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Debate resumed on motion:
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.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Once again, I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on post-primary transfer. This is a welcome opportunity to further update Members on developments on this issue since my statement to the Education Committee on 31 January 2008.
As I have stated before, my focus is on building a consensus for new arrangements. By working together, I want to find the best way to meet the requirements of all our children based on a shared vision that places high-quality educational outcomes and equality for every child at its epicentre. Therefore, in December 2007, I held a series of meetings with groups that have a key role in the future of post-primary arrangements, including the Governing Bodies Association, the Association of Head Teachers in Secondary Schools, the Catholic Trustees, the controlled grammar schools, the Transferors’ Representative Council, the trade unions, the chief executives of the education and library boards and the Association for Quality Education.
I sought, and have received, written responses to my vision from those groups. In January, my Department undertook a further round of meetings with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS); Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta; the Council for Integrated Education; and representatives of controlled grammar schools. A third round of meetings commenced last week, on Friday 22 February.
The aim of those meetings is to seek consensus on the new arrangements. I appreciate the request from Education Committee members, and others, for clarification on the new arrangements for the 2010 transfer procedure. I am very aware of the opinions expressed by parents, pupils and teachers about the need to provide firm information on new transfer arrangements at the appropriate time. In that context, I will outline where we are in the process of securing those changes. From the outset, my approach has been to set the overall vision, and then to engage with those with a key role to play, in order to seek a set of proposals to which everyone can sign up and be committed.
The process that I have undertaken is the biggest reform ever of the education system here in the North of Ireland. Far from there being lack of clarity and delay, I am pleased at the progress made to date, in the necessary democratic process of consultation, to deliver such a progressive overhaul of the education system. I re-emphasise that the debate has moved on from the narrow one around academic selection. Nobody is now arguing for the retention of the 11-plus. We are engaging positively across the breadth of the education sector on the reform of the system.
Let us be honest: there are many Members, right across this House, who are opposed to change. They are afraid of change and of what it will bring. Some are merely paying lip service to the notion that they are behind progressive change. At the same time, they have joined forces with those who are most opposed to change, and are playing narrow, opportunistic party politics. That is very regrettable. Others have difficulty with a Sinn Féin Minister leading change — particularly a female Minister — and have chosen to personalise the debate, rather than positively engage on the need for reform. Just listen to the language that was used this morning. It was the language of the scared. There is no need to fear change. Change is good, and it is going to happen.
Others, still, are opposed to educational reform, and wish to retain the antiquated system that we currently have — a system designed by successive unionist and direct rule Ministers. Sinn Féin chose the Education portfolio — and I am proud that it did. We chose that portfolio because we care about the education of our children. We care about the education of — [Interruption.]
We care about the education of all our children. We are going to bring in a system in which every child gets the same chance. Other parties had the opportunity to choose the Education portfolio. They did not choose it, but Sinn Féin did.
No; I will not give way.
Sinn Féin did, because we understand the need for change in a system that is decaying and is in free-fall. Members can shout at me, try to abuse and bully me, but that is what it is all about. They are afraid of the much-needed change that is going to occur. We are about reforming education in a progressive way.
We were under no illusions as to the challenges of delivering the biggest reform ever in the history of the North of Ireland. We make no apology for that. I repeat that no amount of shouting, sniping, bully tactics — whether it is in this Chamber, on the sidelines, or in the media — will stop the progressive reform process that is under way and moving forward. I will not be swayed, because I am not prepared to fail our children.
Dúirt mé ariamh go bhfuil mé ag lorg creatlach láidir reachtaíochta do mo chuid tograí. Má thig linn comhaontú oideachais a bhaint amach, is é mo chéad chéim eile tacaíocht an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin, an Choiste Oideachais agus an Tionóil a fháil do na tograí. Ina dhiaidh sin, cuirfidh mé dréacht-rialacháin ar chritéir iontrála faoi chomhairliúchán lena chinntiú go mbeidh bonn láidir reachtaíochta faoi na socruithe úra.
That translates as: fortunately, the vast majority of the discussions that we have been engaged in have been productive. I am grateful to all concerned for the constructive spirit in which they have engaged in the process.
The issues discussed include an inclusive transfer process based on shared information about the applicant, but used in such a way that the information does not become the determinant of admission; matching appropriate teaching to the needs of children; the use of admissions criteria for oversubscribed schools; introducing greater flexibility and agility into our school structures so that we can offer expanded post-14 provision and choice to young people; the nature of selection at 14 years of age and the different routes through which young people’s choices at that critical age can be facilitated; area-based planning and its links with the delivery of the entitlement framework and with the reorganising of the schools estate at a time of inefficiently utilised excess capacity; expanding the extent of school collaboration and the development of learning communities; and providing schools with time and assistance to adjust to new arrangements.
Again, I wish to emphasise the current state of play in our education system, with a significant proportion of children disengaging from the education system by the age of 16, and the stark statistic of more than half of our current student population leaving school without basic reading and writing skills. That amounts to 12,000 young people every year.
No, I will not give way.
Twelve thousand young people are being failed because people are afraid of change. We need an education system that is reflective of society and capable of catering for the diverse needs of our children, whether they choose an academic or vocational course in life — be that a bricklayer, a tiler or an engineer, a childcare worker or a teacher, an electrician or a scientist, a carpenter or an accountant. We are capable of delivering that flexibility and choice to our education system.
We already have a broad consensus on the importance of 14 years of age as a key educational decision point. We also have broad educational consensus, supported by independent advice —the Costello and Bain Reports — on the need to deliver to young people the entitlement framework and expand educational choice from the age of 14 onwards. I understand that parents and schools want certainty, and I also understand that my pursuit of a consensus, which takes time, can be frustrating. However, let me make it clear why the pursuit of a consensus is so necessary.
I will repeat what I said, as I was interrupted.
We also have a broad consensus on the importance of age 14 as a key educational decision point. We also have broad educational consensus, supported by independent advice, on the need to deliver to young people the entitlement framework and to expand educational choice from the age of 14 onwards.
Whatever system of transfer we finally agree on, that transfer will perform a critical function. The only proposals that can be produced by such processes are proposals commanding widespread support. That is why we are investing the time in engaging the necessary democratic process of consultation with education stakeholders, time that, so far, has been well spent on building and securing consensus regarding the system of transfer that our children and schools need. Yes, it will require difficult decisions, and I will show leadership on those difficult decisions, but it will also require leadership from all concerned.
A good starting point for Members would be for them not to get so agitated that they have to keep interrupting.
I will present proposals very shortly — [Interruption.]
I will present proposals very shortly, given that negotiations are at an advanced stage. When I do, I want everyone to understand that those detailed proposals will be wide ranging, will have been prepared in a careful and consultative manner, and will warrant serious consideration, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
The debate has moved on. There is no going back. We cannot continue to fail our children. We can keep academic excellence in our system, but I repeat: we cannot continue to fail all our children. It is simply not acceptable, and I will not allow it to happen. Join with me — [Interruption.]
Instead of rudely interrupting me, Members should join with me in transforming our education system into a dynamic educational model that reflects the world that we live in and that equips our children with the qualifications and skills that they need for the twenty-first century. I mean all our children, not just the selected few. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There is no doubt that we have had a varied, wide-ranging and lively debate here today, with contributions from many parties, and with many points of view being shared.
Mr Butler spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin, and he chose to criticise members of the Education Committee for seeking information for which the general public is crying out. Mr Butler seems to think that there is some reference to academic selection in today’s motion and amendment — I do not know where it is and cannot find it, but the Member seems to think that it is there nonetheless.
Mr Butler is a frequent absentee from the Committee’s meetings, and today we saw him trying to cover up his inability to defend the indefensible on those occasions that he does attend. He tried to do that by attacking the SDLP, but his own weakness was revealed. Mr Butler’s view of open and transparent Government — which Sinn Féin claims to champion — is that it should be conducted behind closed doors.
Michelle O’Neill, one of Mr Butler’s colleagues, outlined the Minister’s vision. However, that vision is not the issue; the matter in question is the route that will lead us to that vision and the various steps that will lead us along that route in the available time frame. Mrs O’Neill said that the debate was not very helpful, but the Minister has shown that she will provide MLAs with information only when the glare of transparency that is required on the Floor of the House prises it out of her.
As Tommy Gallagher said, Sinn Féin Members seem to confuse a call for clarity and information on important policies with an attack on the Minister. Sinn Féin’s desire to defend its Minister has led to that party’s becoming paranoid. That paranoia is clouding Sinn Féin’s view and deafening its ears to the strong public concern that clearly exists in all areas of the community.
Several issues have emerged from today’s useful debate, which was basically a plea for information, given the lack of clarity in the Minister’s proposals. A number of Members echoed my point that an information gap has been allowed to open up, thus increasing the level of anxiety in the community. If Sinn Féin Members were truthful, they would admit that they are hearing the same anxiety from their supporters that every one of us is hearing from the general public — from teachers, parents, and the education providers.
Martin McGuinness declared victory, but then he went home for his tea. He has dropped Caitríona Ruane in it; and she is struggling to stay afloat.
The role of the Committee for Education has been a central theme in the debate. I am a member of that Committee, and although I do not speak on its behalf today, I can safely say that Committee members wish to engage with the Minister in an open and transparent way on the basis of all available information. The Committee cannot perform its function in the dark, although the Minister and some Sinn Féin Members would like to see the Committee work, not only in the dark, but behind closed doors.
There seems to be general prevalence for doing things behind closed doors. Some people want the Committee to work behind closed doors, and they want this issue to be referred to the Executive and dealt with behind closed doors. As I said earlier, if this issue were to be referred to the Executive, it would be in danger of becoming mired in the gridlock of Executive business, which would lead only to further frustration among parents, teachers and the education community in general.
I looked forward to hearing something new from the Minister today. Unfortunately, not for the first time, I have been disappointed. The Minister said nothing new. Today, she spoke more as a Sinn Féin Member than as a Minister, and engaged in petty, political point-scoring. She spoke of bullying tactics, but she tried to bully the Education Committee in January by filibustering for 25 minutes and walking out —
As Dominic Bradley said, the debate has been interesting, if predictable. However, Members have, at least, been able to express the depth of feeling and frustration that exists throughout the Chamber on these most important issues.
I echo some of what Dominic said. He mentioned the working-behind-closed-doors approach, and I want to clarify the Committee’s view on that. Three weeks ago, the Committee met the Minister, in public. At the end of the meeting, I suggested that the Committee should meet the Minister behind closed doors, so that everyone could have their say and vent their feelings without having TV cameras, microphones and reporters in the background. There would be no grandstanding, because there would be no point in doing so, and we might have a constructive debate.
As I understand it, the Committee has asked for a further meeting with the Minister. Perhaps she has already responded, but she had not done so by last Friday. We were waiting for her response, and we were, I believe, going to suggest that that meeting could be held in private. As far as I know, that was the accepted view of the Committee.
Far from refusing a meeting, we have clamoured for meetings, at times, without success. Although it is not always desirable to meet behind closed doors; in this case, it would be useful to do so. It would not be unprecedented for a Committee to go into closed session — far from it.
Dominic Bradley also mentioned ‘A Consultation on Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’, which, apparently, was concluded last Easter, but which still has not been made public. That is a good example of the sort of matter that frustrates Members. Michelle McIlveen talked about confusion turning to panic, and she mentioned consternation taking place where there is a vacuum — fair enough. She also talked about the Minister’s approach of filibustering her way out of the situation in the Committee meeting a few weeks ago. It really is not on for a Minister to come to a one-hour meeting and start off by making a 25-minute statement, and, at the end, leave.
Basically, the Minister has put much store in her discussions with stakeholders. We do not know who those stakeholders are, in the round, although some of them have been mentioned today. Does the Member think that, in her discussions with stakeholders, including, presumably, the teachers’ unions, the Minister explained that there would be major job losses in education under some of her proposals, should they go through?
“Probably not” will do.
Michelle McIlveen also referred to the possibility of these proposals reducing standards at the top end of our education system, when what we should be trying to do is improve the standard at the bottom end. That is a fair point.
It was either that, or he thought that we were being guided by DUP policy, rather than our own. However, if he reads my speech, he will see that the DUP received a couple of rebukes as well.
Basil McCrea mentioned the need for the Minister to provide leadership, and I agree with him. That is what we are looking for. It is all very well for her to say that she is waiting for the Committee’s consensus proposals. She has proposals from every relevant body in the whole of Northern Ireland, including the individual political parties. Why would she wait for the Committee to make proposals? The Committee needs to scrutinise her proposals, not the other way around.
Mervyn Storey referred to the assertion that the stakeholders’ consultations were confidential. There are those among the stakeholders who know more about what is going on than Committee members or Assembly Members. That cannot be right.
Michelle O’Neill referred to the film ‘Groundhog Day’ to describe the way the debate comes back to the same points time after time. I had the misfortune to watch ‘Groundhog Day’ for the first time a few weeks ago, and a more tedious, boring film I have never seen.
He does not have time to sit and watch the TV like you.
The Member is very lucky. The point is that it is boring and tedious, as is the requirement for the Committee to go back to the Minister time after time, asking the same questions and effectively getting the same answers. We received no answers to our questions today. I heard nothing about timescales or initiatives. The Minister tells us that everything is very advanced —
The Minister — as she always does when she comes to the House — mentioned area planning. Members of the Education Committee will recall that when we met her in the Senate Chamber, she told us that she would come to the Committee with proposals on area planning in February. There are not many days left in February, and we still do not know what her proposals are on area planning.
That is correct. There is one Friday left in February. I will not hold my breath.
The Minister also said that some Members, right around the Chamber, are afraid of change. The Alliance Party is not afraid of change; far from it. That is true of most Members. I will be careful where I look, but there may be a few diehards around who think that the present system is defensible.
I did not want to look at my own Chairman. [Laughter.]
There is an obvious need for change, and the sooner the better; we agree with the Minister on that.
The Minister also talked about a broad consensus around selection at 14. Some weeks ago, I would have agreed with her that that was so. Now, however, I am not so sure.
Although I did not believe that consensus could be reached on transfer at age 14, many people did. Does the Member agree that, given that the Minister could not answer questions about many matters, including cost, the effect on the school estate, the size of schools, how far people in rural areas would have to travel, and about what type of selection would apply to 14-year-olds, people began to have doubts about whether she knew what she was talking about when she spoke about selection at that age?
I thank the Member for giving way. He said that we are not getting any new answers. Will he agree that it is an absolute disgrace that I have been waiting for over 100 days for an answer to a written question? The Minister was given the opportunity to deal with that during her contribution today, but again, we did not hear any answers.
You will conclude now, Mr Lunn. Your time is up, and you will not be allowed any extra time. I know that almost every Member intervened during your 10 minutes, but time is added only if a Member has been given five minutes or less to speak.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Dallat, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr Burns.
Mr Adams, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Lo and Mr McCarthy.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
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.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]