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Go raibh maith agat. On 4 December 2007, I set out my vision for the future structure for education in the North.
Ó shin, bhuail mé le hoideachasóirí, múinteoirí, ceardchumainn agus, go háirithe, le tuismitheoirí agus daoine óga a thuigeann go bhfuil níos mó i gceist sa phacáiste leasuithe atá beartaithe ná aistriú go hiarbhunscoileanna.
Since then, I have met educationalists, teachers, trade unions and, most importantly, parents and young people, who have not simply reduced the proposed reform package to the issue of transfer to post-primary schools. There is much more to what we propose than the important question of transfer. I have set out the need for new transfer arrangements within a much wider, progressive reform agenda, embracing demographic decline and the delivery of a new, expanded curriculum.
Effective area-based plans are central to that and need to be drawn up. Area-based planning has found broad support across the education spectrum. We need to quickly press ahead with this agenda in order to plan and deliver the curriculum to all young people, be they rural- or urban-based, Irish- or English-speaking. Such planning will ensure that schools collaborate and guide future investment.
This is the way to deliver effective, modern education — and that is what this is about. The entitlement framework is designed to ensure that, when it comes to making decisions at 14 and again at 16, all young people will have a much broader choice. Currently, that choice is too restricted in many schools. Some young people have as few as eight subjects to choose from at A level. We propose that young people have a choice of at least 24 courses at Key Stage 4, and 27 at 16, with a balance that ensures that at least one third are academic, at least a third vocational or technical, and the rest made up of an appropriate combination.
Ach deirim seo: ní thig linn a leithéid de churaclam leathnaithe a sholáthar muna mbíonn scoileanna agus coláistí ag comhobair agus ag roinnt áiseanna agus eolais. Ní bheadh an t-airgead ann lena dhéanamh. Ach cuirfidh pleanáil éifeachtach atá bunaithe sa cheantar ar ár gcumas córas roghanna agus áiméar den chineál a sholáthar.
Let me be clear: we cannot deliver such an expanded curriculum without schools and colleges co-operating and sharing facilities and expertise. It would be financially impossible. However, through effective area-based planning, we can deliver such a system of choices and opportunities. Local expertise, knowledge and energy, including contributions from local educationalists and parents during the consultation process, will be crucial in all of that.
In December 2007, I promised to update the Assembly on how we would advance area-based planning in the post-primary sector. Having already briefed the Chairperson of the Education Committee, this morning I met members of the Committee, and I thank them all for that. I have shared my thoughts on the issue with the Minister for Employment and Learning. I now set out how we will organise the process.
As the role of the education and skills authority is central, the timing is related to its establishment in April 2009. Full area-based plans covering pre-school, primary and post-primary sectors on the model outlined are not expected to be in place until 2010 at the earliest. However, it is my intention, given the need to address issues of transfer and offer young people the choice that they need at 14, to make the delivery of the entitlement framework mandatory from 2013, and consequently to introduce the first election at 14 at that time.
To meet that timescale, I am announcing a post-primary area-based planning process which will proceed from next year, in advance of full area-based planning. This will be used to identify the structural change required for the delivery to every young person of election at 14 and the entitlement framework from 2013.
The full area-based planning criteria will be decided through a short consultation process. The main elements in the proposed approach to area-based planning are: a central role for the education and skills authority in the production of draft area plans, within a policy framework set by the Department of Education; the importance of sustainable schools, a new policy on which will be published shortly; a process including asset management, development of area plans, strategic investment plans and project appraisal; consultation on an area and sub-area basis, involving the sectors and the schools; and plans that cover all forms of schools and the contribution of DEL and the FE sector in the process.
The area-based planning process for the post-primary sector will be initiated and driven by a representative central group that will be independently chaired. The group will involve one senior figure from each of the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools trustees, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the Governing Bodies Association and the Council for Integrated Education. It will include a representative from the trade unions; a representative from the Education and Training Inspectorate; representatives from DEL and the Association of Colleges in the North; an educational expert from the South; and a representative from the team that is working to set up the education and skills authority.
That central group will be complemented by five specific area groups, which will be chaired by an independent person and involve a representative from each of the sectors and the further education sector. It will be the responsibility of those groups to consult with the sectors and the schools and to submit preliminary area-based plans for approval by the central group. In addition, schools in local areas may act collectively to bring forward their own proposals to the area-based groups for consideration.
Chun críocha riaracháin, tá na grúpaí bunaithe sa cheantar seo eagraithe ar theorainneacha na mbord oideachais agus leabharlainne atá ann cheana féin, ach, más gá, rachaidh fo-cheantair trasna na dteorainneacha seo.
Although the area-based groups are organised using existing education and library board boundaries for the purposes of administration, sub-areas will cross those boundaries where necessary. The approach to boundaries will have to be flexible, given that the maintained sector uses diocesan and parish boundaries, and that planning must take account of the flows of children, rather than fixed boundaries.
The terms of reference for the central group and the five area groups will be published this week. They will require those groups to develop plans capable of delivering the most dynamic, vibrant and effective schools to be accessed by transfer at age 11, and of offering the post-14 curriculum pathway that is appropriate to the young person. The task is to ensure that young people can access the education pathway that is most suited to their needs through the flexible organisation of an area’s schools and including collaboration with local further education colleges.
The work at central and local levels will take full account of the existing school structures; existing approvals for school capital projects; existing sectoral plans for development; existing further education provision; data on existing and projected enrolments; data on performance and other aspects of quality; progress towards the provision of the entitlement framework; the impact of and on transport policy; opportunities to promote sustainable schools and sharing between schools; and opportunities for mergers or federations in the development of learning communities.
I will shortly announce the membership of the central and area groups; the chairpersons will be announced before the end of this week. The area groups will be asked to report their progress to the central group at regular intervals and to submit final reports to it by the end of October. I expect the central group to submit complete area-based plans to the Department so that those can go out to consultation immediately after that. I want the consultation process on the completed area plans to be finished by January 2009.
Tá mé muiníneach gur céim mhór chun tosaigh na pleananna seo i bpróiseas na pleanála bunaithe sa cheantar; ar ndóigh, rachaidh an próiseas sin thar an earnáil iarbhunscolaíochta go gach earnáil ón bhliain dhá mhíle a naoi.
I am confident that the plans will be a major advance in the overall area-based planning process, which will of course extend beyond the post-primary sector from 2009. I have stated many times that it is not a question of advocating a one-size-fits-all system. Indeed, the delivery of essential curriculum reform and a structured response to demographic decline make area-based planning essential. Individual schools cannot be expected to deliver such expanded choices alone. The delivery of the entitlement framework requires area-level planning of provision in order to succeed and deliver for young people.
Dealing with the effects of demographic decline also requires an area-based planning response. At the same time as the entitlement framework calls for an expansion of post-14 provision, falling pupil numbers are restricting the range of provision that many schools can offer. That restriction is already being felt.
Secondary schools have borne the brunt of falling rolls, while the grammar-school sector has lowered entrance requirements to lessen the effects of demographic decline. Even without the need to expand post-14 provision, school viability will require the education sectors in all areas to plan the future of an area’s provision together.
Those proposals are about providing greater choice, opportunities and flexibility for young students — and I am glad to see some of those young students here today. I also expect those plans to be a major step in delivering a modern education service for all young people, now and in the decades to come, thereby reversing the tail of educational underachievement that has been the reality for many passing through our current system.
I encourage everyone in the Assembly to play a constructive role in the process as together we shape an education system for the future. Go raibh maith agat.
I start by thanking the Minister for giving the Committee the opportunity to have a preview of her statement this morning. The Committee appreciated the fact that it had an early warning and an opportunity to speak to the Minister about the proposals. That is the end of the compliments, by the way.
Committee members recognise that, at a time when there is demographic decline and a need for a widening of the curriculum, there will be a requirement to change the school estate. The Committee and I have a number of concerns about the Minister’s statement. I will outline three of those concerns, and I know that Members will want to raise other issues.
First, the Minister said that this post-primary area-based planning:
“will be used to identify the structural change required for the delivery to every young person of election at 14 and the entitlement framework from 2013”.
The Minister’s preferred option is for provision for ages 11 to 14, and then for ages 14 to 19 in the post-primary sector. However, that is not the preferred option of many of the parties in the Assembly, nor has the proposal been agreed by the Assembly. Will the Minister assure us that the terms of reference of the area-based planning groups will not be such that they will pre-empt the Assembly’s view on her plans for schools for 11-14 schools and for 14-19 schools and that local areas will have the ability to choose the structure they want?
Secondly, the Minister said that the central planning group will comprise representatives from all the various sectors — there will even be a representative from the Republic of Ireland. However, the one group that is not mentioned is the Protestant Churches, which has a big role to play in education provision in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure us that that oversight will be remedied before the composition of the group is finally decided?
Thirdly, the central group will be obliged to consult all the various providers, but, as we know, some providers have run ahead of other providers in various parts of Northern Ireland. What does consultation mean, and at what point will the central group or the area-based planning group be able to intervene in the plans of another body, if those plans are seen to be detrimental to the provision of schools in other sectors?
The Committee will wish to ask the Minister many other question as the process continues, but, for now, I would like the Minister to provide assurance on those three points.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Education for his questions. My meeting with the Committee this morning was useful, and I will take on board many of the Committee’s comments.
You asked about structural change and the terms of reference. I do not know where you got the idea that 11-14 schools are my option. I have always said that a one-size-fits-all system is not what is needed. I have also always said that different solutions will be required for different areas. Furthermore, I have always said that I want to ensure that all the different options are kept open.
The terms of reference will be published this week. I assure the Chairperson that some of the areas that we will be considering include access to 11-19 schools; transfers to alternative schools at age 14; and access across the learning community, which involves collaborative arrangements between groups of schools and the FE sector. There have already been good practice and collaborative arrangements between those learning communities. We will also consider provisions for 11-14 schools and 14-19 schools within an area.
Sin an chéad cheist, agus anois an dara ceist.
The second question was about the central planning group and the Protestant Churches. The education and library boards will be represented on that group, and we should not pre-empt who they will nominate. I assure the Member that the chairpersons who are appointed will be broadly reflective of society, and Protestant Churches will be included in that.
You talked about different sectors running ahead. Although, in the past, different sectors have done good work, there were instances in which different plans were made for children across those sectors. For the first time, we will now have a process in which the different sectors are sitting down together.
Proposals have been produced, for example, in Fermanagh, where the education and library board has been conducting pre-consultation exercises. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has also produced proposals for consultation. Both have said that they will take into account, and be part of, the area-based planning process.
Therefore, there is consensus in the House and among educationalists on the need for area-based planning, especially given the demographic decline in the system.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement and for meeting the Committee this morning. I also thank Committee members for the constructive way in which they engaged with the Minister.
In recent months, I have learned of a number of proposals, including plans for an educational village at the Lisanelly site in Omagh and a cross-sectoral proposal in Moy, both of which are progressive. Will the Minister confirm whether those types of naturally grown proposals will be welcomed by the subgroups that will be set up, and also by her Department?
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have met the representatives of the Omagh group of educationalists, who were from different sectors, different schools and different Christian Churches. It was good to see the work that they have done.
I know that there is an adjournment debate in the House this evening on Lisanelly, and I look forward to contributing to it. That is precisely the type of collaboration that we are considering. We need to try to build support, with the different sectors having their schools, but also maximum collaboration between and among schools.
Omagh is not the only area in which there are models of good practice; there have been models of good practice in Ballymena, there have been learning communities in Ballyclare and there has been collaboration between the post-primary and further education sectors in Newry.
The terms of reference and the new groups will aim to build on good practice in areas where there is an organic coming together. Local groups will be encouraged to produce their ideas, and there will be maximum consultation. At the end of the day, educationalists are the people who understand the issues, as they have been delivering at the coalface for many years. They understand the needs of the system and the importance of working together.
I would expect any group working in the Western Education and Library Board area to consider the proposals for Omagh. However, I do not want to pre-empt any decisions. It is for the working group to make proposals, all of which I will consider. The point is that there will be consensus and a dynamic period throughout the North, in which, for the first time ever, many — though not all — sectors will come together to plan the schools estate.
Would we have accepted them had they arrived?
Recently, the Education Committee travelled to the city of Londonderry, where it saw collaboration among all sectors; it also heard of examples in the Limavady area. Can the Minister assure the House that she will build on that good practice and will not force a template upon areas that already tackle their own particular needs?
Did the Minister present the document to the Executive at their last meeting? Has she also spoken to and shown a copy of the document to the Minister for Employment and Learning? It is my understanding that the Minister for Employment and Learning has not agreed to anything at present and will not do so until he has carefully studied all the details. He reserves his position until then.
My colleague Sammy Wilson raised two points about transferors’ representatives and another point about the situation in Fermanagh, to which I want to refer. Can the Minister assure the House that rather than boards making representations on behalf of transferors, transferors will have representation in their own right on the area boards? That is most important in overcoming mistrust.
It would have been dangerous for me to make the proposals on 29 February; I might have been tempted to propose to certain Members. I wanted to resist that temptation. [Laughter.]
Thanks, Mervyn. I have, however, brought the proposals to the House today, and I apologise if they are three days or two and a half days or two and a quarter days late. They are here now.
I absolutely agree with the Member: interesting work on collaboration is being done in Limavady. Visiting one of the town’s schools, I was struck that children were wearing four different uniforms — those of schools from different sectors, including a special school. The children all worked together.
During a discussion with the teachers, I asked them how they found the situation. They replied that although it had been a long process, it worked well. I asked the young people how they found it. They said that it was great, because they no longer had to pass by one another’s school gates feeling like “others”. It was encouraging to hear the young people say that it was great to know children from other schools and to have been to every other school and that they wanted the arrangement to continue. They had no worries whatsoever. It was lovely to see how the education of children from the local special school was part and parcel of the arrangement. That is how the system should progress.
Before the debate, I sent a copy of the document to every one of my MLA colleagues. Yesterday, I discussed the proposals with Reg Empey, although I accept that he has not agreed to every aspect of them. However, as I said, I have shared the proposals with him. He agrees that further education must be an important part of any discussion, and we will examine existing further education plans. I will also bring those proposals before the Executive. Formulation of policies is at an early stage.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam faoin amscála agus faoi pholasaí na scoileanna incothaithe.
As the sustainable schools policy is the foundation stone of area-based planning, can the Minister give the Assembly a date when it will become available?
Given that the consultation on area-based planning will not end until January 2009, after which further time will be taken to make a final decision, is the Minister concerned — as many others are — that there is not enough time for post-primary area-based planning to be implemented in time for the transfer of pupils in 2010? Go raibh maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat. A new policy on sustainable schools will be published soon; that issue was dealt with in the Education Committee today.
The process is evolving, dynamic and will feed into the wider area-based planning process. However, this is a good start. Members from all sides of the House have called on me to bring forward these proposals; I have now done so, and I am confident that we can make progressive changes in our education system in the required timescale. However, that change is evolving and 2010 and 2013 are key dates. I ask that all Members work with me on this and, from the good discussion in the Education Committee meeting this morning, I can see that there is broad agreement on how to advance area-based planning, despite slight differences in emphasis.
I apologise for my absence from the Committee meeting this morning — I might have heard something that I have not heard today.
The Alliance Party broadly welcomes the Minister’s statement. The buzzwords seem to be “collaboration” and “good practice”. The Minister has acknowledged that the delivery of the expanding curriculum is impossible without extensive co-operation between schools and colleges, particularly across the sectors.
Although I welcome the statement, I share the concerns that have been expressed — I did not hear the Minister answer the question about transferors, so I ask it again.
We understand that people want a balanced curriculum, but how does the Minister think that subjects can be categorised as exclusively academic, vocational or technical? For example, in which category is physics? The first selection at 14 years of age will be in 2013, and the last 11-plus examination will be in November 2008, so there will be a five-year gap. Will the Minister clarify what will happen in that period?
Mr Lunn’s words on collaboration and good practice were more of a comment than a question. I view collaboration as good practice; some of the most dynamic collaboration that I have seen has resulted in vibrant schools. I refer to collaboration in the post-primary sector as well as between the post-primary and the further-education sectors. I saw tremendous collaboration between schools and educationalists through use of the internet — one young person in Ashfield Girls’ High School, who was probably one of many, did one of her courses through technology, which is one of the ways to expand the curriculum.
I categorise curriculum subjects as technical and professional for ease of reference and understanding, but the Member is correct — a tiler must have good vocational skills as well as good mathematical skills, and an engineer requires good vocational skills as well as good scientific and mathematical skills. I take the Member’s point. We try to ensure that vocational qualifications are given the esteem that they deserve and have not been given in the past. That is something that we are changing.
I was at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin and saw Abbey Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Newry do very well in the technology section. That was good to see. The more that that type of thing happens, the more all our young people benefit.
I assure Members that there will be broad-based representation in the central planning group. People will see that when I announce the chairpersons and how we intend to move forward.
The age of 14 is already an important stage in the system at which major decisions on education pathways are made and young people decide which subjects to pursue. It is an informed and uncontentious elective process. They decide whether to study triple award science, extra maths, art, engineering, technology, home economics or whatever. I am confident that the system allows sufficient time for such decisions.
During my discussions with educationalists, I was struck by their huge knowledge of the system. As they work in the system daily, they understand its needs and deficits, and there is a very mature discussion with educationalists ongoing.
I want admissions criteria regulations to have the support of stakeholders and the approval of the Assembly, but such consensus takes time to develop. It can be frustrating but, as Trevor Lunn will agree, building consensus with the educationalists is the fastest route to the safest and surest system.
I am glad that the Minister knows the difference between collusion and collaboration.
I do not accept that the manner in which the Minister brought the matter to the House today in any way fulfils what she said when she appeared before the Committee for Education on 31 January. She told the Committee that her statement would cover “area-based planning” and its “terms of reference”. She further stated:
“I will engage with the Committee on this matter before I make that statement.”
People cannot believe a word that the Minister says.
Given that the Minister missed an opportunity to outline her proposal on 29 February 2008, I assume that she thinks that this is a shotgun wedding. I assure her —
I assure the Minister that the mood music is no different in relation to the outstanding issues.
In the past three years, 20 controlled schools and five maintained schools have closed. Will the Minister today place a moratorium on the closure, or the proposed closure, of any more schools? For example, there are proposals to close Maghera High School and schools in Fermanagh and other areas. Will she draw a line under school closures because, as the Chairperson of the Committee said, other sectors have moved ahead on selection?
Are Members to believe that the policy on sustainable schools that was published in April 2007 has been binned? The Committee has not been consulted; the Minister has not given a response, and her statement today states:
“the importance of sustainable schools, a new policy on which will be published shortly”.
What is going on? Is the document of April 2007 being binned? In contrast to her vision, which remains misty, will the Minister give Members a clear answer?
Go raibh maith agat. Members could have a long debate on collusion, but this is neither the place nor the time.
I found this morning’s meeting with the Committee for Education useful, and I am sorry that Mr Storey did not. The tone of the debate demonstrates that there is broad consensus on how to progress area-based planning.
I am not into shotguns in any context — and certainly not shotgun weddings. I like to take my time to plan, which is what I did, and I brought the resulting carefully considered statements to the House today. I am sorry that the Member does not agree. People can see that my Department is introducing a robust series of policies, such as every school should be a good school and the vision of area-based planning that I outlined on 4 December 2007, of which sustainable schools will be part.
As the Member is on the Committee for Education, he knows that it is not me who brings forward proposals for school closure: that is done by the various sectoral groups, such as the CCMS.
Then there is a period of consultation, and I make a decision. However, the process is initiated by the different sectors, such as Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, NICIE, the boards or the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.
If the Member had stayed at the meeting this morning, he might have heard more of the proposals that I was presenting. However, I appreciate that people —
I appreciate that Members are busy. Having said that, I have engaged with the Committee for Education at every turn. I have attended more than seven times — probably more often than most Ministers attend their respective Committees — and I plan to continue engaging with it. My officials have attended the Committee nearly every week to discuss key issues, and I am delighted that they have done so, because it is important that all these policies be developed. Of course there will be before-and-after consultation with the Committee on any of the policies. I thank the Member for his comments, and I ask him to join the rest of us in developing proposals with area-based planning.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, and I pay tribute to her for her diligence in relation to this matter. First, will she confirm that rural communities will not be disadvantaged by the area-based planning process? Secondly, parents have expressed concern about postcode selection to me and to many other Members. Minister, can you confirm that area-based planning will ensure that that does not happen? Go raibh maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat. First, I can confirm that rural areas will play a major role in any area-based planning. I will take account of urban and rural areas when nominating group chairpersons, because, for too long in the North, rural areas have been treated as poor cousins. I aim to ensure that that will no longer be the case. One reason why I chose this particular model was to ensure that, as well as a central group, there would be five local groups to take account of all the different areas, many of which are rural.
As for your question about postcode selection, there are a couple of key points that I want to make. If schools work together, our system has the capacity for areas to respond to, and manage, the ranges of educational choices that pupils will make at 14 and 11. Any method of academic selection will perpetuate social selection. Only access by choice, within a system that is flexible enough to deliver that choice, can truly ensure that access is equal.
Finally, the development of organisational flexibility is crucial. I accept that it will take time, but area-based planning will be central to developing that flexibility. Local solutions will be part of that flexibility. To return to your first point, rural — as well as urban — areas will be part of the area-based planning process. Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister said that the area-based planning process will be initiated and driven by a representative central group. First, I note that a single representative from each sector will be present, irrespective of the size of the different sectors’ schools estates. To put that in the context of the Assembly, the Green Party would have a seat on the Executive. Will the Minister ensure that each sector is fairly represented?
Secondly, Members are being asked to agree to groups being set up, although no one, bar the Minister, knows what the remit of those groups will be. In the spirit of transparency, will she detail the terms of reference today — not some time later this week?
It is important that all sectors be represented in the central group.
A good, mature discussion is going on at the moment involving part of the central group and the local groups; it will involve education and library boards, the CCMS, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the integrated sector and the trade unions. We need maximum collaboration based on respect and equality rather than talk about who is bigger, smaller, weaker or stronger; that is how we will progress. I am delighted that the different sectors will participate, as that is very important. Anyone working in education must take part. It must be cohesive and small enough to get the work done, but it must also be representative, and I assure the Member that it will be representative.
I will announce the terms of reference shortly. I will, however, ensure that the Chairperson of the Committee for Education sees the terms of reference before the announcement, and he can circulate them. I will also announce the chairpersons shortly.
The Minister and I represent the same large rural constituency. How does she hope to address the new transport demands, especially in rural areas where closures and amalgamations brought about by the proposals will mean that children will have to be transported over greater distances and, in some cases, considerable distances?
Go raibh maith agat. Sin ceist an-tábhachtach. That is a very important question. Transport is one of the key areas that must be looked at. Depending on the arrangements — and I do not want to pre-empt those in any area — some children may have to travel further, but in most cases there will be less transport. The beauty of area-based planning is that that is exactly what it is. Although children will have a choice of what type or sector of school they attend, there will be far fewer buses and children passing one another on their way to their respective schools, many travelling to Belfast. Far too many children spend far too much time on buses. From the constituency that we share, John will know that many children spend an hour or an hour and twenty minutes on buses travelling to school — and that is only one way.
I have said before that I could probably do more to clear the roads than Conor Murphy. Everyone recognises that it is important that our —
May I finish my point without interruption, David? You will have an opportunity to make a point or to ask a question.
Transport will be considered by the local and central groups as it is a key area in education.
An estimate of costs can be produced only when the area-based planning process has developed plans for all areas. However, the notions of massive restructuring and huge costs that we have seen in some of the media are wildly inaccurate. The proposed reforms assume affordable costs for sound reasons. We all know that we face restructuring investment because of the need for sustainability, and that investment can help to deliver my reforms. We should not forget, first, that school collaboration offers flexibility without major restructuring; and secondly, that due to surplus capacity, we have great potential for flexibility already.
Issues of cost are at the heart of my progressive reforms. Our system wastes money; unreformed, it will waste more. Broadly, two thirds of our post-primary schools are undersubscribed and a quarter is less than three quarters full — and that is before the full demographic decline reaches in our post-primary schools. Members are presuming that there will be more transport costs: equally, there may be fewer. We will consider the proposals when they are produced.
At the appropriate moment, I will engage in the appropriate way with my colleagues on the Executive, including my colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is exciting that all sectors are going to be sitting down together and, for the first time, planning our schools estate. There have been models of good practice and they were a vanguard, and fair play to them. We can learn from where there has been good practice. This will mean that we can provide a broader, flexible and more stimulating education for all our children. It will mean that we can celebrate academic success in our system but begin to deal with the tail of underachievement. I know that everyone in this House agrees with me that we need to deal with that tail of underachievement. We need to give every one of our young people the opportunities that they deserve. We need to stem the flow of 12,000 people leaving school without a GCSE in English and maths because that state of affairs is just not fair. We are on the cusp of something very exciting and I am looking forward to working with all of you in that. I do sense a different tone in this House today and I welcome that tone because I sense that there is also a realism about the need for us to bring about changes — although there are a few notable exceptions to the tone. [Laughter.]
I too have concerns about the focus in the Minister’s statement on transfer at 14.
The Minister said that she might not bring forward the proposals to close schools yet that she favours area-based planning. Therefore, can the Minister not instruct those bodies that there are to be no further closures until the area plans are developed? I noted that the Minister did not answer the question from Mr Ken Robinson about the representative central committee. There is no specific mention of Protestant clergy even though the Protestant clergy have had a massive role in education in Northern Ireland over many years. Although the Minister did refer to the education and library boards being able to appoint clergy, there is no guarantee of that being the case. Is that not, therefore, a gap in her proposals, especially since she said that she will appoint someone from the South — by which I presume she means Irish Republic rather than Newry or Fermanagh? Is it not the fact that she has simply overlooked the Protestant clergy in her proposals, and should she not now amend them to include Protestant clergy so that she does not start another unnecessary fight with the Unionist community and the Protestant Churches?
Some people think I favour transfer at 14, some people within the Member’s party think that I favour transfer at 11. What I have said is that I have kept all options open: 11 to 14; 14 to 19; 11 to 19; 16 to 19. People should be clear about that. It will be different depending on where you live: what school a child goes to; what further education college is available in your area, and what collaboration is happening.
Area-based planning does not necessarily mean school closures. However, we do have to recognise, as George Bain has made clear, that we quite simply have too many schools given the demographic decline at the moment. Demographic decline, particularly in the post-primary sector, will increase over the next few years. At the same time, we have to expand post-14 provision and ensure that all children have access to the education they need in a flourishing educational environment. Area-based planning is a key to achieving this. I reiterate: it is not I who brings forward proposals. Obviously, we are now moving into a period of area-based planning and all the sectors working on their proposals will be a part of that.
I have said that all Churches will be represented, and that will be seen when I present my choice of chairpersons.
Please do not try to create an issue that does not exist.
When I refer to the South, I mean the South of Ireland. In future I will be more explicit and I will use the terms North of Ireland and South of Ireland to provide clarity; but yes, there will be a representative from the South of Ireland on the representative central committee.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as a ráiteas.
I thank the Minister for making her statement on area-based planning. I am sorry that I missed the Committee meeting this morning — [Interruption.]
There seems to have been a mixed response at this morning’s Committee meeting. When the Committee met on 29 February, some members were hoping that the Minister would bring forward proposals; the Member for North Antrim in particular was a bit miffed when the Minister did not turn up to propose to him, which is possibly why he is so angry today — [Interruption.]
On more serious matters, today’s statement represents a major part of the jigsaw that was outlined in Catríona Ruane’s statement last December. It is a welcome step forward in the debate on transfer from primary to post-primary education; it follows on from the Bain Report —
My question concerns area-based groups and subgroups. I believe the Minister is going to announce the chairs of those groups this week, but when will she be in a position to announce their memberships? Her statement also refers to the basing of those subgroups on the education and library board areas, but as the Minister knows, given changing and declining demographics, there needs to be some degree of flexibility. She referred to that need, but will it be taken into account when the area-based plans are drawn up, so that they will not adhere rigidly to the education and library board areas? Go raibh maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat. Even though you could not attend the meeting of the Education Committee, you were very well represented by your colleague Michelle O’Neill. In relation to a comment made by Mervyn Storey; no one has forced me to do anything. On 4 December 2007 I said that I would make a further statement detailing the progress made on the issue. I am happy to be here today to make that statement, because it is a very important issue.
As for the area-based groups, I will be announcing the chairs of those groups this week, and they will be up and running in March. We need to move quickly, and have set ourselves a time frame, which I have outlined. In reply to the Member’s point, I agree that there must be flexibility across board areas, because parish boundaries and board boundaries are different. Mr Butler’s constituency stretches across the Belfast Education and Library Board and South Eastern Education and Library Board areas, and of course those two must work together if we are to have an interconnected system.
The five local area-based groups need to be interconnected in the way that all of my educational policies are interconnected; the curriculum; the transfer; the area based planning; the sustainable schools and the aim to make every school a good school. All of those policies are interconnected, and they are all going to be working together. Educationalists know that: they are not going to create artificial borders around Tyrone, Fermanagh or Belfast, because we have seen that borders have not served us well in the past, and I do not think they will do so in the future. Go raibh maith agat. That is the answer to the question.
The Minister will be aware, having attended an Adjournment debate in the House in relation to the matter, that the pre-consultation document issued by the Western Education and Library Board was roundly rejected by the community in County Fermanagh. That document envisaged all post-primary education in the western board area being located in Enniskillen. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said to John McAllister about transport, and I say to the Minister that transport will be a huge issue in Fermanagh if those proposals are approved. I ask her to learn the lessons of the pre-consultation process in the western board area and to engage with everybody, including the Transferors’ Representative Council, which, it has to be said, has played a crucial role in education in this country since its inception.
It is very disappointing that the Transferor Representatives’ Council does not have a position, as of right, on the new area-based planning boards.
You and all the young people in the Gallery, David. We are as young as we feel. It is good to have the children here because, at the end of the day, we are building for their future, and trying to ensure that they have an opportunity to access the broadest possible curriculum and to meet their counterparts in different sectors. It is fitting that they are here today, and I should like to give them a big céad míle fáilte — a hundred thousand welcomes.
I turn to Arlene Foster’s comment about Fermanagh. Obviously, the local group set up for the Western Education and Library Board area will consider both the pre-consultation proposals and the CCMS consultation — that is what area-based planning is all about. Transport is obviously a key issue. As I said earlier, it will be one of the issues that the local groups will look at. It is a key issue in relation to any proposals that we bring forward. It can be very costly. Depending on what proposals are put forward, sometimes more transport will be required, while less will be needed in other cases. Members should not pre-empt the work of the Committee, the working groups, the central group or the area groups; rather, let us see what they come forward with.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I am reminded, however, of the quotation:
“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
Once again in this House, I question the Minister about the logic of excluding the Transferor Representatives’ Council from the area-based planning boards. Places are guaranteed to people from the education and library boards, who could deputise for the transferors, but that is not guaranteed. There are representatives from CCMS, the Irish-language sector, the governing bodies, NICIE, the trade unions, the Education and Training Inspectorate, DEL and the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges. There is even an educational expert from the Free State, and a representative from the team that is working to set up the ESA. All of those groups may be important, but equally important to many people —
Equally important is the role and expertise of the Transferor Representatives’ Council. It is impossible to create area-based planning boards without guaranteeing a place, or places, to the Transferor Representatives’ Council. I ask the Minister to tell the House that she will change the proposed plans and ensure that a representative of the Transferor Representatives’ Council is included on each of the area-based planning boards.
I have two questions to put to the Minister. The first one is about small schools — two simple words that have not cropped up in anything that has been written or said here today. Will the Minister tell us whether she thinks that it will be a good thing if the area plans lead to there being no post-primary school in west Fermanagh, or in Tyrone west of Omagh? Indeed, there are very few controlled primary schools in either of those areas. Does the Minister recognise that it would be a disaster if there were no such schools in those places? The Minister — even when prompted and pushed by her colleague, Mr Willie Clarke — danced around the subject of rural schools.
A rural school in Bessbrook might have 1,500 to 1,800 pupils; a rural school in west Fermanagh might have 250 pupils. Those schools represent the character of their area and, therefore, should not be overlooked.
I welcome, and, indeed, agree with the Minister’s point that secondary schools have borne the brunt of falling enrolments as a result of grammar schools lowering entrance requirements. Essentially, the law of the jungle is in operation: if a school is big enough, it can get away with doing that, and the small schools suffer. Enrolments to grammar schools must be limited. Will the Minister consider that as part of the plan, given that the parcel will stop with her?
I have spoken about rural schools and stated that I am implementing a policy on sustainable schools. I made points, which I can repeat, about school closures. Area-based planning does not mean school closures, but the Assembly must recognise, as George Bain has made clear, that there are currently too many schools. Demographic decline, particularly in the post-primary sector, will increase in the next few years.
Regional imbalance and regional disparity also exists, and the Executive must deal with that. Fermanagh has fewer people because much of its population must travel outside the county to find work. I know that the Member will agree that it is important to build sustainable communities.
The Bain proposals do not tackle the issue of numbers alone. They also tackle educational quality, and six different criteria are used for small schools to measure that. The House must be careful not to scaremonger. We must have a responsible debate, but we must recognise that demographic decline exists and that it will continue.
The Minister continually speaks to the House about equality, which seems to be her central theme. However, there is a lack of equality in the detail of her statement. When Mr Sammy Wilson challenged her about whether the Protestant clergy would be included on groups, she suggested that she could not pre-empt whom the education and library boards would assign to them. The Minister has produced a list of those groups that will be included as of right, so why has she not included the Protestant clergy? Why has she not prioritised considering that? This side of the House is angry that she has deliberately ignored that issue. The Minister must take cognisance of that fact and return to the House and tell Members directly that she has corrected it, because the situation is blatantly unacceptable.
I do not know what the question is, but equality is at the heart of my proposals. The sectors represented take account of the education system, are from all areas of the community and satisfy the equality duty. I want to ensure broad representation — rural, urban, Churches —
I never expect sympathy. I want fair play, and I want Members not to interrupt me. Equality is at the heart of my proposals. Those sectors represented cover the current education system. The Catholic trustees and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools comprise one sector — not two, as some Members have implied. I have also considered gender issues, which the House sometimes overlooks. When I announce my chairpersons, Members will see that men and women, from rural and urban areas, and from all sectors of society, are represented. Go raibh maith agat as sin.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement.
Is the Minister aware of the transfer process from primary to post-primary education that the Catholic sector implemented in Keady some 20-odd years ago? If so, will she outline her views on it? Go raibh maith agat.
Go raibh maith agat. I am aware of what happened in Keady 25 years ago — it was a very dynamic, interesting process. All the primary schools in the Catholic sector got together and worked out how the transfer from primary to post-primary education would operate. There is now an amazing post-primary school there that provides different pathways for all different children, based on —
I am sorry; I ask that Mr Kennedy refrain from interrupting me.
That school provides academic and vocational pathways, and I bear in mind Trevor’s comments, with which I agree. The process that brought about that system was very good, and we can learn certain things from it. Obviously, rather than examining just one sector, we need to consider collaboration between all different sectors. Given that, however, the way in which the proposals for Keady were made is certainly a shining example. School inspectors confirm that it is an amazing school that performs very well.
There is a great deal of good practice in many areas, which I have already mentioned — Ballyclare, Ballymena, Limavady, Derry, Newry, Omagh, and Cookstown. The educationalists in those areas are ahead of the posse, and they are saying that we need change and that we need to work together. Let us do that. I know that those educationalists will value the vision that has been announced today because they know that changes need to happen.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. However, I will first stress the importance of the Transferor Representatives’ Council. It is important that the transferors are not under-represented as a result of the fact that a range of interests are represented on the education and library boards. That means that there is no guarantee that those who will be selected will reflect the views of the transferors. The transferors play a particular role in the education system. That role must be recognised, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that will happen.
I want to look specifically at the issue of area planning, which the Alliance Party welcomes. According to the Minister’s proposal, six new structures will be created with a view to dealing with the issue of area planning on a time-limited basis. However, area planning is an ongoing issue; it is not a one-off, because there will be continuing demographic change. How, therefore, will the Department handle the replication of bureaucracy?
I concur with Mr Butler’s point that traditionally there have been problems at the boundaries. For example, the geography of greater east Belfast means that natural boundaries could be planned, but those do not match the boards’ boundaries. Indeed, the Minister will be aware of specific incidents in which schools on the boundaries of east Belfast were closed without regard to the needs of the people in that area. I want to know what specific obligations will be placed on the groups to ensure that they consult specifically on those boundary issues.
Lastly, given all the other interests that are being taken into account, how will the views of the local community be acknowledged? Would the Minister consider conducting a community audit to allow forward planning in the education system, so that change therein can be managed according to the wishes of the parents whose children will go through that system? We have heard a lot about organic change and where that has worked, but I would like to see a system whereby, if there is an impetus for change in an area, a mechanism exists that allows people to make that change.
I thank the Member for her thoughtful questions.
I am certainly not in the business of setting up bureaucracy; I am trying to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy. The Member will be aware of how the RPA is dealing with that.
Some people have said that I did not set up enough groups. That was one of the points that were made at the Education Committee meeting this morning. Establishing five groups across the North — using the existing boundaries of the education and library boards — is the way to go.
I agree that there must be flexibility in those groups. They must be interconnected and must work together. If not, they will miss out on the borderline areas. I have made the point about borders before; they do not always serve in the way that was intended.
The groups that I have set up are time bound — they will not be bureaucracies, and they will not last for ever. The process will continue to evolve, but the groups are time bound. Local communities are important in those plans. I know that I sound like a broken record, but I do not want to pre-empt local groups —
Thanks, Danny — or was it David?
Go raibh maith agat. I am glad to take compliments — but we will not go there.
Local communities are very important. Their voices must be heard, and that is why the plans are flexible. Local groups can feed into the five area groups, and we will actively encourage that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier, an assertion was made to the effect that I was failing in my duties as a member of the Education Committee. I remind the Minister that I informed the Chairperson of the Education Committee that, owing to business in the House, which commenced at 10.30 am, I had to be in the House to deputise for the Minister’s colleague Mr McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, who has a bug. I hope it is not an MI5 bug. That is why I was not at the Education Committee meeting.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a previous occasion in the Chamber, one of my colleagues was corrected for making reference to the Public Gallery. On a number of occasions during numerous interventions this morning — not just in this debate, but in previous debates — references were made to the Public Gallery. Is it not correct that we should not be referring to the Public Gallery, or playing to it, but dealing with the issues that are raised in the Chamber?
The Member’s point of order is well made. Members ought to know that they should not refer to the Public Gallery on any occasion. That is an important point of order, and has been the subject of rulings made in the House on several occasions. Nevertheless, Ministers and Members are still referring to the Public Gallery.