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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in education format. The meeting was held in Armagh on 21 September 2016. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Fearon and is made on behalf of both of us.
The Council noted that Co-operation Ireland has been awarded the contract to progress teacher professional development in the area of educational underachievement in both jurisdictions. Minister Bruton and I agreed that this work should also cover the dissemination of best practice in literacy and numeracy from the work of the two inspectorates. It is envisaged that the work will be completed and the final report submitted by July next year and I look forward to receiving the report.
The Council noted the good progress made by both Departments and the Middletown Centre for Autism to support the promotion of excellence in the development and harmonisation of education and allied services to children and young people with autistic spectrum disorders. Alongside increasing the number of users who have benefited from the centre’s services, an important aim of the expansion of services was to further embed the centre as an essential delivery body for the range of services that are available to support children with autism in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
A follow-on joint inspection of the centre was undertaken by DE and Department of Education and Skills (DES) inspectorates in April 2016, the results of which were published on 30 August 2016. The overall findings of the evaluation reported that the quality of leadership and management was outstanding, that there was high quality leadership from senior management and that the services of the centre were impacting significantly on the education and experiences of the pupils, teachers and parents. The Council also noted that new appointments have been made to the board of Middletown Centre for Autism for a term of three years from 16 March 2016. The centre has been considering any potential implications following the outcome of the EU referendum.
The Council noted the ongoing activities of the North/South Education and Training Standards Committee for Youth Work in the professional endorsement of higher education programmes in youth work. The Council also noted the commitment of the National Youth Council of Ireland and the Youth Council for Northern Ireland to the optimisation of ICT for effective youth work in a rapidly changing environment and their determination to implement the recommendations of the Screenagers international research report, which explored the use of ICT, digital and social media in youth work and provides evidence-based recommendations to promote the development of ICT in youth work.
The Council welcomed the joint update from the two teaching councils and continued cooperation between the teaching councils on measures to reduce obstacles to the mobility of teachers. In particular, the Council noted that the Teaching Council of Ireland is in the process of introducing mechanisms to address qualification shortfalls that arise as a result of the introduction of the two-year professional master of education qualification and that the North/South teacher qualifications working group, in conjunction with the two teaching councils, will be considering the impact of the outcome of the referendum on EU membership on teacher mobility at its next meeting, which is scheduled to be held on 19 October 2016.
The Council welcomed progress with the proposal from St Mary’s University College, Belfast and Marino College to collaborate to support access to the Irish language requirement by applicants accredited by the General Teaching Council. The proposal is now with the steering committee at Marino College for consideration. The Council welcomed the continued commitment to a cross-border professional learning collaboration between the professional development service for teachers and the school development service. I note the successful completion of the first years of the history and digital storytelling project, which culminated in a showcase of films made by the 12 schools involved, in the Irish Film Centre, Dublin, in May this year.
The Council was pleased to receive a report on the continued collaboration between the two inspectorates. Inspectors from the Department of Education’s Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) participated in a training session organised by the Department of Education and Skills' Inspectorate for inspectors working in Irish-medium settings during August 2016. A further round of inspector exchanges has been organised to take place in the 2016-17 school year. The themes of the exchanges will be modern languages and mathematics in the primary curriculum. The selected inspectors met in a joint session on 30 September 2016 in Dublin. Inspectors from the Department of Education and Skills' Inspectorate will join an inspection team from my Department's ETI in an Irish-medium school in autumn 2016. A joint meeting of the management teams of both inspectorates is scheduled for November 2016. An assistant chief inspector attended the DES staff conference in Athlone in March 2016. This was highly beneficial, giving the opportunity to engage in discussions around the theory of evaluation, the impact of inspection on school improvement and the quality framework for schools. Similarly, a DES inspector attended the ETI staff development conference in September 2016.
As I hope Members will have gathered from my statement, the meeting in Armagh on 21 September 2016 illustrates in positive terms how the Education Ministers can work effectively together to progress matters for the mutual benefit of citizens in both jurisdictions.
I notice that the Minister did not share any knowledge on the ownership of the entire schools estate between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In any future meetings, will the Education Minister initiate such a discussion along similar lines to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Republic of Ireland and possibly learn from that?
We can always have exchange of information. I would have thought that the ownership of the schools estate in Northern Ireland was really an internal matter for Northern Ireland, but, if there is a particular suggestion that the Member wants to make, I am sure it can be looked at. I am not quite sure of the relevance of a cross-border basis on that subject.
I thank the Minister for his statement — ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis — and welcome its content. I want to zone in on two issues. The first concerns the Middletown Centre for Autism. Is there a contradiction in the statement, in that the Minister said that there was great praise and recognition in a very positive review for the centre, but at the same time there appear to be plans to convert to online provision up to 70% of parental training? It appears that residential support services have been abandoned.
The second issue is the portability of qualifications on a North/South basis. I think particularly about a situation, if there was to be a withdrawal from EU membership, in respect of accommodation costs or university fees for students from the North who are, perhaps, studying in Dublin.
I will deal with the two issues in reverse order. Obviously, when the precise shape of EU withdrawal takes shape, that can be looked at. University fees and accommodation fall within the remit of higher education. That is where there is a slight degree of mismatch between the remit of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland and the remits of some of the Departments in neighbouring jurisdictions. In the Republic of Ireland, higher and further education fall within the remit of the Department of Education and Skills. Obviously, those things do not fall within my departmental remit. When there is discussion around the broad issues of the EU, that is probably something that is better addressed between the Education and Skills Minister in the Republic of Ireland and the Economy Minister here. I am sure they will be happy to pick up that issue.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
There is a glowing report on Middletown in terms of the model that has been used. The new appointments to the board of Middletown will want to give a bit of thought to the best way forward. The current process has worked very well. I had the opportunity to visit Middletown a couple of months ago, and the shift from the original plan of a number of years ago for a purely residential centre to one that focuses much more on outreach facilities has proved to be the better route. If you talk to the professionals there, the parents, the children and the schools, that seems to be the better route. Obviously, there will need to be some thought given to future direction by the new board.
The Member mentioned the online facilities, which were not directly part of the statement. Technology is moving very quickly, and there has been considerable success in bringing parents and teachers to Middletown for training. With regard to how that is thought through, there is a desire to ensure that the learning experiences are spread as much as possible. Given the geography — I stand to be corrected on this — the online training is of particular relevance to the Republic of Ireland, more than Northern Ireland. If you are dealing with much greater distances, particularly from the southern parts of the Republic of Ireland to Middletown, you also have to look at what is convenient for parents and teachers. There has probably been greater emphasis on the online side in that jurisdiction than in Northern Ireland, which, despite our preconceptions, is geographically a relatively small place, so getting to Middletown is a lot easier than, for example, for someone who is travelling up from Cork or Kerry.
Obviously, there will need to be a degree of refreshment of that. The last time there were questions in the House on Middletown, the Northern Ireland representatives on the board at Middletown had been appointed and we were waiting for the nominees from the Republic of Ireland. I was glad to see that, by the North/South ministerial meeting, those appointments had been made by the Republic of Ireland, which enables them to move forward.
Broadly speaking, Middletown took a different path from what was originally intended. The original intention, with a greater level of resources, particularly from the Republic of Ireland, was to have something based on a residential centre. The focus for Middletown shifted to a range of things, including research and training sessions for teachers and parents. The emphasis of all that focus is on outreach and what is called a "whole-school" approach, taking the trained professionals from Middletown and embedding them for a period in the schools where the children who have autism are. There are positive spin-offs from that. It means that there is training for the school itself, which puts it in a much better position to deal with future autism needs. That might have started off as plan B effectively, but I think that plan B has actually worked out to be much more effective. Talking to board members, staff, some of whom have been there from the very start, and the parents was a very moving experience but also a very informative one. It showed that plan B had almost certainly worked out a lot better than the original plans. Sometimes that is the route that life takes us. Broadly speaking, I am satisfied, although I remain open. If there are other suggestions of any adjustments to that model, I am happy to take those on board.
I welcome the statement. It highlights the areas of North/South cooperation that there can be in education and the benefits of that for students. I welcome the inclusion of a substantial paragraph about youth work and the development of IT. Having worked in the sector and seen at first hand the benefit that IT can have on youth work, I look forward to seeing continued development to help young people on the ground. However, I was a little disappointed to see such a short —
My answer may be shorter than the question.
I always see benefit in exchanges between jurisdictions. Youth work can almost be seen as having a Cinderella-type quality in education, and it is important that it is embraced. On the brevity of that part of the statement, while there are significant impacts from a DES point of view in terms of the referendum and the challenges and opportunities that are there, most of those do not interact directly with the Department of Education. Most of the EU implications, particularly from the Republic of Ireland, as highlighted by the Chair, tend to look more at student exchange and mobility at higher and further education level. There was limited amount of nexus on that issue, which explains why a relatively short part of the statement related to that aspect.
The Minister's statement references excellent cooperation between all-Ireland education and health services to the benefit of children and young people with autism at the Middletown centre. What is the Minister's assessment of the level of cooperation in Northern Ireland between the Education Authority and the health trusts for children with special educational needs and their families?
That is a matter that falls outside the North/South Ministerial Council meeting statement. As a result of the Children's Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 and other actions that are being taken, there is now liaison between education and health. We start from a base that clearly needs to be improved. At a high level, there is departmental cooperation. We have to try to ensure that that happens on the ground for special educational needs. However, as I said, that has limited direct relevance to the statement itself.
I was able to attend and address the opening session of the conference in Newry on Thursday on educational underachievement. It is the second such conference that has been organised by Co-operation Ireland. A range of actions will arise out of that, particularly dissemination of best practice. When it comes to educational achievement, particularly in an environment of tight educational budgets and, indeed, tight budgets across government as a whole, it is about trying to ensure that we have gained the knowledge of best practice and then disseminated it.
In that context, the opportunity for professionals to exchange views is helpful. Part of the Co-operation Ireland project is to try to disseminate that best practice, which is also helpful. As I highlighted at the conference, that can sometimes involve what happens internally in Northern Ireland because a range of useful things are happening on the ground on educational underachievement in parts of Northern Ireland. Trying to spread that message within Northern Ireland is useful. We should not be so arrogant in Northern Ireland to believe that we have all the answers to every question. Consequently, when there is an exchange of information, whether it is on a North/South basis, with other parts of the United Kingdom or, indeed, about international best practice, particularly on educational underachievement, we should be prepared to listen, find that best practice and try to ensure that it is disseminated. That should be the focus. There will be a substantive report on that next year, and I look forward to receiving it.
I thank the Minister for his previous answer, and I will continue in that vein. Will he ensure that he and his Department will make tackling underachievement a priority and bring forward the policies and interventions that are needed to deliver quality outcomes for all our children and young people, particularly those from a socially or economically disadvantaged background?
Before the Deputy Speaker raises any issue, I will say that, yes, I will try to see what learning is done from that. There are a number of interventions, as the Member is aware, particularly in communities and, indeed, in wider contexts that are helpful in tackling educational underachievement. In the last fortnight, for example, a report was produced on nurture units. There has been a level of success with that. There is a separately funded early interventions strategy that is, in part, supported by Delivering Social Change and the Atlantic Philanthropies. It is things like Learning to Learn. There are a range of measures. Sometimes, arguments go off on tangents, but, in my view, when tackling underachievement, the biggest single intervention is early intervention, which is where the focus ultimately has to be. In times of tough budgets, it is one of the areas that I am keenest to protect as much as possible; indeed, if possible, I want to see it grow.
I mentioned that it is useful that there is wider learning and cooperation. That is helpful whether it is on a North/South basis or across the United Kingdom and involving a range of organisations. That is particularly true for the North/South education and training standards committee for youth work. It is working closely not just on a North/South basis but with its counterpart organisations and the training standards committees in England, Scotland and Wales through the joint education and training standards committee. That means that the individual committees are able to operate things like mutual recognition of protocols and to work together. There is, for instance, close work involving Northern Ireland by the Dundalk Institute of Technology and the Open University, with particular endorsements from colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales. A very open attitude has been taken by the education and training standards committees across a range of jurisdictions, which will, hopefully, be beneficial to all aspects of education.
I note, Minister, that Co-operation Ireland has been awarded the contract to progress teacher professional development in the area of educational underachievement, including numeracy and literacy. Will you provide some additional information on how that professional development will be progressed, given the two very different curriculums in the jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
As part of that, Co-operation Ireland has been looking at the overall issue and taken a number of actions. Decisions were taken some time ago to provide support from both jurisdictions. On the details, there will be a range of outputs from the project: for instance, we are looking at the conferences that have taken place, a programme of teacher professional development and the management of educational underachievement. What arises from the conferences will provide an informing tool for how we take that forward.
The Member is quite right to say that there are different curriculums — that must be realised. However, a range of the activities pertinent to educational underachievement may not be particularly or massively curriculum driven. This is a lesson that may need to be learned in Northern Ireland. The absenteeism policy, for example, and working out how to ensure that the attendance, particularly of those who are underachieving, is better, has an important impact on educational underachievement. Different schemes operate at grass-roots level in Northern Ireland, and it is about learning those things. That is pertinent not only to Northern Ireland; it arises in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and, indeed, throughout the world. It is about trying to disseminate best practice. Obviously, there will be a range of choices to be made at individual school level, but, if schools can make those choices against a better background of what is potentially best practice, it will enable them to take informed decisions.
I thank the Minister very much for his statement. I noted with gratitude his discussions on special educational needs and especially the Middletown Centre for Autism. In that vein, the statement refers to:
"commitment to a cross-border professional learning collaboration".
Does that collaboration include discussions about the qualification shortfalls, particularly for teachers of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools?
We should remember that the collaboration in Middletown is specifically focused on autism. The college is probably not in a position to widen it beyond that at this stage, although the new governing committee may want to take it in a slightly different direction. Principally, that is about trying to teach and explain best practice to teachers and parents.
So far, there has been a total of 58,000 separate contacts on the issue of training in Middletown. The contacts have focused not just on the teachers who are responsible for a child for only part of the day. It is important to get not simply a whole-school approach but a whole-life approach, and critical to Middletown's work has been the training of parents. That is one of its major advantages. Indeed, when I visited, that was one of the examples of good practice that was indicated to me, not simply by professional staff but by the parents of children whom Middletown is directly helping.
I note in the statement references to a plethora of joint ventures on inspectorates, history projects, teacher mobility, youth and teacher exchanges, professional development etc. What parallel cooperation and deepening involvement in education is there with other parts of the nation of which we are a part?
A range of exchanges takes place on different levels. I mentioned, for instance, that the youth councils cooperate on a British Isles-wide basis.
An exchange could involve a representative of the ETI going to a conference, and characterising that as "a plethora" may be questionable. There are, however, experiences that we can learn from.
For example, there is much greater use of Irish language schools in the Republic of Ireland. That means that there is a background of expertise there. For instance, the inspectorate probably has much more experience of dealing with such schools. It is important, I suppose, that we learn to cover those situations. I am keen to see cross-jurisdictional exchanges of information and exchanges in a general sense across all the borders, and I think that a considerable amount of that is ongoing.