Oral Answers to Questions – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 12th March 2013.

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Schools: East Belfast

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

1. asked the Minister of Education to outline the consultation process in relation to aspects of the area-based plan that impact on East Belfast. (AQO 3601/11-15)

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

Last year, the education and library boards carried out a public consultation on their draft post-primary area plans.  The consultation process for east Belfast and any other area will follow the same principles.  Following my statement on 26 February, the boards have now put their consultation reports and revised area plans on their websites.  The boards are due to start their public consultation on primary area plans on 19 March.  There will be an extended consultation period until the end of June.  That public consultation will allow all with an interest in education to participate and present their views.

Where a proposal for a significant change to a school is included in an area plan, whether it is a primary or post-primary area plan, it will require the publication of a development proposal.  That involves the board conducting a pre-publication consultation with the school’s board of governors, parents and staff, and also with other schools that the board considers might be affected by the proposal.  Following that, the board will decide whether to proceed to publish the proposal.  If it does, there is a further two-month consultation period.  That ensures that all interested parties are informed about proposed changes and have an opportunity to comment.  Only then do I as Minister make my decision on a proposal, taking account of all comments and relevant circumstances.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Mickey Brady.  Sorry — my mistake again.  Robin Newton.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I thought you were trying to avoid me there, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker

I thank the Minister for his answer so far.  What real trust and confidence can the parents of east Belfast have, not only in you as a Sinn Féin Minister, but in previous Sinn Féin Ministers, who closed Lisnasharragh High School and Orangefield High School, want to amalgamate Knockbreda High School with Newtownbreda High School — a proposal rejected by the parents — and want to do away with Dundonald High School, and, indeed, to review the provision in Tullycarnet Primary School?  Given that the controlled sector has borne the brunt of area planning, what confidence can the parents have that you will provide that second-level education suitable for their sons and daughters in the east of the city?

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

I thank the Member for his question.  If I wanted to ruin controlled education, I would keep every school open.  I would keep all those schools open that cannot provide a sustainable and good education for the young people of the controlled sector.  I would keep open those schools that are not sustainable in any way — schools that, despite the best efforts over the years of the principal, the board of governors, the senior management team and others, are no longer in a position to provide good education for communities that they serve.  I would keep them open.  That is how you destroy education — by keeping unsustainable schools open.

However, I and my predecessors have grappled with the issue and taken it on.  There are schools in our system — in the maintained, the controlled, the voluntary sectors and other sectors — that are no longer sustainable and are not capable of providing quality education for the young people they serve, and the only option is to close them.  That sends out a very strong message that education is important and we will allow no one to be provided with a substandard education, regardless of what sector they come from.

I do not accept the Member's comment that the controlled sector has borne the brunt of it.  The figures do not back that up.  However, I will not be closing schools on the basis of one controlled, one maintained, one voluntary, one Irish-medium and one integrated.  I will close schools when all the evidence suggests that that is the best thing to do, regardless of what sector they come from.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I will change my question to follow up the previous question.  I visited Dundonald High School the other day.  It has a three-year programme that it has started on and wants to be allowed to get on with it.  I do not understand how we can make all those area-planning changes when we have not got the funding for the building and rebuilding or a market for selling sites.  Surely it is better to give a school like Dundonald the three years that it needs and look at other things in the meantime.

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

I understand that development proposals are either in or have been through the pre-consultation period for Dundonald High School and a number of the schools that the Member who previously spoke mentioned.  They have not come to a conclusion yet, and I have made no decision on them. Where a development proposal process is in place, a school that wishes to make alternative suggestions should include them in its responses to such a process.  It is there for a reason; it is there for consultation with all stakeholders, particularly the staff and pupils of the school and the community that it serves.

I assure the Member that where a school brings forward alternative proposals they will be listened to.  However, any such proposals have to stack up on the basis of educational evidence.  We have to assure ourselves that the pupils who are currently at a school or the pupils who will attend it in future will have access to high-quality education.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  What measures are in place to tackle educational underachievement in socially deprived areas such as east Belfast, and what more needs to be done?

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

A number of unionist representatives are going to have to start tackling the question of what education and its purpose is.  It is not about the number of schools that we have, but the quality of those schools.  The mantra that we should keep all schools open at any cost is not the answer to educational underachievement whether in east Belfast, west Belfast or Newry and Armagh.

Unionist representatives are going to have to be honest with the communities that they serve.  They are going to have to show leadership on this issue and start debating education in its totality.  I say again that their slavish adherence to academic selection is one of the biggest impediments to educational achievement in Protestant working-class communities.

Literacy and Numeracy: NIAO Report

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

2. asked the Minister of Education, in light of the Northern Ireland Audit Office report on numeracy and literacy highlighting the lack of benchmarking against comparable UK cities, what steps his Department has taken to address this issue. (AQO 3602/11-15)

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

The Audit Office report that the Member refers to was published in March 2006 and the specific recommendation was contained in the follow-up report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which was published in December 2006.  The full list of the PAC recommendations was included at appendix 2 to the most recent NIAO report, 'Improving Literacy and Numeracy Achievement in Schools', which was published on 19 February 2013.

Following the 2006 report, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was commissioned by the Department of Education (DE) to undertake a study to identify measures that were working successfully in delivering better literacy and numeracy outcomes in comparator cities.  PwC identified the comparator cities or local authorities as Glasgow, Liverpool, Dublin, Cork and the London boroughs of Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea.  That report was published in December 2007.

My Department benchmarks pupil performance at an international level through surveys such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  In 2011, our primary 6 pupils performed exceptionally well in the TIMSS and PIRLS surveys.  They were ranked the highest performing English-speaking region in the world in reading, coming fifth out of 45 countries, and numeracy, in which they were ranked sixth out of 50 countries. 

The PISA study assesses the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science.  The PISA 2009 results showed that, overall, we are placed among the average performing countries in respect of reading and maths and among those above average in science. 

The most recent Audit Office report welcomed the Department’s participation in international studies such as PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra.  Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí de: cad iad na céimeanna atá á nglacadh ag a Roinn lena chinntiú go bhfuil an dea-chleachtadh san uimhríocht agus sa litearthacht a scaipeadh leis na heasnaimh sna hábhair sin a leigheas? 

What steps is the Minister's Department taking to ensure the dissemination of good practice in numeracy and literacy to help address the serious deficit in these areas?

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

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist.  My Department's policies are all directed towards educational improvement and literacy and numeracy improvement.  The Audit Office report notes that there has been improvement across the years in both areas, albeit not as quickly as we would like to see. 

The statistics show that we are progressively improving year-on-year, but, behind the statistics concerning young people who do not succeed, there are life stories, and we have to improve on those.  Even in the last report, we brought in the Achieving Belfast and Achieving Derry programmes.  We have brought in our numeracy and literacy policy, 'Count, Read: Succeed'.  There has been a specific focus on numeracy and literacy in our schools.  Through the assistance of OFMDFM, we are bringing over 200 newly qualified teachers into our schools to focus on numeracy and literacy.  Bringing more and more young people into the early years programme will help our numeracy and literacy programme to succeed.  All our policies are directed towards improving educational outcomes for all our young people.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Does the Minister accept that teachers are feeling considerable strain because of all the ongoing bureaucratic assessment that has to happen in schools now?  Does he understand that their time is being diverted away from what needs to be done in the classroom to address not only literacy and numeracy but science, for example?  We have dropped to being the 22nd best region in Europe as regards science outcomes.  Given that sector's importance to future employment, the Department needs to address that urgently.

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

We need to assess to benchmark and to see exactly how we are performing.  We also need to benchmark to ensure that we can then share best practice.  However, It is about getting the quantity and quality of benchmarking right.  The Member will be aware that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been with us in recent days.  One of the areas that it has been looking at is how we use assessments.  The OECD will give us an international perspective on how we use assessments.  I look forward to the report, which will be published in around June time.  We will learn from that report.

The Member will also be aware that we are reviewing the use of computer-based assessments in primary schools.  We are looking at that from several different angles, and I await that report as well.  If there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken, those actions will be taken.  I want to ensure, as every Member does, that teaching staff spend as much time in the classroom teaching as possible.  However, part of that is assessment: assessment of their own role, assessment of the classroom's role etc.  However, I want to get the balance right.  The OECD and the review of computer-based assessments will allow us to do that.

Levels of progression is another area about which teachers have expressed concern to me.  Levels of progression are under review.  We are reviewing those over the year.  We are talking to teacher representatives and the unions. The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is reviewing constantly.  We will evaluate levels of progression, too, at the end of the first year.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

In recognising the best practices that already exist in our schools, will you give a commitment to urgently review all your Department's assessment systems to ensure the continual assessment of pupils?

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

I could end up in a constant circle of review and do nothing else but review.  However, as I said to the Member who asked the previous question, I am reviewing the computer-based assessments in primary schools.  The levels of progression have been under constant review from their introduction, and we will have a report on those.  We will see what lessons have to be learnt from that and how we can fine-tune levels of progression.  We have recently had with us the best international comparator in the world, the OECD, which is looking at how we assess.  It will report to us as part of an international report.  We will learn from that report.  We will learn from its examination of our system and its examination of other countries' assessments.

I have no difficulty with review, but it will not be review for review's sake.  There has to be assessment in the classroom.  You have to assess to benchmark, to ensure that we are doing things right and to share good practice.  All professions out there are assessed.  I have no difficulty with the principle of assessment, but I do want to ensure that we do it right.

Catholic Maintained Schools: Integrated Status

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

3. asked the Minister of Education whether there is any legal impediment to Catholic maintained schools gaining integrated status. (AQO 3603/11-15)

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

There is no legal impediment to Catholic maintained schools' gaining integrated status.  Under article 68 of the 1989 Education Reform Order, any existing grant-aided school, apart from a special school, is eligible to transform to integrated status.  However, to date, no Catholic maintained school has, in fact, transformed.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer.  Can he give an explanation as to why no maintained school has taken advantage of the transformation process?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 12th March 2013

It is for the parents and the board of governors to decide whether they want to transform or not.  There is a process set out in guidance and legislation which will assist any school that wishes to transform to integrated status to do so.  Any school in the controlled sector that has transformed has done so at the request of the parents and the board of governors.  There is a ballot to ensure that the majority of parents wish the transformation to take place.  So, it is a democratic process.  Why is it not happening in the Catholic maintained sector?  Because no school has asked to go through the transformation process.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

Will the Minister outline any legal impediments that there are to a maintained school merging with a controlled school?

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

There is no legal impediment.  What the management of the school would look like going into the future would have to be worked out.  However, I am not aware of any legal impediment to a maintained school and a controlled school or any other combination of schools coming together.  That would have to be dealt with through the development proposal process, and a management type would have to be agreed between the proposers, which would come to my Department for agreement.  I am not aware of any legal impediment to stop them doing so.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.  Can the Minister outline how the Department currently facilitates integrated education?

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

My Department has a duty to facilitate and promote integrated education.  My Department provides funding for the Council for Integrated Education to assist the development of integrated schools for public benefit.  Funding of £628,000 has been allocated for 2012-13.  DE also provides funding to help schools with the process of transformation to the integrated sector.  That assists schools in the initial stages of the transformation process, with the employment of a teacher from the minority community in the school to assist with religious education.  The budget available for 2012-13 was £261,000.

So, we are making practical measures available.  We have support measures available for schools to move towards integration, but it is a matter for the school and the community it serves.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Before we go any further, I want to say two things.  First, there should be no cross-debate when the Minister or anyone else is speaking.  If anyone has a question to ask, they should ask it.  That is straightforward.  The other thing is that if people want to ask a supplementary question they need to rise, and continue to rise.

School Building Programme: Construction Jobs

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

4. asked the Minister of Education how many construction jobs will be created by his school build programme. (AQO 3604/11-15)

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

The recent announcement was not only good news for the 22 school projects that are advanced in planning, it was also good news for employment in the construction industry.   The projects announced are valued at somewhere in the region of £220 million, and it is estimated that they will create a potential investment of up to £625 million to the local economy and support some 6,200 jobs.  Those figures are based on multipliers from the UK Contractors Group of £2·84 of investment potential for every £1 invested and 28·5 jobs created per £1 million of output.

In addition, my previous announcement in June 2012 included an investment of over £133 million in 18 newbuild projects.  That investment will result in a further £380 million going into the local economy and will support somewhere in the region of 3,800 jobs.

As well as the announced projects, my Department has programmes of enhancement works, minor works and maintenance schemes that contribute to the local economy.  Since early 2009, education sector capital projects have included employers’ social requirements.  Those contract terms require contractors to recruit the long-term unemployed and apprentices and to provide student placements and training according to the scale of the project.

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his response.  I welcome the significant investment that the Minister has outlined and the much-needed boost to the economy that it will bring.  Will the Minister elaborate on the potential of the minor works and schools enhancement programme that he has already mentioned?  Go raibh maith agat.

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

There is great potential in them, not only for the schools estate but for our economy.  If we look at the maintenance programme for next year, I have set aside from my budget £27 million for the maintenance programme.  OFMDFM has topped that up with a further £10 million, so there is £37 million being spent on the school maintenance programme next year.  That is a major investment in improvement to our schools.  It is not enough, but it is a significant increase on previous years.

We have minor works programmes where up to £500,000 is being spent on works in schools.  I recently visited Ceara School in Lurgan, which is a special school that has been told that it will get a £500,000 upgrade to its premises.  That is just one example of where money is being spent under the radar on making a difference to our schools, the economy and employment.  I announced the school enhancement programme, through which £4 million is available to schools to refurbish their schools estate.  There has been quite significant interest in that, and £20 million is available in this and the next financial year.  Although we live in difficult times, we are using our money wisely to improve the education estate and to create and sustain employment in the construction industry.

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

The Minister outlined, quite rightly, the beneficial effect that the school projects — 22 projects and £220 million — that he announced has contributed to the local economy.  Does he take the logic of his argument to the extent that he will bid to try to escalate, in the near future, the school build programme to include schools in my constituency that I have written to him about?

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

The simple answer to that is yes.  Since coming into office, I have continually lobbied my Executive colleagues to increase the funding available to the Department of Education for revenue and for capital builds.  I have been quite successful with revenue.  I have also been successful with maintenance money from the spending rounds and with the recent investment from OFMDFM of £10 million for school maintenance.  I will continue to lobby for capital funds for schools in the Member's constituency and across the board.  Although we announced a significant number of projects to move ahead, we still have around 100 school build programmes that I want to be built to provide new services and jobs to our communities.  I assure the Member that I will continue to lobby for more funds, and I would welcome his support on the matter.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister's answer will be a great boost to the local economy and to jobs in construction.  Further to Michaela Boyle's question, when will the Minister or the Department be in a position to notify schools that have made applications for minor works programmes whether they have been successful?

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

Although the minor works programme is funded by the Department of Education, it is run by the boards, which routinely inform schools when they have been successful in their minor works applications.  I notified the boards of their funding for next year — they are aware of the money that they have — to allow them to plan for the future and to get the projects on the ground as quickly as possible and get the money spent. 

One frustrating thing about government is that it is sometimes difficult to get money out of the door and spent.  We are encapsulated in protocols, procedures and regulations, which sometimes make it more difficult to spend public money than makes sense to me.  However, the boards and so on know their funds for next year, and they will make announcements as we go along.  A significant amount of money is available to make improvements to our schools.

Primary Schools: Inner South Belfast

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

5. asked the Minister of Education for an update on the new amalgamated primary school for inner south Belfast. (AQO 3605/11-15)

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

The Belfast Education and Library Board is the managing authority for the controlled schools estate in Belfast.  The board has not published a development proposal for a new primary school in inner south Belfast.  The boards will publish their draft area plans for primary schools for consultation on 19 March 2013.  The Belfast Board's plan will outline its proposal for primary provision in inner south Belfast, which will cover the three primary schools of Donegall Road, Fane Street and Blythefield. 

I understand that the Belfast Board has identified a potential site for a new amalgamated school on the Belfast City Hospital grounds and has submitted a planning application.  However, the Belfast Trust has not yet confirmed that the site is surplus to its requirements.  There will be an extended consultation period until the end of June for the primary school plans.  I hope that everyone will take the opportunity to consider the plans when they are published and respond to the consultation.

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

As I understand it, the application by the Belfast Board can go in only with the approval of the Department of Education, and the Department of Health's view is that the Department of Education has to indicate that it wants to make progress to allow it to progress the release of the site.  Can we assume that progress to date — namely the application going in from the board with his Department's approval — indicates that the Department of Education wishes to progress the scheme?

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

I am not sure which application the Member refers to that requires the Department's approval.  Is he referring to the planning application?

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

I understand that the application has been submitted, but I stand to be corrected.  However, my Department's role is on a development proposal.  The board has not submitted or, indeed I understand, started pre-consultation on a development proposal that would see the amalgamation of Donegall Road school, Fane Street school and Blythefield school.  Unless that process starts, what exactly is the Belfast Board building?  It is not a process that should take that long, or needs to take that long, and if the board is planning to publish it, so be it, and I will deal with it as expeditiously as possible.  Unless I have a development proposal, I have nothing to give approval to.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra.  Will the Minister outline the next steps in the area-planning process?

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

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist.  I outlined the next steps in the area-planning process in my statement last month.  The boards have now published their post-primary plans and the consultation responses on their websites.  I require further work to be done to the plans.  I have asked the boards, my Department, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and the integrated and Irish-medium sectors to join a steering group to focus on how we bring forward plans that are sustainable and viable going into the future. 

However, there has also been a lot of work done on area-planning, and the recent announcements that I made on school builds all flow from area-planning work.  It is beginning to shape our education estate, and it is beginning to inform the education debate.  There is continuing work to be done, and, in fact, that work will continue over a number of different iterations of the area plans, because demographics, profiles, etc, may change.  Area planning will be a feature of education for many years.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UKIP

In my constituency, Ballycloughan Primary School is up for sale.  Will the Minister be using the proceeds of that sale to meet amalgamation costs where necessary in my constituency?

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

I do not believe that I have the authority to do such a thing.  All receipts come back in, I understand, through the Department of Finance and Personnel to the Department.  They cannot be ring-fenced for one or other constituency.  They will be ring-fenced for use in education and will benefit education going into the future, but I cannot, under financial regulations and rules, ring-fence them for any constituency.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

That question was quite a distance from south Belfast.

Primary Schools: Literacy and Numeracy Assessments

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

6. asked the Minister of Education, in light of his letter to primary school principals regarding the introduction of Northern Ireland numeracy assessment and Northern Ireland literacy assessment, whether he will commission an independent review of their introduction. (AQO 3606/11-15)

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

As my letter to schools outlined, I have commissioned a four-part review of statutory computer-based assessments (CBA), policy and practice.  I am satisfied that each element of the review is being conducted by the appropriate personnel and with the appropriate level of independence.  I have asked for all elements of the review to be completed before June 2013 to allow communications on the way forward in time for the autumn term of 2013.

A steering group has been established to take forward the review of CBA policy to determine whether it continues to support my wider objectives, particularly with reference to raising standards in literacy and numeracy.   The steering group, which will consult widely across the education sector, includes representatives from my Department, C2K, the Education and Training Inspectorate and the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment as well as serving school principals.  Although my policy review will focus on the way forward for computer-based assessment, I have also commissioned an external, independent report on the issues and lessons to be learnt following the implementation of CBA this academic year.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for is answer.  Will he stand by his comment at the Irish National Teachers' Organisation conference that, if the NI Numeracy Assessment (NINA) and the NI Literacy Assessment (NILA) are not fit for purpose, he will put them back on the shelf?

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

Yes, given the widespread concern among schools on NINA and NILA: otherwise, there is no point in carrying out a review of these matters,  If they are not fit for purpose and not carrying out the function for which they were commissioned, they will be put back on the shelf.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Can the Minister give an assurance that the views and experience of teachers in schools will be included and fully considered?

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

Yes.  Indeed, it has been the views and experience of school principals and teachers that has brought forward the necessity for this review.  It was their concerns that were highlighted around CBA that ensured that I as Minister brought forward a review around exactly what happened with CBA this year, the educational benefits or otherwise of CBA and of how we reached this position in the first place.