North/South Ministerial Council: Education

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 12th March 2013.

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

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  With your permission I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education format.  The meeting was held in Armagh on 27 February 2013.  I represented the Executive, as Minister of Education, along with the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland.  Bhí an tAire Oideachais agus Scileanna, Ruairí Quinn TD, ionadaíoch ar Rialtas na hÉireann.  The Irish Government was represented by Ruairí Quinn TD, Minister for Education and Skills.

Tá an ráiteas seo aontaithe le an Aire McCausland, agus tá sé á dhéanamh thar ceann na beirte againn.  This statement has been agreed with Minister McCausland and is made on behalf of both of us.  I will now summarise the main points from the meeting, ranging across all the agreed areas of education co-operation.

With regard to special educational needs, I remain committed to the expansion of services at the Middletown Centre for Autism, and I am pleased that progress remains on target to allow the centre to commence that expansion from April 2013.  I am pleased to report that the necessary business case approval has been provided by my Department for the expansion over the period as planned.  Subsequently, the minor refurbishment works and staff recruitment processes are under way.  The expansion of services in the North will enable a larger number of children to receive direct support from the centre, and that will be invaluable to some of our most vulnerable children with complex autism.

Minister Quinn and I reported that both inspectorates are progressing work on a report focusing on best practice guidelines in literacy provision at post-primary level.  It is anticipated that a similar report on numeracy will be ready for publication in late 2014.  We welcomed the support given by the Education Departments in 2012 for the recommendations of the educational underachievement working group to all-island initiatives promoting literacy and numeracy and noted the group’s commendation of the Department of Education’s advertising campaign to promote the value of education; agreement to consider the potential for further joint departmental co-operation through the medium of web-based linkages; and agreement to explore the use of information by both Departments for policy formulation and targeted interventions, in order to develop best practice in addressing educational underachievement.  It was also noted that current research on school attendance will provide the opportunity to share best practice on school attendance guidance and strategies in the North and South

Many of the challenges facing policymakers in the education sector are common to both jurisdictions.  Part 1 of the study of North/South co-operation in the education sector has been completed and approved by both Ministers.  The Departments are ready to move to part 2.  Part 2 of the study will be underpinned by enhanced and continuing structured high-level official engagement between both Departments.  That will further enable new opportunities for the development of specific cross-border co-operation projects designed to produce practical, tangible outcomes.  A further update will be given following the next NSMC meeting.

The Council noted the ongoing work to implement the recommendations contained in the joint evaluation report on the Dissolving Boundaries programme produced by the Education and Training Inspectorate and the Department of Education and Skills inspectorate.  In particular, the Council noted the focus on ensuring greater self-evaluation of school projects.

The Council also welcomed the recent production of a DVD featuring teachers and pupils from North and South involved in the Dissolving Boundaries programme.  Minister Quinn and I participated in the DVD, which aims to show how information and communication technology can assist in community cohesion.  The DVD also featured a case study set in Israel in which teachers from different faith schools help young people to work together based on the Dissolving Boundaries programme.

Ministers agreed that the North/South Ministerial Council in education format should meet again on 23 October 2013.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

In rising to comment on the statement by the Minister, I think that there are a number of issues that the Committee will, undoubtedly, want to pursue further with regard to the detail.  For example, reference is made in the statement to North/South co-operation in the education sector with regard to the production of best practice guidelines for literacy provision at post-primary level and the sharing of best practice on school attendance strategies.  They are issues of concern and ultimate importance to our schools in Northern Ireland

The statement is more about what is not in it than what is in it.  I remind the Minister of what he said in answer to one of his colleagues in the House on 28 January 2013.  In answer to a question regarding the North/South ministerial survey on cross-border education, he informed us that officials from the respective Departments were working towards a joint analysis of the data and a report was to be presented to the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting in education.  Can the Minister confirm that that issue was raised?  Can he confirm that the reason why it was not referred to in this briefing today is that little interest was shown in the issue?  Can he clarify what really is going on with regard to the North/South ministerial survey on the issue?

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

I thank the Member for his question.  I welcome the participation of the Education Committee in the North/South Ministerial Council work, and I acknowledge the work being done by that body when any inquiry is being carried out.  The Member will find that issues affecting education on this side of the border, the other side of the border or, indeed, our nearest islands are very similar.  We have a lot to learn from each other if we want to achieve the goal of ensuring that all our young people have access to high-quality education.  The problems that face communities and young people are very similar, whether they are in Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool or Cardiff.  Let us learn from all of them.  We should not be so narrow-minded that we would not learn from them.


With regard to the report on the North/South cross-border survey, I understand that concerns were expressed that the paperwork was delivered late and that parties wanted further time to study it.  I have no difficulty with that.  There is nothing to hide in any of the paperwork.  If parties want a longer time to study that paperwork, so be it.  I am hopeful that it will be presented to the next North/South ministerial meeting in education format in the near future.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 12th March 2013

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.  I welcome the Minister's statement to the House, especially the progress update on the expansion of services at Middletown Centre for Autism.  Can he detail how such an expansion of services will benefit parents and families, as well as children with autism, in the North?

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

That has been a piece of work that, I think, has delivered great benefit to communities on both sides of the border.  The expansion of the Middletown Centre for Autism will see real, meaningful benefits for families of young people with autism.  For instance, if we look at the work that will be produced on behalf of the North's Administration, we see that, over the next two years, upwards of 80 more children will benefit from the work of the centre than would have done previously.  An additional 15 posts will be achieved in the centre.  All those posts will focus on the needs and well-being of young people with autism.  More research will be carried out into autism and the services required for young people with autism and their families.  Therefore, it is a real piece of work that has flowed from the North/South Ministerial Council.  It is physical in nature in the sense that the centre will be expanded physically, and, in terms of provision of services from the centre, additional services will be delivered to young people.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra ar na ceisteanna go dtí seo.  Tugaim faoi deara nach bhfuil aon tagairt sa ráiteas don Ghaelscolaíocht.  Ceapaim féin gur ábhar iontach oiriúnach í an Ghaelscolaíocht don chomhoibriú Thuaidh/Theas.  Dá bhrí sin, ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire an bhfuil aon rud ar siúl ar thaobh comhoibrithe Thuaidh/Theas de ar an Ghaelscolaíocht. 

I noticed that the statement made no reference to Irish-medium education.  I would have thought that Irish-medium education is an excellent area of North/South co-operation.  Why is it omitted from the statement?  Is any worthwhile work taking place on that issue?

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

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist.  There is ongoing, continuous work from the North/South Ministerial Council in relation to the Irish language and co-operation between my Department and Minister Quinn's Department on the provision of Irish-medium education.  I have reported to the House previously.  For instance, the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin and the University of Ulster have reached agreement on a proposal that will, from 2013-14, allow students to avail themselves of preparatory courses for the Irish language requirement — an Scrúdú le hAghaidh Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge — delivered here in the North.  The preparatory course will be delivered through the University of Ulster's diploma in Irish language.  Under the agreement, the University of Ulster will have access to all course material for the Irish language qualification.  St Mary's University College is still considering a proposal to develop all elements of the qualification.  That is one example of ongoing work on Irish-medium education.  There is also work between the two inspectorates on how Irish-medium education should be inspected etc.  I am satisfied that a healthy stream of work is taking place through the North/South Ministerial Council on Irish language provision.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome any work that is being done on underachievement, attendance and autism.

In his statement, the Minister said:

"Many of the challenges facing policymakers in the education sector are common to both jurisdictions."

The spirit of the Belfast Agreement is that we should try to find an agreed way forward.  It seems that the Minister is more happy to discuss with colleagues in Ireland than with us all of the issues that matter.  Will the Minister sit down and come up with an agreed way forward so that we can all have proper input into the future?

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

I am not sure what the Member means by that.  I pride myself on being accessible to all MLAs and political parties.  I have had discussions with several political parties.  I had discussions with your predecessor, who is now a member of a different political party.  I am not aware of any requests from your good self to discuss educational matters with me.  If you make a request, I will be happy to facilitate that.  If you want to make that through the North/South Ministerial Council, feel free to do so.  Just send me a letter, and I will be more than happy to meet you.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I welcome the planned expansion of services at Middletown, which, I understand, will increase its capacity from roughly 10 children to about 60 children a year.  I also understand that they will all be from the North.  Can the Minister give us any idea of the anticipated expansion of Middletown to allow the South's input to develop as well?  I understand that a pilot project may be planned there in the longer term.

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

There are two streams of work going on for mutual benefit at the Middletown centre.  We in the North have different needs from those in the South.  That is why the centre has worked quite well.  It is based on the needs of each jurisdiction rather than just having a single programme of work.  So we have two programmes of work going on, and those on both sides of the border will benefit from that.  On the northern side, we have decided that we want direct interventions with children, whereas our Southern colleagues are more focused on research at this time, but we will benefit from both.  So there is a research programme going on.  Both jurisdictions are paying for the physical expansion of the centre as well.  So this is jointly funded, and there are two different pieces of work going on for mutual benefit.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I note that DE's advertising campaign to promote the value of education was commended.  That commendation clearly did not take into consideration the complaints that were received and the offence that was caused in respect of the ads that were exclusively in Irish.  What was the cost of the entire campaign?  Are any similar campaigns planned?  How can the value of such a campaign be quantified?

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

I am not aware of any complaints being received, and I am not aware of any offence being caused by advertisements in the Irish language.  There may be people who set out to be offended.  Did you ever hear that one? [Interruption.]

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

There may be people who are so totally opposed to the Irish language that, regardless of how it is managed or how it is dealt with, they will be offended.  I note from recent media coverage that there is a healthy Irish language class taking place in east Belfast, of all places.  That is a good thing.  The Irish language does not belong to me; it does not belong to my party; and it does not belong to the nationalist/republican community.  It belongs to the people of the island of Ireland.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

You just hijacked it.

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

When you embrace the Irish language, you will realise that it is no threat to anyone. 

I have no record of that, but I will check with my Department to find out how many people were offended or took offence from it, though I suspect that I could name them from where I am standing. 

I previously informed your colleague from East Derry how much the Irish language campaign cost additionally.

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

If you and Miss McIlveen have fallen out, it is not my fault.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order.  Let us not have a debate across the Chamber.

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

I think that it was around £4,000, and I think that that was £4,000 well invested.  I do not have the figures in front of me for the overall cost of the advertising campaign, but it runs into several hundred thousand pounds. 

How will it be evaluated?  The plan is to run the advertising campaign for three years — in English and Irish — and it will be evaluated at the end of that three-year period.  It will then be decided how the campaign should continue.  Even the most recent evaluations of the campaign are quite good.  Our Southern counterparts have identified it as being worthwhile, and they are interested in following up on that. 


I was recently at the Education World Forum listening to one of the Education Ministers from one of the provinces of Canada.  They have not done this because we are doing it, but they have also started a public advertising campaign about the benefits of education.  So we are not the only Administration to do this.  Others are doing it because they see the value of that medium of advertising.  The advertising campaign will continue.  It will be evaluated after a three-year period, which is reckoned to be the best period to evaluate any project such as this.  Given that the initial evaluations are quite good, we should learn from that and continue to do this.

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  I thank the Minister for his statement.  I welcome the agreement to consider the potential for further joint departmental co-operation across the island.  In addressing educational underachievement and developing best practice, have both Ministers considered models of international best practice in other countries such as China and Sweden, which seem to be leading the way in addressing educational underachievement?

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

We have.  The policy documents that my party currently adheres to are based on international best practice.  I attended the Education World Forum recently to listen to Ministers from around 50 nations, provinces and states from across the world talking about their educational experience, the needs of their education system and how they were learning from across the world.  I want to be in a position in which other nations look towards this island and say, "That is the best way to do education".  Our recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results have sparked international interest in how we deliver education here.  I hope that that will continue.

I also hope that our participation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) international report — delegates from the OECD were with us last week and have now gone away to prepare the report — will flag up areas in which the international community can learn from us and best practice from other nations that we can learn from as well.  We scan the globe, in a sense, to ensure that our educational practices learn rom the best.  We want others to learn from us as well.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

In relation to the joint evaluation report on the Dissolving Boundaries programme, can I ask the Minister about the issue of very successful A-level students in Northern Ireland not being offered places in universities in the Republic, particularly students who want to study veterinary science and cannot do a veterinary science degree in the North?  Some of them have got five A*s but no offer.  Can he offer any enlightenment?

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

The Dissolving Boundaries programme of work is school-based and community-based.  The issue that the Member raised has been raised at ministerial level and at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting by both Ministers.  In fairness to Minister Quinn, I believe that he wants the issue resolved.  However, the universities board in the South is an independent body; it sets its own entrance criteria.  I understand that individual universities are also now expressing concerns about how our A-level students and those who achieve A*s are treated in admissions criteria.  There is an internal lobby going on now to have that process changed.  We have political support, and we have the support of a number of universities in the South that want to see that system changed.  I will continue to lobby all relevant bodies to ensure that the system is changed so that the value of our examinations are recognised.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

Over a period of time, people have become used to the Minister and his party dressing up North/South Ministerial Councils as something that they are not.  Will he reassure the House that the Dissolving Boundaries programme that he has just alluded to is, in fact, a Dissolving Boundaries programme and that he would not like to turn it into a "Dissolving Borders" programme?

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

To be perfectly frank with you, I would like to turn it into a "Dissolving Borders" programme.  I am an Irish republican.  It may have escaped your attention that I believe that the best way forward for the people of the island of Ireland is reunification.

The work is what it says on the tin: it is about dissolving boundaries.  It is about greater understanding among the people who live on the island of Ireland, whether they be unionist, nationalist, republican, non-aligned or whatever they may be.  It is school-based.  It is young people from Galway talking to young people in Armagh, and young people from Belfast talking to young people in Cork.  It is a great project, because they are beginning to learn from one another.  We have other projects in which young people learn about the experiences of young people living in Scotland, England and Wales as well.  I have no difficulty with those, because my mind is not so narrow that I fear learning from anyone else.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

I also thank the Minister for his statement.  Will he give the House his assessment of the level of continued commitment of the Government of the Republic towards the Middletown autism centre, given that, last February, the president of Ireland opened a centre for autism at Galway university?  I ask the Minister to outline whether he thinks that that signals a shift of emphasis by the Republic.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 12th March 2013

As I said to, I think, Mr Lunn when I spoke about what services are being delivered through the centre and why, the Southern Administration have different needs from us, and they have expressed different requirements from the Middletown centre.  They seek research etc from the centre.  That is their provision, and I accept that. 

We want to have a more hands-on approach with more contact between young people and autism experts, and that will happen.  The lessons learned from that will benefit the Southern side of the equation, and the lessons learned from the studies being carried out by the Southern side of the equation will benefit us. 

The physical expansion of the centre is being paid for equally by the Department of Education here and the Department of Education and Skills in the South.  The different needs are being managed by the Middletown centre.  Minister Quinn has different provision needs across his jurisdiction.  He is managing those, and that is a matter for him.  However, I believe that the Middletown centre is delivering services that will be of real benefit to young people with autism and their families across the island of Ireland.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I recently met a number of parents of children and young people who suffer from autism, and they explained the difficulties that they face in sometimes having to educate teachers on how to deal with their autistic children.  Will the Minister advise why he continues to prioritise expenditure for a relatively small number of young people, who are being taken out of the comfort of their normal settings and routines?  Why is he doing that rather than investing in helping children in their normal settings and helping the teachers who teach them daily?

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

If the Member has details of parents who are concerned about the provision that young people are receiving, I am happy for him to write to or contact me, and I will assist them in any way that I can.

I thought that we had passed the phase of political rather than educational objections to the Middletown centre.  I suspect that the Member's objection is political because the Education Committee, after its most recent visit to the centre, was quite happy with the provision of service delivered there and felt that it met the needs of the young people involved.  No one will be forced to go to the Middletown centre.  If a family or young person does not wish to avail themselves of its services, they will not be forced to go. 

I have not prioritised funding for the centre.  This is not a case of one or the other.  I have ring-fenced special educational needs funding for our young people, and it is not subject to any of the cuts imposed on us by the British Government.  I have made money available to the Middletown centre — in universal terms, it is a small amount — to assist young people with autism and their families.  The service is expanding from one that catered for 10 children per annum to one that caters for almost 60 children per annum.  The number of people on the ground who assist families who have children with autism is increasing from 14 to nearly 30.  So it is not a case of either/or; it is both.  Provision is being made at a local level and through the Middletown centre.