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Independent Review of Education

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I move the motion and seek confirmation of cross-party support for a long-standing Alliance Party proposal that the Executive and the Assembly urgently —.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Will the Member just stop?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Sorry. Excuse me.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thought that you had been round here long enough to know that. Thank you, Mr Lyttle.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to implement urgently the New Decade, New Approach commitment to establish an external, independent review of education provision, with a focus on greater efficiency in delivery costs, raising standards, access to the curriculum for all pupils, and an inclusive single education system.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes have been added to the total time. You will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. Please open the debate, Mr Lyttle.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I seek confirmation of cross-party support for a long-standing Alliance Party proposal that the Executive and the Assembly implement a Bengoa-style, independent, root-and-branch review of our education system to bring forward recommendations for action that will deliver a more integrated education system that is organised and resourced to provide a quality educational opportunity for all children and young people to enable them to develop their unique personality, talent, ability and potential.

Education is the engine room for individual, social and economic development and well-being, yet our education system is in deep financial crisis. It is broke and broken. That should shock no one in the Assembly. The former Education Authority chief executive warned over two years ago that the education system in Northern Ireland would be unaffordable, socially immobile and unfit for the 21st century without radical investment and reform. The mission of the Education Authority in Northern Ireland is to provide a high-quality education for every child, yet we now know that, at least in special education provision, it is failing in that mission. It must be a priority of the Executive and Assembly to take decisive action and implement an independent review. Whist there have been a number of reviews of aspects of education in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party believes that an urgent independent review of previous recommendations and our entire education system is needed to inform specific actions for radical investment and reform. We have given a commitment to take the politics and vested interests out of health: it is time to do the same for education.

We have given our commitment, of course, to support the many skilled and innovative teaching and non-teaching staff in Northern Ireland, who are passionate about their vocation and dedicated to children and young people. They deserve urgent delivery of the commitment to implement the fair pay and improved conditions agreed with the Department of Education in 2019. The implementation of that agreement needs no review. It needs to be financed and delivered. As part of that delivery, I welcome the commitment given by the Education Minister at the recent Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) conference to deliver radical change to the school inspection and improvement process, but the Assembly Education Committee made recommendations for school inspection and improvement reform in 2014.

The education system achieves positive outcomes for children and young people, particularly at primary level, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), but more average system-wide performance is found at post-primary level, according to international trends in maths and science study. Evidence-based research, like investigating links in attainment and deprivation, has found our education system to be high on quality and low on equity, with significant gaps in attainment that it links to a wide range of factors, including the current flawed and exclusionary approach to post-primary transfer.

The segregation and separation of our children and young people on the basis of community background at age 5 and performance in a non-resit, unregulated and unnecessary high-stakes test at the age of 10 or 11 are two great scandals of education in Northern Ireland. The human cost is significant, and the financial cost of that division and duplication in education has been estimated by the Ulster University's Economic Policy Centre to be up to almost £100 million per year, contributing to a financial crisis that has reached tipping point for our schools, around half of which are in budget deficit and many of which are over capacity, under-resourced and in an unfit state.

An internal audit has confirmed long-standing, widely held serious concern that the special educational needs framework also fails to support children with special educational needs and teachers. It has uncovered undue and unnecessary delay to Education Authority assessment and support, which are central to delivering early intervention, and raises serious questions about the governance and accountability of our education system for the Minister of Education, the Department of Education and the Education Authority board. Those findings follow attempts by the Education Authority to cut special education nursery hours to part-time and poorly handled proposals for Belfast's special schools that were opposed by thousands of parents across our community. Non-verbal children have been left unattended for hours on special educational needs transport provision, and inadequate access to educational psychology and classroom assistant support is becoming the norm. As Chairperson of the Education Committee, I will work with colleagues to deliver accountability and support for children with special educational needs.

Area planning has been sectoral rather than innovative. The good relations indicators suggest that up to 20% of first-choice applications to integrated schools cannot be facilitated due to a lack of available places.

I therefore welcome my colleague Kellie Armstrong's proposals for an integrated education Bill and look forward to working with her to progress the legislation.

There are other first actions that the Executive could take to promote a more integrated and fit-for-purpose education system, such as repealing the exemption of teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, widening access to the certificate in religious education and giving more measured and substantive consideration to the recommendations of the initial teacher training review.

About 90% of pupils in Northern Ireland are educated in schools that identify with a single tradition or denomination. We have two planning authorities; nine sectoral support organisations, funded publicly; approximately 1,153 primary and post-primary schools; and about 36% of primary schools with fewer than 105 pupils. We pay over £100 million a year to transport pupils many times past local schools to schools in a different sector. The Department of Education has a budget of about £2 billion a year, which is second only to the Department of Health, yet papers recently submitted to the Education Committee by Department of Education officials suggest resource and capital pressures of almost £1 billion a year for our education system in the financial year 2022-23.

Years of underfunding and a lack of radical investment and reform have contributed to the scale of the financial challenge. The independent root-and-branch review of our education system must therefore be urgently implemented and report in a timely manner. Its building blocks should be giving children the best start in life, as well as bringing about student attainment, inclusion, increased investment in teaching and classrooms, and reconciliation.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I have listened carefully to the Member, and I do not want to want to misrepresent his vision. The 'New Decade, New Approach' document talks about the "diversity of school types" being "not sustainable", so is it his vision that we simply have a controlled integrated sector, no maintained sector and no Irish-medium sector and that there be one state system that will be integrated in the sense that it will be for everyone?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am sure that a man of his learned opinion will realise that that would be to pre-empt a root-and-branch independent review, the like of which we are calling for.

The review should refer to radical reform for law, policy and practice; governance and administration; employment and recruitment; integrated, effective and efficient delivery; area planning; and co-design and co-production with the community.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)

It is shocking that political parties abdicated executive authority to respond to those matters for over three years, but we must now grasp the opportunity to work together to deliver better. The people of Northern Ireland demand better. They demand better than the broke and broken education system that we have inherited. They demand better on early education and childcare; parental involvement in education; post-primary transfer; curriculum access; parity of esteem for vocational pathways; collaboration with further education; quality careers advice and work experience; and effective parental, community and business partnerships to raise aspiration and attainment. The focus must be on delivering an integrated education system, organised and resourced to provide quality educational opportunity for all children. The educational, social and financial need for a different approach and a child-centred education system fit for the 21st century is clear. I ask the Assembly to support the motion.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out all after "calls on" and insert: "the Executive to implement urgently the New Decade, New Approach commitment to establish an external, independent review of education provision, with a focus on securing greater efficiency in delivery costs, raising standards, access to the curriculum for all pupils, and the prospects of moving towards a single education system."

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and a further five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

The 'New Decade, New Approach' document provided the basis for the restoration of these institutions. Sinn Féin, along with others, placed an emphasis on education throughout the negotiation process, and that, thankfully, was reflected in the final agreement. Amendment No 1 is about bringing the motion back into line with the commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach deal. That commitment, as outlined in the amendment, had a level of buy-in from all parties, so we should work to progress it. Agreements have been made before and often only partially implemented. I hope that this agreement really does signify a new approach to how we do politics and governance in this part of Ireland.

As part of my work, like many others in the Chamber, I visit schools right across the North every week. Ever-shrinking school budgets, teacher pay stagnation, crumbling school infrastructure and the rising diagnosis of special education needs have put our front-line services under massive pressure. It is my firm view that the way in which we deliver on our obligations to our children and young people, to our families and to our teachers requires fundamental reform. We must seek to ensure greater efficiency in the system where resources are used to maximise the educational benefits for children and young people.

Without predetermining the outcome of any review, there are obvious and practical changes that could be made. We must look to a more cost-effective approach to procurement and trust schools to make decisions that best suit them when it comes to accessing minor works and supplies. There must be greater progress and political leadership in area planning and the realisation of a truly sustainable network of schools with a high-quality education provision and greater educational outcomes.

The education system as we know it is at crisis point. There is no avoiding the need for reform. To shy away from tough decisions now will have devastating consequences for the system, for our children and young people and for our society in years to come.

While reform is crucial, we cannot escape the fact that the system requires a significant and urgent injection of cash. In real terms, there is well over £200 million less in the system now than there was 10 years ago.

The austerity programme pursued by the Tory Government has cruelly left its mark on our public services here, particularly on our education system. In spite of that, teachers and school leaders have delivered a high quality of education to our children and young people, many of whom have achieved great outcomes. However, that should not mask the serious tail of underachievement still experienced by many children, particularly children from working-class and disadvantaged backgrounds. Addressing that issue is also a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I hope to see the Executive advance that area of work alongside any independent review.

Our education system boasts a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values. Parents choose the schools to which they want to send their children for a multitude of reasons. Acknowledging that diversity must be part of the conversation as we explore the prospects of what a single education system might look like. Open and frank conversations about curriculum and ethos will be crucial over the next number of years if we are to realise a truly open and inclusive education system.

I look forward to seeing the Executive take the review forward as a priority, and I encourage the widest possible engagement and participation in the process by all stakeholders involved in the provision of education here.

Sinn Féin also supports amendment No 2 in the spirit in which it is intended, but I must point out that in no way does that include the current teachers' industrial action, which should and will be sorted in the coming weeks.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I beg to move amendment No 2:

Leave out all between "greater" and "raising" and insert: "expansion of public funding to support the delivery costs identified within the review, addressing pay disputes with teaching unions,"

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Assembly should note that amendment No 1 and amendment No 2 are mutually exclusive, so, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2. The Member will have 10 minutes in which to propose amendment No 2 and a further five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I welcome the debate and thank the Members for tabling it. I also thank the Member who spoke previously for her support of amendment No 2.

The future of our education system seems to be on everyone's lips at the minute, and for good reason. It is clear that changes could be made to ensure that we are providing the best education service possible, not only for our young people and their educational needs but to ensure that our teachers can enjoy a decent quality of life, being paid properly for the invaluable work that they do and not being relied on to fill gaps caused by budget cuts or dealing with unmanageable workloads.

Clearly, the sector is under massive pressure, whether because of larger class sizes, fewer classroom assistants, children unable to get statemented or teachers telling us that they simply cannot take on any more. The impact is felt by students and staff alike. There can be no doubt that cuts and budget restrictions have played a fundamental role in those issues.

I hope that we can all agree that it is unacceptable that children are going without the special assistance that they require. It is unacceptable that dedicated teachers have been forced to take industrial action for the pay rises that their colleagues across the water have received. It is also unacceptable — although I expect that not everybody in the House will agree — that young people are being educated separately, based on their religion. Integrated education represents one of the best ways that we can move beyond the communalism that we should leave in the past. It is unacceptable that schools and teachers are relying on donations for everything from basic stationery to toilet paper. It is also unacceptable that we have situations in which special needs schools have to self-fundraise to cover the cost of essential equipment for pupil support.

The situation in which our education system has been chronically underfunded and does not meet the required needs has existed for far too long. For example, while pupil numbers have risen across the board by some 2·5% since 2011, spending per head has decreased. In addition, budgets have been slashed year-on-year. Unless that is tackled, we will jump from one crisis to the next, not least with the outstanding issues of pay for teachers and other education workers. In that sense, while I welcome the motion, I have provided an amendment that I hope the proposers of the motion will accept.

At a government level, it is very clear that if we are to have any hope of creating efficiency in the sector, we have to see an injection of funding into our education system. I am not the only one saying such a thing. For example, I note that the NI Affairs Committee at Westminster pressed for an injection of funding to tackle the underspend in our education system, and I agree with that. I hope that other parties will agree to make that a key priority going forward. That is why I have tabled an amendment. Too often, the strategy for dealing with educational underfunding by the Assembly has very much been inside the austerity, neo-liberal framework of economics. Too often, discussions about solving the problem in our education system push for a reduction in schools or services. Indeed, as has been mentioned, one recent consultation on our special needs schools proposed that the majority of them should be closed through a process of amalgamation. That was a shocking proposal that was met by mass opposition from parents, pupils, activists and trade unionists. I was proud to play a leading role in that campaign and to show how it shone a light on how the language of efficiency can often be used to push through cuts and closures to schools.

The term "efficiency costs" immediately rings alarm bells with me. While no one would disagree with the idea of more-efficient spending, we want to make sure that it is not code for cuts. I want to ensure that, if the Assembly agrees the motion today about running our schools efficiently, inclusively and with higher standards, it is because we are investing in the sector properly and where it is needed, rather than making harmful and dangerous cuts. To that end, I have tabled an amendment that argues for an expansion of public funding to support the delivery costs identified by the review and to address pay disputes in teaching unions and other education sectors.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

At the outset, I declare an interest as a governor in two schools. Without question, Northern Ireland has a world-class education system that we should be proud of, but one that we should, nevertheless, seek to reform, improve and develop as we build on that success. An independent review must be the way forward, but resources are key in managing expectations.

A widespread consultation is needed, but it is important that, in that consultation, the views of young people must be taken into account.

As I have said, we have a world-class education system and one that we should be proud of. Any review will start from a good base. We must pay tribute, at this stage, to the school principals, teachers, governors and staff who work in all roles in schools across the education systems in Northern Ireland for the tremendous work that they have done, particularly over the last three years, when there has been some uncertainty around the issues of funding and resource. Those people have shown how dedicated and committed they are, and they are exemplary in their motivation. They are well trained to deliver for our young people.

I would also very much welcome any expert panel that the Minister might set up around a number of issues, including underachievement in education. However, a panel must not simply look at education in terms of those who populate it. It is important that we have community role models who the young people might look up to, such as people who have been a success in industry, commerce and the professions. Again, young people, or their representatives, must be part of that panel. That is hugely important.

Future investment in our young people is also hugely important. A joined-upness across government is absolutely needed to deal with inefficiency and duplication in funding, if that exists. Any review must take into consideration work across the Departments here at Stormont, and also with universities in terms of the estate, sports facilities and provision, local government and, of course, neighbourhood partnerships.

I commend and pay tribute to Derek Baker, the permanent secretary in the Department of Education, for the role he has played over the last couple of years, along with Tommy O'Reilly, who, as deputy permanent secretary, did a tremendous job of work with Members ensuring that there was stability, and even initiative, during the time when no Ministers were in place.

As I have said, it is important to get economies of scale and reduce wastage. We must ensure that all funding goes to front-line services and, as a governor of a secondary school, I can assure you that too often money is used to provide professional counselling, for example, which is taken out of the front-line budget of a school principal and reduces the money that can be spent on education. That is simply not acceptable. Greater working across government may well improve and develop that work. We can no longer have a silo approach to those issues.

The agreement of the House around those issues is important but, nonetheless, implementation is the key. We cannot create false hope and unrealistic expectations. We need to address key issues in underfunding and resource of special educational needs. Only a number of weeks ago, some of us in the Education Committee met the leadership team of the special educational needs sector in Northern Ireland. What we heard was stark and frankly it was, in some cases, disgraceful.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

In the context of the Member's contribution in relation to the presentation received, particularly that received from the EA and the failings found in their internal report — an audit, as they called it, but not carried out by auditors — does the Member agree that, given what we have heard, it is time for a full independent review of the EA?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Actually, I am grateful to the Member for agreeing with me, because he knows that I called for that at the Committee last week.

Narrowing the gap in educational underachievement, free school meals and access to good-quality education is important for all our young people. Having known the Minister for many years, I have no doubt in my mind that he will listen to the assertions, the presentations and the information that will come through any process, and will act in the best interests of our young people.

It is important that we seek to introduce meaningful, deliverable proposals — they must be deliverable — that will make a positive impact and change lives for many. Every child is entitled to the best start in life. We must not create expectations, but we must deliver. It is important that the House unites around education as we go forward. We can no longer simply criticise about money not being provided. The Minister set out very clearly at the Committee, a number of weeks ago, the money that he needs to ensure that education moves forward and delivers. We must deliver for all the people, including many in the constituency that I represent, who come from working-class, hard-to-reach communities — in particular, young Protestant boys, but also a number of young Catholic boys.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

If this continues, it is simply not an education system that is fair. We will support the Alliance motion.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

At the outset, I put firmly on record my sincere appreciation to Derek Baker and Tommy O'Reilly, and to the principals, teachers and classroom assistants who have kept the lights on in our schools over the past three years in the absence of these institutions. The work that our principals and teachers have done is fantastic. They continued, in the face of many challenges, to ensure that our children were looked after in the circumstances that we faced.

I speak as the SDLP's education spokesperson, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the important debate. I thank Chris Lyttle and his colleague Kellie Armstrong for tabling the motion. We can all agree that our current education system is unsustainable. It is haemorrhaging money on a significant scale, and it is unsustainable in its current form. Our public services face inescapable pressures, and education is not immune from those. If we do not take action, our schools and the many dedicated principals and teaching staff across the North will continue to suffer — and suffer they have. Members made clear some of the resource challenges that our schools have faced and how, as put on record in recent weeks, they have been largely ignored and isolated by the Education Authority.

We need more money, but we also need to look at how our education system delivers for each child in Northern Ireland. In that context, the SDLP supports an independent review of education. Mr Humphrey claimed that his party does, too. We support a review that will look at how we can best provide top-quality, top-class education for all. We need an education system that will provide the building blocks for our children and give them the best possible future.

Our education system is in need of reform that moves towards the development of a single education system and the development of the integrated sector, while still operating a system where parental choice continues to play an important role in ensuring that our schools deliver efficiently and effectively, with improved access to the curriculum and ever higher standards. The review must not be a slash-and-burn exercise that is conducted with the typical haphazard and inconsistent approach that we have become accustomed to in our public services.

Change cannot happen overnight, and there is no one-size-fits-all fix to the situation. Our priority should be the quality of the education provided and how that can be done sustainably without the need for unnecessary school closures or any decision having a hugely disproportionate impact on certain parts of society. The complete abandonment of faith-based schools or Irish-medium schools is not the way forward. We should consider the future prospect of joint-faith schools supporting the education of our children and young people of different backgrounds together.

Another issue on which we can all agree is that we need to invest more in integrated education. Despite coming a considerable way on provision — we now have 65 fully integrated schools and another nine in the pipeline, in response to parental choice — we have not come far enough. I have seen great work undertaken in the integrated sector, as have many Members. Drumragh Integrated College, which the Minister will know well, in my West Tyrone constituency is possibly one of the best examples of how integrated education works so well. I put on record my appreciation to the retired principal, Nigel Firth, for his fantastic work in ensuring that the integrated movement has a footprint in west Tyrone.

Currently, we have no ministerial target for the percentage of integrated schools; we have no action plan from the independent review of integrated education that took place three years ago; and we have used only 14% of the available funding for integrated education from the Fresh Start Agreement. Those issues need immediate and tangible action, which we have not seen to date. Clear targets need to be set, and proper capital and resource investment in the sector is needed, with buy-in from each political party. That has to be a starting point. I do not believe that this Minister or the previous Education Minister were totally committed to increasing integration in our school system. That has to change, because the benefits of integration are clearly apparent.

We have had three years of inaction, with no Government here. That has had an impact on growing a single education system. In that context, and in coming to the Sinn Féin amendment, I believe that, given the crisis in education, we are in need of an independent review of education and of how we can better utilise our resources and public finances.

In keeping with the declarations in 'New Decade, New Approach', we must ensure that every school has a sustainable core budget to facilitate the delivery of quality education.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

We also need to look at how educational outcomes can be improved in the system; improvements that could be, where possible, cost neutral to the public purse. We add our support to Mr Carroll's amendment as well.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party and as the party's spokesperson on education, I welcome the motion and reservedly support amendment No 1. It is, I think, unanimously agreed across the Assembly that improvement, sustainability, good governance and inclusivity for all our children should be a focus for not only the Minister of Education but all Executive Ministers. Given that education accounts for the second-largest allocation of money per annum from the Budget, that is only part of the story why we need a fundamental review of the provision, efficiency, measurability and appropriateness of education and the curriculum. All that will be underpinned by the absolute goal of seeing education and educating together as a significant factor in learning together and living together to thrive together.

Over the past few weeks, having taken my position on the Education Committee, I have been astounded by the complexity of our current system. We have two planning authorities underpinned by seven sectoral organisations, but that only fractionally indicates some of the complex, overtly administrative and analytically cumbersome systems that are in place. Recent reports and surveys have indicated that the vast majority of parents would like to see an end to segregated-style education. Ending that could take many forms. One might agree with that ideal, and some might even think that it is a modern and progressive ideal.

However, back as far as 1923, a certain Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, or Lord Londonderry for short, tried to introduce the Education Act 1923 but got short shrift from just about every quarter. In 2020, a lot has changed, but much has stayed the same. Predominantly, we see our children segregated from age four on, with most controlled schools in particular making some headway in moves to change that. But let us be clear about this: segregation does not end there. Due to the draconian exemption of teachers from fair employment legislation, segregation and discrimination are maintained. How can that be right?

We need to be brave and visionary, and we need to be outcomes-focused about a review and any recommendations. Parents and pupils' voices, along with those of our teachers, must be equally heard, but it will be incumbent on all of us to consider the societal shifts that have happened since 1923 and to entwine them into an education system that is not only fit for 2020 but projected to continually support, improve and champion our young people.

There are many aspects that we can major on today, but I will finish on one. Our young people are under more pressure than they or we ever were. They are burdened by increasing demands educationally, socially, financially and aspirationally. Is it any wonder in this fast-paced world that we see a growing issue with mental ill health in our school-age population?

I believe that we must look at our curriculum by taking a Province-wide approach to well-being and resilience. We must ensure that a partnership approach is designed with schools, parents, carers, statutory agencies and the voluntary and community sector that makes sure that every child is central to that journey, valued and nurtured in what they are good at, inspired to be the best that they can be and convinced that this Government value their education highly. That will require us to get the building blocks right. Early intervention, parental support, tackling disadvantage, partnership and community response will be vital in transforming education into the jewel that it could and should be.

It would be remiss of us all here to not recognise the excellent work done by our teachers. Rising attainment standards across our schools pay testament to the hard work and value placed on our pupils by our teachers. In my constituency, it has been my delight to watch Lisnagarvey High School, my old school, improve year on year and transform its fortunes and that of its pupils. The next steps by the Minister and the Executive need not be hard if we can agree on the principle of not only the whole school, whole child mantra but add, importantly, every child.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I am pleased to support the motion, which is a direct lift from the 'New Decade, New Approach' document.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to Mr Derek Baker, who, to a large extent, held the fort while elected representatives absented themselves from the Chamber. I also pay tribute to the dedication of the principals, teachers, admin and school support staff who operated in a vacuum for three years.

I am a bit nervous about some of the words that I have heard around the Chamber and about what might be regarded as a root-and-branch approach. We have much to be proud of in our education system and a strong foundation on which to build. That is not to say that we should not address issues — of course, we should — but we have much to be proud of. Our education system is a jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland, and it just needs to be polished continually to make it that much better.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00 am, 10th March 2020

I thank the Member for giving way. I will be brief. He says that our education system is the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland. Does he not think it is worth qualifying that a little by pointing to the extremely poor educational outcomes in Northern Ireland for people from underprivileged backgrounds — indeed, his colleague from North Belfast drew attention to that in respect of Protestant boys — and the legacy of intense and constant division in our education system? It is hard to describe it as a "jewel in the crown" without mentioning those two things.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I accept that there are problems and issues. I hope that we will make progress on addressing them in the next two years of this Assembly term.

Let me point out, however, that, when universities in Scotland are looking to attract students, Northern Ireland is one of the areas that they search. England's academic results fall far below those of Northern Ireland, so there is much to be proud of.

It was disappointing that, when the proposer was asked by Mr Allister not to quantify the motion but to define his vision, he was not able to answer in any meaningful way.

There can be no doubt that our schools face challenges. I accept that. Many aspects of our system need to be challenged. I do not like the term "underachievement", but we need to support pupils and give them a pathway to success. There is not any doubt that we need to make changes. We may even need to make cultural changes in our schools, but there are many aspects that we should remember. We must remember that we are investing in our children, our young people, our society and our economy. We do not have the natural resources of some countries. Our only natural resource for the future of our economy is our people.

We need to look forward with confidence and build on the success of schools. We need consensus on a way forward, as has already been said. Some have complained about area planning, but I hope that, when we come to make the hard decisions, there will be around the Chamber the unanimity that is reflected today.

The words "external" and "independent" in the motion are lifted straight from the agreement. When that was mooted in the Long Gallery a couple of Fridays ago, the reaction among about 80 headmasters was, "Not another report". We are calling for another report, but, if we are to have another report, we need to involve the skills and knowledge of existing principals. We need to take notice of what they say. We cannot have an independent coming from wherever and attempting to impose. We have much experience that needs to be enhanced, taken cognisance of and attended to.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

If you were looking for what might make up the essentials of —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

We will support the motion.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I support the Sinn Féin amendment and the amendment in Mr Carroll's name.

I note that Mr Newton, in his closing remarks, referred to a group of principals saying, "Not another report". I have to say that that is my reaction when I see proposals for a review, a working group or whatever it may be, but there is the space and opportunity for an independent review of the education sector that will challenge us all on what we believe an education system should look like. However, in looking to the future, it is worthwhile to look to the past. Mr Butler referred to 1923, when provision was made for a single education system. That was rejected for a variety of reasons. The Catholic Church was acting in a selfish manner at that time, but — it is an important "but" — without Catholic education, Irishness would have been educated out of the system. Our young people who wanted to learn about their culture, their language, their sport, their history and their nation would not have been given that opportunity. I am no defender of the Catholic Church, but, in this instance, it has given great service to the community who wished to hold on to their Irish identity in this state.

Let us see what we will do to move forward. Change is a huge challenge for politicians. I often tell the story that, when I was appointed Education Minister in 2011, I was in post for only 15 minutes and was going through those doors for a vote when a Member from the Benches opposite, who is no longer a Member of the House, stopped me and said, "Minister, you have to deal with this school. It has to close". I was aware of the school. The school went through the process, and it had to close, and I signed off on that. I then opened the media pack that Ministers get, and there was a photograph of the same Member standing with a placard that said, 'Save This School'. I said to him a few days later, "I thought you told me to close that school", and he said, "Minister, all politics is local". I accept that analogy, but, for us to make change in our education system, we will have to set that one aside. Health is another area in which we will have to set it aside.

Over the Assembly's last three terms, it has created change in the education system. We brought about the Education Authority, which was a huge compromise on all sides of the House. It is not the vision that I wanted, that those on the Benches opposite wanted or even that those on the Benches to my left wanted; it was a compromise. This is the question: has the vision that was proposed in the Education Authority been delivered? When you look at the SEN report and the audit of how children with special educational needs have been treated, you see that that vision has not been delivered. There is an onus on the Education Authority, its executive branch and its board to deliver that vision because this is not what the Assembly voted for or asked for. There are challenges there.

When I hear calls for a single Education Authority from certain quarters of the Chamber, it concerns me that there are certain sections of our education system that they are looking to set aside. The Irish-medium sector always comes in for a poke in these debates, even though it provides a high-quality education system under the parental preference procedure. Parents have chosen to educate their children through the Irish-medium sector, and they should be allowed to continue to do so.

I also have concerns that we could reach a stage where our Irishness is no longer taught to our young people. That cannot be allowed to be the case, any more than it can be allowed that people's Britishness is not taught to them in their schools. People's identity is important to them. It is important that they learn about it in a way that is not exclusive but inclusive and in a way that means that we do not believe that we are superior to anyone else who lives in this part of the island or anywhere else.

I am all for an inclusive education system, but we have to recognise our history, our future and where we are going. Most of all, we have to deliver a high-quality education system to those who most need it. One Member talked about Protestant working-class boys: working-class —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

— Catholics are not doing too well either. Let us ensure that education for the working class is good, regardless of religious belief.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I support the motion. I recognise the significant financial strain that the Department of Education is under. An expected overspend for 2019-2020 of approximately £25 million to £30 million is not a good backdrop against which to commence an independent review of education under the New Decade, New Approach. A root-and-branch review is timely and necessary. It will result in some hard decisions to be taken by the Executive. The Department faces many challenges. Special educational needs have risen by some 20% in the past five years. There is a SEN backlog that will require significant resources to rectify. Salaries take up 80% to 90% of school funding allocation. An increase in the rateable value of the school estate and a great many schools now operating in deficit paints a bleak picture.

The motion is timely. Our education system needs a fundamental overhaul. However, I stress that our teaching staff, classroom assistants and pupils perform to a very high standard with inadequate resources. Many pupils attain excellent examination results. As many Members have done, I pay tribute to our head teachers, teachers and boards of governors. Any independent review will need to set realistic parameters to highlight and eradicate duplication and lack of sustainability.

If our education system is to evolve to meet the challenges that lie ahead and provide every child with the opportunity to be the best that they can be, the Executive will have to recognise that a significant additional budget allocation could be needed to enact any recommendations that may emerge from such a fundamental review, thereby leading to greater efficiency and accountability.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion as amended.

We all recognise that there is much room for improvement in our education system. I welcome the external review as outlined in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. It is only right that we allow that review to take its course, hearing from parents and professionals alike, making its independent recommendations and bringing them to fruition.

Our education system has evolved from a system that was available only to those who were well off to a system that is now, hopefully, universal. Our system can and must do better. I have visited schools across the sector in recent weeks. Whilst there is no doubt that there is a need for fundamental reform, it is important that we listen to the views of those on the front line, both teachers and parents. Our system recognises parental choice, and it gives us a mix of options that include faith-based, integrated and Irish-medium education. Where our system has flaws is in its burdensome bureaucracy, red tape and management inefficiency. I recognise that duplication exists and that efficiencies must be made. I recognise the shortcomings in provision for those with special educational needs, in school maintenance, in school transport and much more. However, that does not mean that we should offer a one-size-fits-all view of education.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member accept that educational establishments, like others, should not just respect but celebrate our difference? We should aim to have a society that can acknowledge difference, celebrate it, support it and recognise it. You said that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. I agree, but will the Member go further and say that we should aim to have a mature society that celebrates difference and is not threatened by it?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 11:45 am, 10th March 2020

I remind Members that, when they give way, they should take their seat and only resume standing once they have taken the Floor again. The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Apologies, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

The Member took the words right out of my mouth. We need to protect parental choice and to celebrate diversity.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I appreciate the comments of the two Members who have spoken. Can he explain to the House how celebrating difference is reflected in the Catholic certificate, which excludes certain other people from applying for jobs in certain schools in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am not aware of the specific conditions that you speak of, but I know how I was educated. I was educated as a Catholic and I know that diversity was celebrated, so I am not aware of what you are specifically referring to.

We need to protect parental choice and to celebrate diversity, but that does not mean that the management structures at the centre cannot change. It does not mean that we cannot drive more efficiencies. We need better governance. We need a joined-up system that better delivers. We need a system that allows and celebrates a school's ethos and encourages cross-community work, not just when at school but in work, sport and the wider world.

Our schools are the bedrock of our communities and I would like the review to embrace not just what is in the classroom but the world around us. I am going to go a little bit off-piste. I think education must allow and empower children to make the most of their talents. It is time to think outside the box. Our curriculum is currently geared towards manufacturing and the professions. Our focus should be on a curriculum that delivers for a new economy that this place should be building towards. The curriculum should encompass coding, environmental awareness, IT, public health, a focus on the impact of lifestyle choices, empathy and developing and building relationships, celebrating diversity, resilience, a focus on positive mental health, and virtual learning. The hidden benefits of virtual learning are enhanced by early adoption, and it promotes self-directed learning and innovative, individualistic thinking.

We recognise that perseverance and the sheer amount of time that you dedicate to your learning are more important than intelligence. We need to recognise that, given the right set of circumstances, any student can learn and excel in their education. I strongly believe that every child can learn, regardless of their innate level of intelligence, and that gaps in achievement can be mitigated through research and by understanding the differences in individual backgrounds and opportunity. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

"Northern Ireland has a complex educational structure with a range of bodies involved in its management and administration."

That is a very simple sentence in the opening of a House of Commons briefing paper on the school system here. It just about touches on the complexity of how we educate our children. The report of a 2019 inquiry by a House of Commons Select Committee stated:

"there is a clear need to reduce duplication across the education sector and for consolidation of the school estate ... there is growing concern across the sector that current funding levels are not sufficient to deliver the quality of education that pupils deserve and parents expect."

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Northern Ireland has experienced the largest cut in education spend since 2009-2010 — 11% in real terms — compared with other parts of the UK. Due to the complicated structure of education in Northern Ireland, it has long been argued that money is not being spent in the most efficient way. Whilst it is important to consider the ongoing demand for the way in which education is currently delivered, it is of equal relevance to look at what would best benefit our children. The stark reality of our system and the quality of our education need to be reviewed, root and branch.

It was good news to read in the 'NDNA' document that the five parties committed to:

"establish an external, independent review of education provision".

That included the prospect of moving towards a single education system. It is good news that we are able to debate this motion here today, but we must kick-start the commitments in the 'NDNA' document and start a review of education provision as promised, and that must be done quickly. I am honoured to be standing beside one of the first 28 pupils to attend Lagan College, but she had to attend that integrated school surrounded by armed RUC guards, so we have much to do.

An ambitious, single, publicly funded and secular education system for Northern Ireland is required. Academic testing should not be used to determine admissions to post-primary schools, and the well-being of the students who have to take those tests to conform to the system, and that of their parents, must be addressed. Ideally, students should attend local, community-based schools and receive outstanding levels of education. In our segregated society, the integration of students and children is vital to making it more peaceful, cooperative, progressive and safe. How can we expect to move on from our past and from the divide if we continue to separate our children from the age of four?

We have 65 integrated schools in Northern Ireland. According to Integrate My School, the Ulster University estimated that the additional cost of a divided education system is between £16 million and £95 million a year. That money should be spent where it is needed — for example, on improving SEN provision — not on continuing separation. However, if a financial argument alone will not change our system, perhaps a more qualitative one will. Integrated education facilitates societal change, unites people and encourages a more positive social attitude of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect. A recent study showed that two thirds of respondents would not want to send their children to a school that is based on their religion. Further research shows that a majority of parents want their school to become integrated. Therefore, we must ask: what or who is stopping them?

The education system continues to fail children and young people from lower-income backgrounds. In 2017-18, 54% of girls who were entitled to free school meals obtained five GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with 83% of girls who were not. The figures for boys are also stark, with less than half — 44% — of those from lower-income backgrounds getting that level of post-primary qualification, compared with 75% of their peers who are better off. It is not possible for wider socio-economic inequalities to be addressed through a single education system, but early intervention makes a big difference, and that must be considered in any review.

It is not just the set-up of the system that we need to look at, though; it is what our children are being taught or, in many cases, not taught in our schools, and we need to reform the curriculum. There are many examples, but I will briefly address the shortcomings of the educational experiences of those who identify as LGBTQ. The Department of Education's research, published in 2017, raised serious concerns about the inadequacy of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in our schools and how that puts young people at risk. The report noted that half of respondents were bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 92% said that there was insufficient information available on LGBTQ issues in their post-primary school. Two thirds of those who identify as LGBTQ do not feel welcome or valued in their post-primary school. Some decided not to come out because of the negative attitudes of others. Such attitudes, it appears, are based on a lack of understanding. That, in turn, can lead to stereotypes and, in some cases, intolerance. Some 88·6% of LGBTQ people have heard homophobic or transphobic language in school.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Research for the 'Through our Minds' report found that 61·2% of LGBT people had been called hurtful names that related to their sexuality. Such experiences in our schools are not totally down to the inadequacy of RSE, but that is a start, and it opens up the wider issue of the equality and quantity of RSE in general.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion and amendment. I thank our teachers, our headmasters, all the classroom assistants and even the lollipop ladies, although, because I have stopped running my grandchildren to school, I do not know whether they still exist. I thank all of them.

I put on record my thanks to Mr Baker, the permanent secretary, for the contribution that he made over the three years that the Assembly was not working. I remember that, as soon as we got it up and going, the Minister went out with me to visit a local school, where a school enhancement project was granted. I acknowledge and agree that change is needed. I remember that, until the 1980s, my parents and grandparents supported schools.

I want to put across a point on efficiencies across education. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) receives about £3 million, with which it supports 450 schools. To me, that looks and sounds like value for money. It is an inclusive education enshrined in the Catholic maintained schools sector. There is a high quality of education and standards in Catholic schools along with excellent leadership.

I really am up for the debate about change, and I know change has to happen. I recognise the positive contributions made by integrated education, and I stand here to state that a review is needed. In fact, one of the early things that I got when I came here was on the Programme for Government, and there was an agreement right across all parties that we needed this Bengoa-type report in order to look into our education. Do not always be trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are good things. Let us all look at the good. As I said at the start, I support the motion as amended.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It is pretty clear to me that, although all the Executive parties said they bought into New Decade, New Approach, they have not at all bought into this issue. The first two sentences of the education section of appendix 2 state:

"The education system has a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values. However it is not sustainable."

The target of those two sentences is that you cannot go on with the current diversity in school types, yet barely at all in the debate have we heard any addressing of the problem of the sheer diversity of school types. Indeed, we have had defence, particularly from the SDLP, of maintaining the current school types.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I did not defend that sector at all. I stood here to inform the House of the good work that that sector does, and I stand here to state that I am up for change, that I am sure they are up for change and that I know that change is needed. Change will come about.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It was not actually the Member I had in mind; it was the first Member from the SDLP to speak that I had in mind.

[Laughter.]

But if the cap fits, wear it, I suppose.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member give way for a very small point?

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is just to let you know that, when you attack one of us, you attack us all.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will say the same.

[Laughter.]

We have had this running away from diversity in school types. Indeed, it is notable that the Sinn Féin amendment takes out a critical word. The motion ends by calling for "an inclusive single education system." The Sinn Féin amendment removes the word "inclusive", because it is quite clear that Sinn Féin — indeed, it was clear from Mr O'Dowd's contribution — is not prepared to address the diversity of types because there are sacred cows, and, for Sinn Féin, of course, the greatest sacred cow is the Irish-medium sector. We have this situation where Irish medium cannot be touched and the maintained sector cannot be touched, so who will be the victim in all this? Will it be the controlled sector? Is that where the fire and the focus are? I fear it is.

New Decade, New Approach talks about equity. Well, let us talk about equity. I recently asked a series of questions of the Minister. I asked about the per pupil spend across the four sectors, and here are the figures. The controlled sector gets the least money at £3,531 per pupil. Next comes the maintained sector, which gets £3,611. Next comes the integrated controlled sector, which gets £3,669, and away out ahead is the Irish-medium sector on £3,821. The Irish-medium sector already gets 8% more than the controlled sector.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It gets 6% more than the maintained sector. If we are going to talk about equity, let us talk about it, but let us recognise that we cannot have these sacred cows. If we are looking for efficiencies, if we are looking for equity, if we are looking for diversity and tackling it and reducing the number of sectors, surely, on any of those approaches, the most obvious candidate is the Irish-medium sector.

It is the most feted financially in the system. It is the one that is incapable of integration, because it wants to teach in a different language.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:00 pm, 10th March 2020

I thank the Member for giving way. Surely the Member must realise that the Irish-medium sector has been deprived of the necessary funding from the House for many years and is now playing catch-up. It provides an invaluable contribution to communities such as mine and to towns such as Strabane and Omagh. I would like the Member to acknowledge that an Irish-medium education has a positive impact on the lives of many children.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Is it playing catch-up when an Irish-medium school can now be created with 12 pupils? How is that playing catch-up? That is favouritism in the system. I would like the Minister to assure the House that if there is any independent review, its terms of reference will address the diversity of the system; whether all sectors can be sustained; whether equity will address the overfunding of some sectors to the detriment of others; and whether we are not just interested in creating a system in which the sacred cows of the Irish-medium sector and the maintained sector are protected and the controlled sector is sacrificed, because it sounds very much to me as if that is the direction of travel.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call the Minister of Education, Mr Peter Weir, to respond to the debate. Minister, you have up to 15 minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I thank Mr Lyttle and Ms Armstrong for tabling the motion. It is particularly good to note that much of the debate was witnessed by some young pupils who were here. I welcome their presence. I also welcome the tone of the debate and much of its content. I want to move forward on the basis that the review will have wide terms of reference; that there will be wide opportunities for the panel to look at everything; and that the review will deliver something that is fair for all pupils.

I join others in paying tribute to the work that various public servants have done to deliver education, particularly during the hiatus in which the Assembly was prevented from meeting for three years, and the ongoing work of education staff in particular. At the outset, I put on record that I support the motion and state that I also support the commitment in New Decade, New Approach to undertake an independent review of education. Within the next few weeks, I hope to bring to the Executive a paper with terms of reference and an outline of the way forward.

The other commitment, to set up an expert working group or panel on underachievement, as Mr Humphrey mentioned, will be brought forward at the same time so that we can move on the two commitments together. A number of Members also made the point that if we are looking for the best expertise, it should not simply be drawn from the world of academia. On both panels, there needs to be a broad range of people who can reflect the wider needs of society. Critical to that will be a high level of stakeholder engagement, both at an individual level and with various sectoral organisations. The major bodies in education need to have a role to ensure that there is the opportunity to have input from them.

Having said that I am content with the motion, I will turn to the two amendments. First, I am happy to support amendment No 1, which stands in the names of Ms Mullan and Ms Kelly. To be fair, its wording reflects entirely accurately the exactly wording in 'New Decade, New Approach'. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the Assembly adopt that amendment.

I have sympathy for some of Mr Carroll's remarks. In particular, I too want to see a resolution of the industrial action on teachers' pay. I also agree with him that there has been under-resourcing of education, and I want to lever in as much resource as I can. However, I cannot support his amendment, because it removes any reference to efficiency in the system. I appreciate that that may be a moot point, because his amendment and amendment No 1 are mutually exclusive. I appreciate that the Member takes a certain approach to how he interprets the word "efficiency". He looks at it not so much with rose-tinted glasses as red-tinted glasses. The reality is that we have to realise that there needs to be some reform in order to achieve efficiency. Indeed, I note that the Member for North Down Miss Woods said that part of the problem with our system is that there are inefficiencies in it. We cannot simply delete efficiency from any review, because that would mean that we are not necessarily spending the maximum amount of money on front-line services for our children. While I am sure that Mr Carroll's intentions are well meant, I will support amendment No 1 rather than amendment No 2.

All Members who spoke are in agreement that our education system faces significant challenges, and, if we are to continue to deliver world-class education, we need to reform, modernise and transform. We should always be looking to strive to improve services and deliver better outcomes for our children and young people. Even if we were entirely content with everything in the current system, we should always be looking for better. All good systems continually look at how they can improve that quality of provision and at good schools to bring that about.

We should not underestimate the task ahead, nor should we think that this review will be a panacea to the woes, real or perceived. The only way that we can bring about true reform is through building consensus, and that will be a critical aspect as we move ahead in delivering a managed programme of transformation. Education in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is sometimes a contested space, and change is inevitably a highly emotive issue. The former Minister referred to one Member who was, on the one hand, urging the closure of a school but, on the other hand, lobbying to save it. That is just one example, but a non-political, non-sectoral and wholly independent review may be a good starting point, although expectations need to be managed. As I said, it is my intention to bring that to the Executive in the near future.

It is important that although we have highlighted a lot of the problems, we do not lose sight of the strengths of our education system, which we should promote and build on. We can be very proud of our school leaders, our teachers and our pupils. I know from my school visits that we have a well-trained and highly committed workforce, and our children and young people continue to achieve high levels of attainment. While we cannot and should not measure performance in education solely on exam results — valuable points were made about us looking for different vocational and non-academic pathways — we can be proud of the results that our young people achieve. International experience and evidence suggests that our primary and post-primary schools are performing well and demonstrate many of the features that underpin high attainment and equity. The attainment of pupils entitled to free school meals has continued to improve, and evidence from PISA 2018 points to the success of this approach in tackling educational underachievement.

Over the last number of years, we have seen a steady rise and improvement in our school performances, and while there is still a major issue around underachievement, we have seen the gap closing. There is a reduction in the gap between those who are on free school meals and those who are not. However, more needs to be done in closing that gap, hence the commitment in New Decade, New Approach for an expert panel for underachievement. Almost all our school-leavers progress into education, employment or training, and I acknowledge the hard work of the pupils and their teachers and school leaders for the positive outcomes being achieved across the system. Furthermore, the OECD identified the coherence of our school improvement policies as a key strength.

The education system faces many challenges, and issues around reform are well known and well understood, and the arguments are well rehearsed — for example, our schools and teachers are often being asked to deliver more and more but with fewer resources. It has been referenced that, from what is probably the high point of educational funding in 2010 and taking into account inflation and various pressures, there is probably £245 million less in spending powers. More schools are in deficit, and more schools are in surplus. I concur with Mr Carroll that the statistics for 2010-11 compared with today mean that, albeit we now have a slightly larger school population, the actual spend per pupil is less than it was nine years ago. There have been fewer inflationary factors in education than elsewhere, but education has been hit by a range of national changes, particularly around pension changes and National Insurance.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. He mentioned the pressing need on school budgets — and I declare an interest, as I am on the board of governors of Braniel Primary School, which my children attend — but will he agree that one of the ways in which we can help to tackle that is to devolve additional powers over school budgets to head teachers, away from the centre?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I agree with the Member. I will come to that in a minute or two. It is also important that we utilise our funding effectively and efficiently to build a system that is sustainable, particularly around the school estate through area planning. There needs to be changes, and some of those will be painful. Linked to the —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am a little pressed for time, so, unfortunately, I have to decline the wise words of intervention from the honourable Member for North Antrim.

Linked to the funding position is our network of schools. When we look at the network of schools, it is not simply about a cost-saving exercise; it is an educational policy that has had cross-party support down the years, which seeks to deliver the best education to all our children in highly sustainable schools.

In addition, our teachers have to deal with a wide range of increasingly complex needs. The pressures on young people are greater now than perhaps they have ever been. We have mentioned the increasing numbers of SEN issues.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am sorry; I am a little pressed for time.

Mention has been made, which I will come back to in much greater detail at the Education Committee in a week's time, of the particular problems that have been shown by the audit of the Education Authority.

The review will wish to consider all those challenges and, more importantly, make recommendations on potential solutions. It is important that Members realise that we have not been simply operating against a blank page. The Department has taken a proactive approach to addressing some of these challenges, even in the absence of devolution, through the establishment of a transformation programme. It is to be commended for commencing the work in the absence of an Assembly and Executive. The programme involves a series of projects, each tasked with developing options that transform an aspect of education. Those include school funding, school transport, statutory assessment, area planning, delivery of pupil support services and 14-19 pathways, as well as a number of other issues.

While that does not go as far as some would wish, it does present an opportunity for meaningful action to be taken. Mention of procurement was made by the Member for South Belfast. I want to see greater devolution of that to school principals. Issues around employment of teachers and around pathways are all critical, and, in seeing that work progress, we should not use the panel or, indeed, the review as some opportunity simply to kick that can of issues down the road. Where positive changes can be made, we need to embrace those simultaneously with the review.

With regard to the design of the review, we would need to agree what the review will consider, how it is undertaken and by whom. Mr O'Dowd referred to a number of reports on the local education system, so considerable work has already been done. We need to recognise that the problem is not just that the education system has not been reviewed; the problem is that, sometimes, we fail to agree implementation. So, it is important that the review builds on previous work. There is little value in simply replicating what was there before.

It is also important that we take into account the teacher, parent, child and stakeholder. They are central to the process. Ultimately, it is my preference that the review focuses on identifying evidence-based solutions that can be supported, rather than spending time stating problems that we already understand. It is also important that we have practical solutions and do not simply disappear down rabbit holes, which will involve years of disagreement.

Let me reiterate that I fully intend to deliver on the commitments of New Decade, New Approach and will bring forward proposals to the Executive shortly. However, we need to be realistic, first of all, about timescale. While there will be an urgency, it will take a short period at least to establish those panels, but if this job is to be done thoroughly, we are probably talking about a review that will take a year from its establishment to when it reports. It will be completed within this term, but it cannot simply be bounced through in a very short time. It is also important that much-needed work on transformation reform is not stalled. The review is unlikely to be the silver bullet for all the challenges that we face, and we must make sure that time is not wasted simply regurgitating what has been there before.

I would highlight that there are two potential traps that I sometimes see people falling into. One is seeing money as the solution to everything. Yes, there is a need for additional money, but anyone who says that and does not say that there is a need for change and reform deludes themselves. Also, those who see the review as the solution to everything and feel that it will deliver change without significant additional resources being brought into education similarly delude themselves. From that point of view, the remarks of the previous chief executive of the EA that it will require substantial investment and reform are correct. The two go together.

We have to focus on finding solutions to the challenges that we face, building consensus on the delivery of those actions and securing the necessary resources and commitment for education transformation. Our goal should be that every child has the absolute best start in life and that the education system is efficient, effective, sustainable and designed to deliver positive outcomes for every pupil. I look forward to hearing from Members from across the House, the Committee, educational stakeholders and children and young people as we deliver on that commitment.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:15 pm, 10th March 2020

I call Gerry Carroll to make the winding-up speech on amendment No 2. The Member has up to five minutes.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

It was a pretty wide-ranging debate on our education system, and lots of important points and issues were raised. I will try to refer to as many of them as I can in respect to my amendment.

There seemed to be some unanimity in recognising the important work done by our teachers and education staff. I welcome that and am sure that many teachers, education workers, their unions and so forth will also welcome that. I suppose that many of them will also ask why it has taken so long to resolve their pay disputes — so many years now. I very much doubt that many teachers or education workers pay close attention to the detail of amendments in Stormont, but would it not send a strong message to them if an amendment was accepted that stated that we support them in resolving their pay dispute? It would send out a strong message if we could do that today. For that reason, I appeal to Members to accept amendment No 2 in my name and not amendment No 1. A clear message should go out that we recognise the important work done by our teachers and education workers. Their contribution to society is invaluable. In recognising that, we should support a fair pay resolution for them.

The main reason that I tabled my amendment was to remove the part of the motion that mentioned "efficiency". The Minister referred to people having different definitions of efficiency, but some of the comments made by Members reaffirmed my suspicions, fears and worries and my reason for tabling the amendment. We heard talk of the need to take tough and hard decisions and reduce wastage. For me and our party, that is worrying, and, to many outside this Building, it is code for a reduction in services, cutbacks and closures and no increase in funding. Again, the reason I tabled the amendment was to challenge those points.

The Minister recognised the lack of spending and the decrease in spending per head of population. He gave a figure of several hundred million pounds as the real-term reduction in education funding over the last few years.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Again, I think that there is a bit of confusion over the word "efficiency", which can be both economic and educational. For instance, if you have a very small primary school in which pupils from a number of year groups are taught by one teacher, the efficiency of that school might be questioned. Also, when you have such multi-year education, the educational outcomes can be questioned. It is generally not so bad when there is no particular difference and there is a composite class of two years; it is once you move beyond that. That is an example where you can see efficiency with an educational driver.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Minister for his intervention. That may be the case, but there is no disputing the fact that efficiency has been used for 10 years to reduce budgets and the money that goes to education. That is something that he made a passing reference to.

There was some discussion about the future design and make-up of our education system, particularly integrated education. We in People Before Profit support and welcome an integrated education system. Ultimately, it should be secular.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will not, sorry. I only have a few minutes. Sorry, who was that? Ms Mullan?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Sorry, I will continue. It is deeply troubling that people are educated separately on the basis of their religion. There was discussion about the Irish language sector during the debate. The point has to be made that Irish language education is important in our society. It contributes a lot and has an important role to play. My constituency is the fastest growing urban Gaeltacht. Those schools should be supported and, if they so wish, expanded. Irish-medium education is not the bogeyman or the reason why our schools are underfunded, not to mention the wealth of research that backs up the benefits of dual or multilingual education.

I support Rachel Woods's comments about the need to move away from an education system based on academic selection and exams generally. Our young people are under massive pressure to study, work hard and go through exam after exam. It has a massive impact on their mental health. Surely, we can move towards a different kind of education system, one that does not see education simply through the prism of how many A or A* grades young people get but supports their nurturing and development.

I encourage Members to support my amendment.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Catherine Kelly to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 1. You have five minutes.

Photo of Catherine Kelly Catherine Kelly Sinn Féin

Our education system is obviously broken. That has been evident recently in the treatment of children with special educational needs. The amendment is simply about bringing the motion back into line with the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I acknowledge the consensus in the Chamber among all Members who have spoken. They all referred to the crisis in finance, special educational needs and area planning, to name but a few issues. That highlights the need for the Assembly and Executive to bring about a radical review of our education system.

The education of our children and young people is too important to mess with. Reform of education provision is too important for us to undermine progress by even the appearance of messing about. The agreement tasked the Executive to "establish an external, independent review" and set a goal:

"of moving towards a single education system."

That remains the best way forward. It is based on agreement and on recognition of how challenging reform is likely to be.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. In the event of a report that said that a single education system would include Irish-medium, integrated, maintained, controlled and whatever other system, would the Member and the party opposite accept that as a single education system for Northern Ireland?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Catherine Kelly Catherine Kelly Sinn Féin

We have to be conscious that a lot of discussion must take place. We have heard from many Members about the importance of the maintained, controlled and Irish-medium sectors. The review would be based on a determination to overcome difficulties by ensuring that there was full confidence in that review and by safeguarding the pieces that we have got right.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is soon to set up an expert panel on underachievement and a review of education. I agree wholeheartedly that we need investment alongside the review. As John said, our future education system should be inclusive, not exclusive.

I urge Members to support amendment Nos 1 and 2.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Kellie Armstrong to wind up the debate on the substantive motion. You have up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I hope that I will not take the full time. The reason why the Alliance Party tabled the motion was frustration. Today is 10 March. The 'New Decade, New Approach' document was published on 10 January, and it made it clear that a Programme for Government should be published within two weeks of the restoration of the institutions. That has not happened. Page 43 of that document, as Mr Allister pointed out, states:

"The education system has a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values."

We know that, and we thank those who work in those systems. I pay tribute to them not just for their excellence in their work but the fact that they struggle to get by with what they have.

It is also stated on page 43 that the system is not sustainable. I remind Members that:

"The parties acknowledge the progress made in developing new models of sharing, cooperation and integration. There is a desire to build on this as a basis for delivering long term improvements in the quality, equity and sustainability of the system."

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Thank you for giving way. On a fact-checking point, Mr Allister stated that Irish-medium education prevented integration: Irish-medium education can be non-denominational. I know that from experience, because my daughter is taught through the medium of Irish and there are children from a Protestant background at her school.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I do not argue with the Member on that.

Page 43 of the document continues:

"The parties agree that the Executive will commission and oversee an independent fundamental review with a focus on quality and sustainability. The educational experience and outcomes for children and young people are the most important factors."

When we were discussing that in the talks period, a number of people said to me, "You're never going to get this in, Kellie. This will never work. There are too many vested interests". I have to say that there are. We have some excellent school systems, but we simply cannot afford them any more. We cannot afford them for two reasons: it is not just the financial aspect but the damage that it does to our children. While Mr Newton and others have said that we have a fantastic school system, we do, but only for some. We have special educational needs provision that, the Education Authority has already admitted, has been failing. We have children being left on school buses. We have other children, as Mr Allister pointed out, receiving different levels of funding depending on which type of school they go to.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. She comes to the heart of the issue. There is no segregation in special schools. We do not have maintained special schools, controlled special schools or Irish-medium special schools: we have special schools. Of course, there are reasons why some sectors do not want to have to pay the burden for special schools. Does the Member accept that 50% of the schools in the integrated movement, which is now a sector the same as the rest, are not integrated? The majority of those who go are from one community, and, of course, they get round the tables by getting people to tick the "Other" box. There is a lot of very inventive accounting going on, and it needs to come to an end.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

The Member makes an important point.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Let me make this argument, and then I will come back to you.

The Member brings me back to my point: nowhere in the Alliance motion will you see the words "integrated education". The Alliance Party and I are more interested in integrating education for the benefit of our young people and the staff who work in those schools. Why are we, as adults, pushing our segregation down the throats of children? If CCMS offers a fantastic education system, let us get the best parts of it and bring it into the system. The same applies to the controlled sector, the integrated sector or any sector. It is time that we stopped spending so much money propping up organisations in order to maintain segregation and looked back at what there should be: an education system that is fit for all.

We have already agreed some of the terms, Minister. The reason we pointed you out in the motion as opposed to the Executive is that the Executive, for two months, have not moved on this. When you are bringing forward terms and conditions, I will remind you to look at the footnote on page 43, which defines what "education" means. It is the full gamut of education; it is not just the schools. It looks at nursery provision and further education. It also looks at teachers, sectoral bodies and the curriculum — the whole gamut.

Can we please now have some bravery in the House? Bengoa was tough. I put it to each and every one of you that this will be the toughest thing that the Assembly will ever face, because there are a massive number of vested interests in education across Northern Ireland. One of the Members to my left — I apologise; I am not sure who it was — said that the head teachers were not pleased: that is a vested interest. Everyone should have their say in the consultation. It needs to be independent so that the independent person can make sure that all those voices are brought forward.

I say to every Member in the House that we are failing some of our children in society by not having an education system that is fit for all. I ask every one of you to stop for a moment and consider the fact that we have already agreed to have such a system in 'New Decade, New Approach'. Are we already saying that that document is a failure? No, we are not. We are saying that we are going to take forward reform. We are simply asking the Minister to bring terms of reference to the Executive. He indicated in his response that he will be doing that, for which I thank him. We look forward to seeing the terms of reference very soon, because a review of education is not something that we can wait on. As you rightly say, Minister, it will take a substantial amount of time to create the report. It may then take 15 to 20 years to change our education system to meet its recommendations. As well as time, it will take the belief of everyone in the House to support an education system that will be fit for the future.

We have children who are coming out of education at the moment. Some go to university. Some are lucky enough to go into jobs. Some go on to further education. However, many of our children come out without qualifications. What is happening to them? They are being left behind, and many of those young people have special educational needs. That is a poor measurement of our society. Why are we not protecting those people who need us the most, to ensure that they have a lifelong pathway whenever the options that we take for granted are not available to them?

Segregation and separation of children is something that I absolutely believe is wrong. Justin McNulty said that he is a Catholic who went through the Catholic education system and that he understands diversity. I am sorry, but I have to disagree. I am a Catholic who went through the Catholic education system, and, other than for the fact that I had a mixed family, I never came across diversity through my school. It talked to me about it but did not include me with it. I completely respect the Member when he says that the Catholic education system is a good system. I am a product of it, so I have to agree. However, we must take the best of that system and the best of everything else and bring it all together to create a system that is so much better.

I say this to all as well: it needs to be an inclusive system. I will remind Members that, in building an inclusive society, we need to think about LGBT, Catholic/Protestant, all faiths and those of no faith.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Does the Member agree that the Executive's failure to amend legislation to ensure that schools take account of section 75 has contributed to the negative stereotyping of LGBTQ students and has had some negative effects on their well-being?

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I have to agree with Miss Woods, but we have even more problems than that, given that the Fair Employment (Monitoring) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 define community by binary means and do not take into account any section 75 obligations.

We have to think that an inclusive system is one that includes disabilities, and a way of doing that is through our school system. We cannot do that while our school estate is no longer fit for purpose, so the review is critically needed. We included the word "inclusive" in the motion. The Cambridge Dictionary definition gives this example:

"An inclusive group or organization tries to include many different types of people and treat them all fairly and equally."

By comparison, the Cambridge Dictionary definition of the word "single" is, "one only".

Our school system comprises wonderful young people who are taught by wonderful teachers, and we are letting them down by taking £100 million a year out of the system to maintain segregation.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, I will not put the Question on amendment No 2.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly calls on the Executive to implement urgently the New Decade, New Approach commitment to establish an external, independent review of education provision, with a focus on securing greater efficiency in delivery costs, raising standards, access to the curriculum for all pupils, and the prospects of moving towards a single education system.