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North/South Ministerial Council  Education Sectoral Format

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 8th June 2009.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I have received notice from the Minister of Education that she wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in education sectoral format.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Whose responsibility is it to publish a statement on a Minister’s behalf? Today’s statement seems to be entirely in Irish and entirely in English. That is a departure from House protocol, and you, as Speaker, should inform the House of the exact protocol for delivering statements. The way in which the Minister has presented the statement is yet another disgraceful attempt on her part to rub the nose of the unionist community.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The procedure is clear. It is up to individual Ministers to decide how to produce and present statements to the House; it is nothing to do with the Speaker.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The statement is in English and Irish, because Irish is the native language of Ireland and English is also spoken on this island. Given our statutory duties on the Irish medium and given that I have talked to Pobal, which is an umbrella organisation, I will make the statement in the same way that Welsh or Scottish or other languages are used in other parts of Ireland and in England, Scotland and Wales.

Rinne mise ionadaíocht don Choiste Feidhmiúcháin mar Aire Oideachais, i dteannta an Aire Fostaíochta agus Foghlama, Reg Empey MLA; rinne Batt O’Keeffe TD, Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta, ionadaíocht do Rialtas an Deiscirt.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education sectoral format, which was held in the Middletown Centre for Autism on 20 May 2009. The Executive were represented by me, as Minister of Education, and the Minister for Employment and Learning, Reg Empey MLA. The Irish Government were represented by Batt O’Keeffe TD, Minister for Education and Science. The statement has been agreed with Sir Reg Empey, and I make it on behalf of us both.

Tabharfaidh mé achoimre ar na príomhphointí a ndearnadh plé orthu ag an chruinniú, pointí a chlúdaigh na réimsí comhaontaithe ar fad maidir le comhoibriú san earnáil oideachais.

I will summarise the main points from the meeting on all the agreed areas of educational co-operation. Where educational underachievement is concerned, the North/South Ministerial Council welcomed a presentation from education practitioners on approaches to the integration of newcomer children in schools and the challenges that they face. Ray Gilbert, head of the education and library boards’ inclusion and diversity service, chaired the presentation, and also involved were Josephine McMahon from St Joseph’s Convent Primary School in Newry; Geraldine McClory from St Mary’s High School in Newry; Eileen Donnelly from Drumglass High School, Dungannon; Pat Halpin from Balbriggan Community College, Dublin; and Breda Naughton from the Department of Education and Science. We noted and welcomed the continued co-operation on dealing with educational underachievement across the island.

Bhreathnaigh an Chomhairle an dul chun cinn atá déanta ar réimse ceisteanna a bhaineann le tearcghnóthachtáil oideachasúil agus le hoideachas don Lucht Siúil, agus thug muid dár n-aire go dtionólfar comhdháil chomhpháirteach eile san fhómhar ar uimhearthacht a dhíreoidh ar mhúineadh agus ar fhoghlaim na matamaitice in iarbhunscoileanna. D’aithin muid go gcuirfeadh an chomhdháil sin le cur chun cinn na n-ábhar STEM: eolaíocht, teicneolaíocht, innealtóireacht agus matamaitic.

The council reviewed progress on a range of issues to do with educational underachievement and Traveller education, and it noted that a second joint conference on numeracy, which will focus on the teaching and learning of mathematics in the post-primary setting, will be held in autumn 2009. We recognise that the conference will contribute to the promotion of the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) agenda. Furthermore, we noted that a peer-learning exercise in school attendance is scheduled to take place in the north-west in September 2009. The event will bring together a range of academics, professionals and policymakers to consider existing services, share their experiences of ongoing initiatives and examine best practice so that school attendance issues can be addressed.

Beidh seachtain leabhar do pháistí ann le linn 2010 a dhíreoidh ar ghníomhaíochtaí a ceapadh le léitheoireacht a chur chun cinn mar rud dearfach. D’aithin muid go mbeadh ról tábhachtach ag na seirbhísí leabharlainne poiblí.

A children’s book week will be held during 2010 to focus on activities that are designed to promote reading as a positive experience. We recognise that the public libraries services will have an important role to play. The Council also noted that following the successful joint Traveller education conference in Newry on 11 March 2009 it is proposed to create a forum for practitioners and policymakers to highlight and share best practice.

I will move to teachers’ qualifications and superannuation. The Council welcomed closer liaison between the Department of Education and the Department of Education and Science aimed at facilitating access to preparatory courses for the Irish-language qualification requirements for teaching in schools in the South. We also noted the continuing co-operation between the respective departmental inspectorates aimed at supporting the continued development of inspection practice across the island.

Thug muid dár n-aire go bhfuiltear ag súil leis go mbeidh fáil ar an chomh-thionscadal taighde maidir leis an bhealach is fearr le ceannairí nua scoile a mhealladh agus a fhorbairt faoi dheireadh mhí Meithimh 2009. Thug muid dár n-aire fosta an obair leanúnach faoin chlár malartuithe mac léinn agus múintéoirí Thuaidh/Theas agus an ghníomhaireacht leanúnach taighde agus comhdhála ar oideachas múinteoirí faoin Bhuanchoiste ar Oideachas Múinteoirí Thuaidh/Theas.

The Council noted that the joint research project on how best to attract and develop new school leaders is expected to be available by the end of June 2009 and noted the ongoing work under the North/South student-teacher exchange programme and the teacher-education research and conference activity under the aegis of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS).

As regards teachers’ superannuation, the Council noted that measures are being planned to provide additional information on pension issues to teachers and others in the public sector who wish to transfer to work in the other jurisdiction, including information on recent changes in pension arrangements and qualifying recognised overseas pension schemes.

On the subject of special educational needs, the Council noted that there had been an exchange of correspondence between Ministers about Middletown and that the situation will be kept under active review by both Departments.

Chuir muid fáilte roimh na pleananna atá ag an Roinn Oideachais agus ag an Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta comhdháil ar neamhord i réimse an uathachais a reachtáil i gcomhpháirt lena chéile i mí na Samhna 2009.

We welcomed the plans for the Department of Education and the Department of Education and Science to jointly run a conference on autistic spectrum disorder in November 2009.

The Council discussed school, youth and teacher exchanges.

Chuir an Chomhairle fáilte roimh an dul chun cinn atá déanta go dtí seo maidir le creatlach a fhorbairt i gcomhair comhchláir do bhainistiú agus chistiú malairtí oideachais san am atá le teacht. Thug muid dár n-aire go gcuirfidh an dá Roinn tús le hobair le comhbheartas a fhorbairt a bheidh mar bhonn agus thaca ag an chlár nua agus go gcuirfear tuarascáil ar dhul chun cinn i láthair ag cruinniú de chuid na Comhairle sa todhchaí.

The Council welcomed the progress that has been made in developing a framework for a joint programme for the future management and funding of educational exchanges. We noted that both Departments will be working to develop a joint policy to underpin the new programme and that a progress report will be submitted to a future North/South Ministerial Council meeting. In light of the ongoing work programme, it is the intention of both Ministers that the North/South exchange consortium will continue for a year, pending review by the two Departments.

Mar fhocal scoir, shocraigh muid gur chóir an chéad chruinniú eile den Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas i bhformáid na hearnála oideachais a thionól i mí na Samhna 2009.

In closing, we agreed that the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education sectoral format should take place in November 2009. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I want to place on record our disappoint­ment that, given the meeting’s location and the context in which it took place, which was the Irish Government’s announcement that they were withdrawing funding for the Middletown centre, only three lines of the Minister’s statement are given over to that fact.

The Minister said:

“the Council noted that there had been an exchange of correspondence between Ministers about Middletown, and that the situation will be kept under active review”.

Will the Minister tell the House what exchange of correspondence she has had with the Minister of Education and Science in the Irish Republic about Middletown? What, precisely, is the situation on the commencement of the key assessment services scheduled to start at Middletown next year, bearing in mind that the estimated annual running costs of the Middletown centre are £3·5 million in 2010-2011 and that several million pounds have already been spent on it to date? Unfortunately, we have seen little progress on that issue.

Secondly, I note the Minister’s reference to literacy and numeracy; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); and the research project to develop new school leaders. When will the Committee for Education and, indeed, the House see the Northern Ireland literacy and numeracy strategy report, the STEM review report, and the review of teacher education report, which, as seems to be the case nowadays, are long, long overdue?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 12:15 pm, 8th June 2009

I ask all Members to ensure that their mobile phones are switched to silent or, if possible, switched off altogether please.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I wish to record my appreciation of the wonderful work that the Middletown Centre for Autism does and will do in future. It is a very important centre doing world-class work.

The centre already provides two services: a training and advisory service for parents, teachers and other professionals, and a research and information service. The plan is that the Middletown centre will provide two further services: a two- to three-day multidisciplinary education assessment service, and a five-week residential, multidisciplinary education and learning support service. The centre will be multidisciplinary and will work in collaboration with local services. It will not replace the development of local provision; rather it will seek to enhance or support existing services. I look forward to having the support of all parties for the wonderful work that the centre does.

With regard to the Chairperson’s question, I wrote to Batt O’Keeffe on 12 May to express my disappoint­ment at the pause in the funding for the Middletown centre from the Southern Government. I told him very clearly that I could not accept any cuts in funding for this important project. That position is shared by many organisations throughout Ireland — north, south, east and west. Concern has also been expressed in Leinster House. The Minister for Education and Science has assured me that the centre will continue to be enabled to provide services and to develop additional services and that he remains committed to the centre. I welcome that. I reminded him of the origins of the project, when both Governments recognised the need for this approach to tackling the barriers faced by children with autism.

The Department of Education remains absolutely committed to the centre. We will continue to commit to the provision of funding on an equal basis with the Department of Education and Science (DES). I have instructed Department of Education officials to meet Department of Education and Science officials to explore options. Until discussions have taken place about the totality of the funding from the Department of Education and Science, the centre will continue to provide the training and advisory service and the research and information service.

The detail of the DES position on the capital programme funding is being discussed. The way forward is being considered as a matter of urgency. The chairperson of the Middletown Centre for Autism, Laurence Crowley, met Batt O’Keeffe and me, and he raised his concerns about the Southern Government’s decision on funding for that centre. A key feature of the centre is that specialist education and health professionals will work together to the benefit of children with autism throughout the island of Ireland.

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

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I am not sure whether, during the lengthy list that the Chairperson of the Education Committee read out, the special educational needs (SEN) review was mentioned. What is the current status of the SEN review? Whether special educational needs are provided for at the Middletown centre, as discussed at the NSMC meeting, or locally, it is important that we have a world-class system in place.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

The Member’s question is timely. It is very important that everyone in the House understands the importance of the special educational needs and inclusion review.

The Department commenced the review of special educational needs and inclusion in April 2006 to address issues that are associated with the current SEN framework. Those issues included inconsistencies and delays in identification, assessment and provision; the year-on-year increase in the number of children with statements of special educational needs; and the bureaucracy that is attached to the current arrangements. Although children with special educational needs are the key focus of the review within the context of inclusion and the reality of diversity in our schools, after we listened to professionals in the field, recognition was also given to the increasing diversity of need in our schools and to the challenges that many of our teachers deal with in providing appropriate support for children and young people who face a range of barriers to learning.

Throughout the policy development phase, the review team engaged with a wide range of stake­holders, including representatives from the statutory and voluntary sectors, parents, children and young people. The review aims to ensure that every child and young person who faces a barrier to learning is given a fair and equal chance and is provided with the necessary support as early as possible so that they can be helped to achieve their full potential.

The key proposals that arise from the review will seek to provide consistency of provision across the five education and library boards as we move into ESA; early identification of barriers to learning; early and appropriate intervention; capacity building and upskilling of teachers and the wider school workforce; and collaborative working between education and health professionals.

The policy proposals were agreed in February 2008, and they received a positive hearing from the Committee for Education in May 2008. Indeed, all parties were represented at that Committee meeting. Owing to their cross-cutting nature, the policy proposals were issued to Executive colleagues in July 2008 for agreement on their issue for public consultation, and a further memo was sent to the Executive in November 2008. I also sent an equality impact assessment (EQIA) on the proposals to the Executive to help inform their understanding.

In May 2009, another memo was sent to Executive colleagues, and that contained minor amendments to the foreword and preface to the document on the policy proposals to aid clarification for the reader. That memo also sought agreement to proceed to public consultation. On 19 May 2009, the Assembly debated a private Member’s motion and an amendment to that motion on publishing the policy proposals. The amendment fell, and the motion was carried. Given that, I hope that all parties in the House heed the will of the Assembly; it is terrible that some parties are delaying the implementation of such important proposals.

It was very disappointing, despite it being 11 months since the original referral, and despite the Assembly debating and supporting a motion on 19 May that called on the Executive to agree to issue the policy proposals for public consultation, that the consultation document was not included on the agenda for the Executive meeting on 21 May. The next Executive meeting is scheduled for 11 June, and I hope sincerely that all parties see sense on the issue. In an earlier contribution, we heard concern for our children who are on the autistic spectrum; let us see action instead of crocodile tears.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I struggle to find anything of any substance in the Minister’s statement. There was a bit of a ramble about the Middletown Centre for Autism, but we know that it does not have enough money. I suppose that we have a purpose for it now; at least it is good for meetings. I see nothing in the statement about an approach to STEM subjects and getting people to study single sciences; I see only a missed opportunity.

I do not know whether I can raise the issue that I want to, because the Minister seems to be making more statements in her answers than she did in her original statement. As far as I can see — perhaps the Minister will clarify this point — there was no discussion about fee-paying schools in the South, the fact that the best exam results in the South come from those schools, and what lessons the South has learned from the abolition of selection. Discussion on those issues would be interesting.

The only substance that I could hear in the Minister’s statement was when she said:

“In closing, we agreed the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education sectoral format should take place in November 2009.”

Why is that the only substantial point that I heard?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

The Member’s opposition to anything North/South is becoming more obvious by the day. As I said, the Middletown Centre for Autism is a first-class centre of excellence that is doing tremendous work, and it is shameful that people are trying to play politics with it.

Science, technology, engineering and maths were on the agenda. I hope that the Member is not saying that that is not an important area for discussion. The Member claims to care about children who are underachieving. That subject is a major part of our discussions, and some of the best work, North/South, that we are doing is for underachieving and newcomer children across the island. The Council received a very good presentation on newcomer children and on strategies and learning about that issue on an all-island basis.

The Member will need to put his question about fee-paying schools to the Minister in the South of Ireland.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Fáiltím roimh ráiteas an Aire agus gabhaim buíochas léi as é a chur faoi bhráid an Tionóil. Caithfidh mé a rá gur maith liom an leagan amach atá ar an ráiteas, leis an dá theanga ar aon leathanach amháin. B’fhearr liom féin, áfach, go mbeadh an Ghaeilge ar thaobh na láimhe clé den leathanach; b’fhéidir go smaointeoidh an tAire ar an mholadh sin dá céad ráiteas eile.

I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank her for it. Unlike Mr Storey, I am quite pleased with the way in which the statement is presented bilingually, although I prefer to see the Irish on the left-hand side of the page. Perhaps the Minister will take that proposal on board for the next statement.

The Minister said:

“the Council noted that there had been an exchange of correspondence between Ministers about Middletown”.

Does she agree that her approach to the Middletown funding issue — the megaphone diplomacy in which she engaged — was not helpful and that the funding issue could, perhaps, have been resolved had she approached the problem with a little more tact?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Will the Member please come to his question?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

There are no points of order during statements.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat as an chéad pháirt den cheist sin. I will look at the Member’s proposal about having Irish on the left-hand side of the page. Indeed, I look forward to all Ministers, including the Minister from Mr Bradley’s party, bringing forward statements in Irish and English. However, I have no objections to having the Irish on the left-hand side of the page. That would be a very positive move.

With regard to Middletown, I hope that the Member is not suggesting that — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I hope that the Member is not suggesting that, if a Government in the South of Ireland withdraw funding, we should not stand up vigorously for the Middletown Centre for Autism in private and in public. I make no apology for doing so in private and in public. I wrote to Minister O’Keeffe long before we made any public statements on the matter. I am not afraid to stand up and be counted when people are withdrawing funding or claim that they will withdraw funding for special needs children.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Minister mentioned children’s book week. Children who are blind or visually impaired not only cannot access literature for leisure purposes but still struggle to get books and texts in the right formats for learning. One suggestion was to create central repositories for those resources. Has the Minister had discussions in the North/South sectoral format about having those resources made available to children across the island? If not, does she intend to do so?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

We have not had discussions at the North/South Ministerial Council about that issue, and I will bring the matter to our officials.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

How many more reviews will there be of North/South educational exchanges before a proper mechanism is put in place? Will the Minister assure the House that the North/South Exchange Consortium will have a central role in the implemen­tation of the new framework?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 8th June 2009

The North/South Exchange Consortium has played an important role, and it is pleased that we continue to provide funding. The consortium continues to do important work in the run-up to the move to ESA. I will keep the Member updated on any discussions that take place as we decide how to move forward.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the North/South Ministerial Council’s ongoing work. What cross-cutting action is the Department of Education taking to tackle educational underachievement?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Just bear with me for one moment — [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. My Department is taking forward a radical programme of cross-cutting measures to tackle educational underachievement among working-class and newcomer children. We have brought forward a range of policies that aim to tackle disadvantage and inequality, and to enable every young person to fulfil her or his potential.

The policies include transfer 2010; ‘Every School a Good School’; the revised literacy and numeracy strategy; the review of special educational needs and inclusion; the policy for newcomer children; the early-years strategy; the extended schools programme; and the review of Irish-medium education.

The Programme for Government and the associated public service agreement (PSA) targets set out the cross-cutting actions to tackle underachievement. My Department leads on PSA 10 and PSA 19, which are focused on raising standards and tackling underachieve­ment. We also work with other Departments on the delivery of key programmes. For example, we work with the Department for Social Development in the delivery of the neighbourhood renewal targets that are set out in PSA 10, and we work with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to promote the health and well-being of young people.

Tackling underachievement, and dealing with the 12,000 young people whom our system fails every year, is top of my agenda. We cannot continue with a system that fails so many boys and girls from the Protestant and Catholic working-class communities and so many newcomer children who face disadvantage in our schools because they arrive here with a second language.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. The regular updates on North/South Ministerial Council meetings are useful. I note that Reg Empey attended the meeting and, indeed, cleared the Minister’s statement: that should answer Basil McCrea’s points.

Will the Minister allay recent concerns by giving an assurance that students from the North will not be disadvantaged in applying for university places in the Twenty-six Counties because of the timing of A-level results?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I place the utmost importance on equality of opportunity for all our young people. I want to ensure that young people can apply for courses, and transfer from post-primary to higher and further education, based on merit rather than on where they live.

I raised the matter with Batt O’Keeffe, in writing and verbally. He has given me assurances that institutions in the South will hold back a sufficient number of places to allow offers to be made to A-level applicants. I welcome his assurances that he fully appreciates that equality and the North/South dimension are paramount in the provision of higher education. I will inform every post-primary school principal of Mr O’Keeffe’s assurances in writing so that no students are anxious about gaining university places on any part of this island.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Bradley began his contribution by speaking Irish, and he finished it in English. How do we know that what he said in Irish was exactly the same as what he said in English? There is an issue as to whether we are being transparent and whether the Irish language is being misused in the House. We are not happy, because it seems that the system is being abused.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Under Standing Order 78, Members may speak in the language of their choice — [Interruption.]

Order. Let me finish. I get an absolutely clear translation of Members’ words, no matter which language they prefer to speak. That is all that I wish to say on that issue.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Further to that point of order, having a clear translation is different from the words being said exactly as they were originally said in the first language. That is my understanding of the Standing Order, which is one of the rules that governs the House.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Standing Orders are very clear. If a Member wishes to speak in a certain language, he or she must also translate it into English. That is absolutely clear, and that is what Dominic Bradley did.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have had some attempts in the House to try to keep supplementary questions free flowing, and a direction was given that Members should not read from prepared scripts during Question Time, but that did not seem to be the case on this occasion. I realise that Standing Orders may not cover that eventuality, but will you undertake to raise the issue with the appropriate authorities, because it takes some time to listen to pre-prepared answers?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I wish to clarify that questions to Ministers’ statements are not supplementary questions; they are questions to statements. I have often said that ministerial statements should be an opportunity for Back-Benchers to hold Ministers and the Executive to account. However, I have some sympathy with what the Member is saying. There are occasions when Ministers feel that they have to read out three- or four-page responses when they are replying to supplementary questions or questions on statements. However, I assure Members that, as Speaker, I am looking at that issue, because I do not think that it is necessary, especially when it comes to supplementary questions and ministerial statements. I am dealing with the issue through the Executive, and I assure Members that I have some sympathy with them on the issue.