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Entitlement Framework

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 2:00 pm, 22nd November 2016

2. Mr Lyons asked the Minister of Education whether he plans to reform the entitlement framework. (AQO 716/16-21)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for his question. The entitlement framework (EF) is and will remain a key component of the statutory curriculum, ensuring that all pupils have access to a broad, balanced and economically relevant range of courses. However, as I think I have said previously, I appreciate that there are significant challenges for schools in trying to meet the entitlement framework requirements in full. They are quite ambitious in terms of numbers. In light of that, I am considering the way forward for the entitlement framework policy, including the statutory requirements. However, in doing so, I want to make sure that we retain the benefits accrued to date and try to build on them. I will soon be meeting officials on that. Again, there is probably a two-stage aspect to this. If there is action that needs to be taken in the short term, that will be looked at. As I have indicated, it will be opportune in this Assembly term to take a wider look at how we deliver the curriculum. I think that you cannot simply do that by taking the entitlement framework out on a limb and setting it to the side. It is about trying to get the right balance so that we get retention of the best that is there from the entitlement framework without placing what could sometimes be an undue burden on schools.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer so far and for his willingness to review the entitlement framework. He is absolutely right that we want to get the right balance, but will he agree that the entitlement framework puts an extra burden on already tight school budgets and that even a little reform in that area could make things an awful lot easier for schools while delivering a quality education for all of our young people?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I agree with the Member. To give the specifics of this, schools are funded through their core delegated budget to deliver the statutory obligations, including the wider curriculum. Of course, the entitlement framework is obviously a major part of that. It very specifically kicks in at Key Stage 4 and the post-16 situation. EF funding has been provided over the last few years, but we need to ensure that a separate stream is not simply a permanent stream and that, as much as possible, we mainstream what is there. That funding, to date, has provided a contribution to the cost of the expanded curriculum.

Also, importantly, a number of schools are embracing the key issue, which is what can be delivered to the students themselves, so I will also look at the regulations. We need to ensure that credit is given to the schools that now operate with greater levels of partnership and sharing, particularly, in the context of the entitlement framework, on what might be described as minority subjects where there is less direct demand. It may be less cost-effective for a school to provide that in their individual environment. For instance, in my constituency, good work is going on between Bangor Grammar, Bangor Academy and St Columbanus' in providing a shared solution in, in particular, A-level courses as part of shared education. Area learning communities will be vital as well. In delivering and striking the right balance, we must ensure that we get the best possible delivery for all our pupils. Using more imaginative solutions can be helpful to that as well.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker 2:15 pm, 22nd November 2016

Many schools struggle to meet the EF requirements, and Mr Lyons referred to some of the pressures on them. Can the Minister advise if there are any resources or support available to those schools to help them in that capacity?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Some additional EF funding has gone to schools. I would indicate that there has been significant achievement in reaching a lot of the targets. The figures for complete compliance show that 40% of schools are completely compliant on every section of this. There are also quite large percentages that are doing the individual aspects of Key Stage 4 or post-16. There are 66 schools that are not meeting them in full. Seven of those are because of the mix of applied and general. However, of the 59 others, 51 are meeting between 20 and 23 courses — the target is 24 courses — so there are schools that are just falling short. Each of the seven schools that are failing to meet the target on the mix is falling short by one general course, so the gap to be bridged is probably not that enormous.

It is also about seeing what we can do from a practical and sensible point of view. Some of that is sharing. Some of that may be that we are asking schools to stretch a bit too much or whatever. There may be issues around the broader level of funding that could be looked at. All of that has to be in the mix. One of the issues that need to be explored — I am mindful that I have 30 seconds, Mr Deputy Speaker — is that we know that a number of schools are falling below it and we probably need to drill down with those schools to find out why they are failing, whether it is purely a question of finance or whether there are any other barriers. We need to have a bit of discussion with schools to see how we can resolve those issues.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I have listened to the answers that you have given. What steps will you and your Department take to address the issue? As you mentioned, quite a percentage of schools are failing to meet the entitlement framework requirements. What actual steps will your Department take?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Presciently, I am holding discussions with officials at 3.00 pm today to look at the best way forward on the entitlement framework. I am conscious that the entitlement framework has delivered a great benefit to pupils. I am conscious that there may well be a range of reasons why schools fall just short. One of the things that we probably have not done to a sufficient level is explore a bit with those schools why they are falling short. If you are looking for solutions, you need to know the reasons behind things in the first place. Starting that conversation will be critical, and it will be ongoing work. It may mean that, as part of the overall process, we need to find short- to medium-term fixes to rectify situations in the short term while looking at the longer-term position. It is about retaining and building; it is not about breaking down what is there. I appreciate that there will be particular circumstances in individual schools. Let us see whether there is a pattern and whether it is simply that providing that would require a level of expenditure that is beyond the schools. As I said, there is a strong case for looking at whether we can provide greater help and assistance for a greater level of sharing. The key element of this will always be what offer is in place to the individual student. The key driver should be to provide the maximum opportunity for the student to follow a range of pathways.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Can the Minister give us an update on any conversations he has had with the Minister for the Economy on a formal 14-to-19 strategy with collaboration between the further education and post-primary sectors to ensure that the curriculum gives adequate attention to skills-based and vocational education?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

That is a valid point. This needs to be put into a wider context. When I talk about an overall review of the curriculum, I mean one that will, obviously, go beyond simply the 14-to-19 age range. Issues have been raised with me about the primary school curriculum, issues about languages and the need to have a greater emphasis on STEM. However, the principal focus of curriculum reform will be on the 14-to-19 age range and widening that. I have indicated to a number of people that that discussion needs to take place and needs to be quite detailed. There is a key role not simply for the Department of Education, the schools and the bodies that fall, broadly speaking, within our remit but for the Department for the Economy and the colleges. One of the areas that we need to tackle is area planning. I know that, Mr Deputy Speaker, often in the House it seems that time stands still. At least, from the clock, it seems to have stood still.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

It is very unwise to alert me to that. Go ahead.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Absolutely. I do not know whether that means that I have two minutes from this point.

One of the problems we have is that there are schools where there is a high dropout rate for pupils once they get into lower sixth. Sometimes that is because it is not the appropriate place for those students. Therefore, a range of work has to take place on the curriculum, particularly focusing on vocational pathways, not simply with the Department of Education, its arm's-length bodies and schools but with the Department for the Economy, colleges and particularly with industry and business. I have met the CBI, for instance, which is keen to be involved in that work. It is something that will have to do be taken forward on a cross-departmental basis and will go beyond the initial conversation and into a great deal more depth as we move ahead.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

We move on. Time stands still for no person.