Area Planning: Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 15th November 2016.

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Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 15th November 2016

1. Mr McPhillips asked the Minister of Education to outline how the Education Authority's 'Providing Pathways Draft Strategic Area Plan for School Provision 2017-2020' will affect schools in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. (AQO 656/16-21)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for clarifying question 1. The draft strategic area plan for Northern Ireland, 'Providing Pathways', focuses on the education interests of children and young people. It aims to ensure that all pupils have access to a broad and balanced curriculum that meets their needs, delivered by schools that are educationally and financially viable. In the development of the draft strategic area plan for 2017-2020, the Education Authority (EA), working with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the other sectoral support bodies, has analysed the current position and identified key strategic themes and issues that are impacting on the education system.

It is important to note that the draft strategic area plan is out to consultation at present, so we are not at the final stage. It does not identify individual schools, but will act as a catalyst for discussion at a regional and local level. The school planning and managing authorities will engage at a local level to determine the most appropriate area solutions to ensure that children and young people have access to high-quality education, regardless of where they live. The aim at this stage is to look at a Northern Ireland-wide basis, though there is direct reference to the 11 council areas. Schools will be involved in the process at a formative stage and will have the opportunity to inform the development of the area solutions.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that his statement on the Education Authority's plan has caused great concern for rural schools, which traditionally have lower pupil numbers. What assurances can the Minister give that rural proofing legislation will be properly considered so that no rural pupil loses out, and there will be no redundancies for teachers or other staff in the rural schools?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Let me just tackle a couple of those points. We always have to focus on the schools, and we must ensure that there is proper provision of education for the children. An issue has been highlighted already where there are composite classes. Where, in particular, more than two years are involved, there is the danger that that does not provide the best possible education. On the basis of that, it is my intention to ensure that a strategic look is taken at schools to ensure that we do not have isolated communities and that there is some level of provision within that.

In the second or third part of the Member's supplementary question, there was mention of teacher redundancies. What has happened in the past and will continue to happen is that transferred redundancies will be looked at as the way of doing that, were a particular school to close or amalgamate. Within the system, there is enough provision for that to be taken care of. It is something that, in the past, EA or CCMS, as the managing authorities, have been able to do. Other teachers will be looking to retire, and transferred redundancies are the route to avoiding any form of compulsory redundancy, which no one wants.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Given that the financial context of savings is a major section of the draft area plan consultation document, can the Minister give details as to how much money will be saved by the implementation of the draft area plan? Where is that money committed to being spent?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

With respect, let me say a couple of things. I do not accept that savings are a major issue in the draft area plan. The key focus of the plan is on ensuring that there is good provision of education. We all have to recognise that there is a degree of financial constraint. If there are changes made to the schools estate, and if they reduce pressures on issues around the small-schools factor, which is part of that, that money will recirculate within the aggregated schools budget. It is not a question of money being taken away from schools. Ultimately, there will be a set amount available to schools, and the distribution of it will depend on the number and location of schools. At the moment, because the schools estate is not fit for purpose, a lot of schools are not getting the level of spending and support that they should. I appreciate that Members from all parties in all locations will fight for their own area, but we also have to look at this in a mature and strategic way, which asks, "What is the best possible delivery of our education? How do we cope with an educational estate that is not fit for purpose and not meeting the demands of maintenance or educational need?". We need to have that level of mature discussion. It is not a question of money being taken out of education. It is a question of this: if the pressures are in different spheres, the money will be re-circulated within the schools budget.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

How will the Education Minister's failure to support the 1% pay increase for teachers in 2015-16 affect area planning for schools?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

That is a good attempt to shoehorn that in. I do not think it has any particular impact on area planning. We need to be responsible in the language we use. As for the money that was not there in 2015-16 to provide that 1%, let us remember that the overall wage bill for schools over the last two years will have gone up by 2·61% as a result of the pay settlements. The position for 2015-16 and 2016-17 is that all teachers below the top level will receive automatic increments. That is not the case in England, Scotland and Wales.

In area planning, the need is to focus on the best delivery of the schools estate. What individual teachers will get paid is not particularly relevant to area planning, and we should not be trying to conjoin the issues, even in a desperate attempt for a headline.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Could he tell the House what will happen to the area plan at the end of the consultation period?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The consultation period, as you know, has been launched. It is due to complete on 12 December. It is an Education Authority consultation, and the Education Authority will have responsibility for analysing the responses and presenting a report on the issues raised. That will inform its final strategic plan, which will be for consideration in the new year.

The key objective in the area plan has identified the main issue to be addressed, which is a network of educational and financially viable schools. Once we get to that stage, an annual area plan will supplement the strategic area plan, so there will be one for 2017-18, another one for 2018-19 and one for 2019-20. It will contain details of the work programme of the planning and management authorities to address specific issues at local level. Area planning is a continuum, and that will be reflected in the annual area plan. That will, in turn, I suppose, lead to individual development proposals for schools, which will then have to go through a proper legal process. That is where the direct impact will be. A number of significant issues will be addressed. It is not possible to tackle everything at once. Therefore, the aim of the three-year plan is to identify priorities over a three-year period, and then drill down into those into annual plans.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept there is no educational evidence or research to back up assertions on whether composite classes or single-year groups produce poorer educational outcomes?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

On the contrary, there is some evidence in relation to this, particularly with the differences. There is a limited amount of difference where you have children taught in a two-year composite class, although there is a level of additional differentiation there, which does make it difficult for the teacher.

If you speak to the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI), it will say that it sees a considerable difference where you move beyond a simple two-year composite class and into settings where there are three years or more within a single class. A teacher is therefore trying to provide such a level of differentiation that it does have an impact. That is something that the ETI has raised.

Given the number of composite classes, some will continue. There are some very good teachers. The issue is that, once you get that differentiation in composite classes, it does make it more difficult for a teacher, and it is not the ideal situation.