I thank the Member for his question. Directly speaking, the Department is not the employer of teachers and, therefore, is not directly responsible for the appointment of teachers. Individual teachers in a school setting are employed by the board of governors, with the recruitment, selection and appointment of teachers carried out in conjunction with the employing authority, such as the Education Authority, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) or, in the case of a voluntary grammar school or grant-maintained integrated school, by the individual board of governors.
I acknowledge that, in the current economic climate, it can be difficult for many teachers to find employment in schools. The same can be said of graduates in a wide range of professions. My Department and the employing authorities have put in place a number of policies and practices that encourage the employment of newly or recently qualified teachers when filling vacancies. It includes recommending that employers should consider the newly qualified teachers or experienced, non-retired teachers seeking to return to employment when filling vacancies, including those of a temporary nature.
The Investing in the Teaching Workforce scheme passed through the Executive during the summer and was formally launched on 5 September. The primary aim of the scheme is to refresh the teaching workforce whilst providing job opportunities for those recently qualified teachers who have experienced the greatest difficulty in securing meaningful employment.
As indicated, the scheme was launched on 5 September. For 2016-17 it is a pilot scheme. Members may remember from the previous mandate a scheme that was mooted for a larger number of teachers all in one year. The feeling was that, irrespective of the merits of that scheme, those numbers would not be achievable within one year. The primary aim of the scheme, as indicated, is to refresh and re-profile the teaching workforce whilst providing job opportunities for those teachers who have experienced the greatest difficulty in securing meaningful employment.
Not unreasonably, perhaps, those who are most recently qualified will have a higher unemployment rate in terms of permanent jobs than those who have been out for some time. The scheme bid for £8 million from the public sector transformation fund to enable 120 teachers aged 55 and over to avail themselves of it. That was the projected figure. Therefore, the aim was not simply to give an opportunity for early retirement — it needed to be driven by an application from the individual teacher — but the condition of accessing the fund was the provision of job opportunities for a corresponding number of teachers who qualified from 2012 up to and including 2016. That process is in place, and it is hoped that the posts will be advertised in the spring of 2017. Without the scheme, those opportunities would simply not exist. That will, I think, see teachers being secured for release by 31 March 2017.
Does the Minister accept there are many young, vibrant, very good, well-qualified teachers who are excluded from the Investing in the Teaching Workforce scheme? Will he consider lifting the maximum profile which means that teachers with more experience cannot apply for these jobs?
The scheme is already out there. I accept there are vibrant, young teachers who fall outside the scheme. The scheme is designed to re-profile the workforce. If we simply lift the requirements, where do we set them? We will be left facing one of two situations. If it is completely open-ended, in theory, a teacher who has been qualified for 30 or 35 years could replace someone who has less experience or is younger. I am not sure how that would re-profile the workforce. Alternately, you could draw an arbitrary line elsewhere, and again you will have people who qualify and those who do not.
To qualify for funding from the public sector transformation fund, the economic projections of what would be saved in the school's budgets are required to at least match the investment from the initial amount. The reality is that, if a business case were to be put forward for a completely open-ended scheme, the Department would not qualify for the public sector transformation fund, in which case the Department would have to fund it from its own very tight resources — and it is not fundable at present.
It is a requirement of qualifying for the fund. I understand that there is a degree of frustration about that.
I should also say that the scheme was suggested by the teacher unions. I know that the teacher unions and I are not always on the same page, but we are on this. Every single teacher union that I met prior to it being launched said that they supported the scheme and the fact that it was being done on that basis. The reality is that, without the cap, the scheme would not be doable, and no newly or recently qualified teachers would be able to avail themselves of it.
I empathise to some degree with those who are qualified longer needing to secure posts, and I encourage the Minister to look creatively at that in the future, if he can. Is there any possibility of introducing or exploring the possibility of a scheme to refresh the head teacher workforce in our schools?
I understand where the Member is coming from. First, on his point about stretching the scheme, I was mindful of that. I appreciate that the previous Minister mooted a scheme with a similar motivation. The previous scheme was a bit more restricted, but I was able to stretch it from three years to five years. That was the limit to which it could be stretched while still qualifying for the funding, however.
The Member asked about head teachers. The scheme is essentially designed to provide a like-for-like replacement. A senior teacher who has been there for some time may fit on the scale by way of a replacement for a head teacher. If a maths or history teacher or a P6 teacher decides to retire, however, there is nothing to stop a very new or recently qualified teacher taking his or her place. I do not think that it is realistic to say that you can simply take out school principals and replace them with like-for-like replacements. If any schemes are proposed in the future, I will always be happy to examine them. However, when we talk about school principals, we are not talking about like-for-like replacements.
I understand that, in June 2015, only a third of newly qualified teachers gained employment after one year. All newly qualified teachers will have incurred significant student debt. Has the Minister considered altering the number of places for teacher training at our universities in Northern Ireland, rather than having to introduce one-off schemes that are not sustainable in the long term?
This is a pilot scheme, so it may be sustainable. We should remember that about 750 vacancies become available each year, so there is some degree of throughput and change. There are a couple of issues. If you were to make changes to the overall intake of teacher-training students and there was then a further restriction on the numbers here, you would leave yourself open to a situation in which people would simply qualify elsewhere and then try to come back, in which case you would be left with a different problem. Even if a decision were taken today to reduce dramatically the number of teachers being trained, it would be at least four or five years down the line before that would have any particular impact on the workforce. The reality is that we need to take action now, and that is why the Department and I support the investing in the teaching workforce scheme, which tries to have some impact on the current situation.
There is a wider issue that the Assembly would have to deal with. If we were to reduce dramatically the number of teachers being trained, Stranmillis and St Mary's would not both be sustainable. I know that that has been looked at in the past, but there would need to be a degree of consensus on how we dealt with that and whether we went for a completely different system. From the point of view of economies of scale, you could not simply reduce the numbers and expect both institutions to be sustainable.
The programme for international student assessment (PISA) 2015 has identified a gap of over two school years' attainment between the 25% most advantaged and 25% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister not accept, therefore, that that is further evidence of the need for fundamental educational reform, including immediate action to address the oversupply of teachers?
That was a good opportunity to shoehorn the last bit on teacher education into a wider question on PISA. I admire the Member. The PISA figures show that we are, again, slightly above average in the OECD figures. The PISA tests are not as compatible with the Northern Ireland curriculum to the extent that, for instance, the trends in international mathematics and science study (TIMSS) tests are. Last week, there was a situation in which, because of the learning issues and the way in which the curriculum is established, they were not comparing like with like. On the overall situation, it was interesting that some of the PISA figures indicated that the gaps between those who are achieving the most and those who are achieving the least had narrowed considerably, and we were one of the best OECD countries in getting results across the board, if you like.
A range of education issues need reform, and I am trying to progress those. It is not simply a question of standing still. I know that the Member has discussed a number of those issues, and they have been the subject of debate in the House. That suggests that, while there has been some success in education in Northern Ireland — to paraphrase the inspector's report, we have much to be proud of with our results — we need to improve on other areas. That is why there is a need for overall reform in education.