the second-lowest funding per pupil in both the primary school and secondary school sectors, grant-maintained schools in other board areas have the lowest funding. My motives are not sectarian, and I regret that some Members saw them as such. I simply seek equality in the distribution of funding. Nobody has given any justification for the 15% to 18% variation in funding for each pupil. I am sure that everyone agrees that social need should be targeted and that children in socially deprived areas should be helped, but that should not be done at the expense of others. Nobody responded to my question on the degree of funding. I am concerned at the Minister’s suggestion that we should increase TSN funding to 5·5%; however, I recognise that his intention was to direct the extra funding to address educational need. Nevertheless, I question the reduction of the budget for all schools.
I must admit that I appreciated the earlier comments of Mr McCartney, who did read my motion and appeared to understand its wording and the purpose of including the word "sole". Others did not understand. Nowhere in the motion was it suggested that we should remove free school meals; in fact, I suggested that the facility should be extended to those who claim the working families’ tax credit, thus widening support for the working poor. Many of the working poor do not receive benefits, and we do not wish their children to be disadvantaged.
The Minister expressed his wish to develop the full learning potential of all children and to develop programmes and services to help the most disadvantaged — surely that means the educationally deprived. That is why I stressed that in addition to addressing social deprivation, we must target those in educational need. There must be a balance, and it was in that spirit that I moved the motion.
The Minister said that there are two factors: free schools meals entitlement and special education indicators. I wish to learn more of that, and I hope that he will do more than make statements about it. I hope that the real needs of those who do not receive funding will be dealt with and that educational needs will be addressed.
I shall not support the amendment.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 20; Noes : 36
Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Seamus Close, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Patricia Lewsley, Kieran McCarthy, Alasdair McDonnell, Eugene McMenamin, Monica McWilliams, Jane Morrice, Eamonn ONeill, John Tierney.
Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Ivan Davis, Sam Foster, John Gorman, Tom Hamilton, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 37; Noes 25
Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Seamus Close, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Ivan Davis, David Ford, Sam Foster, John Gorman, Tom Hamilton, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Gerry Kelly, John Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alex Maskey, Alasdair McDonnell, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, John Tierney.
Main Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to urgently replace "free school meals" as the sole criterion used to allocate TSN funding within the educational sector.