Shared Education

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 17th February 2014.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 17th February 2014

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate.  As two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time.  The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.  The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.  All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive, so, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with approval the concept of shared education; believes sharing between all types of school could lead to better educational and community relations outcomes; further notes with disappointment the failure of the current Minister of Education to effectively facilitate sharing across the sectors; believes that the current area-planning process has not been conducive to sharing between schools and that the ministerial advisory group report on advancing shared education was a missed opportunity; expresses disappointment at the continuing failure to introduce a shared education premium; and calls on the Minister of Education to take practical steps to promote and facilitate sharing, so that a single education system can become a realistic policy goal.

This is probably one of the most important subjects that the Assembly can debate, and one on which the whole of society's future depends.  We have all heard the quotation:

"The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

That is, education is the key to making our society the world success that it should be. 

After the appalling, disastrous year of protests and the ongoing division over Haass, we — that is all of us — need to show society, not just in the United Kingdom and Ireland but in Europe, the USA and the rest of the world, that Northern Ireland can put in place a total, all-encompassing educational framework that will help resolve our differences.  I say it again:  a total, all-encompassing educational framework. 

The Ulster Unionist Party's driving policy is to put education first and, within that, to push for a single shared education system.  The key word is "single":  one; solitary — a sole shared education system.  The Ulster Unionist Party follows the leadership shown by Lord Londonderry in the 1920s, Sir Basil McIvor and Brian Faulkner in the 1970s, and many others, in wanting and working for shared education.  After 90 years, we still have not got there. 

Today is a test for all of us.  Do we want shared education?  The public do:  68% want desegregation of schools and 79% of parents see integrated education as the right way forward.  In his 22 October statement, we saw the Sinn Féin Minister show that he wants shared education.  Indeed, Sinn Féin reinforces that in its amendment.  Almost all the other parties have shown that they, too, want it to some degree.  Today is your test.  Do you want shared education? 

The motion should not be difficult for anyone to accept.  We start by noting with approval, by all, of the concept of shared education.  However, it is essential that we define what we mean.  It is a mechanism, a total concept, of which integrated education is an absolutely key part.  It is about creating a wholly inclusive educational environment that focuses totally on education.  It means aligning every educational policy towards that one goal, including funding; the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), in an acceptable form; sectors; inspection; early years; the curriculum; exams; higher and further education; vocational and academic education; all other fields; and especially the bête noire that is the present area planning policy. 

The area planning initiative must stop now and be completely rethought.  It could fit into the overarching aim of a single shared education system if it were completely rethought.  That would not be a backward step for the Minister, but a chance for a fresh look after so many other changes have been agreed.  The Minister acknowledges that development proposals are written as if the school up the road does not exist, so he is already amending the initiative.

Shared education, as my party leader has often said, can happen totally for some schools now, for others in the next few years, and for all schools in the longer term.  We all need to start putting a framework in place that ensures that that will happen so that "the next few years" becomes five or six years and "the longer term" becomes 10 or 15 years.  That is our test today.  I wonder whether everyone here will put that in place.  It is in the Programme for Government, but in such a woolly way that I feel Shaun the sheep from 'Wallace and Gromit' should become the Executive's mascot.

Last year's 'Advancing Shared Education' report set out some excellent recommendations, except the final three.  We believe that we missed an opportunity then in not grasping those.  We should put in place the first 17 recommendations.  Bring on the statutory duty and the establishment of a central unit to drive forward a strategy with targets and goals, regional structures, research and evaluations.  However, that needs suitable funding.  It needs a shared premium, funding for training, and so much more.  Let us not go into all that today, because it is all in the report. 

I pause for a second to congratulate the Education Committee and remind everyone that it has not forgotten that initiative and will be holding an inquiry on the matter later in the year.  However, it concerns me that we have put that off until later in the year when so much change to policy and action needs to be put in place now.  That is why we are having today's debate. 

The debate is not just a call on political parties to support shared education, but a call to all involved.  Many groundbreaking bodies are already working on it today.  I pick out the examples of the Fermanagh Trust and the excellent work that the area learning communities are doing to set examples in sharing.  In my constituency, we have Moneynick and Duneane Primary Schools, which benefited from PIEE, Atlantic Philanthropies funding and, of course, the North Eastern Education and Library Board's support.  However, the funding has stopped for the latter and is being reduced for the former.  That is why this is a timely debate.

We must use all that we have learnt and preserve and expand on it, rather than let it fade.  Sharing is not just shared sports games or music lessons, facilities or transport to and from:  it is shared teaching, shared teacher training and development, shared curriculum, shared classes, shared parents' meetings and shared governors and trustees.  In the future, it could mean federations and groupings of all different types, especially in the sectors.  It is everyone from the maintained sector, controlled sector, voluntary sector and library boards:  this comment applies to all.  Throw off your shackles and free yourselves — no more '12 Years a Slave'.  Mark Twain said:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

In the DUP amendment, we see just two areas of sharing being tackled.  We need more.  There is much to be praised in Together:  Building a United Community.  However, it is just one part of the whole jigsaw.  There is much in the signature projects, too.  We praise them.  However, we need them to really happen.  That is not really relevant to this debate:  nothing to do with sharing.  Indeed, I am concerned as to whether the DUP really gets shared education.  Its leader said that segregated education was a form of benign apartheid.  Do they get it?  They talked about a commission on shared education, yet not one of the education and library boards has ever been contacted about it.  We need courage, determination and resolution to put that in place, but as part of a single shared-education drive — starting today, a total, all-inclusive drive.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

No.  You will get your chance in a second.  Thank you.

We see much in Sinn Féin's amendment No 2.  There is much that we can agree with, especially the opening sentence:

"the current area-planning process must be conducive to sharing between schools".

It is not.  We need to see it changed.  Where we really differ is not expressed in words; it is in the dogma.  Sinn Féin wants everyone to have the same excellent education by making the opportunities to all equal.  We also want everyone to have an excellent education, but we want everyone to be given equal opportunities to excel in every field they can.  Sharing the best that is — or, in some cases, was — in the grammar system is the way forward, not the divisive battle that each of those party's policies support.  Today, what I call for is bigger than all of that. 

Let us explore the suggestions by Professor Borooah and Professor Knox as part of the whole, total drive towards a single, shared education system.  To all of you:  throw off your shackles, drop your amendments, support the main motion as it includes all of your aspirations, catch the wind of change and give your children the chance to explore, dream and discover.  The UUP proposes the motion and opposes both amendments.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out all after "outcomes;" and insert

"welcomes the initiative by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in progressing this work through the signature projects; and calls on the Minister of Education to actively assist in this work through the development of shared campuses so that a single education system can become a realistic policy goal."

At the outset, I have to say to the Member who moved the motion that I in no way feel that I am in shackles and that somehow I have to shed those shackles to become subservient to another political party.  He does himself, his party and his cause no good by coming to the House trying to paint the picture that somehow the only answers and solutions are to be found in his party's approach to the issue.  I will deal with the detail of that in a moment or two. 

At the commencement of my remarks, let me, in supporting my party's amendment, pay tribute to certain schools.  We very often come to the House and talk in general terms.  We somehow forget that there are teachers, schools, governors, parents and organisations who work tirelessly, year after year after year, to ensure that their schools are inclusive, shared facilities. 

I have to pay tribute, for example, to Ballycastle High School and Cross and Passion College in my constituency.  Way before it was ever popular to use the phrase "shared education", those schools recognised their geographical location and the challenges that they had.  Did that prevent them from trying to bring forward something that was of meaning and value to their pupils and community?  No, it did not.  I pay tribute to them today.  I trust that the Minister will very shortly be able to announce funding that will be of benefit to Ballycastle High School and Cross and Passion College.  That will, for the first time, show them recognition for the work that they have done.

In coming to the amendment, let me also pay tribute to my party leader.  I can say, without any fear of being contradicted, that it was he who made those comments when he went to Castlereagh, despite everybody, from the bishops down, attacking him because his words were somehow seen as an attack on Catholic education.  Let us remember that those comments were made.  Let us also remember that a week after my party leader made those comments in Castlereagh, we heard a different tone from the bishops.

Let us tease out the issue by, for example, looking at the statement made by the Education Minister back in October 2013.  He said:

"shared education is not a bolt-on or optional extra.  It is fundamental to delivering good schools and central to my vision that every learner should achieve his or her full potential." — [Official Report, Vol 88, No 8, p1, col 2].

That is to where we want to ensure that we move in the weeks, months and years ahead.

The mover of the motion rightly paid tribute to work done by the Fermanagh Trust, the North Eastern Education and Library Board, the PIEE project and Queen's University and the excellent work it has done.

Here is where we have an issue.  Shared education means all things to all people at certain times of the week or year, but it all depends on when you ask and quiz them.  When it comes to other sectors, it is interesting to note the responses that we in the Education Committee sometimes get.  The Member, in moving the motion, referred to Moneynick and Duneane, and he will be aware that we have a letter from Bishop McKeown about shared provision for Moneynick and Duneane.  It is amazing that said gentlemen was not aware of any of the new arrangements between the two primary schools.  Bishop McKeown went on to say — this sometimes goes to the heart of organisations that have vested interests — the following:

"We are all aware of the proposed collocation of separate schools on the Lisanelly site.  However, since we have never had to reflect on the issue of a shared building, NICCE"

— the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education

"has currently no views on the design of such shared education arrangements."

Does that not give you an insight into an organisation that reportedly wants to be inclusive and to extend its remit for how it interacts with other elements of the community?  Does that not give you an idea of what its real view of sharing is?

Let me take it down to a level that is a little bit more personal.  I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Ballymoney High School and as a past pupil of Armoy Primary School.  As everybody knows, Armoy is in the heart of my North Antrim constituency, and it has been involved with the PIEE project for a number of years.  The PIEE project gave Armoy, St Olcan's, Barnish and Straidbilly — the four schools involved — an opportunity to share.  In fact, St Olcan's and Armoy had a shared teacher.  That was welcomed by the boards of governors at both schools and the community, because it was not a threat to either.

Depending on the figures that you use for the sustainability of a school — we all have concerns about the Bain figures, but let us set that issue aside for the moment — if you accept that there was to be further sharing and collaboration with Armoy, you would expect that those with an interest in the process, such as a governing body, would want to see that being progressed. 

I have to say that, to date, it has been regrettable that others, not the two schools, St Olcan's board of governors and Armoy Primary School board of governors, have been making noises about where sharing should go.  I think that that goes to the very heart of the issue.  The Member who made that proposal today made the comment about everybody coming up to the plate on the issue.  It is about people stating clearly what it is that they want in future provision. 

I will give another example.  It is on shared campuses, which we refer to in our amendment.  Let us go to Lisanelly.  There has been a lot of talk about the Lisanelly project, and the Minister has allocated a lot of money to it.  However, we need to be absolutely sure about it, and there needs to be no doubt, no mist, no fog, no confusion, no doublespeak and no double standards so that whoever moves onto the Lisanelly site moves there on the same basis, with the same arrangements and with the same contractual arrangements for ownership of the site so that none can claim advantage over another.  I pay tribute to the fact that a special school is moving onto the site in the first place.  Special educational needs is showing the way in shared education; special education has never been in a position where it is a maintained or an integrated provision.  It is a controlled — a state — provision, and I pay tribute to those in special educational needs, who, despite all the problems and challenges that they face, continue to deliver for our young people and children who have particular challenges.  It is a light to us, in a sense, that a special school will move first to the Lisanelly site. 

The Minister knows my view on this already.  We watch with interest to see how others will follow onto the Lisanelly site and whether they will follow on the same basis and with the same criteria.  I beg to say that that may not be the case. 

No doubt, others will say much more as we progress —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

No, I am concluding. 

In conclusion, there is undoubtedly an appetite in our community to ensure that education continues to flourish and to progress to the benefit of all our young people, not just some.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

I beg to move amendment No 2.

Leave out all after "outcomes;" and insert

"believes that the current area-planning process must be conducive to sharing between schools and that the ministerial advisory group report on advancing shared education provides an opportunity to advance these aims; calls on the Minister of Education to introduce a shared education premium and to take practical steps to promote and facilitate sharing across the sectors and the entire education system."

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  I welcome the opportunity to debate this very important issue and to move amendment No 2, which is in my name and that of my colleagues.

There has been an increasing interest in our education system and the wider public on the growth of shared education projects.  So, it is important that we as an Assembly play our part in that growing conversation. 

With that in mind, we ask Members to support our amendment.  We feel that, unlike the motion, which does not sufficiently recognise the emerging success of sharing education projects or, indeed, the commitment and dedication that various schools, governors, teachers and the Minister has to shared education projects, our amendment acknowledges that appetite for increased sharing between our schools.  We also feel that, given the appropriate support and investment, we should see a flourishing of sharing across the system in the months and years ahead.  That was laid out specifically in commitments 71, 72 and 73 of the Programme for Government, which specifically mention shared education and call on the Minister to ensure that:

"all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015" and to:

"Substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015".

On the back —

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Is the Member able to provide us with an update on how the Department of Education is performing against the targets that he outlined?

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin 1:45 pm, 17th February 2014

I thank the Member, but I am not a spokesperson for the Department, so I will leave that update to the Minister in his statement later.

As the Member rightly pointed out, we had the launch of the shared education campuses programme in January, which will see the development and delivery of 10 shared education campuses locally.  However, as outlined, I suppose, by the previous Member to speak, government is not leading the way on this as much as local schools, communities, teachers and, indeed, families, who have already invested a huge amount of work in sharing in our education system.  Again, we, as a party, do not feel that the UUP motion pays significant recognition to those who are leading the way in sharing education.  I point to a local example in Ballynahinch, where St Colman's High School and Ballynahinch High School have grasped the nettle and taken the lead to deliver the entitlement framework.  I again pay tribute to the schools involved.

As has been said, the centre for shared education at Queen's University and the Fermanagh Trust continue to lead the way on shared education in many respects.  The Committee will visit Fermanagh in the months ahead to have a closer look at how things are progressing in the county.  Indeed, one latest example was a teacher exchange scheme that facilitated a number of primary schools exchanging teachers for one day a week to assist with curriculum delivery.  It was a great success, as it enabled schools to access a wider range of teaching expertise and resulted in improved educational outcomes for many young people across Fermanagh.  Moreover, given the rural dynamics of many of the participating schools, the growth of such schemes throughout other rural areas of the North could be of huge benefit.

The growth in, and advancement of, shared education is, perhaps, the most significant development in education policy in the past number of years.  Importantly, it is also one of the most sensitive areas of change.  If this process of change is to be successful and sustainable into the years ahead, we must all embrace the process equally.  There must be a shared readiness to engage between schools, sectors and political parties. 

When we stand in the Chamber and talk about bringing pupils and schools together, we must always bear in mind that we are talking about hugely complex issues of identity and ethos.  We are asking local communities to buy into a process of change while balancing community values and expectations.  So, when we discuss the need for increased sharing and demand it be delivered as soon as possible, we should keep these very sensitive dynamics in mind.

Today, we are faced with an education system that is built upon having many different types of schools, each with their own rights and entitlements and each with their own proud identity and supportive community.  For many across the North, this choice in our system is a great strength.  However, many others see things differently.  They believe that such choice in our system reflects social and communal divisions, scars of conflict that need to be addressed as soon as possible.  Although many sympathise with either narrative, it is important that we focus on the educational case for sharing. 

This debate, and all future conversations on the advancement of shared education, must not be allowed to get sidetracked.  Effective educational sharing must have an impact on standards, outcomes and the learning experience on our young people.  There can be no doubt that to raise standards and improve outcomes our schools need to change.  How we think about and understand education in the 21st century must change, and increased sharing within the system is undoubtedly central to such reform.  That is because choice is important; we all accept that.

However, choice must not come at the expense of a good school, a good education and equal opportunity.  Indeed, such inequalities in our system are bad for children and for society.  Such inequity is damaging and unnecessary and we all have the power to eradicate it, if the will exists.  Sharing is needed:  not merely in the ethno-religious context that we are all so used to hearing about but within parameters of socio-economics. 

If are to build a truly shared education system and society as a whole, we must move beyond the traditional narrative of religion and ethnicity and tackle the ever-enduring issues of social inequality and elitism.  We need to challenge those who claim to support integrated and shared education yet support socio-economic separation in our system.  How can religious division be wrong on the one hand yet economic division is acceptable on the other?  I call on the Minister to introduce a shared education premium in the months ahead.  I also urge him to continue to actively oppose and remove any barriers to integration in our system, be they religious or socio-economic.

Finally, I turn to the issue of the single education system, which I believe is too important to be a throwaway line at the end of any motion, particularly one on shared education.  It is a very important programme of reform in its own right.  A single education system is certainly a goal for many of us, but those of us who advocate such a policy goal have a responsibility to lay out the vision.  Where is the detail in the Ulster Unionist contribution today?  Where is the detail in the Democratic Unionist Party's contribution today? 

We must all travel this journey together, yet the two unionist parties throw that line at each other without ever presenting a plan for change to inform us all of what this would look like.  Indeed, when we discussed issues such as ESA, a body that would undoubtedly help to shape a united and cohesive system, the two unionist parties have merely sought to block and stall.  They appear unwilling to act as a positive force for change. 

Any future development of a single education system must be built on the protection of rights and parity of esteem for all citizens.  Complex issues of ethos, identity and community values need sustained and sensitive contemplation.  When unionists run away from a bill of rights and a sexual orientation strategy, and given the irrational antipathy towards Irish-medium education and Irish language rights and the complete failure to tackle socio-economic inequalities and divisions, how could anybody blindly accept the throwaway line at the end of motion?

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome today's debate on shared education.  We must think about where shared education happens.  It happens in our schools across the North, and I want to highlight and acknowledge the great work in schools that are really advancing shared education.  A wide range of schools adopt a shared system for learning and are real assets to our education system.  Across the North, there are examples of good practice, with schools working together and sharing resources between and across the different sectors.

Twenty-six schools have already benefited from the primary integrating/enriching education project, which was funded by the International Fund for Ireland and Atlantic Philanthropies.  We listened to the benefits of that project in Committee recently, and I was struck by the sharing of education and the fact that it led to better community cohesion.  The Fermanagh Trust project, which Members mentioned, demonstrates good practice that could be rolled out to other areas.  A number of primary schools, for example, engaged their teachers for one day a week to assist with curriculum development in their partner school.  That enabled schools to access a wide range of teaching expertise and resulted in improved educational outcomes.  The scheme could be of particular benefit to small rural schools throughout the region.  The practices highlighted in Fermanagh should be incorporated into the mainstreaming of shared education and made available to all schools.

If truth be told, for shared education to be effective, we must bring our communities with us.  Different communities are at different places with the level of acceptance of shared education.  That is the reality.  I can go back to the early years of education for mutual understanding (EMU) and our attempts to bring young people in Kilkeel from two traditions together for a soccer match or a ramble in the Mournes.  Today, that has moved on considerably but still has plenty to do to catch up with Limavady High School and St Mary's, which the Minister visited recently.  There are various examples of good practice that demonstrate how pupils from different backgrounds benefit from being educated together.  The learning partnerships are a good example of that.  However, we can do much more to ensure that all schools work collaboratively.

Shared education can become an opportunity for keeping education alive in our rural communities, be it cross-community or cross-border.  For rural schools under threat of closure, shared education offers a viable and practical alternative to closure.  We believe that it is perfectly possible for schools to provide a quality education without meeting the enrolment threshold if a school engages with a neighbouring school.  That is a practical solution, and it can help to improve community cohesion in remote areas.

The SDLP recognises the advances made in shared education and urges the Minister to ensure that the promotion of shared and integrated education in all varieties and forms is a priority for the Department.  The Minister must avoid any attempt to prioritise one form of education system over another.  We should work together to ensure that a diverse range of schools is supported and empowered.

The last line of the DUP amendment and the Ulster Unionist motion refer to a single education system, but if we are to move shared education forward, we must focus on achievable short-term goals.  We must have more sharing.  We should work towards supporting a diverse range of schools and helping them to deliver a quality standard of education for all our young people.  I agree with the Sinn Féin amendment that efforts at area-based planning to date have not been conducive to developing shared education, and I hope that a shared education premium will become a reality.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member, like me, acknowledge the enormous contribution that schools with a faith-based ethos make to the progression of children's education?

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you for that intervention.  I certainly acknowledge it.  The point that I am making is that, as we move ahead with shared education — this came across very strongly in a recent presentation to the Committee — we must bring our communities with us, and we must protect the ethos of schools. 

Building a truly shared future must include prioritising respect for the rights and choices made by parents.  The ethos of various communities and schools must be protected as we move forward.  I see great opportunities with the Lisanelly campus and similar proposals.  We must continue to strive for the highest standards in learning and give our young people access to a broad range of high-quality educational institutions.  We fully support and recognise the merits of promoting shared education.  In doing so, it is also important to acknowledge the particular ethos of participating schools. 

A number of commitments were made in the Programme for Government to help to advance shared education, with specific undertakings to:

"Ensure all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015".

Secondly:

"Substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities".

Shared education can help us to maximise resources and improve community relations.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

I was remiss.  I ought to have informed the Member that he had an extra minute.  Have you anything further to say quickly?

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, thank you.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)