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Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission I wish to make a statement on 'Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools', known as the sustainable schools policy, and the Education Authority’s draft area plan, which is being launched later today at, I think, around 5.00 pm.
My Department’s sustainable schools policy, which is implemented through the area planning process, focuses on providing children and young people with high-quality education that meets their needs and enables them to achieve their full potential. This is entirely in line with our draft Programme for Government and its identified outcome that:
“We give our children and young people the best start in life”.
My Department is leading on four supporting indicators focused on improving child development, improving educational outcomes, reducing educational inequality and improving the quality of education. It is my aim that every pupil will have a first-class experience at school and fulfil their potential. Regardless of which sector a pupil is enrolled in, all pupils deserve equality of access to high-quality education.
The educational experience of our children and young people is greatly enhanced when they attend schools that are educationally and financially viable. The sustainable schools policy is a framework for assessment of the sustainability of primary and post-primary schools. The six criteria and supporting indicators clearly illustrate what a sustainable educational experience should look like. Schools must deliver a broad and balanced curriculum, offer extensive extracurricular activities, have high-quality pastoral care systems and have the confidence of the communities they serve.
In primary schools, pupils should be in a class with no more than two year groups, but, ideally, they should be in single-year-group classes. They should be able to interact with peer groups and have the best chances to prepare for successful transition to post-primary school. In post-primary schools, the curriculum should provide a wide range of pathways to meet the needs and interests of all pupils. Where there is a sixth form, this too should be offering a broad and balanced curriculum and should be sufficient in size to be self-funding. Pupils should have the best chance to succeed and attain to prepare themselves for life as an adult and contribute to our community.
Many of our schools demonstrate these characteristics, and many of our children and young people thrive in them.
However, there is still a significant number of schools that are struggling, for a wide range of reasons, to deliver the best for their pupils. That is particularly evident in the primary sector, and, despite the efforts of teachers, it becomes harder to deliver high-quality education if pupils are taught in composite classes. There are still too many small primary schools with more than two year groups in a single class.
Similarly, in post-primary schools, there are challenges in providing the range of subjects needed to offer effective pathways to further education, training or employment for our young people. There are too many schools with too few pupils to generate sufficient funds to deliver the curriculum to an acceptable level. It is a real issue, particularly in schools with very small sixth forms. As a result, limited available resources are being spread too thinly in an attempt to ensure that, in small schools, every pupil has access to the curriculum. While this approach protects pupils' educational well-being, in some cases it has, without doubt, propped up schools that otherwise would have been unsustainable. That is not a recent development, and what I am saying to the House today is not entirely new. It is a legacy due to the lack of strategic planning to proactively address the growing problem of too many unsustainable schools. That is something that is not sustainable for the future and cannot continue. I believe that effective area planning is the solution, and I am determined that there will be a renewed focus on strategic planning to ensure sustainable provision across Northern Ireland.
We need to see an accelerated and more dynamic approach to area planning, which is in the best interests of our children and young people, to deliver the Programme for Government outcomes and benefit our economy and society. The sustainable schools policy envisaged a network of schools delivering, where needed, creative and innovative models of provision through collaboration and federation. However, the appetite to demonstrate this has not been evident, and there are opportunities that should not be missed. My officials have been working with all those who have a statutory or advisory role in area planning to develop and embed new area planning governance arrangements. I am content that the position that we are in has addressed the concerns raised about the previous area planning process and the area plans published by the former education and library boards. Issues such as silo planning, lack of engagement with all sectors, and a failure to clearly communicate the key strategic issues facing our schools are impacting on our children and young people’s educational experience and opportunities. The guidance clearly sets out the roles and responsibilities of the statutory planning authorities and key contributors to the area planning process.
I welcome the work undertaken by the Education Authority in its role as the overall statutory planner of education provision. The authority has been leading the development of a draft strategic three-year area plan for the primary, post-primary and special education sectors, the text of which, as I already said, will be published at 5 pm today. It has been supported in this work by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the other sectoral support bodies, such as the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG), the Controlled Schools Support Council (CSSC), and more recently, at my request, the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), representing the voluntary grammar sector.
All sectors have engaged in this process to identify the strategic educational issues facing the primary, post-primary and special education sectors and not simply focusing on their own sector. This draft area plan is different: it is the first regional area plan covering all of Northern Ireland. It is a strategic plan that focuses on the persistent and thorny issues that need to be addressed across Northern Ireland and in each local government district.
For the first time, planning will have input from all educational sectors, at all levels, in effect discussing the future shape of provision around the same table, collectively, at the same time. There is no doubt that this will present a major challenge for all our education sectors and must be embraced equally by all sectors to find sustainable solutions, both within and between education sectors. It also takes account of the Programme for Government, community planning and, in particular, the constrained financial position that we are likely to be operating in. It sets out the high-level actions needed in all sectors to address the issues over a period of three years from April 2017 to March 2020. The area plan confirms that, in some areas, we have too many school places for the number of children and young people available to fill them; in others, it highlights that there is a sufficient number of places but they are not necessarily in the right place. The challenge that faces almost all local government districts is that we have schools that are too small to adequately provide for their pupils and ensure that they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I will say it again: this is something that cannot continue; the status quo is not an option.
While this draft area plan is a new start, I do not think that all issues can be addressed and actions implemented in the three years, given the scale of the challenge, but I know that we need to make a start. We need to start with the issues that are impacting most on children and young people’s educational experience and future prospects, and we need to tackle unsustainable provision in all sectors. Therefore, by the end of the planning period, I expect actions to address the issue of primary pupils being taught in composite classes of more than two year groups. Ideally, I would like to see communities with a vibrant sustainable primary school where each pupil is in a class with a single year group. I expect to see proposals to deal with post-primary schools that are failing to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for pupils in years 8 to 12. It is not acceptable that these pupils are denied opportunities because their schools are too small. I would also expect to see proposals to deal with the issue of small sixth forms. By 2020, no pupil should be in a sixth form with fewer than 100 pupils that cannot offer a full range of courses. These are very big challenges, but they need to be tackled and to be tackled now.
I know that changes to schools are emotive and difficult for communities and can lead to lengthy and expensive litigation. This will sometimes require difficult decisions to be made, and it will require mature discussions and approaches from everyone involved in education, not just from within the sectors and schools and, indeed, not just within the House. There has to be a mature consideration of this by everyone. I also know that simply doing nothing or doing little is not really an option. We have to focus on how we provide children and young people with access to a quality education and the opportunity to be happy and successful citizens contributing to our economy and community.
I have said, and probably rightly so, much of the challenges, but I strongly believe that, with challenge, comes opportunity, and, as a community in Northern Ireland, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity. The consultation on the draft area plan for 2017 to 2020 will run for eight weeks from 5.00 pm today and provides our community with the opportunity to look at education provision differently. Communities have a chance to shape education for current and future generations. Communities will want the best for their children and young people. Communities will ask whether the current provision is strong and sustainable? Is what they have the best for their children and does it equip them for life in the 21st century? If there is any doubt about that, what can be done? Is there a better way? Communities need to ask whether they want a strong educational presence in their community? Do they want certainty for their children and their parents? Is one secure sustainable school better than two or more schools that are constantly facing sustainability issues?.
I want local communities and their elected representatives to consider the Education Authority’s area plan and to make their views known. I hope that the draft area plan will be a catalyst for discussion about quality education provision in the 21st century. I hope that the focus is on the strategic issues and not on individual schools. In many ways, there will be the opportunity for people to look at individual schools at a later stage in the process. Once I am satisfied that the strategic issues are understood and agreed, the school managing and planning authorities will prepare a final area plan, taking into account the views from the consultation. This will be supplemented by an annual action plan each year for the lifetime of the three-year area plan. Those annual plans will provide details of the actions to be taken to address issues in local areas and at local schools.
Should there be a proposal for change in any school, local communities will be consulted and their views taken into account. I can assure you that the focus will be on providing quality education and pathways for all pupils. Pupils’ needs must come first, and if that means that, within our school estate, some schools have to close, I am prepared to take those difficult decisions.
I cannot stress enough the importance of this consultation for the future of our children and young people. In these constrained financial times, we have to act to maximise the impact of our available resources. We need to be realistic about the quality of the network of schools we need to provide and can afford.
Finally, I urge all of you to engage your constituents on the matter of education provision and help them understand what is needed and why it is needed.
I thank the Minister for the statement. I have a two-part question. First, is the new plan based on any review of the calculation of empty school desks? Surely, if we are basing the new plan on something that itself needs to be reviewed, it is based on inaccurate information. Secondly, can the Minister assure the House that this round of area-based planning does not make the mistake of previous rounds, which, with individual sectors acting alone, lacked an overall strategic direction?
I thank the Member for her questions. We are trying to make sure that the figures are accurate not only for the present but, when the Member reads the document from the EA, she will see that it provides projections, particularly for the school-age population of each of the 11 areas, as we move forward to 2024.
When we are providing a solution, it is important that it is not simply what is fit for purpose in 2016; it has to take account of what the position will be as we move ahead, because we have to anticipate where the pressures will be. It is clearly the case that, over the next number of years, the overall school population of Northern Ireland is likely to grow by about 4%. There will be geographical divergence, with growth in some areas and a reduction in others, and that will also have to be addressed in the area plans.
I make it very clear that all sectors need to buy into this. I completely agree with the Member that this plan needs to be strategic, and that is why it is strategic. Members will find that, because the idea is to produce something that is strategic in nature, not a single primary school or post-primary school in the mainstream sector is named. It involves all sectors, and it does so at every level, whether it is drafting at a local level, operational at the working group level or the strategic planning group.
The draft plan and its proposals have been approved by the Education Authority board, which has representatives from a very wide range of sectors, particularly all the main education sectors. It is vital as we move forward that there is buy-in from every sector. Otherwise, this will not work to the extent that it should.
Does the Minister have any plans to reduce or eliminate the small schools factor in the common funding scheme? What I am really searching for is some enthusiasm in the Department and the Education Authority for innovative approaches to the challenges facing small rural schools. Secondly, there is a reference to the first ever regional plan for special schools. Did it surprise the Minister that the Education Authority does not have a single database for children in early years for whom special educational needs have been identified?
The regional plan is meant to develop a common system for special schools that will operate for ages three to 19. The aim is to try to make sure that provision, irrespective of where you live in Northern Ireland, is very much the same. There is a particular section that deals with special schools.
There is a major challenge for small schools. Across the board, there will be opportunities, when people are looking at this from a community base, to ask, "What solutions can be provided?". It will not necessarily be a case of one size fits all. It will inevitably lead to the closure of some schools, but there may be different ways in which things can be delivered. At post-primary level, for example, some schools are already operating in collaboration.
We have very much an open mind to how we reach particular points. It is about focusing on the support for children. As we move forward, we have to be similarly cognisant — I think that the Department will look at this as well — of the situations in different sectors. Potentially, there are some very isolated schools, and, if a particular school in a sector were to close, it would mean, from a parent's point of view, that the level of choice would not be realistic.
I recognise that part of it is about parental choice, and obviously there is a balance to be struck in relation to this. I think that most parents are realistic. I think that parents generally want to have the best for their children, so it is about trying to provide that level of support. At times, some people will have a slightly unrealistic view of what can be provided, so there will be some people who effectively would want a school on every street corner. That is not something that is doable. I am conscious that, on the matter of parental choice, we do not leave schools in any of the sectors in a position where the removal or closure of a school would effectively deny that parental choice. I think that we will be looking, as a Department, at how we can best facilitate that as well, and we may well be bringing some consultation directly on that issue as well. I think that it would be unrealistic in certain situations to see a school of one type close and there being quite a distance to a school of a similar type. I think that that has to be borne in mind as well.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and I appreciate the scale of the issue and the problem that needs to be addressed and which this is attempting to address. A lot of rural schools will be very worried about what they hear today, and a lot of rural-based sixth-form colleges that maybe cannot attract the large numbers will be worried. Can any assurances be given to people in rural communities that area planning will work with them, so that, if there are special circumstances that are uniquely geographical, those can be worked with rather than having a hard-and-fast line?
As I said, it is not a hard-and-fast rule that states a particular numerical cut-off point. It is about trying to work with people to provide innovative solutions and also taking into account at times particular geographical considerations. On the flip side of the coin, we have to realise that the overriding support has to be in the best interests of children. Therefore, it is not a question of keeping a school open at whatever cost, even if that is not in the best interests of the children. I think that those considerations will be sensitive. When it comes to individual decisions, those will be driven by the annual area plans, and I think that those will be done in a sensible and sensitive way.
The other thing is that, whatever one's view of what the final shape of education provision will be 10 or 20 years down the line, I think that the pace of change will move more quickly than previously. This is not something that can simply happen overnight because there are certain practical constraints to that. That suggests that, as we move forward, the examination is likely to be focused on the very smallest, the ones that are most difficult to justify from an educational point of view. People need not think that, because they are at an exact particular level, they are either safe or, on the flip side, doomed for closure. It is not as straightforward as that. We have to have a driver to realise that we are spreading our resources, both educationally and financially, too thinly. We need to have something that can deliver for all our pupils in the best possible way.
I think that we have to look at that as we move ahead. This marries in very much with an agenda that says that we should look at different solutions, particularly shared solutions. I think that there are sensible drivers out there for greater levels of cooperation between schools, particularly at post-primary level. I know a number of schools that are already signed up to the shared education projects. They are developing arrangements, for instance on minority subjects, as a group of two or three schools where one school provides a subject. I think that there is a greater opportunity for that, and I think that that is more difficult to do at primary level because you cannot take five children from P7 at one school and simply ship them over to another school to have a slightly larger classroom. It is about trying to find innovative solutions, and I think that a range of solutions will be provided and that all of those will be considered.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, in your statement, you referred to all pupils deserving equality of access to high-quality education and having the best chances to prepare for successful transition to post-primary schools. Will you ensure that all children, even those who will not be sitting a transfer test, will have that equality of access to high-quality education?
I do not want to prejudge the impact on individual schools. There is some work to be done in Upper Bann to make sure that we have the correct configuration in that. I accept that, within the north Armagh area, the Dickson plan has delivered well for people, and therefore I commend the work that is happening there.
I am also keen to ensure that, as I mentioned in a previous answer, we have a level of respect in our systems for parental choice. From that point of view, whatever changes, if any, there are within a particular area, they will respect the Dickson plan. The Dickson plan is safe and is here to stay; it will not be threatened in any way by area planning. It will be the same for those who choose selective or non-selective education: there will be no prejudice against any schools on that basis either. So, it is about trying to ensure there is full respect for all the different sectors that are out there and all forms of educational provision.
Certainly, we want to look at what is best for all. On the question of the Education Authority taking the blame, I think it is important that we are all in this together. For any school, whether there is a closure, a merger or, for instance, a variation in its enrolment, all those will ultimately be classed as development proposals, and as such, the person who will have the final say on it legally will be me as Minister. I do not know whether Members want to line up the headlines to blame me already, but I will try to take my share of the blame.
It is about trying to give the best provision for our children. There are sensitivities with rural schools. However, I got some of the figures, and they are reasonably stark. If you look, for instance, at the primary-school sector, despite the brilliant efforts of a lot of our teachers, you see that we have a situation where 19% of classes in Northern Ireland are composite classes. That means that the same teacher is trying to teach at least two year groups within the one class. When you drill down into that figure, you find that 177 classes in Northern Ireland are composites of more than two year groups, which means that a teacher is trying to teach to three year groups simultaneously or, in practical terms, teaching portions of them.
Due to particular geographical circumstances, those sort of things perhaps have to happen in some cases, but we all need to accept that it is not ideal for any of our children to be in a situation where three years are being taught all in the one go. That does not give our children the best opportunity and often puts them at a certain level of disadvantage compared with a child a few miles up the road who is in a single class for their year group. Certainly, everything will be rural proofed, and we will make sure there is no particular disadvantage in this, but we need to keep at the forefront of our mind what the long-term benefits are for our children rather than the pure defence of an individual school.
I am sure the Minister appreciates it is very difficult to question him on a 109-page draft we are yet to see, but I am sure he will offer us future opportunities to do so. I seek assurances from the Minister that the document is not merely a charter for closures and amalgamations.
It is a high-level strategic document. It is about trying to look at the shape of the system. I have great confidence in the Member's ability to absorb over 100 pages at a very swift rate, and I will be free as we move ahead with this. It will go out to consultation, and the next examination of it will be when we get the consultation results in. It is an EA document, so it will be looking at any drafts, but it will need sign-off by the Department.
We are talking about producing the final document probably about January. The idea is that, within each of the 11 council areas, annual plans will be produced. In many ways, the format is not dissimilar to that under the previous Minister. From that point of view, the significance of this is not so much that there is anything revolutionary in the idea of area planning; in theory, at least, there has been buy-in for that for quite a time. The difference is that, hopefully, we are getting all sectors to move together on this and examine it together. Secondly, there has to be a realisation that we have had movements on area planning until now, but it needs to move more quickly than it has in the past. We have to grasp that, for the sake of all our pupils.
I too am going to ask the Minister about rural proofing. I thank him for his statement. Does he agree that we have excellent schools with outstanding inspections that might fall into that category of being unsustainable? Should the Department not concentrate on bringing failing schools up to standard? My children are in composite classes. They are in an excellent school. I prefer them to get a quality education in a composite class than maybe a lesser education in a class where they are taught by a teacher for the year group.
I understand the point made by the Member. There are a couple of answers to it. The sustainable schools policy that is being put forward has not been altered in that direct sense. Sustainability in terms of numbers is one key aspect. However, as I am sure the previous Minister would indicate, there are a range of factors that make up a sustainable school. It is not purely an issue of numbers.
We have some excellent schools out there which are very small; we have some excellent schools in terms of teacher provision. The problem is that, when you look particularly at multiple composite classes, in many ways, however brilliant the teacher is, they are always starting slightly from behind. It is not, I think, the ideal situation. In ETI inspections, there is a tendency across the board for the overall rating of schools that are very small to be at a lower level than the average, compared with bigger schools. Again, it can vary and you can get some very small schools with excellent ETI inspections, but I think that there are particular problems that are put in place.
There is an educational aspect to this and there is also, I have to say, a financial one. From the overall budget, money goes in, quite rightly, to try to make sure that there are educational opportunities for people in very small schools. However, money to support that is being taken away from the rest of the system, so it is not entirely a zero-sum game. It is a situation where there is a degree of loss. All those factors are taken into account.
It is somewhat concerning to hear that the Minister does not think that there is anything dramatically different about this approach, given that the Public Accounts Committee of the House said that there was a need for "a root and branch review" of the previous approach. That was based on a Northern Ireland Audit Office report that found that there were 71,000 surplus places in our schools in 2014-15. The subsequent Public Accounts Committee report said that it was essential that the Department provided accurate numbers of surplus places and their cost to deliver the high-quality education that the Minister has rightly aimed for. I ask the Minister, therefore, how many surplus places currently exist, and at what cost.
I thank the Member for the speech he gave there.
I said that there is something radical about this in terms of the pace of movement. For the first time, we have all the key players around the table. What I am saying is that the concept of area planning has been there before. The fact that there is likely to be an overall reduction in the number of schools has been ongoing. One of the things that perhaps has not been noted is that, in the last 10 years, roughly speaking, there has been an overall reduction of about 110 schools across the sectors.
The Member asked specifically about the number of school places. Excluding superannuated places that do not count towards the total, the gap is around 65,000.
Once you add in those who are there on the basis of special needs, you find that the difference between the number of overall places and the number of children in the system is around 51,000, and that has been reducing.
I think that part of the purpose of this — I am very cognisant of the Audit Office report — is to be able to deliver the best educational outcomes for our children. Having that level of capacity is not particularly good. The Audit Office report talks about wanting a situation where the spare capacity in each sector is no greater than 10%. I will give the Member a breakdown of the concentration of spare capacity. At present, while there is still some work to be done on it, in the post-primary situation it is around 8%, and in primary schools it is around 18%. In some cases, that reflects a historic assessment of what potential enrolment figures should be, which is unrealistic in that regard. I think that development proposals will be needed, in some cases, to take those down. There is a desire across the board to grasp this in a mature fashion, to see change to the overall provision and to try to make sure that our resources are put into children, not buildings.
You seem to have some hesitation, Mr Deputy Speaker, but there we are.
I express regret that MLAs are being required to ask questions about an area plan that we have not yet been permitted to see. That may make things easier for the Minister, but it certainly does not make things easier for Members, although I suppose that that was the purpose.
In this statement, I see no reference to providing schools that meet local access needs. I am thinking of parents in Ahoghill — 13 families this year were unable to get their children into the local primary school. There does not, however, seem to be a thought about making schools more accessible.
I have to say that I have probably given this a great deal more thought than the Member. There is a degree of contradictoriness in his position. I appreciate that there are schools where there is a degree of pressure on places. On the one hand, the Member wants for there not to be an axe on any places, anywhere and, simultaneously, on the other hand, he wants expansion elsewhere, which I think would increase the level of spare provision in places.
I have seen a number of schools recently where I think there is a need across the board for some level of upwards movement in their provision and in the places they could allocate. I am not going to name any schools because those would have to come directly as development proposals. There is a process by which, if there is a need for additional places, there can be a development proposal or, if it is a short-term side of things, a temporary variation.
As for getting our numbers right, I said in part of the statement that, moving forward, this is not simply about the sheer number of places; it is about where there is a disjoint between what is being provided and what is available, which, as the Member would know if he had been listening closely, is part of area planning. That needs to be addressed in area planning as well, and we have to do it in a sustainable way.
I have made a statement that the Education Authority is releasing later today. Given that, for instance, tomorrow is an Opposition day, the question was, "Do we release this and then wait possibly until next week before making a statement on it?". If that were the case, I think that the Member would be up complaining, "The Education Authority has released this, and we still have not had a statement from the Minister".
Alternatively, if we had released a statement on this at the first available opportunity, and it is not, in that sense, my document, would we have been criticised because we were jumping the gun? The Member seems, as with a number of things, to want to have his cake and eat it. I brought this statement to the House at the first available opportunity, and I am sure that the Member will forensically examine the document. Indeed, I have a spare copy of it here if he wants to get early sight of it. I can give it to him at 5.00 pm.
So far, in the drafting of this, the strategic group has the involvement at chief executive level of all the educational sectoral organisations. That is the first time that that has ever been done. It has received the full support of the Education Authority. I know that the House sought long and hard to make sure that the authority was fully representative of all the different sections of our society. So there is that degree of buy-in there. As we move forward, it is vital that all sectors fully embrace this. If we have a situation in which one sector is moving on ahead and another is holding back, that would be unacceptable. If this is to work for the full benefit of all our citizens, it needs, not just now but as we move ahead, full buy-in from everyone.
There are two separate issues there, so it is understandable that there will be a degree of confusion. As we move ahead, there will be opportunities for capital investment in schools. In a situation where there is a need for a new build or for investment through the school enhancement programme, that ultimately will be met. The issue, however, is about the impact on the school budget side of things, if you want to look at it financially. The bigger problem at the moment with the breadth of the school estate is on two levels. It is on the education level, as has been indicated, but it is also about the pressure that is created on the resource side rather than the capital side. We should end up with a more appropriate school estate in terms of numbers, and one of the other pressures from the resource side is that, at the moment, we do not have enough money to deal with all the school maintenance issues. Given some of the other pressures, that has been held at a level that is probably lower than it should be in an ideal world.
In a situation where we are trying to provide the best facilities for all our young people, it is a bit like performing the old variety act of spinning plates at so many ends of the spectrum. Realistically, you are trying to patch up so many issues that you cannot do it in an entirely adequate way. That would be a better use of resources. It is probably more of a resource issue than a capital issue.
As we move ahead, particularly if there are innovative solutions that work for a community in a sensible educational way, there will be opportunities for some level of capital support. That is what has happened up until now as well.
That completes questions on the statement. However, I remind the Minister that Standing Order 18A(2) requires him to make a written copy of any statement available to Members at least half an hour before delivering it in the Chamber. He failed to meet that requirement this afternoon. The statement arrived in the Business Office at 3.01 pm, so I will gently remind him of his responsibilities.