Review of Further Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance 3:00, 30 September 2002

3. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning when she proposes to introduce education maintenance allowances for 16-to-19-year olds.

(AQO 189/02)

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Officials are examining the evaluation reports of the pilot schemes, which have been running in England and Scotland. In conjunction with the Minister of Education, I will consider the options which best suit Northern Ireland and bring forward joint proposals to the Executive in due course.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I am disappointed in the Minister’s reply. Those I represent, most of the 16- to-19-year olds and their parents and I would have appreciated a more definitive answer. If the scheme is to be introduced from September 2004 in England, that will be unfair to our 16- to-19-year olds as they will be disadvantaged. Will the Minister give a more precise date, bearing in mind that the draft Budget which passed through the House last week allocated to her budget a 6·2% increase, which amounts to £40 million or £50 million?

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am open to considering any scheme that will widen access, and I will do my best to ensure that financial constraint is not a barrier to further education. The Member stated that it will be at least September 2004 before the scheme is introduced in England, and if it is suitable, I hope that we will introduce it here.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister accept that the education maintenance allowances, which allow 16- to-19-year olds to continue at school rather than seek employment, are important for some families? If education maintenance allowances are to be introduced here, can the Minister say when?

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

If it is decided to introduce education maintenance allowances, and I am open to any suggestions that will widen access and ensure that finance is not a barrier, it would not be before the academic year beginning September 2004. I appreciate that that weekly allowance will be a considerable help to 16-to-19-year olds from low-income families. My Department and I will give careful consideration to the thresholds and eligibility conditions.

Photo of Mr Tom Hamilton Mr Tom Hamilton UUP

Can the Minister confirm that the educational maintenance allowance was a factor in the failed business plan of the West Belfast Springvale campus?

Will the Minister explain how she proposes to deal with the uncertainty that many will experience as a result of her sudden decision to pull the plug on this major initiative?

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am very disappointed by this setback; I am totally committed to the Springvale project. However, the two main promoters of the project — the University of Ulster and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education — have concerns about its financial viability and sustainability. It would be foolhardy for anyone to proceed until those concerns have been addressed. I have asked the board of the Springvale project to review the situation urgently, to provide me with an update and to come back to me as soon as possible with alternative options, if necessary.