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Post-Primary Transfer

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 am on 25th February 2008.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 1:15 am, 25th February 2008

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the lack of clarity in the Minister of Education’s proposals for post-primary transfer; and urges her to bring details of her proposals immediately before the Executive and the Assembly, to ease the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers.

The motion has been tabled on behalf of the many parents who are facing uncertainty about their children’s educational future. I am pleased to have the support of two other parties and, I suspect, the tacit support of one more. Whatever the politics, we will have the support of every parent, pupil and teaching professional in Northern Ireland, as they are equally frustrated and alarmed at the delay in the lack of concrete proposals from the Department.

In the Minister’s vision statement of 4 December, she offered:

“the creation and delivery of a fundamentally exciting new vision for the education system in the North”. — [Official Report, Vol 26, No 1, p8, col 1].

Those are the Minister’s words, not mine. Her aim, in itself, is worthy. However, visions are all very well, but we need proposals and some meat on the bones.

The Minister’s confirmation of her predecessor’s decision to end the 11-plus has been greeted by all sections of society as overdue and progressive, and her stated preference for transfer at the age of 14 by means other than purely academic selection certainly finds favour with my party. However, where are the details on that preference?

This will be the final year for the 11-plus, but where is its replacement? In her vision statement, she hinted at preferences — community, geography and family considerations. Does “geography” mean a postcode lottery? Does “community” mean nationalists, loyalists, Protestant or Catholic? How will the receiving schools sort out the problems of oversubscription without the benefit of access to the pupil profiles? In that context, I refer to an answer that the Minister gave during her meeting on 31 January. From that answer, it appears to me that the receiving schools will be allowed to advise pupils.

To my mind, that is another form of selection. If a school can advise pupils whether or not they should apply to it, surely that amounts to selection.

Will the Association for Quality Education be permitted to set up its own entrance exams? If new arrangements are not put in place soon, there will be nothing to stop it from doing that. Whether that is good or bad depends on one’s point of view, but I am concerned about legalities. Such tests will become inevitable due to ministerial inaction, and there will be no legal way of stopping them.

Beyond transfer problems, but closely linked to them, lie the issues of area-based planning, the future of the schools estate, and sustainable schools. There is also the problem of the 50,000 empty school desks — a number that is increasing. From my party’s perspective, the absence of any emphasis on integrated or broadly shared or mixed education, which we highlighted in our response to the Programme for Government, remains a concern. It is difficult to resist the unionist view that the Irish-medium sector is being given undue priority. However, I suppose that one could contrast the attitude of one DUP Minister towards Irish-language matters.

I wish to mention the role of the Committee for Education. I note the Minister’s well-timed interview in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’. She seems to be adhering to the principle of getting her reaction in first. Just before the Assembly debate on 11 December 2007, the Minister came up with a vision statement, and now she has given a major interview to a local paper in advance of this debate.

The Minister states that she is still waiting for the Committee to come to her with a consensus view on her transfer proposals.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the Member agree that, at least, the interview with the major paper might have been an opportunity for the Minister to offer some clarity? However, all that she could say, on three occasions, was that she would give parents notice in plenty of time, but she did not say when new arrangements would be in place. Will it be in 2008, 2009 or 2010?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

The Minister’s interview was well up to the standard of her recent statements, and did not add anything to the debate.

In that interview, the Minister said that she wrote to the Committee in December, and is still waiting for a reply. The Minister received a reply from the Committee in the form of about 30 questions, and she took until 31 January to answer them. The answers came in written form and were handed to Committee members just before the start of our now infamous meeting on that date. The answers were as vague as the vision statement and her response to the debate of 11 December 2007. That meeting was short and confrontational, and it added nothing to the debate. It provided no further clarity to the Committee.

Without excusing the behaviour of some Committee members — although I can understand their frustration — and speaking as someone who was prepared to give the Minister time and a measure of support, it must be said that her attitude to the Committee has been contemptuous and dismissive. It seems that she wants to acknowledge that a good relationship is important, but has decided not to contribute to it. Her refusals, most of the time, to come before the Committee, do not do her any credit.

The Committee must cool off too. However, I hope that the Minister will accept the invitation that is now on her desk to come to talk to the Committee again to see whether we can move the discussion forward.

Most of the SDLP amendment is fine. The references to equality of opportunity, protecting against a postcode lottery, local needs, area-based planning and sustainable schools echo and amplify the thrust of our motion. However, we prefer to leave in the reference to the Executive, and, therefore, we cannot accept the amendment.

The schoolchildren of Northern Ireland deserve better from the Assembly. However, in the special circumstances that pertain in this place, it is up to the Minister to step up to the mark. I look forward to hearing her detailed proposals. There must be no more equivocation or vague statements. The Minister must recognise of the role of the Committee, which, for the record, is not simply another stakeholder. It has a scrutiny job to do, but it requires something to scrutinise.

I await with interest the Minister’s contribution to this debate, when she will have another opportunity to explain herself and, perhaps, provide some timescales or a view of her emerging thoughts. At the least, she must provide something more illuminating than her previous statements.

Perhaps she can dispel the rumour that her relationship with her senior officials is even worse than the one she has with the Education Committee, and that her interminable consultations with all kinds of stakeholders are only covering up the fact that she does not know how to proceed.

Actions are needed: not more entreaties to “join with me”, followed by more confrontation and more squabbling through the media. I leave it at that.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Before I call Mr Dominic Bradley to move the amendment, I remind Members that they should speak through the Chair, not to one another across the Floor.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move the amendment: Leave out ‘the Executive and’; and at end insert

“, by setting out the practical steps necessary to deliver reform, while (i) enhancing quality; (ii) ensuring equality of opportunity for all; (iii) protecting against a post-code lottery; (iv) addressing local needs and making best use of resources through area-based planning; and (v) delivering sustainable schools.”

We live in a world in which change is rapid and necessary. In education, as in other aspects of life, we require change. The Minister has told us that; and not many would disagree with her. Change in education is needed because we need a system that meets the needs of today’s young people. The global economy changes rapidly, and high-level skills are needed across the workforce. We need an education system that values all pupils and the pathways that they choose to follow. Change is also inevitable due to the falling pupil numbers. At a time of scarce resources and empty seats, we must put what we have to the best possible use.

However, change must be managed carefully, and not brought about in a chaotic way. Not only do we need to show people, in a transparent way, where change is leading, we need to lay down clearly the route that will take us there and the various steps we will take along that route. People are naturally wary of change. They need to be convinced that if they leave the comfort-zone of the present system, they will arrive at a better place in the future.

One way of doing that is to provide people with the route, the steps involved and as much information as possible about the changes that lie ahead. When the necessary information is not available, the gap that is left is filled by anxiety, leading to resistance to change and making change much more difficult.

Unfortunately, that has been the history of this process to date. Key information necessary to assess the planned change has not been made available when sought and has been forthcoming only at the last minute. One Member has already referred to the fact that it has proven extremely difficult for the Education Committee to get the information that it requires to perform its work. Important policies, pivotal to the Minister’s proposals, are even now being kept under wraps, although time is running out rapidly.

It is not only the man and woman in the street who are complaining; some of the main education providers are openly expressing anxieties about the lack of information. In particular, we need to see the detail of the Minister’s sustainable schools policy, which will be the bedrock of area-based planning. Consultation ended last Easter, yet we still have not had sight of the policy, nor have we seen the policy on area-based planning, which is the linchpin of the Minister’s proposals.

Time is of the essence: education providers need to start planning. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us when she responds to the motion; I hope that she does. She promised to return with a statement this month. Today may be the day; I hope that it is. We must not underestimate the level of confusion in the Committee over the future of education. People want to know what is happening: parents want to know what the future holds, how education in their area will be organised and how change will affect their children.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 1:30 am, 25th February 2008

Does the Member find it odd that, in today’s interview in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, the Minister appears to believe that there is no concern among parents and that they are happy to wait because they are so excited about the changes that she is introducing?

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for making that point. Only yesterday, at an event in Newry, I spoke to a principal of a post-primary school, who reflected precisely the point that the Member has just made. Not only do parents want to know what is happening, but teachers want to know how the changes will affect their schools. Education providers want the tools and the policies that are necessary to bring about change.

People are asking whether the educational estate can accommodate the Minister’s proposals in the short term. Can schools be reorganised to fit the Minister’s proposals in the time that is available? The main cause of contention remains the transfer from primary to post-primary schools. That issue lacks clarity, and until selection at 14 is properly provided for, it looks as though the focus on transfer at age 11 will remain for the foreseeable future. Where will the resources, which will undoubtedly be needed to invest in the future, come from? The Minister’s proposals have not been costed or included in the Budget. The SDLP has drawn attention to that glaring omission, and that is one of the reasons for our voting against the Budget.

To send this matter to the Executive would risk its being gridlocked in the mass of other business with which they are dealing. That would further increase delay, which none of us wants. This issue must be handled with openness and transparency, and bringing it before the Assembly is the best means of ensuring that all MLAs and the general public have that transparency. The Executive route may push the issue behind closed doors. The SDLP amendment deals with the detail, rather than the politics, of the policy.

Although we support the case for reform, we have serious concerns about the Minister’s capacity to deliver change in a way that can restore lost public confidence. Parents are saying that they would almost prefer the continuation of an unfair, inadequate system, rather than face such a degree of uncertainty and anxiety. That is a travesty. Reform requires strong leadership from the Minister to clearly set out the step-by-step process that will be followed as children transfer from primary to post-primary education.

The SDLP wants a high-quality education system that gives equal opportunities to all, promotes educational excellence, widens the horizons and choices of all our young people and does not lead to a postcode lottery. That is not an unattainable ambition, so we call on the Minister to develop and communicate her plans to the Assembly forthwith. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I support the motion. It has been almost three months since the Minister’s blurred vision was foisted on the Assembly. According to her, the final transfer test will be held in nine months. The clocking is ticking, Minister. This matter must be addressed urgently, and the delay on the part of the Minister helps no one. Some children are already in the preparatory years for the transition, but face the uncertainty that has been created by the Minister. It is no exaggeration to say that confusion will turn to panic.

Ideally, there would be no need for the motion. From hearing the concerns of my constituents, it is quite apparent that deep consternation runs throughout the community as a result of the Minister’s creation of a vacuum. Even worse, it appears that she has adopted a dilatory strategy in some attempt to present the Assembly with a fait accompli for her proposals for education. Such matters may be handled in that way in a Marxist state, but we live in a democracy. The failure of the Minister to properly address the Education Committee, and her petulant behaviour before it in the Senate Chamber on 31 January 2008, is there for all to read in the Official Report.

The Minister should, by now, have provided us all with a pair of special glasses so that we can see her vision, or she should, at least, have placed legislation before us to debate. However, all we have had is the Minister’s charade before the Committee, where, once again, she sought to filibuster her way through awkward questioning and to criticise, in some vain attempt to deflect attention from herself.

The Committee would be failing in its role if it did not seek answers from the Minister, and the Chairperson of the Committee would be failing in his role if he did not express the Committee’s views on events that have been unfolding over the past few months. Thankfully, the Chairperson and the Committee have not been found wanting. However, the same cannot be said of the Minister.

As the Minister should know, the DUP secured a veto at St Andrews over proposals that she may seek to introduce, such as excluding educational criteria as one of the options open to schools when deciding on entrance requirements. In the absence of alternative proposals, that leaves us with the default position that academic selection will remain.

On a previous occasion, I quoted to the Minister from paragraph 20 of the explanatory notes to the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. Section 21 of the Act amended The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. I shall take this opportunity to remind her of what that section provided for:

“In the event of the restoration of the devolved institutions on this date, the commencement of the provision abolishing academic selection would be subject to an affirmative resolution of the Assembly.”

The date in question was 28 March 2007. If the Minister does nothing else today, she should at least advise the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland that what the explanatory notes state is the case. That would ease the concerns of parents and pupils, and it would permit teachers to prepare those children in their foundation years. If she fails to do that, she will merely perpetuate the confusion and uncertainty that have been the hallmarks of her tenure to date.

It says something when all the parties represented on the Committee — apart from members from her party — are unified in their criticism of the Minister. There comes a time when we must ask whether she is competent to hold the post.

It will come as no surprise to the Minister that I share the concerns of the parents and teachers to whom I have spoken since her announcement. It is no exagger­ation to state that she is gambling with our children’s future. We have all received her Department’s consultation document, titled ‘Every School A Good School’, yet her vision is to downgrade our excellent schools. The focus should be on those schools that are failing, not on destroying those schools that are succeeding and producing excellent results. Her vague proposals have thrown up huge concerns around postcode lotteries, budgets, sustainability of schools, timescales, transition periods and independent admission tests, among many other issues.

I do not hold out a great deal of hope that we will be provided with greater clarity after today’s debate. When the Minister speaks in the Assembly, we hear the generalised platitudes, and criticisms of the DUP and the Committee for Education. We will again hear about the world-class education system that she wants to establish, but I doubt that we will receive clarification. Of course, as ever, I am willing to be surprised by the Minister.

Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am disappointed that the motion was tabled for today, and I am disappointed in the Alliance Party and by the SDLP amendment. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether the Committee for Education is a Committee or a branch of the DUP, given the way in which Sammy Wilson runs it. It seems that the other political parties on the Committee are being led by the nose by Sammy and the DUP on the issue.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member clarify whether he confuses his ability to represent his party’s point of view and to defend his Minister in Committee with his attitude to other Committee members?

Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that intervention. The SDLP and the Alliance Party tell us that they are against academic selection and that they want change, yet they proceed to introduce motions such as this one. There is no confusion about the issue.

Powerful forces are trying to prevent change, because they do not want the type of change that Caitríona Ruane is trying to bring about. People are using it to try to stop change. Some Committee members are not standing up and letting their voices be heard on the issue; they are letting the DUP dominate the Committee, and that is wrong.

Two weeks ago, suggestions were made to the Committee on how to lessen the antagonism between it and the Minister. It was proposed that a closed meeting be held, at which there would be no time limit and to which people could bring their concerns and raise the issues that we are talking about here — the Minister’s proposals — but the Committee voted against it. One must ask why the Committee voted against such a meeting. Members want to score political points, and they have come to the Chamber today to do the same thing.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the Member for giving way. The Member said that I was leading the Committee by the nose, but I was not even there that day. Is the Member suggesting that I led the Committee by remote control?

Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin

He might have, yes.

We must get to the heart of the matter and consider what the issue is about. There is no confusion about it. People talk about the need for clarity: Caitríona Ruane is involved in a process of consultation with stakeholders. She has said that she will introduce proposals in relation to area planning within weeks. The debate is a distraction from that, and it does not disguise the fact that the Committee for Education is still at loggerheads with the Minister and still trying to undermine her proposals. The Committee should be responding to Caitríona Ruane’s request for proposals and positive contributions.

The Education Committee also discussed what it could and could not agree on, but that was shouted down, because nobody wanted to have that discussion. That also makes us question why we are here.

Members should know that a lot of change is going ahead. The entitlement framework, the revised curriculum and the demographics are moving in the direction of a need for an education system that is fit for the twenty-first century. No other country in western Europe uses academic selection. It is only here that we want to cling on to an outdated, discriminatory form of education. I urge the Assembly to await the proposals that Caitríona Ruane will bring to the Assembly. She says that she wants to get agreement; the Committee should also agree to having a private meeting with the Minister at which a lot of issues can be addressed, rather than having meeting after meeting under a spotlight. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I speak for the Ulster Unionist Party, and I do not have a chain through my nose. There may be agreement on various issues, but I am able to speak for myself and the party.

The disappointing thing about this debate is that the Minister will not listen — she will not listen to me; she will not listen to the Committee Chairperson; she will not listen to the Committee; she will not listen to the Assembly; she will not listen to the Executive; and she will not listen to the people. That is why there is risk. If she will not listen to all those people, perhaps she will listen to the experts. As befits an education debate, I have a book, from which I shall quote:

“Now, we have got education and there is a debate all over the country whether this education is adequate to the needs of society or the needs of our young people. I am one of those who always believe that education needs a thorough overhauling. But at the same time, I think that everything in our education is not bad, that even the present education has produced very fine men and women, specially scientists … One of the biggest responsibilities of the educated women today is how to synthesize what has been valuable … in our ancient traditions with what is good … in modern thought.”?

It is irresponsible to throw out everything and to try to change in two years what should take 10 years to change.

I considered and talked to people about other matters. Equality is often mentioned and when reading ‘Education Policy in Britain’, which I recommend to the Minister, I came across a famous dictum by the great socialist historian and political thinker R H Tawney, from his classic work ‘Equality’:

“What a wise parent would desire for his or her own children, so a nation, in so far as it is wise, would desire for all children.”

That raises questions about the Minister’s choices in relation to this matter.

In the past, I have quoted from ‘Scottish Education: Post-Devolution’ because it deals at length with the subject of failing to consult. On page 82, it states that, despite distributing 27,000 copies of a document:

“In effect, very few changes were made as a result of the consultation stage.”

We cannot allow that to happen again.

Achieving consensus does not mean doing what I say, or else. Consensus is about talking to people and providing leadership. People often ask me the difference between leadership and management. If everything is clear and the way ahead is certain, good management is required. However, if not, consensus must be built. That is genuine leadership, and that is precisely what we are not getting.

“Respect” is another key word. The Minister does not respect Members, the statutory roles of the Committee and the Assembly, parents, teachers, and the pupils who produce fantastic results. The BBC reported:

“As usual, entries from Northern Ireland easily outperformed the rest of the UK, with a third (33.2%) getting A grades and a pass rate of 98%”

What could be better than that? Why are we attempting to fix the entire system? If one considers GCSEs, the results in Northern Ireland — 8·2% at grade A*; 24·8% at grade A* to grade A; and 72·4% at grade A* to grade C — are better than those in England and Wales, or any other comparable system.

It concerns me that the Minister believes that she has found a way of bringing about changes to the transfer system without referring to the rest of us. In her meeting with the Committee, when discussing area planning, article 101 of The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 was mentioned, which, provided that the Minister agrees, gives the Department complete power to dictate what anybody and everybody should do. That is not democratic. Even if I agreed with the Minister’s proposals, she will not be able to implement them within her two-year timescale. I oppose what she is attempting to do not because she is a member of Sinn Féin but because she is absolutely wrong.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 1:45 am, 25th February 2008

Yet again, 10 months after the restoration of devolution, we are in the Chamber discussing this matter, and the Education Minister still has not taken any decisions. Sinn Féin told us that it was keen to have the devolved Administration re-established. However, having been re-established, Sinn Féin’s Minister of Education has failed and failed again.

Every time the Minister of Education is asked detailed or probing questions about her proposals — or, rather, non-proposals — for post-primary education, she begins by saying — and, no doubt, we will hear the same today — that this is a good day for education and we can achieve consensus, because, of course, she is the Minister of consensus and equality. She wants us all to share and to have an all-embracing policy for the children — we have heard it all before. The truth is different. This Minister prevents, rather than seeks, consensus, and, given our experience during the past 10 months, the evidence is indisputable, and it has become abundantly clear that she has failed to achieve consensus.

First, as has been said, there is the Minister’s attitude to the Committee for Education. She refuses to answer the Committee’s questions, which are legitimate questions. On one occasion, she arrived late and then took up half of the Committee’s time in making a meandering, meaningless and irrelevant opening statement. She tells Committee members that we do not have the warrant, remit, power, authority or competence to hold her to account or to scrutinise her oversight of the Department of Education. She refuses to add the necessary detail to her proposals in order that the Committee can assess them.

Then, of course, we have Mr Butler, whom I thought for a few weeks was going to be replaced by John O’Dowd. It seemed as though the Minister’s minder was not big enough, so they had to bring in someone with a bit more stature to try to intimidate us a wee bit more. Well, it will not work. Mr Butler tells us that the Committee should have a meeting with the Minister behind closed doors. I remind the Minister that when the Committee challenged her about confidentiality, she told us that she could not divulge what the stakeholders were saying because it was confidential. Why did she do that? She did it because her party still likes to have its politics the way it ran its terrorist organisation — behind the hedges and in the dark. I assure the Minister that there will be no behind-the-hedges agreements, nor any closed-door sessions. Committee business will be carried out in public so that everyone can see what is going on.

Secondly, we know about the Minister’s attitude to the Assembly and to the existing legislation — my colleague Ms McIlveen already mentioned that. The DUP secured a veto on academic selection at the St Andrews negotiations. That position is clear, and it is enshrined in legislation. Whether the Minister wants to face up to that or not, it is obvious that her new minder faced up to it. John O’Dowd acknowledged as much on the BBC’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ programme, when he said that academic selection may be protected, but that there was no obligation on the Department to fund it. Whatever his views about funding on that occasion, John O’Dowd did at least admit that what has been sticking in the Minister’s teeth all these months is that she cannot end academic selection, because the law is against her.

Instead of accepting political realities, the Minister continues to try to headbutt the brick wall of legal protection that has been given to academic selection. First, she attempted to deny that that protection exists, then she tried to bully the rest of us into abandoning it, and then she looked for ways to get around it. By doing this, she has shown that she has neither interest nor commitment to consensus or to the long-term well-being of pupils in Northern Ireland.

Finally, there is the Executive. Why, at the most recent Executive meeting, did the Minister not agree to the creation of a subcommittee? We would appreciate answers from the Minister, rather than a prepared speech.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. In her statement to the Assembly in December, the Minister of Education gave us her vision of a system that will transform our outdated and unequal education system. She laid before the Assembly a vision of an educational future that will ensure that the equal rights of all children are at the heart of the new system. Despite the fact that the Minister made that statement, followed by a further statement in January, we find ourselves coming back to this debate time after time. I wonder whether it is not that the statements lacked detail, but that people do not like what they are hearing.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

There is a lack of detail, but there is also some fundamental agreement. Would the Member not agree that it would be better if we engaged properly to discuss these matters, but that we cannot do so in the absence of anything to talk about?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. My colleague Paul Butler made a proposal in the Committee for Education to address that point and get agreement, but it was not supported. Today is like ‘Groundhog Day’; time after time, we have the same debate.

I know that parents have concerns — of course they do. What is most precious to parents is their children’s future. As I have said before, my child will transfer in 2010, and I am confident that the new system will ensure that he fulfils his potential. In saying that, I am not trying to dismiss the concerns of parents, pupils or teachers, because we must address those genuine concerns — they are more genuine than the sense of panic that some Members are trying to create. In her speech, Michelle McIlveen said that confusion is turning to panic. Perhaps she and her colleagues could stop feeding into that agenda — it is they who are trying to create the confusion and panic.

The Minister is working through a democratic process, and she has said that when the consultation with the stakeholders is finished, she will report to the Committee and to the Assembly.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way, and I appreciate her reference to a democratic process. Does that include the agreement and the arrangements that were made at St Andrews on the retention of academic selection?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. In her visionary statement, the Minister outlined how she intends to address the issue. She will appear before the Executive and the Committee as we move forward and she makes more statements on area-based planning and all the other issues that are involved in post-primary transfer. In her statement in January, the Minister said that she will provide more information on area-based planning in the next few weeks. I look forward to hearing that information, and I urge Members to respond to it constructively rather than engage in the constant whining that we hear from the same Members, time and again.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way; I realise that she has done so a couple of times already.

Is the issue under discussion today clearly not quite different? It is not simply a case of the same Members complaining again and again. Some of those who agree with the direction in which the Minister is headed — including those in my own party — are extremely concerned about how we can reach our destination within the time available.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her inter­vention. I accept that Members have genuine concerns and that they want to get to the bottom of some issues. That is what the Committee is trying to do, and the Minister is trying to address the issues that have been raised.

Today’s debate has taken away from the focus of the issue. It has been about attacking and insulting the Minister. Basil McCrea talked about respect. However, respect must also be shown to the Minister; it cannot just be demanded from her. Today’s debate has not been helpful in our attempts to move forward and introduce those long overdue changes to our education system. I urge Members to take a more proactive approach to the issue and to engage with the Minister in trying to address it. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Despite the comments from Sinn Féin Members, I believe that this debate is very necessary. The Minister made her declaration to the Assembly in December 2007, which led to more questions than answers. Up to now, the Committee’s questions have not been frivolous; they have been serious questions. The Committee has put around 72 questions to the Minister on her comments and vision. The proposer of the motion Mr Lunn said earlier that what he wanted to see some meat on the bones. My difficulty is that I do not even see the bones at the moment. We still have some vague idea of what will happen, and getting the bones might just be a start.

Of course, the Minister and her party are running away from her responsibilities. Like other Ministers in the Executive, it appears that when the Minister gets into difficulty, she blames everybody but herself. She blames the media, the Committee, the Chairman, scaremongers and Assembly Members. The difficulty is that the Minister is not facing up to her responsibility.

The Committee wants to work with the Minister. Its role is to assist and advise, but it can only do so when it knows the background papers and the information on which the Minister is basing her policy. She refuses to give Committee members answers to those questions. How can we assist if we are not given the means by which to do so? Of course, it is easy to say that it is all my fault. I wish that I could lead the Committee by the nose. I sometimes wish that I could get rings through the noses of members of my party, let alone members of other parties.

That is an easy jibe for the Minister to make. However, some strong, independently minded Members are on that Committee.

The warning to the Minister should be that rather than pointing her finger at the media and everyone else, she would be better to ask herself why every party is opposing her. However, as Naomi Long — a member for East Belfast — said, those parties include those who actually support what she is doing.

The Minister’s other defence has been to say that there are no problems or concerns. It appears that not only is the Minister paranoid about everyone else, she is also deluded. The Minister should read the newspapers and the letters from parents in those newspapers, and she should listen to constituents. Of course there are concerns — people are uncertain about what is going to happen.

What the Minister is doing will have implications. If she proceeds in the way that she has done, everyone will be kept in the dark until November 2009. That will cause immense problems for receiving schools, primary schools, parents and so on.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP 2:00 am, 25th February 2008

Much of the work that must be done after any solution is found will have to take place in primary 6, given that any new measures will have to be implemented early in primary 7. Bearing that in mind, does the Member agree that it is important that schools, teachers and parents are made aware of what is happening before June 2008, which is merely a few months away? We cannot wait for one year; something must be done now.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I agree. However, unfortunately, all that the Minister has told us is that parents will know “in time”. I notice that during her interview with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ she repeated that phrase on five occasions. However, she will not define what “in time” means. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the issue will still not be resolved by November 2009.

There will also be implications for secondary schools. If there is a free-for-all, the grammar-school brand will ensure that places in those schools are filled. It will be the secondary schools that lose out — the very schools that the Minister says that she wants to defend. Instead of having a mix of vocational, academic and general-education schools, there may be a drift towards pupils attending one kind of school.

The last effect will be that the Minister will single-handedly bring the Assembly into disrepute. People believed that devolution would give local politicians the opportunity to address local problems quickly. Owing to her procrastination, dithering and unwillingness to face up to her failures, the problem will not be resolved in time. All Assembly Members will suffer as a result.

Sinn Féin has appointed a Minister who is a one-woman demolition team. She wants to demolish education, and, in turn, she will then demolish the Assembly. Sinn Féin should ask her to go and appoint someone who can actually do the job. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

When Members talk about the proposed changes to the education system, I feel as though I am experiencing a distinct case of déjà vu. Although the issue has been discussed many times before, the Minister has not yet given us a workable and effective blueprint. Parents and teachers approach me every week about the future of their children who are currently in primary 5, primary 6 and primary 7. However, I still cannot answer their questions.

I am disappointed that there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel regarding the relationship between the Minister and the Committee for Education. The publicity that that is generating is not helping confidence or the work of the Committee.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. The Member may recall the altercation that I had with the Minister about her answering my questions in Irish. The Minister is now sending her responses to questions for written answer in Irish, which she had not done prior to the Committee meeting in which the altercation took place. I have no idea what the first paragraph of one particular answer means. Does the Member agree that that practice further alienates the Minister from the Committee and that it will not help to get the consensus that she continues to tell us that she is so interested in?

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not have a problem as long as there is a translation. However, it is important that the Minister clarifies her position on how she proposes to implement her blueprint. For example, what priority will the Department of Finance and Personnel give to the extended years of accommodation that every Northern Ireland primary school must provide for children aged 11 to 14?

New premises were recently built at some schools, albeit to fit the needs of the existing education system in which primary 7 children leave and go to secondary or grammar schools. If the Committee for Education cannot get information, when can principals and teachers expect to be made aware of how this proposal will impact on their role and service delivery?

For some time, my colleague Dominic Bradley has been asking pertinent questions about that situation, but no answers have been forthcoming. As politicians, parents and grandparents, we constantly seek to reassure children that everything will be OK and that we — as, supposedly, more mature adults — will take care of things; not so, in this case. The adults are just as confused and disillusioned as most of the children concerned, and their parents are totally frustrated.

As politicians, we are charged with translating the decisions of Ministers on behalf of the general public and with answering questions on how those decisions will impact on their daily lives. Unfortunately, in this case, the blind have been leading the blind. It is not good enough that the Committee for Education cannot be given answers to questions that are far from new. We have been asking those questions since May 2007; parents, teachers and pupils have been asking them for longer than that.

I support the amendment and ask the Minister to furnish the Assembly with the relevant details to enable us to reach a position in which we can offer some information to the concerned stakeholders. Some of those are 10- and 11-year-old children, who are becoming more and more stressed and uneasy as each day, week and month passes us by without furtherance.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I had hoped today to hear a debate on post-transfer systems; however, instead I have heard the views of individual members of the Committee for Education on the Minister of Education.

I clarify for Mr Storey that I am not here as the Minister’s bodyguard. I assume that she does not need one and that verbal attacks will not turn into physical ones. I always rely on my brain instead of my brawn, and I find that my brain — as well as my brawn — soars above his. I have no difficulty in engaging in any debate on any subject.

Had I signed up to the motion that the Minister lacks clarity and that details of her proposals must be brought forward, my speech would have included my proposals and my vision of the future, and the visions of the future of the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. However, I have heard none of that.

The duty of an opposition — whether upper or lower case — is to present alternatives. The reason — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member has the Floor.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The reason my colleagues opposite have brought forward no proposals is that they have none. Their plan is to attack the Minister, because they know that they have failed miserably in academic selection. The vast majority of people are opposed to the retention of the 11-plus. Their mission failed, so their next tack is to go down the road of attacking the Minister and causing confusion. Some of the publications on our news-stands feed into that confusion, and one could almost believe in the “old school tie” with regard to the grammar school network. Some of the newspaper headlines are factually inaccurate.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

When I reminded the Member on ‘Hearts and Minds’ about the statement by Cardinal Brady — not a card-carrying member of the DUP — criticising the Minister, Mr O’Dowd said that there would be clarification on that statement. Did that clarification ever materialise? I did not see it in any newspaper.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Mr Storey must have cancelled his subscription to ‘The Irish News’, because it included a belated clarification from the cardinal — as with many publications, not on the front page, where the incorrect article had been printed, but in the back pages somewhere. I am sure that, if Mr Storey wishes to phone the cardinal for his views, the cardinal will take the call, considering Mr Storey’s interest in education.

We have ended up with a debate on the relationship between the Committee and the Minister. The Minister has offered to meet the Committee again. She has met the Committee Chairperson on a regular basis. However, the Committee has refused to meet the Minister unless the meeting is in public. Is the purpose of such a meeting to gain publicity — a few column inches in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, ‘The Irish News’, or other morning newspapers — or is it about bringing this matter to a resolution that meets the needs of the children who are going through the education system?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No, Mary, I am nearly out of time.

Some people are concerned with building egos, not education. If the Committee is serious about engaging with the Minister, it is best done behind closed doors, away from the glare of the television cameras and all the attention, so that Members and the Minister can speak freely and engage properly. That has been the case with all the issues that we have had to resolve in this society. Certain Members have one eye on the camera in the corner of the Senate Chamber, instead of on the issues at hand. [Interruption.]

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

That is what is really going on here: the seeking of media attention. Basil McCrea said that the Minister needs to listen. She is listening; that is the process that is going on now. As set out in her speech of 4 December 2007, the Minister is engaging with all the key stakeholders. The Education Committee is one of those stakeholders, but the others have not chosen to hold their discussions in the glare of the media spotlight. They have chosen to hold talks in a mature, reflective manner, and those talks are ongoing. Let us go through the process properly.

On 4 December 2007, the Minister said that there would be engagement. There is engagement, and in no circumstances — despite the headlines in certain newspapers — will the current situation continue until November 2009. It will be resolved long before then, and I ask the Education Committee to play its role. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Independent

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This is a vital debate. Everyone is wondering when we are going to get started on the real debate. The Minister must bring her plans for post-primary transfer in 2009 before the Assembly. Any further delay in announcing how she is going to roll out the new system or how it is to be implemented will have a knock-on effect on the current P5 and P6 classes. Teachers will not be sufficiently prepared for the new system.

There are always children who suffer when changes are made to the education system. However, a longer lead-up to change, with preparation on the part of the teachers who are to deliver that change, can minimise the negative effects on the children. The roll-out of the revised Northern Ireland curriculum is a case in point. P1 and P5 teachers were expected to deliver the new curriculum this year with minimal training — in some cases, just two days. Principals were not included in the training sessions, and had to rely on feedback from the teachers involved. It is unacceptable for school principals to be working without a proper overview of the system. The laptops and whiteboards needed for the implementation of the curriculum were delivered long after the start of the school year. In some primary schools in my area, they still have not been delivered.

If such shambolic implementation is repeated with the new post-primary transfer system, all our children will suffer. The Minister must reveal her proposals for change as a matter of urgency. Principals and teachers must be made aware of the proposals and given adequate preparation and training as soon as possible. Parents must be included in the process in order to retain their confidence in the education system. Children should not suffer because the Minister refuses to make her proposals available to us all. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP 2:15 am, 25th February 2008

I listened to Mr O’Dowd’s contribution, during which he asked for the alternatives to the current proposals. The entire basis for this debate is that there are no current proposals. The motion once again calls on the Minister to bring her proposals for post-primary transfer before the House to ease the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers throughout Northern Ireland, who simply do not know what is happening.

However, in calling on the Minister to introduce such proposals, we are assuming that the Minister knows what she is going to do. Previously in the Chamber, we have heard the Minister of Education referred to as “the Minister for mess and confusion”. Perhaps she should be known as “the Minister for mess, confusion and evasion”, because she will not detail her grand plans, and she has an uncanny ability to refuse to answer questions.

I am not a member of the Committee for Education, but there is no guarantee that being on that Committee allows Members an opportunity to question the Minister, because she tends to avoid such circumstances, as my colleagues have said. The only way in which I can submit questions to the Minister is by tabling questions for written or oral answer.

We have heard about the gains that the DUP made at St Andrews. On a related matter, on 11 November 2007, I tabled a question for written answer to the Minister to ask whether the principle of academic selection was safeguarded in legislation. I am still waiting for the answer 100 days later, despite the fact that the Minister stated in another answer that she answers questions, on average, within 11 days. We shall see whether the Minister answers that question today.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I can confirm what the Member has said. I submitted a question to the Minister of Education for priority written answer, which should be answered within two days. I received the answer 14 days later. That demonstrates the priority that the Minister gives to answering questions.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

That is absolutely right, and I am sure that other Members have similar experiences. Perhaps the Minister knows the answer to the question that I asked her on 11 November 2007 but does not want to tell me the answer because she does not like it.

I heard Dominic Bradley talk about change, and a US presidential race is taking place in which Barack Obama’s campaign is centred on change. Perhaps the change that we really need in Northern Ireland is a change of Education Minister.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

It is a disgrace that there are no plans in place for the ending of the current transfer arrangements in 2009, despite the fact that children have entered school years during which preparation for the transfer has already begun, as the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea said.

Already, as predicted, parents have bought houses in the catchment areas of the most popular schools, which means that families with money have an advantage over those who do not. That is not a fair system.

Although there will be different views on how to move forward, there is agreement that the Minister is making a mess of this matter. We must be able to scrutinise detailed proposals so that the real debate on the future of education can begin. I have no doubt that we need a fair system that matches pupils to the school of their needs. The fairest way to do that is through a system of academic selection. Given that academic selection is safeguarded in legislation — perhaps I have answered my own question of 11 November 2007 — any proposals should include that option for schools.

All-ability comprehensive schools do not work. They have not worked in England, and they will not work here. I was interested to hear the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Sue Ramsey, say during a meeting of that Committee in the Senate Chamber on 30 January, that one size does not fit all. She was speaking about children who have been in care, who often start from a lower educational base than most other children, and who therefore need education that is pitched at a level that suits them. I agree with her, but it is a pity that that sentiment does not extend to debates such as this one. I argue that post-primary education is no different.

Children are not all the same, and do not all have the same educational ability or aptitude. We must ensure that children receive the education that best suits their needs. The Minister’s proposals should reflect that. If they do not, she knows that her plans cannot make it through this House.

We already know that the Minister will not be able to slip her plans through the back door, as some Members have suggested. Such significant or controversial matters must be decided by the Executive. That is one of the difficulties that we have with the SDLP amendment, which does not mention the Executive.

The Minister must recognise reality. She must stop being stubborn and obstructive. All the parties that are represented in the Assembly must unite in a call for the Minister to start doing what she is paid to do. She must introduce proposals that not only recognise the legal and political realities, but which will gain the support of all the parties, give clear guidance to pupils, parents and teachers, and ensure that her incompetence thus far does not tarnish the reputation of the Assembly. I am hopeful that the SDLP will withdraw its amendment so that a common position can be found among all the parties, which is what the Minister should be aiming for.

Some aspects of the amendment are to be welcomed. Enhancing equality is important not just for grammar schools, but for secondary schools. I am also a strong advocate of equality of opportunity.

All children are not the same, but they should be afforded equal opportunities, including equal opport­unities to get into good schools. Academic selection offers those opportunities. Its retention would also protect against a postcode lottery, but, as I have argued in the Chamber before, “lottery” may be the wrong phraseology to use, because it suggests that everyone has an equal chance of success.

I support the motion, behind which I hope the House can unite.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the amendment, which stands in the name of my colleague Dominic Bradley. The amendment focuses on some key issues that must be tackled. It is disappointing to hear what amounts to a sense of paranoia from those Sinn Féin Members who have spoken so far. To them, a debate about education somehow or other represents an attack on the Minister. That is a very poor response to make in an open discussion on the need for clear proposals on the way forward for post-primary transfer.

As Members know, our education system has signif­icant strengths, such as our high levels of attainment and our high academic standards, particularly in our grammar schools. We have, however, a disproportionate number of secondary schools in which low attainment is combined with social disadvantage. That situation must be resolved as quickly as possible.

Statistics from the Bain Report, along with other recent reviews of our education system, highlight the need for a clear way forward on post-primary transfer, falling enrolments and, from next year, the curriculum entitlement framework. There are about 157,000 children in our primary schools, but that figure will have dropped to 149,000 by 2030. That trend will create difficulties and demands from all school authorities — in the controlled, maintained and other sectors — for a fresh and innovative response. Not least, if some school closures are to be avoided, that trend demands the possibility of some cross-sectoral co-operation. The Bain Report took a view on the main criteria for viability, identifying collaboration and co-operation as alternatives to closure. It did, however, contain a key warning that the benefits of all that co-operation should be balanced against costs and manageability.

It is clear that that warning implies that many small schools will be closed, and, as we know, the issue of small-school closures is not that simple. Other factors must be considered when schools close, such as the loss of community identity and the cost to the local economy.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Member makes an important point about small schools. Does he accept that, in order to save them from closure, it will require some of the many sectoral interests’ sacred cows being set aside? We could then have shared sites, shared campuses and shared uses of schools. Schools themselves might even blur the differences between one sector and another.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree with much of what the Member says. However, what he suggests will have to emerge over time rather than overnight.

We cannot ignore the costs to the environment and the implications of carbon emissions when we begin to bus thousands of children into heavily congested county towns and some of our urban centres.

The experience in England should remind us that a changeover to large schools does not always deliver benefits. Many educationalists in the United States now accept that to go to a large school is a mistake and that small schools are better. We should not ignore what is happening elsewhere. If the Department’s policy is to press ahead with school closures, to close our small schools will be a mistake.

It would be a big mistake that everyone would come to regret. Those schools are at the heart of communities, and to persist in measuring them by how much they cost, but ignoring their value — and there is a hint of that in the Bain Report — would be a short-sighted policy. I agree that costs must be factored into all policies but, in doing so, care must be taken not to revert to Margaret Thatcher’s education policy: her officials knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and people are still living with the consequences of that policy. New structures must be developed urgently, but I do not have time to go into the detail of those now.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

As Members know, Question Time begins at 2.30 pm. I suggest that Members take their ease until then. After Question Time, the debate will resume with the Minister’s response.

The debate stood suspended.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —