I obviously have been scalped
It is difficult to pick up your thread, but I will do my best as I make a few more points.
Before we finished for Question Time, I referred to Mr Gerry Campbell, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), and to a number of his concerns; indeed, he has major concerns about the Bill and its implications for his sector of the education system. I am absolutely certain — I said this before Question Time — that the Member, in proposing the Bill, has been discourteous to the education sectors in not consulting them. It is somewhat concerning that they have had to contact the Member to ask for a debate or a discussion on the issue.
There are other areas, and we have talked about the initiatives that are already under way through the Assembly. I refer to another document. It is produced by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF). It refers to 'New Decade, New Approach', and the headline on its website reads:
"Assembly agrees that educational review is urgent".
The Integrated Education Fund indicated that it was pleased to see that 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA) pledged an independent review of our education system, which it had called for and for which research shows overwhelming support. Even the Integrated Education Fund, as a way forward, supports 'New Decade, New Approach' and a review of the education system.
There are other publications. Danielle Blaylock and Joanne Elizabeth Hughes of Queen's University Belfast have published a paper, 'Shared Education Initiatives in Northern Ireland: A Model for Effective Intergroup Contact in Divided Jurisdictions'. I refer only to a small part of what is, in my opinion, a good study of ethnicity and nationalism. Towards the end of the document, they say:
"Despite the challenges involved in overcoming operational difficulties, the growing body of evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the separate school can be harnessed to offer the type of intergroup contact that leads to more positive relationships. The shared education model foregrounds education outcomes as opposed to reconciliation goals and is thus non-threatening to advocates of separate/faith-based schooling, whilst also appealing to those who are in favour of more radical integration solutions. In this way, despite the obvious difficulties, shared education can represent a middle ground from which different groups in tension can come together to promote more positive relations".
That supports a way forward that the Assembly has already embarked on, and the impetus is already there and is driving us forward.
The Institute for Conflict Research, supported by the Belfast Interface Project and the Integrated Education Fund, published 'Identifying Potential for Shared Education in Interface Areas'. I will read a small piece:
"Opportunities to increase shared education are visible in all the schools in question. The continuum of approaches to sharing in education means that while some of the schools are at different stages of the process, they are recognised in their attempts to build relations in these areas. It is therefore an issue for ‘top level’ stakeholders to support these initiatives to embed this work as a key priority."
That is shared education.
As I said at the beginning, I want all our children to be educated together in the future in whatever form that might take. One hundred years ago, at the formation of Northern Ireland, our forefathers wanted to have a single education system, and, for its own reasons, another sector wanted to have an education system based on the Catholic faith. I imagine that the Catholic ethos was the big issue. That was agreed to and supported, by stages, as we have gone along.
As I said at the beginning, I think that Ms Armstrong is sincere in the Bill that she has produced. She is sincerely wrong, but she is sincere. She is an advocate of integrated education. She read out the nine objectives of the Bill. I refer to three, about which there are, I think, concerns. One is:
"To place a duty on the Department of Education and other education bodies to promote, not merely encourage and facilitate, the development of integrated education."
Furthermore, as we go through an area-based planning exercise, another policy objective is:
"To establish a presumption to overarch area-based planning that all new schools should be either integrated or otherwise non single-identity schools."
Another of the objectives is:
"To require a standardised and accredited diversity and all-inclusive module on how to teach in a truly inclusive and integrated classroom for primary and secondary schools and Postgraduate Certificate in Education for schools - in initial teacher training provided by the teacher training education providers."
In many ways, our principals and teachers already do that. It is concerning that we would think that they were not doing that in our education system and that we had to legislate for them to do so. Another policy objective is to:
"require funding to be dedicated by the Department of Education ... for the facilitation of integrated education", including an additional new team in the Department of Education.
Those are concerns that I and, I believe, my colleagues on these Benches have. If we were to support the Bill, the education bodies would have genuine concerns that Ms Armstrong and her Bill, according to my interpretation of it, would not be able to assuage. There are many areas of excellence in the current education system, but our aim must be to ensure that opportunities and educational outcomes improve across every school in every sector in every part of Northern Ireland. We should always strive for better results for all our pupils and learners.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Instinctively, I support greater integration in our schools; I think that most people would be of the same opinion. Instinctively, most of us believe that it is good for children to meet other children from diverse backgrounds, be that different religion, ethnicity, socio-economic background or ability. We think that that is important, and, of course, it is.
If we were setting out today, in 2021, rather than1921, with a blank sheet of paper, we would have a different education system. Unfortunately, back then, the people responsible for setting up the education system did not have progressive views on diversity in that system. No one from a nationalist background believes that aspects of the Irish culture, such as the Irish language and Gaelic games, including Gaelic football and so on, would have been taught in state schools.
Not for the first time, the Member opposite has a narrow and particularly republican view of history. In 1830, there was a multi-denominational common school system. In 1921, when Northern Ireland came into existence, the Roman Catholic Church decided not to take its place in a multi-denominational education system. Maybe the Member, not for the first time, needs to get his historical context correct.
Of course, I would never challenge the authority of the Speaker. However, when we talk about change in these debates, it is important to contextualise the situation that needs to be changed. Of course, Mr Storey has a particular perspective, and I have a different perspective. We will agree to disagree on that.
The difficulty is this: even if children had been integrated since the foundation of this state, would it have made any difference? My answer is, "No, it would not". Structural inequalities existed outside the school setting, and that was the problem. Unless we can resolve the structural inequalities in society, we will face the same difficulties over and over again.
We need only look at other international examples. In the former Yugoslavia, all education was integrated. When that country imploded, that did not stop people who had been at school together engaging in conflict and even killing one another. Therefore, it is important that, yes, there is greater integration, but it is more important that we finally resolve the structural inequalities that have existed in this state since its foundation.
Of course, I will mention the Irish language again. We still face strong opposition from the party opposite to the integration of the Irish language and culture into society, never mind our education system.
Although I have said that we all instinctively support integrated education, I am not aware of any real evidence that integration will have longer-term benefits for society. That does not mean that I do not support it, but integration, to me, is more than Catholics and Protestants going to school together. One of my criticisms of the current integrated movement is that there are still schools in that sector that select children on the basis of the post-primary transfer test. Therefore, it is not properly integrated. If we are talking about integration, there has to be an end to academic selection.
One of the other issues that have arisen has caused some resentment in the maintained sector. In some ways, that sector feels that it is blamed for sectarianising society here.
Many of us, including the proposer of the Bill, have been through the Catholic sector. I doubt that even she would argue that sectarianism was in any way promoted in the school that she went to. If you speak to teachers, principals and pastoral leaders in the maintained sector, they will tell you that they teach respect and try to give children a rounded education in order to have them come out of school as better people overall and people with respect for others in society. It is unfair that it is often that sector at which many people point the finger in debates such as this.
One important issue in education is that parents want to have the choice to send their children to the best schools, where they will get the best education. I will make a distinction between what, I think, the proposer advocates, which is a system of greater integration, and the current integrated system. I have already highlighted the point that some integrated schools use academic selection, which undermines the concept of integration. The current integrated system is also the lowest-performing when it comes to educational outcomes, whereas the maintained sector is the highest-performing.
The important people in the debate are not so much those of us sitting in the Chamber, although many of us have children and make decisions about what school we want to send them to; the important people are the parents who are thinking about the educational opportunities that they can provide for their children. I appreciate and understand what the proposer said about the integrated sector being oversubscribed. That is also the case with the Irish-medium sector. Coláiste Feirste, which is the biggest post-primary Irish-medium school in Ireland, is absolutely bursting at the seams. There is a need for another post-primary Irish-medium school in Belfast, but that looks to be a long way off being delivered at the moment.
How would greater integration affect education outcomes? Do we have evidence that it would improve them or disimprove them? Those are the important questions that need to be answered.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member again conveniently forgets about the Northern Ireland Audit Office report. He talks about inequalities and blames everybody for the ills in society, including the British Government and probably the famine, but more than £100,000 — millions of pounds, in fact — was spent on interventions, and the Audit Office has said that those have not changed anything. Something is fundamentally wrong that you cannot blame on academic selection or unionist politicians.
The evidence against academic selection is absolutely overwhelming. No other area of public policy has as much evidence stacked against it. I know that the Member is a great advocate of academic selection, but his position goes against all the evidence from the OECD, the Children's Commissioner, the Equality Commission, the Catholic hierarchy and so on. That is to name but a few, and you will know that the list is long, Mervyn. I say again that the evidence is absolutely overwhelming. Whatever type of education system we have, we will have difficulties until we sort out that issue.
The Integrated Education Bill requires significant changes. A lot of its language is positive, but other parts require clarification and need to be teased out. For example, the term "promotion" is included with regard to integrated education. What impact does that have on other sectors? Does that disadvantage them in some way? I am not sure that that would be good for other sectors and therefore good for our education system in general. There is also the presumption that any new school must be an integrated school except in special circumstances where it need not be. We do not have a definition of "special circumstances". We need to tease that out. The Bill says:
"the religious demographics of an area or spare places in existing schools" cannot be used as a reason for a school not to be integrated, but we do not know what other reasons can be used. Those are important issues that we need to tease out.
I support the Bill going through its Second Stage, but it needs significant changes to make it fit for purpose. We agree that it should go through Second Stage so that essential improvements can be made to ensure that it is fit for purpose and that it does not disadvantage any section of our education system.
As the SDLP spokesperson on education, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank Mrs Armstrong for tabling the Bill.
The SDLP believes fully in integrated education and believes that more should be done to support and enhance our integrated education sector. We have concerns about the Bill in its current form, and we will work carefully with colleagues across the House to ensure that it becomes fit for purpose as it proceeds.
When Mark Durkan was Finance Minister, the SDLP increased the education budget generally for three years running, and, in cooperation with the then Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, made specific provision for an uplift in resource to integrated education. The rationale was that we needed to make integrated education a more real and viable choice for parents. We need to invest more in integrated education. Despite having come some way with provision here, having 65 fully integrated schools and another nine in the pipeline, we have not come far enough.
This is part of a wider debate. Whilst integrated education is important, there is other work to be done on integration and a shared future on shared housing, shared sport and shared social pursuits. There is no point in having integration in schools but not in other places. We can educate children together, but they live apart. We need to deal with the housing issue in many parts of Northern Ireland.
It is important to recognise the valuable contribution that all education sectors made towards promoting peace and reconciliation over the troubled years of our history and acknowledge the work of schools through the education for mutual understanding (EMU) programme, which, from the early 1990s onwards, resourced schemes to bring children from different schools together to share educational and social opportunities. In more recent times, that work has been targeted more precisely and advanced by the shared education programme endorsed by the Executive Office. The integrated sector has, of course, made an important and valuable contribution throughout that time.
Integrated education has existed here since 1981 and the formation of Lagan College, and it has produced some positive outcomes. Thirty years later, however, it is disappointing that only around 7% of our population attends integrated schools. That is despite the benefits of integrated education having been well documented for decades and the fact that it has helped us move forward and towards peace by reducing prejudice and widening friendship networks among all our children.
Like many Members, I have seen some great work being undertaken in the integrated sector. In my constituency of West Tyrone, Drumragh Integrated College is one such example and has been a beacon of top-quality education in the wider Tyrone and Omagh areas. It provides an outstanding resource and service for many local children in my constituency. It is a school that I have visited on many occasions. There are countless other integrated schools across the North that also deliver first-class education for their pupils.
The SDLP is broadly — broadly — in support of the Bill brought forward by Mrs Armstrong. We generally accept her claim that not enough children who want integrated education can get places in integrated schools because the sector is much too small. That has to change if this society is to move forward. Mrs Armstrong also claims that the problem is particularly bad at post-primary level, and that around 20% of children seeking post-primary places in integrated schools are not successful because the existing integrated school estate is too small. I agree with her on that point. In that context, there is a need to create a level playing field for the integrated sector by ensuring that children are able to get into their school of first preference. However, it is important to note that any change cannot happen overnight and that, to put it very simply, there is not a one-size-fits-all fix to the problem.
Our priorities should be the quality of education provided and how that can be done sustainably without the need for school closures or any decision that has a hugely disproportionate impact on parts of our society. Completely abandoning our faith-based schools or Irish-medium schools is not the way forward. I must reinforce that very strongly. I shared those concerns with the Member when we met. She was very kind to meet us and give us a heads-up, but I have very clear concerns on that.
I thank the Member for giving way. I am glad that he has, at last, come off the fence, because, for some time, I wondered where he was going. Is he in favour of the Bill or not? As someone who values the controlled sector and the maintained sector, does he genuinely believe that there are no concerns and that there are no issues in the Bill that will have massive financial, practical and legal implications for those sectors, including the Irish-medium sector?
It is ironic to hear a DUP Member talking about sitting on the fence, given the previous Minister's reputation in the House on dealing with education matters during a crisis. Thank God that we now have a new Minister, who hopefully will not sit on the fence.
The points that you made about concerns around CCMS and the controlled sector are absolutely right. I am a product of the controlled sector. I went to a controlled primary school. It has shaped me in a very positive way. I went to school with other children, and I did not care what religion they came from. There was a natural integration in that school, and I am a product of that. I benefited from it, and I cannot sing enough praise of the controlled sector. Equally, when I went to secondary school at Holy Cross College, I had a different experience. We must value the work that is done in these schools and these sectors.
I do have concerns about the Bill; I will not stand and say that I do not. I absolutely have concerns about the Bill, and it needs to be shaped. However, we have to recognise that we need greater integration of children in education, and that it needs to happen sooner rather than later. That is roundly where I am at. We will work with the Member to do what we can to shape the Bill and — to steal Mr Sheehan’s phrase — make it fit for purpose. I will not stand up and say that we are against the Bill. There is something here. I have a lot of concerns about many things in it, but we want to work with the Member to shape it.
The Bill places a duty on other educational bodies to promote integrated schools, including the Department of Education, the Education Authority, CCMS, the Youth Council and CCEA. Whilst that seems attractive on the face of it, Mrs Armstrong needs to explain how the responsibility of that duty to promote will work with the existing responsibilities that those organisations have towards their own sector. That is where this gets quite complicated, in my opinion. The idea, therefore, requires careful consideration and consultation — quite a lot of consultation — with all sectors. We look forward to supporting that process. It is a vital process that needs to happen.
Clause 7 requires all new schools to be integrated unless there are "special circumstances". Mr Sheehan also made this point: those "special circumstances" are not expressly specified in the Bill. More work — much more work — is needed to clarify that at Committee Stage should today's Second Stage be agreed.
The Bill also addresses a number of other issues. It proposes developing an integrated education strategy with mandatory reporting by the Department of Education, including on how the Department, the Education Authority, CCMS, the Youth Council and CCEA have performed their functions in respect of integrated education. The Bill also provides for training in diversity at initial teaching training (ITT) and continuing professional development (CPD) levels, including with other school staff and governors. Again, we have no issue with that. Finally, it proposes inspections of integrated schools by the ETI to ensure that they are upholding their integrated ethos. However, there is a need to clarify some of the language that is used in the Bill and define how it will work in real terms. That is where a lot of the focus needs to be.
As stated earlier, the SDLP broadly supports the Integrated Education Bill. However, we believe that many of the issues that arise from the application of the provisions of the Bill need further clarification and work. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate the provisions at Committee Stage, where the Bill should receive considerable scrutiny to ensure that it is shaped properly and where members of the Education Committee can thrash out any problems.
Although I broadly support the Bill, I was concerned when it was tabled. We have had much discussion in the House about the independent review of education. We support that and most — probably all — Members support that. Therefore, it is disappointing that we have that review coming down the tracks and we have the Bill. I would rather that we had waited until the independent review of education had happened before the Bill was introduced. The Bill pre-empts some of the outcomes of the review. We will have to wait and see what the wider review throws up, but I fully support the review, and I do not see why the Bill has come first. I say that openly and honestly. I ask Ms Armstrong to explain how the Bill will fit with the review to which all parties committed in New Decade, New Approach and the majority view of the House that the transfer test needs to be replaced with a fairer system.
Notwithstanding those concerns, the SDLP will support the Second Stage of the Bill, and it looks forward to considering the details at Committee Stage. The Bill needs considerable work; I cannot put it any other way. I understand what the Member is trying to achieve, and, for that reason, I broadly support it, but I have considerable concerns about some of the details and the problems that could arise for other sectors that are doing invaluable work in supporting our children and teachers and providing a first-class education service for so many. We are up for the discussion and debate and to shaping the Bill, and we look forward to moving forward with it. We will vote to agree the Bill's Second Stage today.
The Member from Strabane — Dan from Strabane — said something that triggered something in me. I want to address it now in case I forget to pick up on it later. The independent review of education will possibly be the single biggest transformation opportunity for education and will, perhaps, encompass and embody all the issues and wrinkles that need to be ironed out across the education system. That is an important point. The Member is absolutely correct: had that review been rolled out before now, perhaps the Member from Strangford would not have needed to pop the Bill in front of us.
Like the party opposite, the Ulster Unionist Party will support this stage of the Bill, but with serious health warnings. The reason for that, with regard to the independent review, is whether anybody here could, hand on heart, say that they trust these institutions to be standing next year or the year after. We have just gone through a period of three or four weeks when one of the two parties that sit opposite each other to my left made one or two veiled threats to bring the institutions down. That should not stop us from taking every opportunity to legislate or make things better, whether through legislation, regulations or amendment.
If this were the final iteration of the Integrated Education Bill and this were Final Stage, the Ulster Unionist Party would not support it. I need to be really clear about that. I have spoken to Kellie at length about the Bill. I believe that the intention is good and if, as Mr Sheehan said, we reached out and asked individuals and parents whether they support integrated education, the answer would be a resounding yes. Parental choice needs to be listened to and upheld. However, that is not reflected in certain aspects of the Bill, and I will get to that. Regarding parental choice, the Member raised the issue of academic selection, and, although I am not a champion of it, we saw the problems this year from acting too soon. Twenty-five thousand pupils transferred to year 8, with the parents of more than 14,000 of them choosing academic selection because it is the system that we know. If we are serious about parental choice, we have to encompass it in every conversation, even the painful ones.
Thanks for giving way. That is where the Member is mistaken. The parents or the children do not select the schools; the schools select the children on the basis that they are the cream of the crop. That is what academic selection is about.
I thank the Member for giving way. I think that you will find that the children who have been let down are those who have been in tears for much of this year as a result of the failure of those in positions of leadership to act sooner. The previous Minister did not act quickly enough on that; he should have acted a lot sooner. Does the Member agree? Does he also agree that the transfer process is not fit for purpose in its current form and that that is not news?
Yes, absolutely. I can see the Member for Strangford getting a bit frustrated, and, to be fair to her, we need to bring the debate back to the Bill. We do not agree on this, guys: we put it around the Committee for a while. I am sure that we will learn from this experience — everyone of us — and put the kids first this year. I will not take any more chuntering on that if that is OK.
We do not support the Bill in its current form; I do not think that any party here would. However, as I said to its sponsor, the intent is good and, with certain tweaks, it could be transformed into a useful Bill.
I am also a product of the controlled sector. Some of the Bill's provisions rankled with me. Its purpose is to educate our children together, perhaps to make them more rounded beings, but I suggest that I am pretty rounded. I think that it was Carál Ní Chuilín who said a few weeks ago that there is not a sectarian bone in my body. I hope that everyone picks up on that. Perhaps what we are trying to fix is not the fault of our education sector; it is how we are, it is how we communicate, it is part of our environment. However, educating children together, in whatever form, is a component part of making things better in Northern Ireland.
To go back to what I said at the start, the rationale exists for exploring every opportunity to integrate and bring our children together for educational purposes. My party's mantra is to try to create a Union for all. I had a little chuckle with the Bill's sponsor that if we got this right, it would probably add to the ethos of my party. I talk to my party colleagues, and the Chair of the Committee would join us on this, about the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO). We have so many inequalities, not just regarding our children but our teachers. Our teachers are trained in two separate colleges, and then there is an obstacle to employment opportunities for them. We need to see that removed as well.
As I said, the Bill, in its current form, speaks unkindly, although perhaps not intentionally, of the controlled and maintained sectors in particular; even the Irish-medium sector misses out a little. In its current form, the Bill goes beyond its intent. It contains the instruction to "promote" — something not afforded to any other sector. The Bill's sponsor will say that it uses the word "promote" in reference to shared education, but shared education is not a sector; it is an ethos and a principle. The maintained and controlled sectors do not have the opportunity to promote what they do. If we are trying to create a level playing field, we can do that by amending or removing certain clauses. For instance, clause 4 needs to be amended to reflect that.
Clause 3 seeks to provide a consultative element not afforded to any other sector.
It is a bit like offering a section 75 element, if you like, to one sector. In my reading and without further explanation, it seems to say that any decision made by the Department will have to pass through a consultative body like the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). That is not stated, but it could be NICIE. However, that facility is not afforded to the controlled sector or the maintained sector. That is the elevation of a sector. I know that that is not the sponsor's intent, but that is why we need to be clear when we bring potential legislative changes to the Committee and then through further legislative stages — so that we get it right.
I am sure that some of you guys were there when we were doing NDNA. It was an interesting time down at Castle Buildings. I heard the phrase, "Let's return to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement" many times. It sounds great. Unfortunately, none of the authors of the Good Friday Agreement was there, and the spirit of it meant a different thing to each of us. We need things to be codified and written down so that they are not left to the interpretation of someone who follows. That is why we need to amend or remove clause 3.
Arguably, the meaning of "promotion" in clause 5 could be seen to be against parental or community choice. It needs to be changed. The addition of factors that cannot be used as an objection to an integrated school means consulting the community and parents on the type of school that they want while saying to them, "It cannot be based on the demographics, and it cannot be based on empty school desks".
We know that the Assembly Budget is huge; it is massive. The Education budget, at £2·3 billion to £2·4 billion a year, is the second biggest departmental budget. In some ways, parts of the Bill are contradictory. Clause 2(b) specifies as a purpose of integrated education:
"to promote the efficient and effective use of resources".
However, if, for whatever reason, you go past a school that has empty desks to build another school when you could fill those desks with pupils, I will argue that that is not a good or effective use of resources. We need to make sure that other clauses in the Bill do not contradict that one.
Clause 7 — the sponsor will know this already — is perhaps most significant among the issues that my party and I have. In its current form, it has to be removed; it is as simple as that. It just cannot float. There cannot be a presumption, without consulting the community, to put a name on a school, whether that be maintained, controlled or integrated. If the intent is a level playing field, we can deliver that. We all should put our shoulder to the wheel to deliver it. In its current form, however, it lifts integrated education. It would tell every child in this country that integrated education produces a slightly better pupil, maybe not academically but in the more rounded sense, but it does not. It absolutely does not. It produces every bit as good a pupil as a maintained, Irish-medium or controlled school. That is just the nature of —.
I thank the Member for giving way on that point. The Member mentions the signal or impression that it sends to pupils, but it also sends a signal to parents that, by choosing one route as opposed to a range of other routes, whether controlled or maintained, they are somehow making a superior choice. That seems to devalue the rights of parents who may say, for instance, that they want a faith-based, maintained Catholic education for their child. It creates a sort of moral hierarchy of school choices.
I thank the Member for giving way. Much has been made of moral choices. Does the Member agree, as the Department of Education has stated, that the education system in Northern Ireland is in financial crisis? Does the Member accept that separation in our education system in some way contributes to that financial crisis? If, indeed, he objects to the proposals, does he have alternative proposals to support a more integrated, sustainable approach to education in Northern Ireland?
Absolutely. The Chair of the Education Committee may be picking me up incorrectly. There is an independent review of education that will address that point. Every one of us recognises that the independent review will do that. To be fair to the Chair, the purpose of the Bill is not to save money. It is not about filling the empty seats. That is not its purpose, so I am not sure of the point that he is making. Part of the Bill does talk about efficiencies, but it also talks about empty desk spaces not being a justification for not building an integrated school.
This goes to the heart of what we are talking about. Every one of us wants to deliver for our constituents, and we listen to our constituents. That is why parental choice is incredibly important. We also need to ensure that each of the sectors is upheld. The promotion of one cannot be done by putting another one down. We need to pull them up together, and we can do that with the Bill. I have no doubt that the integrated sector needs something. It needs to be brought on to a level playing field with the controlled and maintained sectors, but, unfortunately, the Bill would elevate it above them.
To go back to Mr Weir's point, Northern Ireland is a place in which we need to be very careful. This is me getting a bit preachy now. We run about using labels. Some of them are unionist labels, some are nationalist, some are republican, some are loyalist and some are neither, other or whatever. The thing is, however, that all those wee labels should be smaller than the reason that we are here to legislate, which is to look after everybody in Northern Ireland and to do our very best for them. Education could fall into the same trap. We see that, to be fair. I suffered from it. I did not go to a grammar school, and, to be honest, a little bit of me felt that I was less than. You may think that I am totally for the transfer test, but, rather, I am for something better for our children. That may be something akin to the current system, or it may not. The independent review will pick that up. It is the same with the Bill: in its current form, it elevates one sector above the others and says that it will be treated a bit better, although that is not its intent.
Suffice it to say, the Ulster Unionist Party intends to work with the Member on the Bill in Committee. Individuals in the party will possibly table amendments to it. We accept, however, that the intent of the Bill is good and that there is scope to do something with it, so we look forward to further developments.
I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Ballymoney High School, William Pinkerton Memorial Primary School in Dervock and Ballymoney Independent Christian School, albeit the last school does not receive one penny from the Department of Education. When my wife and I, as parents, made a choice to send our children to that school, we were happy to make that choice and to pay for making it. A lot of Members talk about having choice, but that is as long as somebody else pays for it. I have listened to Members pontificate about academic selection, yet some of their party colleagues and perhaps even they themselves are happy to have been the beneficiaries of academic selection, including our Finance Minister. It is all very good to come to the House, read the script and give the party line only to make, when you go outside, a choice that it is the right one for you. Sometimes, pragmatism takes over from principle. Some Members need to be reminded of that.
It is said that all good sermons should have three points. Mine must be not be that good, because I have four. I will look today at the context and at consultation, both of which are important. I will speak a bit about the Bill's implications for the controlled sector and, at the end, about concerns.
Not for the first time, one of the Members opposite, Mr Sheehan, and I have locked horns. We have done so in the Chamber on many days, and I have no doubt that we will do the same again. I was interested to read an article by Tony Gallagher. Nobody can question the ability and knowledge that Tony Gallagher brings to debates on education. He wrote a report in 2013, and Mr Sheehan made a point about context and about history.
In the year that it is, this centenary year of Northern Ireland, while others might want to be disrespectful to it or deny that it is here, we are glad that we are celebrating 100 years of Northern Ireland. Tony Gallagher said:
"There were attempts to encourage a multi-denominational common school system in the 1830s when the national system of schools in Ireland was being established, and in the 1920s when the schools’ system in Northern Ireland was being reorganised in the aftermath of partition. However, the Churches always maintained close control on schools and thus they have always had a denominational character. Thus, for example, from the 1920s onwards the authorities of Catholic schools were never prepared to countenance handing their schools over to public ownership in Northern Ireland (as had happened in Scotland in 1918".
The Bill wants the maintained sector to come under the control of the Bill, but I have no doubt that there will be serious questions asked by CCMS, the trustees, the Catholic bishops, the controlled sector support body and many others about what really is going on here.
It is interesting how we have come to this point about integrated integration. I will list the documents that have had a bearing to a lesser or greater degree on the debate on integrated education: the Belfast Agreement, 1998; 'A Shared Future' by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, 2005; the programme for cohesion, sharing and integration, 2011; the draft Programme for Government, 2011; the review of public administration, 2002; the 'Independent Strategic Review of Education', known as the Bain report, 2006; the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006; 'Towards a culture of tolerance: Integrating Education', 2007; 'Every School a Good School - a policy for school improvement', 2009; 'Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools'; 'Community Relations, Equality and Diversity in Education' 2011; 'Putting Pupils First: Shaping Our Future'; area planning guidance; and the Education Bill. Those have all dealt with the issue of integrated education but not enough. It is never enough.
I appreciate the Member giving way. Respectfully, I presume that the Member will accept that a report is not implementation. Indeed, in citing the amount of reports that have recommended implementation on integrated education, does the Member not take a red face at the lack of delivery of those recommendations?
Many things embarrass me but not failed policies that have emanated from a lot of those. For most of those, it was a Sinn Féin Education Minister, which we had for 10 years.
A lot of people come to the House and talk about equality, whatever that means. It all depends on what the issue is and what suits you, but let us remember the 1989 Order that was changed. It placed a duty on the Department to encourage and facilitate. I think that Mr Butler made reference to that. It placed a duty on the Department for only two sectors in Northern Ireland: Irish-medium and integrated.
As a member of a board of governors of a school, of two schools, of three schools — well, two that receive public funding and one that does not get a penny — I pay tribute to all our teachers, all our boards of governors and all staff in all our schools, whatever the title is above the door. I am sure that, when they listen in to the debate, they will say, "There they go again". We have a system that, yes, is under strain, but, in all our schools, whatever their title and whatever their description, there are those who give unstinting service to our young people. It would be remiss of us not to pay tribute to that today, given all that they have had to endure in the weeks and months that have gone before. That is the context of how we got here.
Let us look at the consultation. My colleague Mr Newton referred to that. I have a private Member's Bill on carers. The process has been arduous and long, but we have endeavoured to consult as widely as we can, in a number of formats, those who will be first and foremost affected by the legislation. Today, the proposer of the Bill tells us, "Well, we spoke to them in 2017". I am sure that the world has not changed much since 2017. As my colleague, friend and former Education Minister Mr Weir pointed out, the Bill has implications for those organisations, but it is "Let us not speak to them. Let us not consult them. Let us wait until they write to us". I say to the proposer of the Bill and to her colleague in the Alliance Party: at least have the courtesy to consult the organisations that are legally implicated in the Bill.
Of course, it is not the first time that the Alliance Party has wanted to do things without consultation. It is clear that the Member for East Belfast wants to take from —
The Member makes some valuable points. Is it not also going to the heights of hypocrisy for a party to sign up to 'New Decade, New Approach', the document that is supposed to be taking the Assembly forward, specifically to the establishment of an external, independent review of education provision, and, before the members of the panel are even appointed, to introduce another initiative to undermine 'New Decade, New Approach'?
I thank the Member for that, and I concur with his comments.
What sometimes drives Members is that their position is more important than anybody else's position. It is not that many years ago that the Alliance Party had a poster that said, "Let's pull together. Let's not pull apart". Clearly, it wants to pull the educational system apart and drive a coach and horses through our current system. That is the implication of the Bill.
A warning needs to go out to our school system today about the import of the Bill. The support for the maintained sector in the House today has been deafening. At least Mr McCrossan got off the fence eventually, but his silence has been deafening. They say, "Oh, but we like to hear what all the other schools want to do, but". The "but" is always important in getting to the nub of where you are.
Let me deal with consultation. I want the Member to explain what she said. She talked about a "partisan board". What does the Member really mean? What is she implying? Is she impugning members of boards of governors who voluntarily give of their time and expertise to serve on boards of governors of schools? How are they partisan? Are they partisan because they have particular religious or political views? Are they partisan because their view is that they are there to serve the best interests of the school, which is more likely to be the case? The Member needs to give us an explanation in that regard.
I move on to the controlled sector. Maybe I am not the best example of a product of the controlled sector, but Armoy Primary School and, I trust, Ballymoney High School or the intermediate school, as it was then, gave me some of the skills that enable me to do the job that I do in the best way I could. However, the Bill is being presented as though every other sector has not been involved in being integrated and has failed. Dalriada School in Ballymoney in my constituency has, probably for many years, been one of the best examples of an integrated school even though it does not have "integrated" in its title, but the Bill says, "That's not enough. You have to do more". The controlled sector is open to all; it does not say, "You're allowed, but you're not allowed. You can come through the door, but you can't come through the door". Let us look at the figures for controlled schools: 146,138 pupils attend controlled schools, which represents 42·5% of all pupils, and 49% of schools are controlled. However, the proposer of the Bill has not even yet spoken to the body that represents controlled schools. Of the pupils in controlled schools, 61% are Protestant, 10% are Roman Catholic and 29% are other. Almost 40% of newcomer pupils in Northern Ireland attend controlled schools, but that is not enough for the Bill or its proposer. You have to do more because you have to get "integrated" in the title.
Lest anybody thinks that I have something against integrated schools, let me take you to Ballycastle Integrated Primary School in my constituency. Not that many years ago, that school was facing a difficult and precarious future. It had gone down to something like 70 pupils. Today, it has almost — in fact, it may now be over — 200 pupils. It is bursting at the seams. Is that because it has "integrated" in its title, or is it because it is a good primary school that provides a high standard of education for those pupils? I urge the Member to engage with the controlled sector, given that it has 50% of schools.
Clause 1 refers to:
"those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, including reasonable numbers".
What is "reasonable numbers"? Is it 10? Is it 100? The Member has a duty to explain to the House what she means by "reasonable numbers".
I am glad that the Education Minister is here. I ask her to take this away and, at some stage, inform the House about it. When the 1989 Order was enacted, it referred to the "reasonable numbers" of pupils in a school. Then, it seems, there was a shift, not legislatively but in practical terms, because we ended up in a situation where, to all intents and purposes, it was probably deemed to be 50:50, but we could not get 50:50, then we started to talk about 70:30, and then it moved to 40:40:20, and now it is whatever is reasonable. I ask the Education Minister to do a timeline of legislative provision and practice in the Department that has led us to a position where now, if you have only half a dozen parents who decide to raise an issue, you can change the long-term future of a school.
I do not want to step on any other Member's toes when it comes to their constituencies. However, look at post-primary provision in Blackwater Integrated College. There was a great surge to have that school opened, but now they want it to close so that they can move closer to Saintfield or Ballynahinch. It was not enough. There is an issue with how we come to the figures and what are "reasonable numbers".
I thank the Member for giving way. There is a vagueness of the phrase "reasonable numbers", which the Member has highlighted. It also shows up the muddled quality of the Bill. While it talks about "reasonable numbers" of the two main communities in clause 1, it goes on, in two specific areas, to say that, effectively, when looking at integrated schools or the creation of a new school, there should be an absolute disregard for — indeed, a prohibition on — looking at the religious demographics of an area. If, for example, a new primary school is established in an area where, because of the housing around it, it is overwhelmingly of one community or another, how is that to be balanced with the requirement to have reasonable numbers of a mix of Protestants and Roman Catholics? That seems to me to be a contradiction in the Bill.
"When planning for the establishment of a new school, education bodies must"
— not "may", but "must". One of the few benefits of being around this place has been that we have all come to realise that these pieces of paper are more important than Members' private motions, which we used to spend our time debating but were not worth the paper they were written on. This clause makes changes, and it has implications. Clause 7 says:
"education bodies must apply a presumption that it will be an integrated school unless that would be inappropriate by reason of special circumstances."
So, you would assume that those special circumstances would be listed. Well, they are, but it is the exclusion. Clause 7(2) says:
"The following are not to be treated as special circumstances for the purpose of rebutting the presumption in subsection (1)— (a) the religious demographics of an area; (b) the existence of spare places in existing schools."
What, then, are the special circumstances? Is it the case that what is really wanted here is more new schools to facilitate those that are currently integrated and are oversubscribed and, therefore, that will be the means whereby people will get their new schools? It is time for openness and transparency on that issue.
Before the Member leaves clause 7, are we not faced in clauses 6 and 7 with one of the most astounding propositions in the Bill? Clause 7 puts an imposition, when planning a new school, on "education bodies" that they "must apply a presumption".
Education bodies are defined in clause 13 as including the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. If and when the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools comes to planning a new school, as an education body, it must presume that it will be an integrated school and plan for that, making a total nonsense of the very idea of having and maintaining viable maintained schools. The elitism — the supremacy — of the legislation is breathtaking.
That has been borne out — I will not name the schools — in some areas where there have been proposals for the amalgamation of schools. When the integrated sector — that is what it is: it is a sector; the same as the maintained, controlled and Irish-medium sectors — comes to the table, it demands that any new provision has to have integrated in its title. There is no working together. There is no recognition of the benefit of a number of schools coming together. No, it makes demands.
I contend that the Bill goes even further than what the Member said. Look at the regulations set down in clause 10, which states:
"The Department of Education must"
— again, note that it says "must" not "may" —
"make regulations supplementing the provisions of this Act."
Subsection (j) states:
"provision designed to encourage and enhance coordination and collaboration between public bodies".
It is not just education bodies but public bodies. I assume that that includes the Department of Health and other public bodies, but, as the Member indicated, those are not specified in clause 13, which comes under the heading of "Interpretation: general".
Clause 10(2)(j) goes on to say:
"collaboration between public bodies providing services in relation to integrated education".
What happens if there is a failure on the part of a public body to comply with that regulation and the regulations supplementing that provision of the Act? Will there be a penalty? Will there be a sanction? Will a public body, for example, not be able to tender for a contract? How do you demonstrate compliance? How do you prove it? How do you show it? Those are some of the many questions that remain unanswered.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Then, we come to clause 11. In clause 11, we have the issue of guidance for the other bodies, which, as the Member highlighted, are set out in clause 13. Clause 11(2) states:
"An education body, and any other public authority with functions relating to education, must have regard to any guidance issued under subsection (1)."
We have gone beyond the confines of the school and are now in the confines of the community. I have to say that the more that you read the Bill, the more that you become concerned that it is about putting into legislation a sector that tells us, "In all the public surveys that are carried out, 70% or 80% of people are for integrated education but less than 10% send their children to an integrated school". When you fill in a form that asks, "Would you do that?", it is all very well saying, "Oh yes, I would do that". However, when you have to make the choice, that choice is governed by one thing: the quality of the education. We see it more and more in our education system, where parents from different communities are now prepared to send their children to other schools, irrespective of the sign on the door. Do you know why? It is because parents want good-quality education for their children. Sadly, this Bill will create more division and more concern and place more financial impositions not only on education but on other public bodies at a time when we all know the pressures on our public finances.
Those are just some comments. I have no doubt, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we will return to the Bill in the weeks ahead, when there will be much more to say.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. It has been very lively so far.
The Bill's key aim is something that we should all be able to support, and that is the intention to promote, protect and improve:
"an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding".
That is what the Bill states, and it goes on to identify diversity as being:
"between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, between those of different socio-economic backgrounds and between those of different abilities."
That is a sound basis on which any society can build. The Bill deserves consideration, and that is why I will support its getting a Committee Stage. There are weaknesses in it, however, and we will need to address them if it gets to Committee Stage.
This is a good opportunity to recognise the great work that our schools have already undertaken. Many already offer excellent education outcomes for our children, and they do so by having an ethos of respect, mutual understanding and social justice. Amongst them are non-selective, all-ability schools.
It is important to recognise that, across our schools, a great deal of good and progressive work is already under way. It is important to note also that sectarianism is a historical and political problem, not an education one. Indeed, during many difficult times, our schools have provided an escape for children. They have been a place in which young people could grow and flourish. In the past, schools offered one of the few spaces in a hostile, mono-identity state in which the Irish identity could be recognised and respected.
Particularly in the wake of the current pandemic, we look to schools to deliver well-being, to support the mental health of our children and young people and to aid recovery following the hardship of lockdown. Appalling statistics on the sexual harassment of girls have recently come out of England in an Ofsted report and in a report from the Girlguiding charity. We look to our schools to provide modern and meaningful relationships and sexuality education that also delivers respect and understanding of diversity.
Only 7% of children currently attend integrated schools, so there is certainly room for growth. Choice, including parental choice, is important, and parents who wish to send their children to an integrated school should be supported. At the same time, respect for diversity includes recognition of faith-based schooling as a valid choice.
We should recognise the aspirations of the Bill and give it a fair hearing. We should work together to identify any difficulties in it and seek to overcome them. I support the Bill's passing Second Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to comment on the Bill at Second Stage. We can all appreciate the importance of educating our children and young people in a shared and integrated environment, both for future societal benefit and for individuals' personal development. The Assembly has made that aspiration clear in the past, and the Executive have already begun work to bring it to the fore. As we seek to roll out New Decade, New Approach, we should be mindful of what was agreed on education. NDNA provided a series of commitments designed to advance and support the education of children and young people from different backgrounds together in the classroom, in an effort to help build a shared and integrated society. The Executive have already set the terms of reference for an independent review of education, as promised in NDNA. An interim report will be available 12 months after the panel commences its work, and I look forward to its publication. It is important that we give time and space for that work to be completed, and that we use the review to inform our legislative thinking on education for the future. It is with that in mind that I turn to consider the private Member's Bill.
I am an advocate of shared education. We must remember that many of our schools in the state sector provide shared education and have done so for many years. Indeed, the majority of those educated in a state grammar setting are educated in a mixed environment. That is a situation that has been produced over time, without coercion or promotion of any kind. Often, due to the single identity and demography of local communities, some controlled schools serve a, largely, Protestant catchment, but it is important that we acknowledge that Northern Ireland does not have a Protestant sector in education. The state-controlled sector is open to everyone, and that is how it should be. An open and inclusive, fully cross-community, controlled sector is something that should be promoted, encouraged and celebrated.
However, I have concerns in relation to the route map provided in the Bill to achieve a shared educational system. One issue that unites many when considering education provision is that of parental choice. Parents and prospective pupils vote with their feet, not only in respect of the choice of school but their preferred educational sector. That is not something that will change overnight. Many Catholic parents, for example, will continue to seek a Catholic education for their child. It is in that context that I consider the implications of clause 7, for instance. The clear presumption towards only the integrated sector for new schools pays no cognisance to parental choice, let alone the practicalities of community identity and demographics. No doubt, that will undermine the area-planning process for schools.
We are all acutely aware that the Department is under-resourced, financially. The outworkings of the Bill would further exacerbate that. Current levels of financial allocation would need to be redirected to facilitate the practicalities of promoting the integrated sector, and that would, inevitably, have an adverse effect on others. Whilst our party wishes to see increased shared education across all education sectors, we want to ensure that there will still be equality of treatment for every sector. The Bill would prioritise integrated education above all other educational sectors, be they controlled, maintained or Irish-medium. Surely, our aim and determination must be to ensure that opportunities and educational outcomes improve across every school and every sector in every part of Northern Ireland. We should always be striving to deliver even better results for pupils and learners. Whilst I am happy to support the concept of integration, in an educational setting and within the wider community, I do not believe that coercion will achieve that aim. The outworkings of the Bill will have a profound effect on how education is provided across Northern Ireland.
The independent review of education is about to commence. Jumping the gun on its findings could prove a very costly mistake for the Assembly. Members need to fully consider what the implications of the Bill will be, should it receive legislative effect.
I welcome the opportunity to speak at this stage of the Bill. As Mr Storey has pointed out, integrated education already has legislative protection. It and the Irish-medium sector enjoy that protection. That protection to encourage and facilitate has meant that the Department of Education has had to carry out a number of functions, including the funding of NICIE. The first thing that I say to myself is this: if the Bill passes, there will be no need for NICIE, because the Department will have fulfilled its statutory duty to encourage and facilitate.
When I read through the Bill, the question that constantly comes into my mind is this: why has NICIE not been doing that, and why has NICIE not been held to account for not doing that? The budget given to NICIE by the Department of Education is around £700,000 per year; I am willing to be corrected on that figure. That money is to ensure that NICIE encourages, facilitates and promotes integrated education, though there is no statutory duty on the Department to do that, and engages with communities and schools that wish to transform, or have transformed, to integrated status.
While it is in my head, it is also worth noting that many of our integrated schools do not meet the criterion of a 70:30 mix, as set down. In fact, if the Department of Education were to implement that policy thoroughly, a number of our integrated schools would be in serious difficulties.
I thank the Member for reminding us of that point. One of the challenges is that, in many places, parents are encouraged not to put down their religious affiliation on the assessment form but to put down "Other". There is a serious issue with schools that claim to be integrated but are not integrated because they do not meet the threshold. The figures bear that out.
The Member has put that on the record. I simply do not know whether that is the case.
What I do know is that the reason that I did not pursue that in my time as Minister was that I saw it as my duty to facilitate and encourage. Where schools were working towards integration, I was happy to facilitate and encourage that.
I will start my scrutiny of the Bill by saying that, while I know that clause 1 is a reference to other documentation, I find it offensive as a parent, a politician, a community leader and as someone who has gone through the Catholic sector. My parents chose a school for me not to keep me away from anybody. I chose my children's school not to keep them away from anybody. If I believed for one second that my children's school did not fulfil these criteria, I would whisk them out of it immediately.
Clause 1 states:
"An 'integrated school' is a school which intentionally promotes, protects and improves an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, between those of different socio-economic backgrounds and between those of different abilities."
Are we seriously suggesting that those schools that do not have "Integrated" above the door do not do that? Are we seriously saying that?
Well, then why is it in the Bill? Why is such a definition in the Bill? As a parent, when I looked for a school for my children, I looked for a school that, one, was a good school, and, two, would teach them through the medium of Irish, as was my wish. I wanted my children to go to a school where they would be able to learn about their culture, their history and their community, a school that their neighbours go to and where they could make friends. I, and many other parents, are of the view that their children's school does exactly what it says in clause 1(2).
I thank the Member for giving way. I go into schools, and I have worked in schools. There is no doubt that preference and importance are given to schools that are driven by a religious denomination. We talk about respect, diversity and equality for all cultures and beliefs, but the system that we have favours one over all others. For example, when I go into Catholic primary schools, they have the Stations of the Cross around the walls and pop-ups of the Pope sitting at the front doors. On respect and diversity, surely that is the dominance of one over the other.
You will note that I did not include religion in the list of aspects that I was looking for when choosing a school for my children. Religion plays an important part in some people's lives and choices. I believe that religion should be separate from education. However, I do not believe that this Bill, or the current model of integrated education, delivers religion separately from education. As has been said by many Members, the current integrated movement is a Christian-based model. If you want to start an argument, put two Christians in a room. Straight away, you will get an argument over how to worship the same God. I do not accept that the model presented today will give a non-Christian ethos to our education system. Christianity is going to be promoted, whatever form that is in. I believe that education and religion should be separate. Religion should be studied as a subject that gives you a view of the world: of history, geography and a whole lot of one thing and another. I accept that people have deeply held views about it, but I think that that definition has to be looked at.
I will move on through the Bill. During Ms Armstrong's opening remarks, she said that it is not easy for a new integrated school to be opened. I agree with her to a degree, but let us look at the facts. If my memory serves me correctly, you need 15 pupils to open either an integrated or Irish-medium primary school in an urban area. In a rural area, you need 12 pupils. Neither the controlled nor the maintained sector can do that. In that respect, again, the Department of Education has facilitated the growth of integrated education.
Ms Armstrong pointed out that, from the figures that she has, a significant number of pupils are turned away, particularly from post-primary integrated education. There is a way to correct that, which is the development proposal process, whereby, if a school is oversubscribed on a regular basis, it can bring forward proposals to increase its intake. There is the potential to do that and, when the Minister of Education examines such a development proposal, they will have a statutory duty to ensure that their duty to encourage and facilitate was taken into account. If they do not do that, they could be judicially reviewed — successfully, in my humble opinion — on that matter. That is another way for the integrated sector to move forward and develop, which begs the question: why is there a necessity for the Bill? Does the Bill give further advantage to the integrated sector over other sectors? I think that it does. I support the current status of encouraging and facilitating that sector, and I am not arguing against giving advantage to it, but the Bill goes too far. It sets the integrated sector on a different plateau from other sectors, and that may be detrimental to those sectors. Indeed, reading through the Bill, Mr Storey pointed out a few things, although I do not wish to agree with Mr Storey much more throughout the debate.
I will move on to clause 5: "Meaning of promotion". That currently falls into the role of NICIE. What is the purpose of having that clause? The "General duty" on other education bodies to develop, adopt and implement or revise strategies to take integrated education into account is a step too far. In fairness, Ms Armstrong has clarified what she means by "New schools", which is that it is not new builds at existing schools but rather brand-new schools. I again go back to my comment that that gives quite a significant advantage to the integrated sector.
I will move on to clause 8. There is quite a significant number of items in that clause. I have a question. Clause 8(2)(c) states:
"include arrangements for full access for integrated schools to training and resources provided by the Education Authority and other services accessible by publicly funded schools".
Are they not already included? I ask that as a genuine question. Clause 8(2)(e)(i) states:
"(e) include an action plan, which must— (i) be prepared in consultation with persons with knowledge and experience of integrated schools including teachers, governors, pupils".
That is part of a strategy that the Department of Education has to develop. That goes back to my previous point that that is NICIE's job. NICIE should be doing that. Again, there is already a body set up to:
"include measurable benchmarks against which the success of the strategy (including progress towards meeting targets) can be assessed".
I have no difficulty with biennial reporting.
Clause 10 sets out a wide range of regulations, some of which have far-reaching implications for public bodies. Mr Storey mentioned that as well. 10(2)(m) states:
"provision designed to integrate assessment of demand for and supply of integrated education in systems for the planning and development (including housing development) or regeneration of urban and rural areas."
That is quite a wide scope for a Bill. In fairness, when the public are asked, "Do you support integrated education?", the answer is this: why would you not? I support the principle of integrated education, but when someone puts legislation in front of me, I want to know exactly what each provision of that legislation will do. I ask myself, "Is the legislation necessary and what are its outcomes?". As I have said a number of times, this legislation has mission creep written all over it.
Ms Armstrong said that she is concerned that the NDNA commitment may take too long to deliver. Given the experience of politics here, that is a fair comment. It is still an NDNA commitment, however. In the agreement, there is a commitment to have an independent review, including of whether there should be a single education system. I want to see that report, and I want to see it in the context of inclusivity. That is my concern about the integrated education sector. It promotes inclusivity, but I know of only one integrated school that plays Gaelic games. There are very few that do. None promotes the Irish language. I will correct myself: I think that there is one. The identity in integrated schools is not neutral: in many of them, it is British. You can pay homage to the Crown but to no one else.
If the integrated sector is serious about respecting all identities, it will have to get its head around that. The reason that we have such a separated education system, dating back to the 1920s, is that the Catholic Church — and I am no defender of the Catholic hierarchy — took the strong view that, in order to keep Irish identity and culture alive in the partitioned state, it would have to have its own education system. After 100 years of partition, therefore, why would we say, "I will tell you what: we will forget about that. We will have an education system, under the Bill, that is neutral with a small 'n' — or, in my opinion, British — in its identity"? I do not object to a British identity, but I certainly want to see an Irish identity there.
The Integrated Education Bill requires significant changes to make it fit for purpose. We agree to the Bill proceeding through Second Stage so that essential improvements can be made to ensure that it is fit for purpose and does not disadvantage any section of our education system.
Members, it is clear that it will be a long debate. There are still Members who wish to be called. In light of that and the fact that there are Members who need to remain in the Chamber throughout the debate, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes until 4.45 pm.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 4.29 pm and resumed at 4.47 pm.
As a member of the Education Committee, I am happy to contribute to today's debate. I thank Ms Armstrong for bringing forward her Bill. We, in the SDLP, are proudly committed to vibrancy, diversity, inclusion and pluralism in our education system and in our society. Given that integrated education has existed in the North for more than 30 years, it is surprising that fewer than one in 10 of our young people is educated in an integrated setting. The motivation behind bringing the Bill to the Assembly and the Executive is, therefore, understandable: it seeks to enhance and strengthen our integrated education sector.
All too often in this place, we focus on traditional community fault lines and on what divides us. The simple fact is that our young people are light years ahead of us when it comes to breaking down the barriers of the past and facilitating a truly shared society. The current state of play in our education system does not reflect the progressive and outward-looking world view of our young people. Continuing to segregate our children and our communities, particularly on the basis of religious background, serves only to perpetuate the divisions of the past and impede the progress that our society so desperately needs.
In contemplating the potential associated with the Bill, I pondered the possibilities that could flow from a more integrated education system. How cathartic and inspiring it would be to see the captain of a Royal School Armagh team hoist the MacRory cup, or a team from Abbey Grammar School in Newry mount a bid for the Schools' Cup. Our society has evolved enormously in recent years; it is time that our education system reflected that.
It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the incredible work being done by schools in my constituency. Newry and Armagh boasts some of the highest-ranked secondary education institutions in the North, where diversity and sporting programmes have offered opportunities for engagement among young people from divergent backgrounds. In addition to that, the four grammar schools in Newry all have a disproportionately high number of students in receipt of free school meals, which speaks to the socio-economic diversity in the student bodies of those schools. On that basis, I suggest that many lessons can be learned from the schools in my constituency in the context of academic excellence, community inclusion and diversity in socio-economic backgrounds.
We cannot and should not pursue a steamroller approach to this issue. We need to engage with relevant stakeholders strategically and with a listening ear. With that in mind, as the Bill progresses through Committee Stage, I will advocate for robust engagement with relevant stakeholders at all levels in the sector as well as for an approach that pursues a strategy of levelling up and one that seeks to emulate the successes of high-performing schools.
There are aspects of the Bill that need to be clarified. Many of those have already been mentioned, and I will not go through them all individually again. However, while there are mentions of monitoring targets and benchmarks throughout the Bill, one of my overarching questions is: how do we measure success? How do we measure success for the education of our young people?
As I said at the outset, my party and I are energetically committed to a fully inclusive education system that reflects our broader society, and, therefore, I will support the Bill in principle. As I said, there are issues that need to be worked out, and, for my part, I will fight to ensure that the good work of the schools across my constituency and beyond is held up as examples of best practice. To that end, I echo what my party colleague Daniel McCrossan said. I do not believe that abandoning our faith-based schools or our Irish-medium sector serves any of our young people. My experience of St Malachy's in Camlough and the Abbey in Newry — faith-based schools — is that they provided me with early exposure to young people from other backgrounds. I can fondly recall in the Abbey a collaborative project with Newry High School at Newry hockey pitch, where we played a cross-community sports match. In the first half, we played a game of hockey, and, in the second half, we played a game of Gaelic football. I was useless at the hockey, but I was quite good at the Gaelic football. I can never forget the joy that that brought to all of us involved — coaches, teachers and the pupils who participated. It was a really joyous occasion, and it was my first experience of interacting with a number of children from a different faith and background. As I said, wow, did we enjoy it. I have to thank Mr Aidan O'Rourke — "Rookie" — for giving us that experience.
I appreciate, however, that this early years grounding and exposure is not a common experience across the board. Recently, a former teammate of mine spoke about his experience of schooling. He shared the fact that he had not met a Protestant until the final years of his secondary education, when he started attending school in Armagh city. To my mind, that reaffirms the need to take a strategic and tailored approach, recognising that there are very valuable lessons to be learned from the many schools across the North that have been quietly and conscientiously doing the heavy lifting on inclusive education for many years.
Back to my own school. I sat beside Lawrence Wong from Malaysia, and Davy Lo from Hong Kong was in my class. Our school, ahead of its time, was integrating education in the best way that it could. We had a Protestant teacher and we had Protestants in the school, so there was integration in the Abbey in Newry. We need to see more of it.
There is a lot worth protecting and emulating in schools now. The Bill is a start. Forgive me for mixing my metaphors: it gets a shovel onto our very important issue, but we will need to drill down into the nuts and bolts. There are a lot of nuts and bolts that need to be drilled down into. Creating the framework for an integrated education system is a task that belongs to us all, and I look forward to working with colleagues from all parties to further scrutinise the Bill as it passes through Committee Stage. We must get this right.
It is a privilege to speak as Alliance Party education spokesperson in support of the principles of the Integrated Education Bill, as proposed by my colleague, Alliance integrated education spokesperson, Kellie Armstrong MLA. At the outset, I recognise the extent of the consultation undertaken by Kellie Armstrong on the Bill. It is my understanding that a 12-week consultation was undertaken on the Bill, with over 800 responses received and multiple key stakeholders engaged, such as the CSSC and CCMS.
Building a united community has been a key mission of the Alliance Party since its foundation. The Alliance vision for education is an integrated and sustainable system that delivers equal opportunity for all children to develop their unique personality, talent and ability together.
There are persuasive rights, good relations, educational and economic imperatives for integrating education in Northern Ireland, and the time for reform is now. I must admit to being somewhat surprised by the hostility expressed by some Members today to children learning together, and I regret that more of them are no longer present in the Chamber to engage directly with them, given how much they had to say about me when they were here.
In their contributions, some Members were balancing on the head of a pin to justify their position on educating children together, and I hear the words of Martin Luther King Junior ringing in my ears. When he was told by the establishment to slow down on his dream for children learning together, he stated clearly in his response that it was no time to engage in delay and, perhaps most powerfully, that it was no time:
"to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism".
King's colleague Representative John Lewis also frequently encouraged supporters of integration to do all that they could to get in the way. We will not be intimidated or misrepresented from getting in the way on behalf of all children and young people in Northern Ireland. The Bill presents every party and every Member with an opportunity to demonstrate actual support for an integrated approach to education, such has been recommended for decades and which is supported by people across the community in Northern Ireland and beyond.
The international peace accord, and this jurisdiction's founding document, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998, stated clearly that integrated education is essential to reconciliation and the promotion of tolerance at every level of our society.
The public response to the cohesion, sharing and integration strategy consultation was clear in its support of integrated education, yet the Executive Office declined to include provision for integrated education in the final Together: Building a United Community strategy developed from that consultation in 2013.
The Fresh Start Panel report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland recommended that the Executive set ambitious targets to measurably reduce segregation in education as quickly as possible. That was in 2016.
A poll on education in 2018 found that good educational standards — I am glad that I can agree with Mervyn Storey on something — are by far the most important factor to many people when choosing a school. That was followed closely by a desire for children to be educated together. Two thirds of respondents supported their school officially becoming an integrated school. That seems to fly in the face of some of the comments made here today. The overall view was that political leaders have done little or nothing — this is the actual wording of the poll, so apologies — to facilitate and encourage integrated education. Some 60% of respondents felt that politicians actually hold up the accessibility of integrated education.
The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre has also established that there is a significant financial cost of separation in our education system, which could be up to £90 million per year. Yet the Department of Education states that our education system is in financial crisis.
Despite all the above, the Executive Office's good relation indicators for 2018-19 found that 21% — 21% — of first preference applications to post-primary integrated schools did not result in admission.
That is a significant increase of 3% on the proportion of first-preference applications to post-primary integrated schools that did not result in admission in 2017-18. It is getting worse. Since 2013-14, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of first-preference applications to post-primary integrated schools that do not result in admission: 11 percentage points. That represents an increasing oversubscription to post-primary integrated schools.
Much has been made of parental choice. In my constituency of East Belfast, poll results have found that a majority of parents, approximately 76%, support their school becoming integrated. As I mentioned, parents felt that good educational standards were the most important factor when choosing a school, and reflecting a particular faith background was viewed as the least important factor. The majority were also in favour of a joined-up approach to future planning for education and housing to help to improve good relations, which is a subsection of clause 2.
The Department of Education commissioned an independent review of integrated education. The review reported, I believe, in 2016. It recommended:
"That DE reviews the existing legal definition of 'integrated' education to ensure it is appropriate for the 21st century, particularly in light of Northern Ireland’s changing demographic and increasing diversity. That DE brings forward legislation to place a duty on DE and the EA and a power on all other Arms Length Bodies to encourage, facilitate and promote integrated education."
That is the Department of Education's independent review. It also recommended:
"That the new legislation should include a requirement to report to the Assembly at intervals of not more than two years on the implementation of the statutory duty to encourage, facilitate and promote integrated education. That DE should review the religious balance criteria for integrated schools to take greater account of our more diverse society and regional and local demographics, including the balance of the community in which a school is located."
It also recommended:
"That the EA should pro-actively plan, set objectives for, and monitor progress towards, increasing the places available in the integrated sector. That all Development Proposals for closures and amalgamations of existing schools should be required to demonstrate explicitly in the Case for Change that they have given meaningful consideration to a sustainable integrated, jointly managed or shared solution."
There are, I think, 40-odd recommendations in total, but Members probably get the idea of what it says.
The Bill is consistent with many recommendations in the Department of Education-commissioned independent review, the report of which was published, I believe, by the previous Minister of Education, Peter Weir. The Bill presents every party and every Member with an opportunity to demonstrate actual support for an integrated approach to education, the implementation of a Department of Education independent review on integrated education and the reform of education, the like of which has been recommended for decades and is supported by people across the community in Northern Ireland and beyond.
I thank the Member for kindly giving way. I recognise the important point that the Member made about the importance of the independent review of education. That said, why, then, has his party brought forward the Bill at this stage and not waited for the independent review to report?
That question has been asked and answered a number of times. I am referring to an independent review of integrated education that reported in 2016. Five years on, it is entirely legitimate to seek the proper implementation of its recommendations, notwithstanding the need for wide-ranging reforms across education, which, hopefully, the independent review of education in its entirety will also recommend.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I have been listening to the debate outside. He talks about the fundamental review of education, to which everyone is committed, and the recommendations that will come from it. Clause 7 would create circumstances in which every single new school that is opened in Northern Ireland will belong to one sector. How does the reality of what the legislation would do in practice reflect the need for the wide-ranging reform of all education?
I thank the Member for his question. Again, it has been raised. The clause refers to "a presumption" unless there are "special circumstances". I am sure that the proposer of the Bill will refer to that in a bit more detail when she is given the opportunity to do so.
In closing —.
I thank the Member for his generosity of spirit. He has referred on a number of occasions to the 2016-17 independent review of integrated education. The Minister will be looking at a number of the recommendations that have not as yet been implemented. The integrated sector did not accept all of the 40 recommendations, however, rejecting some of them.
I thank the Member for that intervention and piece of information. There is also a wide range of recommendations that it supports and wishes to see implemented.
That brings my remarks to a close. I sincerely hope that the House takes the opportunity to support a more integrated approach to education and allows the Bill to pass, in order for it to receive more detailed scrutiny at Committee Stage.
It will probably come as no great surprise that I have, down the years, visited quite a lot of integrated schools and seen the excellent work that has been done in them. Those school visits, and seeing the enthusiasm of young people in particular, are often — I am sure that the Minister will agree — the best part of the job. As well as those excellent integrated schools, I have also visited schools across the sectors — be they Irish-medium, maintained or controlled schools — in which there is excellent delivery. I also fully respect the desire of parents to see a school be transformed into an integrated school. That is entirely their right, and it is a right that has been supported down the years. Even in the past six months, four development proposals to transform to integrated status have been signed off. Those proposals were largely borne out by parental demand and include, for, I think, the first time ever, a Catholic-maintained school transforming into an integrated school. It is perfectly right for parents to express that opinion, for it to be facilitated and encouraged through the Department and for it to be responded to.
There is a common theme. Probably the single biggest thing that parents are looking for when they look at a school is the quality of the education provided rather than its exact sectoral specificity. If we are, however, to respect those who seek to have their school become an integrated school, we should also fully respect the right of those who wish to make other choices, be it about a faith-based maintained school; a controlled school; a school that teaches through the medium of Irish, as Mr O'Dowd talked about; a school at post-primary level that is either selective or non-selective; or, and Mr Storey is no longer with us, an independent Christian school. There are also some in our system who choose to teach their children at home through elective home education. It strikes me that we should respect all those choices.
I am not going to reiterate everything that has been said so far, but there are four areas of the Bill in which there are fundamental flaws in the content. I am not going to go over the issues around consultation and process, but there are strategic considerations. There is an old adage about someone who is stopped and asked for directions replying, "Well, I wouldn't have started from here in the first place". For example, if we were to start with a completely blank page for education, would we produce the precise layout and configuration of the school estate that we currently have?
We need to take on board where we are. We have a complex system, and it is undoubtedly the case that, if we are to look at a strategic examination of education that involves a wide range of subjects, notwithstanding looking at the issue of a single education system but going well beyond that to, for instance, how we ensure that early years is catered for —.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Paragraph 18 of the explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM) that was produced by the Member for Strangford says:
"An Equality Impact Assessment has not been undertaken, as communications between the Member and the Equality Commission and legal advice the Member has received did not identify any equality implications of the Bill. Therefore, it is considered the Bill will not have an adverse impact on any of the groups identified in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998."
"Considered" is not the same thing as proven. As a man who was a Minister, does he anticipate that there may well be a legal challenge around the section 75 implications of the legislation, particularly in relation to clause 7?
I was going to come to the issue of equality. However, the Member makes a valid point. It seems to me that, if we are to have the best legislation, having a situation where there has not been an equality impact assessment (EQIA) is strange. Wearing two hats, as a former Minister and a former barrister, I consider it to be a strange position. I am sure that the Member will deal with that in her remarks. It seems to me that, on other occasions, the Alliance Party and others would be strongly arguing that things need to be equality-proofed and EQIA-proofed. Yet, there is a sense that it is not considered necessary in this case, which is not a particularly strategic way of looking at things.
Mention has been made on a number of occasions of the NDNA commitment to an independent review, which all the government parties signed up to. Despite COVID, which delayed things, that is beginning to be put in place. It required terms of reference that had to be agreed by the Executive as a whole, and all five parties agreed to that. It then required public advertisements for those who had expressions of interest, receipt of CVs, a sifting process and interviews of potential members of the independent panel. All those actions have now taken place, and I believe that, in a relatively short time, the Minister will announce that.
If we are looking at this in a strategic way, why take one aspect of the education system? Mr O'Dowd asked whether it was necessary legislation on that basis. The legislation duplicates functions that, in some cases, are already there, but it also pre-empts the independent review. None of us — neither I, nor the Minister nor any of the parties — know what will emerge from that.
I thank the Member for giving way. The issue of the independent review of education has been raised a number of times, but, given that there is a report from the Department of Education specifically on recommendations for integrated education from 2016, why would progress not be made on that report?
Without going into details — I am sure that the Minister will deal directly with this — there are aspects that have been implemented, and there are others that may well be part of the wider examination. I have mentioned the terms of reference for the independent review, to which all Executive parties signed up, including areas that were covered by the report on integrated education to be put into the independent review. There were a few recommendations that the sector itself did not support.
The point is that, even though the report on integrated education was on one specific aspect of education, all of us, I think, would accept that there are wide-ranging issues to be dealt with. We all accepted, rightly, that the way to do that, through NDNA, was for an independent review to take place. That will have to be very thorough and weighty, and it will take some time. Timescales have been put into that as well. It strikes me that to take one aspect of the wider education system — it is not just a level of tinkering but has fairly fundamental implications — is the wrong approach. Anybody who believes in strategic reform of the education system should say that the Bill pre-empts that and is not necessary.
The second area, which the Member for South Belfast raised, is the equality issues. I believe fundamentally that all our children should be treated equally and that the rights of parents and, indeed, their choices should be treated equally, but this is not equality. It puts one sector at a different level and on a higher plane than any other sector. That is writ large throughout the Bill. Mr O'Dowd mentioned that in respect of clause 1. Clause 1 gives a definition of integrated education, and clause 2 sets out its purpose. If the intention is to say that what is set out in clause 1 pertains only to integrated education, that is, fundamentally, an insult to the schools out there that are delivering that. I will not reiterate the issues that Mr O'Dowd raised about clause 1.
If we look at clause 2, which is, I think, the one clause that Mr O'Dowd did not mention in his speech, we see:
"The purpose of integrated education is— (a) to deliver educational benefits to children and young persons; (b) to promote the efficient and effective use of resources; (c) to promote equality of opportunity; (d) to promote good relations; and (e) to promote respect for identity, diversity and community cohesion."
If the sponsor of the Bill or, indeed, anyone in the House can point to any school in Northern Ireland that is not based on and is not delivering on those principles, that should be cause for concern for the Department of Education. To say that those things are purely ring-fenced for integrated education, as with clause 1, is an insult to other schools.
We move on to clause 4, which provides for a shift from the 1989 requirement to "encourage and facilitate" integrated education, which is done largely through NICIE, to "encourage, facilitate and promote". At present, promotion is in the legislation on shared education, which involves all sectors. However, if we take a single sector and say that it alone should be promoted, where does that leave the other sectors? Where does it leave, for example, the Irish-medium sector? Where does it leave maintained schools, controlled schools and other schools? It is a clear attempt to put one section and one set of choices on a higher plane than others and to send out a strong signal to parents that, if you dare to choose a different path for your child and if you believe that there is a school that lies outside the integrated sector, you are, in some way, not making the right choice for your child.
That is reinforced in the much-attacked clause 7, which talks about new schools. Earlier, the proposer gave a definition of new schools and clarified that she was talking about newly created schools rather than newly built schools. I have to say, however, that that is not in the Bill, so that is one of the things that would have to change if it progresses. A presumption that every school that is built from now on, be it because of an amalgamation or simply to deal with a growth in population, will be an integrated school, unless it falls into those special circumstances, is saying to the controlled sector, the maintained sector and the Irish-medium sector that they cannot have a new school built unless they have what seem to be ill-defined "special circumstances" to justify it in some way.
Thank you for giving way. Subsection (1) of the relevant clause refers to "by reason of special circumstances". It goes on to define what are not to be considered special circumstances:
"(a) the religious demographics of an area; (b) the existence of spare places in existing schools."
Having strangled off parental demand for new school buildings and disregarded the existence of spare places in nearby schools, in what circumstances would a school get built?
It is strange. At best, it is silent on the issue; at worst, it, effectively, imposes a single sector on every potential school. Indeed, as I will come to later, it is, effectively, about badging schools rather than driving them from that. The third reason that this is fatally flawed is that it produces —
I see the Member chuntering from the sidelines. I am glad to see that the Member reaches out the hand of friendship to People Before Profit.
The Bill is riven with muddled thinking and a costly approach. In muddled thinking, consider the "Meaning of promotion" at clause 5(1)(a). I have some sympathy with looking at how supply could be increased to meet demand, but this takes an almost Stalinist approach of aiming to increase demand. You can pick any type of school you want so long as you pick an integrated school, because we have to push up the demand. If, as we have been told, there is survey evidence of the demand, one wonders why this is necessary. There seems to be muddled thinking about pushing up demand.
With clause 5(1)(b), there is the issue of finance. Some Members mentioned the costs of division, but that would explicitly establish new schools and deliberately disregard where spare places exist, including if there were spare places in a local integrated school. You can still build another one on that basis. That, at best, seems to be muddled thinking.
Again on cost, there are fairly ill-defined requirements of the integrated education strategy on a number of points — for instance, clauses 8(2)(a) and (d) — to have increased "funding commitments and resources". We are told — it has been reiterated on a number of occasions — of the financial pressures that schools are under, yet, mystically, the Department will find those additional resources simply to promote particular activity.
Mr O'Dowd raised the point, at clause 8(2)(c), that the Department must:
"include arrangements for full access for integrated schools to training and resources provided by the Education Authority".
However, the question is this: what is available? There should be no gateway check on any sector so that it gets an additional level of resources. Training is available for all sectors. Either this is unnecessary or it gives favourable treatment to one sector. Are we to say that, in training, if you happen to work for a controlled school or a maintained school, you should be given a lower level of access? I see the Member shaking her head.
Do not forget that not all integrated schools are GMI. Also, if we are to have equality across the board, as indicated, will we have equality on the basis of saying that all schools are put on exactly the same framework? If that is the case, it also means that, for the development of a new school, there should be identical numbers to the controlled and maintained sectors. I welcome that clarification.
Let me give you one other example of the muddled thinking. This takes us into a dangerous position in area planning. There is a requirement that "targets and benchmarks" of the Department must also include the:
"numbers of development proposals created and delivered for expansion of existing integrated schools".
The Member nods her head. She is, I am sure, clearly aware that development proposals (DPs) do not come from the Department of Education but from various sectoral bodies. However, the people who give the legal verdict on whether a DP is approved, not approved or modified is the Department and, more specifically, the Minister. We seem to be left in a situation where those who would give the verdict are the people who then make provision to encourage those DPs in the first place. It is a bit like saying to a judge, "You have a target for the number of convictions that you have to make this year, but, by the way, you must judge all these cases on a level playing field". It drives a coach and horses through the idea of area planning. In area planning, we should try to find greater cohesion between the sectors rather than simply trying to promote one sector above all others.
Finally, I do not see how the overall proposal is advantageous to integration, because, on two occasions, the Bill explicitly states that looking at the demographics of an area will be barred in the establishment of new schools or the meaning of promotion. There is an earlier requirement that suggests that there should be reasonable numbers from both communities. Take, for example, a new school. We know what factors are not to be treated as special circumstances. If, due to demographic pressure, a new primary school is built in an area that is overwhelmingly of one community, will we create a situation where, instead of a mixing of our young people, schools will be artificially badged as integrated schools, irrespective of whether the numbers provide a level mix?
The Bill's proposer indicates rightly that polls show that most people want their children's schools to have a mixture of backgrounds and faiths. That is perfectly fine. However, to create a situation that utterly disregards the overall composition of an area drives a coach and horses through the idea of getting a mix or any level of mix and means that we will be observing the name of integrated education but, in practice, simply ratcheting up the figures. That is why it is fundamentally wrong that cognisance is not given to demographics, particularly in new schools and when looking at efficiency on the basis of existing school spaces. That is one of the most painful activities that any Education Minister has to do from time to time. There is an acceptance that there are probably too many school buildings across our school estate. That means that we do not have efficiency. I see the Member nodding her head, but she would create new buildings without regard to existing spare places.
I thank the Member for giving way. I remind the Member of Justice Treacy's ruling that integrated education is a "standalone concept". If there are spare places in a controlled school or a maintained school, why should an integrated school not be able to be developed further or to grow? As a Catholic living in an area perceived to be unionist, would it be assumed, where I live, that it would only be a controlled school and I would go to a maintained school? Why not an integrated school? The "standalone concept" means that, as a parent, I have the right to choose integrated education.
The point is that there is the right to choose. The Member asked, "Why not an integrated school?" Yes, why not an integrated school? Why not a maintained school? Why not a controlled school? The Bill says that you disregard, from an efficiency point of view, any spare capacity. We will simply build more schools for the sake of facilitation. The Member may shake her head: it is there in black and white, as is the issue of area planning. It should be about meeting the needs of areas and the demands of parents. Simply saying that a new school has to be of a particular type means that you put down barriers to any form of new school, regardless of the desire of parents locally, the overall mixture in an area or what is sensible in an area.
I have listened carefully to Members' comments. While some seemed to wrap up by saying, "We think it's a reasonable enough Bill. Let it go forward", they lacerated the Bill from one end to the other. Almost all the speeches that I have heard, with the honourable exception of those of the representatives of the Alliance Party, who are strongly in favour of it, have essentially highlighted the problems.
They say that such-and-such a clause is terrible and that, because of their concern, they want changes to be made. However, they then say that they are happy to support the concept. It is clear that, across the board, many Members want to make major changes to the Bill. I put down this marker to Members: once you accept the full principles of the Bill, you severely limit the amendments that you can table. If Members genuinely have that range of concerns, if they genuinely believe that the reform of education should be done in a strategic manner, if they genuinely believe that all our children — .
You will find that the report was produced and published while I was Minister, but the review was commissioned by the previous Minister, Mr O'Dowd, who will admit to that.
The point is that that review focused on a single aspect of our education system. All five Executive parties signed up to NDNA — I appreciate that a few representatives who are not members of the Executive parties are here today — and agreed to the full terms of the independent review, including aspects that would supersede previous reports. Anyone who believes in a strategic review of education does not take one aspect in a piecemeal fashion and try to drive it forward.
If you believe in equality and having a genuine level playing field for all sectors, it means no child gaining an advantage from the set of school gates that they go through. It means treating parents with respect when they make choices for their children and that no choice is presented as superior to another. If you believe in all of that, if you want to ensure that we have a cost-effective and coherent system and if you want to see sharing and integration in this society, it is not enough to make a range of criticisms of the Bill, particularly given some of the language in it. The Bill, unfortunately, is fundamentally flawed, and I urge Members to vote against it. Let us move forward with the NDNA commitment to the independent review.
First, it is possible to believe in the general principle that all of our children should be educated together and to oppose the content of the Bill. There is no contradiction. As a general principle, which is what we discuss at Second Stage, I believe that our children should be educated together, and my party has held that position for some time. I recall an address given by the then First Minister, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson in which he outlined his vision of a genuinely shared education system. The reaction to that speech demonstrated to me that significant vested interests in the provision of education will need to be tackled if we are to achieve a situation in which all our children are educated together. I say this to Alliance Party Members: please, do not represent my opposition to the Bill as opposition to our children being educated together, because it most certainly is not.
In my constituency, I have an excellent integrated school; indeed, it has been the flagship of the integrated education movement. One of the other Members for South Belfast was one of the first children educated at that school. She can speak to the quality of the education that she received at Lagan College.
I will try to say this as respectfully as I can, because I realise that this is a reasonably sensitive issue. There is a degree of accuracy in saying that the excellent school to which he refers, which affords excellent support, had to withstand the level of opposition that is being put forward to this reform today. Maybe another Member from South Belfast can testify to that in more detail. The Member referred to the fact that this will be difficult. This is significant change; indeed, it is my recollection that Peter Robinson went as far as to say that it is morally wrong that we separate children on the basis of community or religious background at the age of five. We will have to do more than we have done to date, which is just saying "Yes, we wish that children be educated together".
He was right to say that it is morally wrong, and all the parties that signed up to 'New Decade, New Approach' were also right. I see the commitment to the review of education as being almost similar to the Bengoa report for the health service. That is how far I want it to go and how radical and brave I want it to be. When the Bengoa report was being talked about, I said that it was the responsibility of all of us to give the Health Minister the cover that he needed to take decisions that would not go down well in some quarters because that was the right thing to do. I say that again about education reform. I hope that consensus can be built on the issue and that the Education Minister will, in turn, be given that cover and support. I do not believe that there is a disagreement about the ultimate goal, which must be to secure a situation in which our children are educated together.
Not only do I have an excellent secondary school with integrated status in my constituency, but, more recently, Harding Memorial Primary School at the top of the Cregagh Road applied for and secured integrated status.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
It is important to put this question on the record: if we were to design a system of education provision, would we choose to have that which we have now? I do not think that any reasonable person could say that we would, given the number of sectors out there, the waste that is clearly in the system and the need for brave decisions to be taken on the school estate and other issues. The answer is, of course, no. If you were setting out to design from scratch an education system, you would not design what we have in Northern Ireland. There are lots of historical reasons for why we have what we have, such as religious groups not wanting to give up control of schools when the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 1947 was passed. There were other reasons. I heard Mr Sheehan outline those earlier, and I understand the reasons behind why they felt that that was the right thing to do at the time, but you would not design it like that now. It is like the expression that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Our education system is certainly not ideal.
I will make a point about many of the schools in my constituency. Members from my constituency know that five different parties represent South Belfast in this place. That is reflective of the fact that it is an extremely diverse constituency. I would describe many of the schools in my constituency as integrated. I understand that there is a separate concept of "integrated", and Ms Armstrong can speak to that, but many of the schools in my constituency are integrated in the sense that they are reflective of the communities that they serve. There are schools such as Botanic Primary School, in which more than 50 languages are spoken. Fane Street Primary School and Rosetta Primary School are the same. They are integrated in the sense that they are truly reflective of the entire community that they serve and of those who live in the constituency that I have the great honour to represent. I am therefore concerned that many of those schools do not get the credit that they deserve because there is not a particular word on the sign at the front of the school.
I do not want us to jump the gun on an ongoing process about the future of education. The Minister will take receipt of the review, and it will be her job to take through its recommendations. In an earlier intervention, I said that clause 7 had obvious equality implications. I know that the Member for Strangford will dispute that. However, when you create a situation where, as the clause says:
"When planning for the establishment of a new school, education bodies must apply a presumption that it will be an integrated school unless that would be inappropriate by reason of special circumstances" and, in the next paragraph, state:
"The following are not to be treated as special circumstances for the purpose of rebutting the presumption in subsection (1)— (a) the religious demographics of an area; (b) the existence of spare places in existing schools",
I have deep concern about what that means for other education providers.
Defining a couple of areas that are not special circumstances but giving no indication of what are special circumstances is simply a recipe for court challenges and court decisions. It is doing so on the flimsy basis of having no real guidance in the legislation on what counts as special circumstances.
I have no doubt that, should the legislation pass and become the law of the land, judicial reviews (JRs) will be flying left, right and centre on the decisions that will be made.
As I said, I want to see radical reform of how education is delivered. At the start of the mandate, I said that public service reform and how we delivered public services would be our biggest challenge. We wasted so much time that could have been used to drive through public service reform. I hope that there is a commitment to public service reform in the time that we have left and in the new mandate. Education and health, in particular, will be the lodestar of what we try to do.
I am concerned that the Bill, effectively, prescribes what I describe as a "Henry Ford approach" to education. Henry Ford famously said that his customers could have any colour of car they liked as long as it was black. With the Bill, you can have any type of school that you like, as long as it is integrated. I am concerned about the practical outworkings of that.
I will raise the issue of religion and religious values. I was educated in a controlled primary school and a controlled grammar school. Any person who thinks that those of us who travelled that route were inculcated with Protestant values is wrong. I did not acquire the religious views and values that I hold through my schooling. As a parent of four young children, I regard it as my duty, not that of the school, to share my religious values with my children. I do not suggest for one second the pursuit of religion out of education; of course, I absolutely do not. The shorthand is basically that there are Protestant schools, Catholic schools and integrated schools, but, as someone who went through what is classified as the "Protestant" education route, I assure you that my religion was not picked up in school.
There are area planning implications here. It is clear that, if the Bill is enacted, the provision of schools will be warped. All the problems with the Bill that others have highlighted in this debate mean that you could not vote for it. What is going on here is a fear to be seen to be against integration. That is not true. It is not true to say that the two are mutually exclusive and that you have to vote for the Bill because otherwise you are not in favour of our children being educated together.
Reference was made to polling numbers that show that people want their children to be educated alongside children from other backgrounds and identities. In my constituency, that is exactly what is delivered every day by so many schools. Of course, people will want integrated education, but in vast swathes of South Belfast, they are already getting it.
It is important to put on record appreciation of the work of all the education sectors. Let us not denigrate the efforts towards community-building, bringing people together and serving the entire community that all the sectors make.
As I rise to speak on the Integrated Education Bill, I am conscious of the time of year. Not only have pupils just started their summer holidays after a most extraordinary and stressful school year, but it is a time when some of us think long and hard about the divisions that exist in our society. In this place — I mean not just the Northern Ireland Assembly but this society and jurisdiction — we are all burdened by the weight of history and identity. Even if we try to avoid politics based on division, we still live in a divided society. We are reminded of that regularly, particularly at this time of year. Whatever our perspective on the history of this place and whatever our vision of the future, it is incumbent on every single one of us to use the power that we have to tackle division.
Division is such a profound and defining part of this place that it is sometimes strange to hear people stand up and, somehow, argue that we should not be straining every sinew to tackle it. We may not agree on the constitution. We may take different views on how to tackle sectarianism in the long term, but, in the short and medium term, we should be able to find common ground on how we address one area of division — it is far from an exclusive area of division — which is the fact that so few of our children are educated together.
It has been pointed out that just 7% of children are educated in the integrated sector. As my colleague from South Belfast just said, it is true that many children from one denomination or a particular communal background go to schools of a different, or the other, communal background. That is particularly true in south Belfast, and I am very proud of that. Lagan College is not in the South Belfast constituency; it is in the Bill sponsor's constituency of Strangford. However, it is effectively a south Belfast school, as many pupils from south Belfast go there. There are many schools in south Belfast that have become de facto integrated, if I can use that phrase. If that were the norm across Northern Ireland, and if that were custom and practice, we could, perhaps, be a little bit more relaxed about integrated education and about how we deliver on the commitment made in the Good Friday Agreement to encourage and facilitate integrated education. The fact is that it is not. Our education system is too divided.
I will come on to some specifics of the Bill. There are questions to be asked about it and points to be clarified. There are legitimate areas in which people will want to ask questions and even propose amendments. That does not mean that they have issues with the Bill's core purpose.
Having listened to the debate, I have been struck, at times, by how often people go back to their personal experience of the school that they were educated in, whether it was a controlled school or a Catholic maintained school, and a sense that it did not teach them division or hate. Of course it did not. Whether Catholic maintained or controlled, selective or non-selective, Irish-medium or not, the vast majority of schools, whatever background, are full of brilliant teachers. There are many schools that are effectively single identity but are full of brilliant people doing amazing work for kids. However, when we make public policy and seek to provide goods for society, there is a difference between looking at the structure of an overall system and looking at the manifestations of that structure and its specific issues. Of course, individual teachers and individual schools are wonderful and brilliant, and they are delivering amazing things for their pupils, but is our education system too divided? Yes, it is. I am afraid that that is an undeniable conclusion based on the numbers.
It is also true that many parents want to be able to choose integrated education but, at the minute, are not able to send their kids to an integrated school. While I support the broad principles of the Bill, it is very clear that integrated education and the broader project of overcoming division in education and among our young people has to be at the core of what we do in this place. We cannot simply pretend that there is not a problem here.
Last year, I returned to Northern Ireland after quite a while away, and it sometimes intrigues me to hear people minimise the issue of division in this society as if it does not exist or there are other ways to tackle it. Do you know what? We are 23 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, and we need to get serious about this stuff. We cannot pretend that there are not very real issues and that the way that our education system is structured does not contribute to those. That will mean having difficult conversations, and I can sense how difficult the conversations will be from the tone of the Chamber today. As I said, people tend to get a little bit offended when we talk about this subject and feel, perhaps understandably, that they maybe want to defend the choices that their parents made or that they might make for their kids. No conversation about promoting a less divided education system should imply a judgement on any parent, anyone's parents or any institution, whether it is a Catholic maintained school or a controlled school — I will come on briefly to the question of selection, which is another bugbear. There should be no judgement implied, but that does not mean that we cannot, as legislators — we are legislators — draw serious conclusions and try to take action to address some of those challenges.
Notwithstanding the fact that my party’s education spokesperson and I said that we have some specific questions and issues that we want to discuss and resolve, I commend the Bill's sponsor for introducing the Bill. It is true that there is an overarching review of education, and it is a legitimate comment that, in seeking to produce an overall programme of reform of the education system, you would want to do that in a joined-up way, particularly as we have such an incoherent education system overall. It is also true that we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Given how long it takes to get to reform in this place — we experienced it with Bengoa and on licensing, another subject on which I have spoken with the Bill's sponsor — we should not look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. If we can come to a Bill that, after scrutiny, consultation and, if necessary, amendment, moves the agenda forward, who are we to gainsay an important piece of progress and do what we pledged to do in 1998 and tackle divisions in our society? We have not done enough of that yet. Having seen some of the divisions on our television screens earlier this year, I do not think that it becomes this Chamber to take issues of division lightly. I want to set that down as a principle. I get that these debates sometimes make people uncomfortable. Education is not the sole cause of division and increasing integration will not solve the challenges in this society — my God, they existed long before universal education, the partition of Ireland and the Act of Union. Those challenges will not be resolved with the Bill, but that does not mean that we should not seek to make progress where we can.
I want to come on to the complexity of our education system. One of the drivers of difficulty in our education system is the fact that it is so complex. I speak as someone who has a son who will be going into nursery or preschool later this year. I am lucky to say that he will be going to an integrated school, but only because there were a limited number of places and he was lucky to be able to get in. Our education system is extraordinarily complex, and it is true that it is very difficult for parents to navigate it. It has been said, and I agree, that, if you were to design an education system, you clearly would not start from here. If someone were to design a blueprint for a coherent education system in order to produce the best educational outcomes or a less divided society, he or she would not come up with the one that we have at the minute. Generally, it does not produce very good educational outcomes, and, I am afraid, it reinforces the fact that we have a divided society. We need to do everything that we can to address those challenges. There are the twin challenges of division and severe educational underachievement, which connect and, at times, reinforce each other.
My party colleagues and others have asked specific questions about the legislation, and that is entirely legitimate. Our job, in supporting the Bill's broad principles today, is not simply to say, "We have no questions; we will wave it through". We would not be doing our job as legislators if we did that. The question on the meaning of "promotion" has been raised, and the Bill's sponsor has done some thinking on that and continues to do so. That is a question that people want to understand the answer to, and that will be scrutinised at the Committee, which is totally legitimate.
As I say, we have a deeply divided society. If we pretend that we do not and that education is not part of that division, we cannot tackle it, we are not getting real about addressing the issue, and we will increase the chances of us passing on the division to the next generation. I am afraid that that is simply not good enough.
Part of the reason why this gets to people's sense of who they are and, at times, their identity is the implication that the integrated system is more morally apt or that there is something superior about the people who advance integrated education. If we recognise that we have a profoundly divided society and recognise that one of the key tools to addressing that will be integrated education, it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to support it.
We have a diverse education system, so unless and until we move to a new unified single education system, why not have a conversation about how various sectors themselves become more integrated? The previous Member to speak mentioned schools in south Belfast; we do not agree on all that much. and we will not agree on a huge amount in the Bill. However, I agree with much of what he said. Rosetta Primary School, Botanic Primary School and Methody are all good examples. Methody is a textbook example of a school that has integrated itself. The market integrated Methody, and I do not say that in a flippant way; it is a product of a diverse place. There are examples of other post-primary schools. Indeed, in the maintained sector, there are schools in south Belfast that have a higher than average intake of non-Catholic pupils.
So, while we work on the Integrated Education Bill, there is nothing to stop us also looking at ways — I would be keen to hear the view of the Bill's sponsor on this — in which we celebrate and continue to inculcate greater sharing and greater integration in schools that do not have an integrated badge. There are many parents who send their kids to schools that are not officially integrated but which strongly believe in the principles of integration. They may be religious — they may be practising Catholics, Methodists or Presbyterians — and they may have a view on the constitutional question, but they send their kids to the best-performing school nearby that their child can get into. However, they do not want sharing to end at the door. By sending their child to a Catholic maintained grammar school, for example, they are not saying, "I do not want sharing".
How do we make our education more like that? How do we get more schools that play in the Schools' Cup to play in the MacRory Cup? How do we get more traditional Catholic schools in the Schools' Cup? How do we share the things that are important to us, above and beyond, while we are waiting on a genuinely transformed education system? Those are questions that we should be asking: the truth is that people are asking them already. This is one area where we, at times, feel that we are significantly behind the public. They are asking those questions of themselves and in their communities, and they have been doing so for some time.
In conclusion, I commend the Bill's sponsor for introducing it. My colleagues in the Education Committee will scrutinise the Bill, which is their right. The Bill creates new legal requirements and burdens, and it is entirely right that Members should seek to scrutinise that and go through the detail.
Let me also say completely unapologetically, particularly to some Members opposite in one particular party, who seem to imply that we do not have a problem with division in this society and that educating our children separately is somehow completely irrelevant to issues in this society, that I am afraid that that is not consistent with what a growing number of people in this society from all backgrounds think. If we are seriously to represent people in this society, we need to get real about delivering a more shared society, and this is part of it. Integrated education is not the answer to all our problems, and it was not the source of all the problems in the first place. If the Bill, once scrutinised and, if necessary, amended, helps us move that forward, I will fully support it. I will conclude my remarks there, and, like the young people whose schools have broken up for the summer, I hope that we get out of here fairly soon.
I have listened intently to the contributions and found the debate absolutely fascinating. I welcome the Bill, and I have no doubt that, if it passes Second Stage today, the amendments tabled to it will be equally fascinating. I commend Kellie Armstrong for sticking with the Bill. I heard the questions that were raised about why she did not wait for the review, but, as far as I am aware, work on the Bill started in 2016, long before any attempt to undertake a review and before any thoughts of single education systems or 'New Decade, New Approach' were discussed. I commend her for her tenacity in introducing the Bill in this mandate. I certainly would not wait for a review to bring any change through the Northern Ireland Executive any time soon, but there is potential for her private Member's Bill to do some good.
Not many here would argue that our education system is sustainable. Many of the issues and problems have been raised. It is fair to say that integrated education remains the poor relation in that system. I certainly support it being given equal footing and the proper importance at departmental level. If that importance was given to the sector, perhaps 37 of the 38 grant-maintained integrated schools would not be waiting for over a year for the Department to appoint governors to their boards. They have been sitting without governors for over a year. That is just one element of the level of the Department's commitment today.
Much has been said about the unsustainability of the school estate. I hear that we would not have built the system this way if we were starting from scratch: that is a bizarre comment. We are starting from where we are today, and we have the ability to rebuild and maybe to build better, if we make those commitments. Rather than starting from scratch, what would that look like?
Across the school estate today, it is estimated that 50,000 seats are empty and that we spend in the region of £95 million a year on the duplication of services. A recent report from the Integrated Education Fund told us that we have spent £1 billion on cross-community projects for pupils in the past 10 years. Of course, nobody would build that from scratch, but that is what we are sustaining today. We can do something better.
I was listening to Mr Stalford when he said that I went to Lagan College — yes, I did — and mentioned the great education that I got there. I would love to hear his thoughts on that great education
I am happy to give way to him when he is ready.
When I look at our schools, I see parental choice, about which much has been said. Parental choice is what led to the Irish-medium sector, and it was parental choice that led to the integrated sector. I do not know of any parents who chose to establish controlled schools or Catholic maintained schools, but, in my lifetime, I have seen the Irish-medium and integrated sectors come about through parental choice. It was parents who drove, financed and established Irish-medium and integrated education, and that is what parental choice is all about. Again, let us not lose sight of the fact that I am not aware of any parents who choose to send their child to a school so that they can be a good Catholic or so that they can be a good Protestant. Rather, parents try to choose a good school that will suit their child. Not all parents have the choice, however, because a lot of them really have only one school option in their area for their child because of capacity, intake and educational attainment.
I hope that it comes as no surprise to anybody in the House that the Green Party does not support the education system being used for religious instruction, no matter what the religion or the denomination. Schools are places for education and learning, and churches are places for religious teaching and instruction, yet most schools in Northern Ireland are still linked to a Church, and the Churches are given places on boards of governors. It is the board of governors that influences and decides the direction of travel for the school, the ethos of the school and the curriculum that is taught in the school.
Will the Member, as the leader of the Green Party, put on record whether the Green Party's position is that it objects to religious education being taught in schools as well, or does it object just to their ethos? After all, religious education is one of the most popular GCSE and A-level topics, and that is student choice.
There is a lot to say on that one, but thank you. I was talking about religious instruction, not religious education. Learning about the world in which you live and about the human population, its cultures, its traditions and its religions is absolutely precious and should be taught. That is a very different thing from religious instruction. The two should not be confused.
In one second. I will first address the other point that the Member raised about RE being a very popular subject choice. We are also told continually that it is mandatory, when it is not. Most pupils will be told that they have to sit the exam, but parents have to find out for themselves that their children can opt out. A lot of schools make it hard for them to opt out, and it is sold as an easy exam to get. I speak from experience, having been told exactly that, so that is probably why you see a lot of pupils taking that exam. I will give way to the Member.
Thank you. I may be wrong, but I think that the Education Act 1947 mandates that, in the first three years of your secondary education, you do RE. I went through Wellington College in our constituency. Our headmaster, Mr Derick Woods, was a Moravian, and there used to be a joint service at Christmas time with Aquinas. I can honestly say that that was the only religious instruction, as it were, carried out by a member of the clergy, that I ever had at school. The rest of it was the teaching of RE.
The curriculum and what is taught in sports, in history and in other subjects is very important as well. The teaching of culture is very important. That is absolutely right. I remember from my RE classes that we were also taught to celebrate the Jewish Passover, and, in my first year, I had to go back home and talk to my mum about getting a recipe for unleavened bread, because I had to bring that in. I do not think that there had ever been anything other than a pan loaf in our house before, so that was an education in itself.
Learning about world cultures is therefore a valuable thing, and that is very different from what we use the education system for in many of our schools, where it is about religious instruction. The curriculum should be used for cultural education. That is really important.
The issue was raised earlier about partisan appointments in the Bill. All our schools, bar one — the Holywood Steiner School, but I could be wrong about that — are still linked to Churches and have Church representation on boards of governors in schools. We know that those influences are really taught through the ethos of a school, so I assume that what is meant by partisan appointments in this Bill is exactly that. Non-partisan is non-religious. It is about the Church and education being closely entwined in schools.
All schools in Northern Ireland are religious schools. They are all Christian, as has been mentioned already. All our schools are run on a Christian ethos, apart from, perhaps, the Holywood Steiner School, but I could be wrong about that. The issue that we talk about is interdenominational rather than religious.
I am really tired of listening to claims that so many schools are integrated just because of their pupil diversity. That is not what makes a school integrated. It is not about the languages that are spoken. It is not about the diaspora of the pupils. It is not about the social mix. It is about the ethos, the education, the curriculum, the sports and the culture. That is what makes a school integrated.
I find it really disappointing that we still understand the concept of integrated education as a numbers game, as 60:40, 70:30 or 50:50, because it could be 95:5 or 100%. In some areas in Northern Ireland, because we still have a divided society, it would be impossible to hit those numbers from a local intake of school pupils, but that does not negate the possibility of that school being integrated because the integration comes from the ethos, the commitment, the curriculum and the culture.
As has been pointed out, when Lagan College first opened, back in 1981, my sister and I were two of the 28 pupils, and while it was quoted that Peter Robinson recently stated that he finds it morally wrong that children are educated separately, it was a very different case back then. We had to establish the school in a scout hall in Ardnavalley, and we had to face protests and the world's media. We had an armed RUC guard to get us into that scout hall. Castlereagh council did not want the school on its land. It fought the establishment of the school.
I went to a Catholic primary school, and I made my confirmation, as we all did, in P7. When the diocese found out that there were two pupils going to an integrated school, they helicoptered the bishop in to come and take that mass. He stood at the pulpit and told the community that there were Catholic schools and Protestant schools and neither would be taught together. To this day, the Catholic Church does not fully operate in integrated education. So, let us not perpetuate this notion that there are de facto integrated schools: there are not.
I agree with her, broadly, on the Bill. I wish that there were many more integrated schools. I think that we both do. They should be a much bigger part of our education system. I agree that the level of division in our education system is immoral and unacceptable, but in the world that we operate in, it is better that there are some schools that are, if you want to use the phrase, "de facto integrated". I would rather that we had schools that were more mixed than single identity in the absence of more integrated schools, if you see what I mean.
I support the Bill, and I support integrated education because I want many more integrated schools, but do you agree with me that it is better that we have some schools at least that are moving towards greater mixing even if they are not formally integrated?
I thank the Member for that. I welcome the fact that our society is becoming more diverse and that people are beginning to move freely and are able to live in areas. That is demographics. That is not a school going, "Ach, great. We'll take anybody from anywhere". That is not what is happening. I still go into schools and see the Stations of the Cross on walls. I still go into schools and see pop-ups of the Pope. I still go into schools that play football and not Gaelic games. I still go into schools, and that integration is not there. It is not about numbers.
I think that there is very little that the Member and I would disagree on as regards what education should look like. However, there are integrated schools that, whatever way you look at them, are not integrated and where Irishness is an alien concept. I have been into integrated schools where the first thing that you are met with in the hallway is a picture of the Queen of England. Is that integration? I have been into integrated schools that are de facto controlled schools. They went down the integrated route because they saw that as a way of preserving the future of the school.
The danger in these debates is that people become very pious. When you become pious, you are liable to annoy somebody on the other side of the debate or somebody who is aligned to you. I fully adhere to the principle of integrated education. The question in my head is whether this Bill is the way forward in that regard. The Committee's scrutiny will establish that, but do not try to tell the House that integrated education and everyone in it is purer or whiter than snow.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I hope that he does not think that I am being pious, but I will take that home with me; that is OK. I am not saying that integrated education is a panacea. I never have, and I never would. However, it goes much further in providing reconciliation than most other things that I have ever seen in Northern Ireland. Lagan College started as an all-children-together movement for all abilities. That is not just all abilities academically, which will take me to the amazing education that I got. It may fit with the points that you raised, Mr O'Dowd, about expanding to the proper curriculum that an integrated school should be able to provide.
When I was at Lagan, we were taught the Irish language. It was optional; again, that was parental choice. However, we could not do sports there. We were in a scout hall. We then moved up to a primary school and had a series of mobiles. We were not funded properly. Not a single penny was given. I come from a house where my mother could ill-afford to cover those costs. She sold her car in order to get my sister and I bus fares to go to that school. It was struggling parents who put that school together. If proper resource was given to integrated education and for schools to fully commit to what that means, we may see a bit of a change there. I absolutely agree with what you said. Integrated education is not a panacea, but it needs proper commitment from the Department.
All ability and all children together is not just about an interdenominational divide. It is about all abilities, physical and academic. There was such little investment in that school — there were only four or five full-time members of staff — that I left school with one CSE, so I did not get an excellent academic education. However, what I did get was amazing lifelong learning that has stood us all in good stead. We still have an education system that is focused on academic ability. We segregate along those lines as well as along the denominational ones, with our academic achievements and our grammar school system. All ability means that you can have all that in one school. It means that families can choose one school to send all their children to.
Whether it is academic or physical abilities that divide, one school can cater for all of that. We really need to get our head around that. We can facilitate streaming, academic achievement, grammar streams, comprehensive streams, special needs streams and all physical abilities in one school. That was the idea behind Lagan, and it is still trying to achieve that. However, it took 35 years of that school proving itself before the Department stepped in and gave it a proper building.
There is much to be said about the Bill. I really welcome it. The debate is long overdue. We still, from listening to a lot of what has been said today, understand integrated education in a very narrow way that does not befit what is potentially on offer in the sector. I commend the Member for bringing the Bill forward. I am really looking forward to seeing amendments if it passes today.
There are two points of substance — at least, I think that they are points of substance — that I will make about the Bill. The first is that it is a thinly veiled assault on academic selection. In fact, it is not thinly veiled at all; it is a very determined assault on academic selection. The second one is about the primacy and elitism that it brings to what is called integrated education.
The first point about the assault — it is implicit in the Bill — on academic selection arises from the very strategic and deliberate redefinition of "integrated education". Under article 64 of the Education Reform Order 1989, "integrated education" is defined as:
"the education together ... of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils."
The Bill, in clause 12, removes that definition and rewrites it in clause 1. In the rewriting of that definition, it launches its assault on the very concept of academic selection. By statutory provision, it provides that integrated education is defined by various things, including, at clause 1(1)(c): "those of different abilities." You cannot have an integrated school if it does not embrace all abilities. Therefore, you could never have an integrated school based on academic selection. That is a deliberate intent of the Bill. It goes further in clause 1(2): it requires the intentional promotion of people of "different abilities". That underscores the fact that integration abhors selection and that you cannot have selection and integration in the same room. It is an open attack on the very concept of academic selection. Of course, it comes from a party that has always put itself in a position to put down academic selection. Last year, it used COVID as the launch pad to ensure that there were no academic tests.
In a moment.
It has now come to the point of making it clear, out in the open, that its purpose and intent in framing an academic system in Northern Ireland is one that abhors and almost outlaws academic selection by reason of my second point: the primacy that it gives to integration.
I thank the Member for giving way. I do not really intend to spend too much time on this because it is far off the Bill, but there are people who try to perpetuate a narrative that I single-handedly cancelled academic selection last year, which suggests that I have significant powers beyond those that exist. AQE and PPTC were forced to cancel tests due to a global pandemic that had strict regulations on the movement of people. The Education Committee called for contingencies as long ago as May 2020, but they were not put in place. I regret the experience of children and young people as a result of that. Please, please, do not misrepresent me as the cause of every ill that arose from that, when so much effort was made to avoid it.
In a moment. Anyone who looks back on the fact that we could have successfully, last November, had academic tests, will be conscious of the fact that the Chairman of the Education Committee was one of the cheerleaders against that, advocating and demanding that we did not have that. Of course we then moved to an even worse stage of the pandemic. I will give way to Mr Stalford.
Thank you, Mr Allister. I sat through many of those debates, and my recollection of events is exactly the same as yours. People berated in the press and lambasted those who provided the transfer test procedure. Everyone knows that massive pressure was brought to bear on those organisations by political parties represented in this Chamber to cancel the tests, the consequence of which was —
That little excursion began with my perceived exposition of clause 1(1) and the fact that it abhors and outlaws selection and a difference in ability, even though we all know — we know it in our own families — that every kid has a different ability, some academically and some in other directions.
Yet, we peddle this fashionable notion that oh, we are so high-minded and so liberal in our outlook that we fail and refuse to recognise the reality and we have this great homogenous view of the world that, even though we know that there are different talents and abilities, we insist on imposing an education system that fails to recognise that. That is exactly what the Bill is about.
I will give way, provided that the Member does not lead me further astray and outside the ambit of the Bill.
I will be brief. I had asked the Member and Chris Stalford to find a quote of me calling for the test to be "cancelled", as they both say, prior to November of last year. You can bring that to the House. I presume that you would also challenge the expert panel on educational underachievement, which called the system a systemic inequality.
Methinks Mr Lyttle doth protest too much.
There is a striking, breathtaking arrogance to the primacy that the Bill insists on bestowing on integrated education, whereby what CCMS provides and what the controlled sector provides is lesser and secondary — to the very point that if anyone ever wants a new school under clause 7, the presumption is that it must be an integrated school. How dare anyone want anything else. How ignorant of anyone to think that, maybe, a different type of school is what they want. It underwrites it and guarantees its delivery. It then has the audacity, in clause 7(2), to decree that the matters that you shall not consider as special circumstances include:
"the existence of spare places in existing schools."
So you could have a situation in which an integrated school is sitting with empty spaces, but you must create a new school, and, in order to create it, you must ignore the fact that there are empty spaces in the existing integrated school.
Does the Member acknowledge that, when it comes to creating integrated schools, clearly, they currently operate on a different basis from, for example, controlled and maintained schools. When the education system was created as it is now, in broad terms, at the time of the creation of this jurisdiction in 1921, there was no integrated sector. Therefore, giving the integrated sector "primacy", as he calls it, is a reflection of the fact that that sector clearly has more work to do, given that an entire universe of maintained and controlled schools has been in existence for many, many decades.
In fact, the Member provokes me to change "primacy" to "supremacy". That is what the Bill is about: giving supremacy to the integrated sector. He tempts me into a historical review. One of the mistakes made in Northern Ireland at the outset was to provide other than a single state system of education. What should have been done is that the state should have said, "We will provide a system open to everyone. If any Church or any other body, whatever it is, wants to have a different system, pay for it". If we had done that, we would not be in this mess. Instead, there was generosity to ensure that Churches could continue to run their own schools, and it got to the point where the state ended up funding them 100%. That is what caused the division in our education system, and, in retrospect, it was, I believe, a mistake.
I am sure that the Member is aware that, until the early 1980s, in the Catholic sector, it was a case of "pay your own way" in many, many circumstances. It was not until the early 1980s that some equality was brought into the system in funding the Catholic sector. Therefore, the Member's wish about what should have happened in the past is pretty close to what the reality was.
Although he was Education Minister, the Member obviously did not study history very well.
I have described clause 7 as audacious. It is so audacious that it is a calculated put-down to the Catholic maintained sector. The imposition that you can have a new school only if it embraces that hard-line definition of integration is put emphatically upon the Catholic maintained sector, because it applies that stipulation to "education bodies", and "education bodies" are defined in clause 13 as including not only the Department and the Education Authority but the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.
Let us read clause 7:
"When planning for the establishment of a new school, [the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools] must apply a presumption that it will be an integrated school ".
How arrogant. How absurd. How intolerant is that? It is beyond comprehension that anyone would think that integrated education has such a holy status that it must be imposed involuntarily. That is the effect of clause 7: it is an involuntary imposition. A school might want its own new school, but it cannot have that, because clause 7 says, "No, you must have a different type of school. You cannot have your Catholic school. You must have an integrated school, as defined here".
That is breathtaking in its arrogance, and the Member is nodding that that is her intent.
It states in clause 7 that it would be for the Department, not an employing body, to set up the school. I remind the Member that the employing bodies, the CCMS and the Education Authority, are part of the area planning process. There is no area planning for integrated education at this time. Do I therefore surmise that it is arrogant that, when any new schools have been planned up until this stage have not been integrated schools, there is something wrong with that?
Order, Members. This is the Bill's Second Stage. The debate is about its general principles. Members have been making specific points, and that is in order, but we do not want to have protracted debate on specific clauses. That comes at a later stage.
The principles are established by the wording of the clauses. The sponsor of the Bill has just read into clause 7 something that is not there. She said that it talks about employing bodies. It does not. It talks about "education bodies". Her Bill, not me, then defines what "education bodies" are, and her Bill states that they include the Catholic maintained supervisory body. It is therefore her words that establish the principles.
Clause 6 goes even further, and we could read it as saying that the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools:
"must include provision for integrated education", because the clause reads:
"Education bodies must include provision for integrated education".
If the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is such a body, it must therefore include provision for integrated education. That means that a council that, consciously and deliberately, does not want to have integrated education, because it wants to have its Church schools, is told, under this legislation, in the most draconian of measures, that it:
"must include provision for integrated education when— (a) developing, adopting, implementing or revising policies, strategies and plans; and (b) designing and delivering public services."
In clause 7, in planning for the establishment of a new school, as the Member will be aware, the route for that establishment, when it is a Catholic maintained school, is through a development proposal brought forward by the CCMS. It therefore does the planning for the establishment. Approval will be given, or not, by the Minister at a later stage, but the planning for the establishment is done by the CCMS itself. That it is the managing authority for staffing issues is irrelevant: it is the planning authority.
The former Minister is absolutely right. Taken together, clauses 6 and 7 are an amazing combo of dictatorship for one sector that has the capacity to liquidate another sector. That is incredible. Not only is this a Bill intent on liquidating academic selection but it seems to be a Bill intent on liquidating much of the Catholic maintained sector. It really is beyond comprehension that the House would move tonight to approve such a fundamental principle.
I listened to Mr O'Dowd, who, very systematically and effectively, demolished all the principles in the Bill. He then concluded by saying, "Even though I have demolished all its principles, I am going to vote for it". What is wrong with this House? Are we so beholden to perception that we think that we all have to tick a box because there is the nice word "integration" in it and thus vote for something that we do not believe in?
That seems to be where the Bill has led many in the House. In other circumstances, they defend the Catholic maintained sector, but, tonight, they are going to vote for a Bill because they like the title of it, without considering the substance of it. That is not what we were sent here to do. I say to the House: reject the Bill.
I am tempted to say that it is all kicking off on the last day of school, but I will not use that terrible joke.
I welcome the Bill. I thank the Member for bringing it to the House, and for the work that she has done on it. The need for the Bill speaks for itself. Recently, my community experienced sectarian riots at interfaces that were fuelled by divisive politics from the very top. It is the same kind of politics that has maintained the segregated education that divides children along religious or communal lines, into one camp or the other, before they can understand what camp they are in, or supposed to be in, and why.
The implications of that are clear, and there is a detrimental impact on our ability to move on as a society while we continue to teach children, from the earliest possible age, that segregation and division are normal and that other children are inherently different to them, based on how their parents were raised or where they live. It is incredible that that continues in 2021, and, frankly, both sides of the Chamber foster blame for that, whether that is by opposing an end to segregated education or maintaining it by default. It is important to note that, despite claims to the contrary about a shared future, for years, the two major blocks of nationalism and unionism have much to gain from communalism and division. That is about educating people separately as well.
People Before Profit would prefer to see a wholly secular education system and the complete separation of any Church from the running of our schools. We have seen the impact of religious influence in schools, particularly when it comes to relationships and sexuality education, which leaves a lot to be desired in many schools. It is downright dysfunctional in others, where groups such as Precious Life are brought in, disgracefully, to teach children about abstinence because it chimes with the Christian ethos of the school. That is in no way to impinge on the rights of people to practise religion, or to end religious traditions being taught in an academic manner in schools — speaking to Mr Butler's point — but to say that education that is taught through the prism of religion should not be the standard.
All children, regardless of religion or any other factor, should be entitled to the same standard of education in any school across the North. It is important that we recognise that there is a growing number of people who do not subscribe to any religion and for whom there is no option for secular or integrated education in their local area. While we would probably go further than the aims set out in the Bill, my party will support the progress of the Bill, because we agree with promoting and funding integrated education so that we can begin to end the outdated and divisive segregation of children and begin to educate them alongside their peers, regardless of background or religion.
There is one area of the Bill that gives me cause for concern: the inclusion of financial efficiency as a justification for integrated education. While we obviously support integrated education and hope to see it rolled out across the North, and, hopefully, expanded, with the Bill, if it goes forward, we disagree that that will come about only by closing or merging existing schools. We do not see school closures and integrated education as having the same aim. In attempting to improve education on the whole, integrated education is, obviously, only one step. Investment is another crucial step. My comments were brief, but I am happy to support the Bill.
It is a cruel result of our divided society that many of our children have been, and continue to be, educated separately. For many onlookers in places where conflict has not existed or occurred in their dim and distant past, the proliferation of sectors and divisions along perceived religious lines simply defies logic. It has already been referenced, but how different would our society be today if the proposals of Northern Ireland's first Education Minister, for a single, non-denominational education system, had been passed?
Since those times, our education system has become even more complex and is faced with today's realities. Former First Minister Peter Robinson set out his desire to end what he called the "benign form of apartheid" that exists in our education system.
His ultimate vision, one to which we can all subscribe, is that our children will all be educated together. However, to effect lasting and effective change, that must evolve. It cannot be effected simply by clumsy legislation.
As someone who is fortunate to have been educated at Methodist College, where there was natural integration, the slow pace of change, even since that vision was first laid out in October 2010, is a frustration to me. There has been investment in shared education campuses and programmes, but, almost 11 years on, we need a coherent plan for how we will achieve and accelerate our shared goal. That is why the Executive have funded the forthcoming independent review of education.
As a result of a history of concessions and compromises, the current system is deeply complex, with a variety of sectors, management structures and ownership models. This Bill, if passed, will have significant implications for the entire education system. It is important to recognise that each sector in education, supported by a number of sectoral bodies, is working to do its best for our children. No sector sets out to divide our young people. We would not have the quality of education that exists, even with those divisions, if our schools were not supported by the work of the sectoral bodies. We should also acknowledge that the different education sectors have made significant efforts to work with each other, break down barriers, and support educating our children together. For example, 60% of schools are involved in shared education: that is to be celebrated and built on.
Whilst I understand and appreciate where the Member for Strangford is coming from in seeking to bring communities together in our classrooms and schools, this Bill, brought in at this time and without full and appropriate engagement and consultation with schools from all sectors, would serve only to drive people further apart. Education is an area that people have strong views about, and there are evident challenges with the way that the system works now. However, the best way to bring people together is to take the time to engage and listen, to take the time to understand why views are so strongly held at the individual and community level and to take the time to get it right.
The forthcoming independent review of education is the most appropriate way to achieve that, as it provides the opportunity to strategically assess education design and delivery, consider examples of best practice, gather evidence, and, importantly, listen carefully to the voices of all stakeholders. The review was agreed as a key priority in 'New Decade, New Approach'. That agreement stated that such a review should be established:
"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."
The Executive have endorsed the terms of reference, which set out a wide-ranging assignment, with a core focus on quality, equity and sustainability. I hope to be in a position in the near future to appoint the panel to commence that important work.
The independent review of education provides a chance to develop a radical and ambitious vision for education design and delivery in Northern Ireland and to agree evidence-based recommendations for reform and transformation. Without prejudging the outworkings of the review, it is clear that there are a range of areas in the design of the current system where there may be duplication, fragmentation and inefficiency. It is critical that the review panel is given the time, space and opportunity to consider those issues objectively. Indeed, we must all approach the review with open minds and without predetermined views on what the key findings will be and what recommendations should be forthcoming.
Rushing into unsound legislation now will not solve the challenges that we face in the design of our education system, nor will it secure broad support across all stakeholders. Such broad support is essential for true transformation. The review provides the best chance to agree a vision of what a high-quality, innovative and inclusive education system could look like, the outcomes that could be achieved and the challenges that need to be overcome to deliver long-lasting reforms.
'New Decade, New Approach' also sets out:
"To help build a shared and integrated society, the Executive will? support educating children and young people of different backgrounds together ?in the classroom."
I remain committed to achieving that, but I do not believe that it will be achieved by this Bill.
It is important to note that the 2017 review of integrated education, which is referred to in the explanatory and financial memorandum, contains a number of recommendations relating to how integrated education was defined in law, how it could be grown and to reviewing the religious balance criteria:
"to take greater account of our more diverse society and regional and local demographics, including the balance of the community in which a school is located."
There are 15 recommendations, directly from the review of integrated education, which have been included in the terms of reference for the independent review of education, through which they are to be considered further.
Mr Lyttle asked why the recommendations from the integrated education review were not taken forward before now. Doing that would have been considered a significant policy change and would have required legislation, neither of which could have proceeded without a functioning Executive. To bring into effect legislation such as this, which attempts to pre-empt the findings of the independent review of education and would significantly impinge on the work of the panel, would be unwelcome and unhelpful.
In January 2020, the political parties agreed that a non-political, non-sectoral and wholly objective review was an essential starting point for change. That remains my view. It is not strategically sound to push ahead with this legislation, which has not been subject to the same level of engagement, consultation or scrutiny that the review will be subject to. However, listening to Members, I question whether we should effectively tear up the terms of reference of the review and save the £1·5 million that has been allocated to that work. When considering the implications of the Bill, it is important that we do not conflate our joint desire to have our children educated together with the supercharging of a single sector in our education system.
I have looked closely at the 15 clauses set out in the Integrated Education private Member's Bill. It is very clear that, should it become law, the Bill will completely undermine the independent review of education. The Bill is about empowering one sector. Let us remember that a number of sectors currently deliver education in Northern Ireland. If we wish to bring those sectors together, that will simply not be achieved by the elevation of the integrated education sector above all others in the way intended by the Bill.
"Integrated education" is currently defined in the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 as:
"the education together at school of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils."
The Bill proposes to define "integrated education" as:
"the education together ... of — (a) those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons; (b) those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not; and (c) those of different abilities."
Although it may not be the Member for Strangford's intention, the Bill redefines the understanding of integrated education, and it will impact on the ethos that integrated schools have worked so hard to develop and refine over the last 40 years. The proposed change would also allow any school potentially to meet the definition of an integrated school, thereby reducing legal clarity in the definition of what an integrated school is. In fact, it could serve to dilute the whole concept of integrated education, as an integrated school has, until this point, been one that is defined and constituted in law as a grant-maintained or controlled integrated school.
Far from the current practice by which support for an integrated school grows from the parents and communities in which the school is situated or in which it seeks to be situated, the outworkings of the Bill will remove any due process of parental and community engagement. The Bill will serve to raise the integrated education sector above any other sector. The wishes of parents, children and the associated parental preference will be secondary to sectoral interests.
It is not clear from the Bill whether the Member intends that any school with a mixed-religion pupil intake will automatically become an integrated school or that it could ask to be redesignated as an integrated school without going through the current transformation process, which includes a development proposal. The development proposal process includes consultation with other potentially affected schools in the area and, additionally, includes wider public consultation through the statutory objection period.
Area planning was established in the context of our diverse education system. It was developed to support the implementation of the sustainable schools policy and aims to ensure that we have a system of schools that is educationally and financially viable: schools that are of the right size and right type and that are in the right place at the right time to meet the needs of the children and the communities that they serve.
The support structures for area planning have been carefully constructed to ensure that all school types are represented in the planning arena. My Department has no preferred model of delivery, as it respects parents' right to state their preference. Elevating one school sector above all others completely undermines the complex and sensitive environment within which area planning takes place. The trust and collaboration that have been carefully nurtured will not survive if the Bill becomes law.
If you do not mind, I want to proceed with my comments.
Most schools have a mix of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, and many schools of all types have a significant number of children on free school meals. Similarly, all primary schools are all-ability. Consequently, those elements of the definition potentially apply to a wide range of education.
It is also not clear from what stage of education the Bill would apply. If it were to go beyond compulsory schooling, it would have significant implications for preschool provision, which is delivered by many types of statutory and voluntary providers. The Bill's definitions of integrated education and integrated schools are so wide that, in comparison to current provision, they could simply dilute what integrated education has meant since it began, even before Lagan College opened in 1981. It has not escaped my notice that the Bill is being tabled during the fortieth anniversary year of integrated education, but that does not mean that it is the right time for a single-sector Bill to become law.
Clause 3 is extremely concerning in real terms. On any function that the Department of Education seeks to carry out, whether required by other legislation, governance, public accountability, financial or practical considerations, it is required to:
"consult with any body which— (a) includes in its objectives the provision of support and advice to the Department in its promotion of integrated education".
From the explanatory and financial memorandum, it is evident that the Member considers that the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education could be that body. In reality, if I take an example of the statutory public consultation in which the Department engages on a development proposal for significant changes in the schools estate, the legal advice is that the Department should not seek to consult any specific group during the statutory two-month period, because doing so promotes the views of that consultee above all others.
The Bill runs contrary to that legal advice. NICIE is an arm's-length body funded by the Department to encourage and promote integrated education. It is not a body set up for the Department to consult with on every function, some of which require specialist or professional expertise on confidential matters, including on other arm's-length bodies.
Funding a body to carry out promotion whilst requiring the Department to employ more staff and undertake specific promotion tasks is a duplication and value-for-money issue. The promotion requirements and the meaning given to promotion in clauses 4 and 5 have implications throughout the Department of Education. Currently, the Department does not promote one sector over another — for good reason.
"to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education" enables actions to be taken for the integrated sector that do not have to be taken for other sectors. That is not enough for some. We hear that 24,861 pupils being educated in integrated schools is only about 7% of the school-age population and that growth is too slow. That, of course, does not take into account the integration that naturally occurs in other sectors. For others, the provisions of the statutory duty are too much, and the Bill strikes no balance for those stakeholders.
Under the 1997 Education Order, provision is made for parents to express a preference for the school or schools that they wish their child to attend. For the Department to invest in the promotion of integrated education as required by the Bill would be at the expense of other sectors. The explanatory and financial memorandum makes no reference to consultation with schools. While I acknowledge that the Member for Strangford has clarified that her limited consultation, which took place five years ago, is permissible for the purposes of the Bill, I am concerned that, given the significance of the legislation, the main education partners have not had the opportunity to comment on its substance and potential impact. If I were to bring to the Chamber significant legislation that would, essentially, change the way in which education works in Northern Ireland, and I brought with that legislation a consultation from five years ago, I would expect to be challenged, and rightly so.
The Bill will have significant implications for controlled, maintained and Irish-medium schools. Those schools expect that equal and fair consideration will be given to their needs by any team in the Department. Indeed, Irish-medium education has the same statutory duty protection as integrated education: the Department must encourage and facilitate its development. If the Bill becomes law, all other schools will be secondary to integrated schools. The active promotion of integrated education by the Department also has the potential to undermine the essential functions and purposes of shared education, which are to bring together children of different backgrounds through cooperation in a school system with a wide range of different school types, where all school types are equally valued.
There is a difficulty at the core of the Bill. It requires the Department to apply the duty to promote by aiming to increase demand for integrated education and providing places to meet the demand for integrated schools without taking into account:
"the religious demographics of an area or spare places in existing schools".
When set alongside clause 7, the implications for the entire education system and the public purse are significant and extremely concerning.
Clause 7 requires that when any new school is being established, it must be presumed that it will be integrated. I will give an example of how that will significantly impact on area planning. The publication of a suite of development proposals is required to amalgamate two or more schools: proposals to close the existing schools and another proposal to establish a new school. If those schools are controlled, maintained, voluntary grammar schools or Irish-medium schools, are we to presume that the new school will be integrated? That will not encourage planning and managing authorities to bring forward proposals for sustainable provision; it will do the complete opposite. It will not foster and nourish the good relationships that are in place and pave the way for further collaboration across our diverse system. In fact, it could destroy those relationships. While I appreciate that the Member indicated that that is not her intention, the Bill's drafting in that respect says otherwise, and, certainly, the explanatory and financial memorandum reinforces that point by saying:
"To establish a presumption to overarch area-based planning that all new schools should be either integrated or otherwise non single-identity schools."
The Bill does not consider the views of the wider community, which may not want an integrated school as the default solution for its area. If parents cannot avail themselves of an alternative based on the religious demographics of an area, that will be a problem. Existing non-integrated schools will be constrained by clause 7 in having to establish what is inappropriate by reason of special circumstance when bringing forward development proposals for new schools, including amalgamations. Clause 7 will not only undermine the current area planning process, which has been carefully established and gives every sector a voice around the table, but, in reality, will completely override that process to the extent that area planning becomes undeliverable. Unspecified and limited special circumstances do not provide any assurance that local concerns or differences can be taken into account. Effectively, if a school is to be established, it is to be integrated. The Bill is also silent on the ownership and management type of schools. Currently, even in the integrated sector, parents and boards of governors can choose grant-maintained or controlled integrated status. Each offers a different management approach; neither is opposed by the Department.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
The requirements in relation to the Department developing an integrated education strategy and reporting on this every two years clearly draw heavily on the wording of the Shared Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, as does the addition of the duty to promote. Those requirements give no recognition to the fact that integrated education is very different from shared education. For example, in area planning, two years is a relatively short time, so it is not evident how the reports would be helpful. They may report activity, but how will we know whether anyone is better off?
Under the draft Programme for Government and the New Decade, New Approach agreement, there is a commitment to an outcomes-based approach. Targets distract from such an approach and do so without considering whether the customers — in this case, children, parents, schools, staff and communities — are better off as a result of our actions. The Bill serves to elevate the integrated education sector above all other sectors. It does not allow for the child to be at the centre of planning and provision. That is further evidenced by the requirement in clause 6 for education bodies to provide for integrated education as an overriding factor in any of their policies, strategies, plans and public services. I strongly contend that, if any overriding factor is to be prioritised, it should be meeting the needs of the child, not this single sectoral interest above all else.
While I recognise that the explanatory and financial memorandum attempts to quantify at least some of the costs associated with the Bill, it does not account for the legal challenges that are likely to arise from clause 7 in particular. It does not advise me where additional funding or additional departmental staff are to be found, and it does not recognise the additional costs for the managing authorities. As you all know, the Department of Education budget is under pressure. We need to prioritise funding to the right areas so that we can make a real difference to learners in the classroom. An estimation of savings in 2017 does not translate into available resource now; indeed, the specified £2·2 million that is referenced in the review of integrated education as relating to initial teacher education taking place in four institutions is within the Department for the Economy's remit. Even if that were to translate into available resource in the future, it would not come to my Department. The Bill is referencing potential savings that are not even covered by its provisions.
I also point out that any impact on the common funding formula, as referenced in the additional factors for current grant-maintained integrated schools, would be from within a finite pot. There is no available additional funding for any aspect of the Bill. While others may prefer to ignore that, we have a collective duty to deliver value for money for the public purse, and the Bill does not do that.
I must also question what purpose the Member considers it would serve to require the Department to make supplementary regulations. The suggested provisions listed in the Bill are adequately covered through the primary legislative requirements that it seeks to create.
I note that the Member considers that the Bill:
"will not have an adverse impact" on any section 75 groups and that no equality impact assessment has been undertaken. I also note that the Member considers that the Department can conduct equality impact assessments on policy implementation. An equality impact assessment should have been undertaken before the Bill was introduced. Section 75 places a duty on us all to:
"have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group."
I can clearly identify that the impact of the Bill would undermine the good work to date on good relations that the integrated sector, as currently defined, and the shared education programme have built up. As a whole, the Bill is likely to damage good relations between people with different religious beliefs and political opinions in particular.
I have a duty to every child in every school across every sector, not just one sector above all others. We have a duty — a collective duty — to manage public money effectively. There is an opportunity under way, as agreed by Executive colleagues, with cross-party agreement and funding to deliver it, to consider the objectives of the Bill in the fullest, most appropriate way possible. Crucially, that will be done through full engagement and consultation with members of the public and schools from every sector, with communities factored in. That opportunity is the independent review of education. It has already been agreed by political parties and Executive Ministers and will commence shortly. The Member may be disappointed at the timescales associated with the review and wishes to rush ahead with the legislation, but reform on that scale cannot be rushed or achieved by a solo run without support from all sectors and stakeholders. It is incumbent on all of us to work together to find solutions to the challenges that we face, to build consensus on the delivery of those actions and to secure the necessary resources and commitment for educational transformation.
The education system is a key driver for positive outcomes in education, child development, health, the economy and in wider society and social cohesion. It is essential, therefore, that we take the appropriate time to get this right and to ensure that every child has the absolute best start in life. That is too important to get wrong, and that is the key reason why I ask Members to join me in opposing the Bill.
Imposing the Bill, which has a definition of integrated education so wide that it dilutes totally what integrated education means on the ground, is not the way to achieve agreement and build good relations. Instead, that would be the way to achieve disagreement, dissatisfaction and disharmony. What message would that send to our children?
While I concur with the sentiments of many in relation to sharing and integration, passing the Bill today will have serious, long-lasting and adverse implications for our education system. While it might be well intentioned and, on the face of it, achieve a desirable outcome, I have set out the very serious concerns and damaging consequences of the legislation that my Department and I have identified. Given the similar concerns expressed by others, it baffles me that support is being given to what is a fundamentally flawed Bill. Voting for the principle of the Bill at this stage endorses those flaws. I strongly encourage Members to vote against the Bill and allow the issues to be considered properly through the independent review of education, as agreed in NDNA.
I thank all those who took part in the debate this afternoon. Thank goodness it started a bit earlier than it should have, because we have spent some hours on it.
Before I came to the House today, Denis Loretto, who is well known to the integrated education movement, sent me a message. I thought that it would be an interesting piece to read to the House, and it reflects some of what others have said. He said:
"It is important to recognise the divided history of Northern Ireland, at worst involving horrific violence but still stulifying [sic] progress even if not erupting into violent conduct. In addressing this division at educational level it is not enough to ban religion based schools and say everyone should go to state schools. The integrated school movement takes aboard the varied traditions of its pupils. Religious occasions and events are recognised and where appropriate shared and thereby better understood. The same applies to history both of Ireland and elsewhere. Separate schooling did not cause the divisions in society but unquestionably integrated schooling helps to heal those divisions. And it is great to see from this opinion poll"
— which is the Northern Ireland life and times survey —
"that increasingly parents want this choice for their children."
Indeed, MLAs from the Foyle constituency will have already heard the quote that I am about to read from Colm Cavanagh, who is one of the co-authors of the independent review of integrated education. He says:
"The aim of the Bill is very simple - to encourage reconciliation. This Bill wants to make integrated schooling a more real choice for parents across Northern Ireland."
It is vital for our society, particularly for those parents who would prefer to have integrated education as an option, that integrated education is perceived as being a desired outcome and is promoted in our education system as something that will create the conditions that enable children and young people to learn together for a shared society. To do that, we need to be intentional in our inclusion of all those from perceived Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, as well as those from other cultures, beliefs and communities, to enable people to be confident in their own identity and be willing to tolerate and engage with other identities.
Now, I will speak to some of the comments that were raised, although I am sure that I will not give them all as much time as others have. We have had 17 contributors, including the Minister. I will try my best to fly through this because everybody wants to begin recess. Robin Newton was the first to contribute, and I thank him for doing so. I confirm that I held a 12-week consultation, there were 800 responses and all the relevant stakeholders were written to and met with. He mentioned that it was the wrong time for the Bill. Others have asked why I would bring it forward at this time, when the independent review of education is forthcoming. I would love to have had the opportunity to bring the Bill forward earlier, but we had a gap of three years. I brought the Bill forward as soon as I could. My private Member's Bill is the first that our Bill Office has brought through.
Mr Newton mentioned the secularisation of schools through integrated education. Nothing in the Bill takes away from the Christian basis of all schools in Northern Ireland. I was approached at the consultation stage by humanists who would have liked me to put something about secularisation in the Bill. I am not doing that. The NICIE 'Statement of Principles' states:
"The integrated school, while essentially Christian in character, welcomes those of all faiths and none".
The 'Statement of Principles' is divided into four sections —
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member said that she met the relevant bodies that I quoted earlier. How is it that Mr Gerry Campbell, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, and Mr Mark Baker, chief executive of the Controlled Schools Support Council, indicate that they have not had sight of the Bill and that the Bill gives them serious concerns?
I did not meet Mr Baker because he has only been in post for a number of weeks, but I have met Gerry Campbell. In fact, I was out in his office in Lisburn. The Bill was published on the website, so they could have had sight of it. I did not take it to them personally because, to be honest, I did not have time between First Stage and the publication of the Bill and this point. I respected the House and the Speaker by not providing the detail of the Bill in advance of its publication by the Bill Office. I have met those organisations. I have met CCMS on several occasions at events in the House that many Members attended. I will move on.
People mentioned faith schools. Integrated schools are faith schools; some would actually say that they have too much faith in them. The NICIE 'Statement of Principles' that I was talking about states:
"The integrated school provides a Christian based rather than a secular approach. It aspires to create an environment where those of all faiths and none are respected, acknowledged and accepted as valued members of the school community. In this context: (a) pupils will learn together all that can reasonably be expected for them to learn together; (b) the school will facilitate specific provision, where necessary, for Catholic pupils whose parents wish them to undergo sacramental preparation. It will also seek to acknowledge significant religious and cultural celebrations which are representative of other faiths; (c) the school will encourage religious and community leaders to visit and participate in school activities; (d) pupils will be introduced to the ideas, beliefs and practices of the major world religions and humanist philosophies, in a manner appropriate to their age and ability, and in line with the NI curriculum; and (e) alternative provision will be made for those pupils whose parents do not wish them to participate in any religious activities or classes."
I have to say that mention of the secular nature of integrated education is far from the truth. The Bill does not do anything to take away from that law that is in place in Northern Ireland.
Mr Newton and others talked about sharing. I am not opposed to sharing. The Bill uses much of the language of the Shared Education Act. I am delighted that Mr Newton recognised the various education sectors and the work that they do together in shared education. Parental choice is not prevented by the Bill. Instead, it allows parents to have integrated education as a real choice. The Bill does not ask for a new team, as was suggested. All that I have asked for is resources for the existing Irish-medium and integrated education team, some of whom have been deployed, at times, to shared education.
We now come to Mr Sheehan. Thank you very much, Pat. Irish culture needs to be protected. He said that he had a different perspective from Mervyn Storey on that matter, and that structural inequalities exist outside the school system. We all need to work on that. School will not be the fix for our problems in Northern Ireland, but we can use it as a stepping stone.
Mr Sheehan asked whether there was any evidence that integrated education works. I thought about the type of evidence that I could provide for him.
A 2009 study by Stringer et al states:
"pupils at integrated schools have been found to have more positive inter-group attitudes when compared with their peers at separate schools".
A 2009 study by Hayes and McAllister states:
"individuals who had attended an integrated school are significantly more likely to have friends and neighbours from across the religious divide and ... these friendship networks translate into a more optimistic view of future community relations."
In 2018, Blaylock, Hughes, Wölfer and Donnelly stated:
"While Northern Ireland strives to build a shared society, the current reality is that everyday experiences are still shaped by division along ethno-religious lines. This is particularly pronounced in the education system, where more than 92% of pupils attend separate schools. Within the predominantly separate education system, however, exists a small collection of schools which cater to a more heterogeneous pupil body and offer the opportunity for young people from both communities to meet and interact, and potentially develop cross-group friendships. The present study compares the network-based cross-group friendships within two ... distinct ethos yet they similarly enrol students from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. Findings reveal that both schools show a high level of inter-connection between pupils; however, the integrated school, with an ethos that openly supports social cohesion, shows a greater tendency towards cross-group interactions and best friendships than those found within the separate school. In line with contact theory, these findings suggest that it may not be enough to simply create opportunities for intergroup contact but that optimal conditions, such as institutional support, may be a prerequisite for positive relationships to flourish."
The authors go on to discuss the implications for educational policies designed to promote greater cross-community contact. So, there is some information, although we need to have much more. If we have an outcomes-based system, I would love to see more evidence of the outcomes actually being achieved as opposed to the outputs.
The Member talked about integrated schools and academic selection. In some ways, this will come back to Mr Allister's point. There are integrated schools that use academic selection. There are integrated schools that have a grammar stream. Integrated schools use that because of the term "different abilities". That is not just about those who have vocational abilities or those who have special educational needs, but it is about parents who wish to send their family, who have high academic abilities, to an integrated school. That is why some integrated schools use academic selection. Personally, when I sent my child to an integrated school, she did not need to have academic selection. She was able to enter without that, and my heart will be in my mouth at the start of August when I am waiting for her A-level results to come through. It did not stop her having that academic pathway that she chose to go down.
The Member talked about integrated education being one of the lowest-performing sectors. Do you know what? I find that very difficult because I find that, with integrated education, when you talk about differing abilities, you could have an integrated school where 35% of that school comprises people with special educational needs. Those children may, absolutely, achieve GCSEs or A levels, but they may not, and it may be that their pathway in life is vocational. Even at that, in integrated schools, 25·6% of pupils achieve three or more A levels at A* to C while, in non-integrated non-grammar schools, the figure is 22·9%, so the figure is slightly higher but is there or thereabouts. The source for that is the school census. In integrated education, 51% of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs at A* to C while, in non-integrated non-grammar schools, the figure is 52·3%. The figure is slightly lower at GCSE, and that is something for us to work on.
On the promotion of integrated education, it has come forward that people are concerned that growing or promoting integrated education will be bad for other sectors. Integrated education is turning away so many children at this stage that I have to ask when the House will ask whether the current system is bad for integrated education. The 'Good Relations' report, which my colleague Chris Lyttle mentioned, has been showing for years the increased number of children being turned away from their first preference post-primary schools. It is up to 21% in the last recorded figures for 2018-19.
The current system is bad for integrated education. Promoting integrated education and enabling integrated education to take more children is good for integrated education. There are other schools that will see that as competition.
I thank Daniel McCrossan for his input today. He said that we need to be more real and provide a viable option for parents. I thank him for that. To be honest, that is really what I am about here. He talked about the valuable contribution of all sectors and of shared education. I would like to dispel a myth: I came through a maintained school in which — I have said this before in the House — I had a fantastic education. I will never criticise it. I never attended a controlled school, so I cannot talk personally about that. I am not here to criticise any other sector, and I do not mention any other sector in the Bill. All sectors do the best that they can. Of course, shared education has been trying its very best. A lot of money has been put into it, a lot of schools have been involved, and a lot of teachers have taken training. I am not here to criticise that, but the fact that 7% of children attend integrated schools is because there is space for only 7% of children to go to integrated schools.
Mr McCrossan also said that integrated education was stalled at 7%; he did not use that word, but I will use it. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the number of pupils in integrated schools has grown from 11,910 to 24,900 in 2021. Thus, the number of children in integrated schools has more than doubled, and the number of schools has increased by 24 since 1998. Each place in an integrated school is developed with parents and for parents. The process involves the production of a development proposal and the collection of expression of interest forms. The full process can take two to three years to conclude. Demand from parents is demonstrated by numerous surveys. The most recent is the Northern Ireland life and times survey, which came out last week. It shows that 69% of parents support their children being together in a mixed-religion school. The March 2021 ARK research update, which draws on the 2019 Northern Ireland life and times survey, said then that it was 61%, so you can see that it is growing. Almost a quarter of pupils applying for an integrated post-primary place in 2019-2020 were unsuccessful not because they were turned away by the school but because it did not have the space for them. There is still a need for more places, but the process to fulfil demand either through growing integrated schools or transforming schools can be long and drawn-out. Seven per cent feels as if it has stalled, but it has stalled because, unlike other schools, integrated schools are not getting the support that they need.
I do not recognise that it would take two or three years to bring forward a development proposal; it might take a year. However, any development proposal brought forward for an integrated school that has not been fairly dealt with by the Department is open to judicial review. I can think of one JR in my time where my decision was overturned and then, later, a court case qualified it. Have there been any other cases where the Department's decisions have been overturned by JR?
I am aware of at least one that I was involved with as a member of the board of governors of Strangford Integrated College, where the school had applied for a development proposal and was turned down and got to the stage of writing the letter to say that it was about to take legal action, and then the Department reneged on that and went back on its decision. I am aware that integrated schools have had to fight. The same school has asked to take on temporary variations. I do not know why that cannot be made permanent.
That is a true statement, but what does it mean? When I was Education Minister, I was JR-ed by all sectors because we were entering a phase where there was a significant number of development proposals coming through, particularly on school closures. I was JR-ed, I would say, 10 times during my time as Minister. You have to put that into context. Ministers are JR-ed a lot. It does not necessarily mean that they are JR-ed by the integrated sector. I was trying to glean whether there was any legal evidence that the integrated sector was being discriminated against by the Department.
I will have to defer to the Research and Information Service and come back to you. I think that there is discrimination through area planning. To be honest, that is only my position. I need to look at that and bring the answer back to you. Rather than spoofing, I want to give you the proper information.
Mr McCrossan said that the SDLP had concerns about the Bill. That is not surprising. When I was speaking to parties, they raised concerns. The Bill does not wish to close any other sector's schools. I just want children and families who choose an integrated school to have their choice honoured. I am happy to work with Members on the Bill. If it passes Second Stage today, it will go to the Education Committee, where, I am certain, members will take further evidence.
On promotion, the Education Authority and CCMS lead on planning. If integrated education is to be included, both will need to consider integrated education and enable it or promote its provision. I would like, as part of area planning, consideration to be given to parental demands when planning the school estate so that, instead of integrated schools having to be set up by parents outside the system, the Education Authority, CCMS and the Department will consider integrated schools.
I thank Mr Butler for his input. Parental choice is important. Educating children together is a component of our peace process. Although it is not the only thing that will provide a solution, it can help to improve things for society in general. He said that the Bill spoke unkindly about other sectors. I do not think that it does, especially clause 7, which so many have talked about. That is why clause 7 states that the presumption will be there. I have not defined special circumstances. That was on advice from the drafter, who felt that it would be better for the Department and the education bodies to consider the special circumstances. For instance, at the moment, when planning the establishment of a new school, the Department or Education Authority, if there is a gap in provision that means that more places for children with special educational needs are required, can plan for a special educational needs school. That could be a special circumstance. If I were to define special circumstances, it would take that flexibility from the Department. That is why the drafter said that putting in the section about new schools meant that the flexibility would still be there. I understand that many say that that makes integrated education superior to every other sector. Perhaps everyone in the House will now know what it feels like to be a parent of a child at an integrated school. Area planning does not plan for integrated schools — it does not.
Thank you, and I thank you for addressing that point. If this is about equality, how, when addressing the issues, is lifting one sector above the others the right thing to do? Surely, we should pull it up to the same level. I accept that some, especially parents and people who went to an integrated school, feel that there may not be a level playing field, but giving a presumed preference is equally unequal.
I thank Mr Butler for that. I will try to paint a picture in my mind. We will have all seen the equity versus equality cartoon in which three people of varying height are standing behind a fence. If all three are provided with a box of the same size, the shortest one — someone like me — will still not be able to see over the top. If you have equitable treatment and try to lift the person who is shorter, they will get on to a level playing field. Integrated education is so far behind all other sectors that we need to do something proactive to take it forward.
On clause 3, I want to clarify that there already is sectoral body support: the Controlled Schools' Support Council, CCMS, the Education Authority, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) and NICIE are all there.
NICIE is already funded. I have put it in the Bill so that, rather than having it in policy, legislation will enable support for it. While we have various sectors, I think that the Member agrees that we have parental choice, but is that parental choice real when it comes to integrated education?
Mr Weir, who is not here at the moment, said that I was looking to provide a superior choice for integrated education. If that is the case, why do we already have the presumption that controlled and maintained schools will be provided for when new schools are being planned?
Mr Storey talked about choice and academic selection. That is not relevant to the Bill; I do not deal with that in it. He talked about the context of Northern Ireland: the 100 years and what could be coming in the future. He claimed that the Bill tries to bring the maintained sector under the controlled sector: it does not. I have not mentioned that in any way, shape or form. He talked about the many reports. If any of those reports had delivered for integrated education, I would not have needed to bring forward this legislation.
Mr Storey said that I say that every other sector has failed. That is not true at all. Nobody has said that any other sector has failed. I do not want anybody leaving the House thinking for some reason that somebody who grew up in a Housing Executive house, went to maintained schools and managed to do well in education is trying to make out that any other sector has failed. Of course they have not. The other sectors have amazing teachers. They have been delivering education across Northern Ireland for years. I have not said that they have failed, and nor does the Bill, so I want to put that to bed. Each sector has fantastic teachers and children and may have wonderful academic results and vocational courses. As others have said, however, we have an education system that is very complex. Trying to help one sector does not mean that I am saying that there is anything wrong with the others.
Mr Storey brought up the phrase "reasonable numbers". That is already in legislation: in the Shared Education Act 2016, which talks about "reasonable numbers" of Protestants and Catholics. I am glad that "reasonable numbers" is in there. Over the years, we have had 40:40:20 and 70:30. The phrase "reasonable numbers" of Catholics and Protestants allows for the children across Northern Ireland who are of other faiths and of none to be included. Up until now, a lot of the data collected has been about Protestants and Catholics. We see that in other equality legislation. To be honest, that is where the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection will come in. The ETI will be able to go into an integrated school to see whether it is actually integrated. It is about more than just the numbers of the children in school; rather, as Ms Bailey talked about, it is about the curriculum, the culture, the sport, the arts, the teachers, the board members — all of that — as well as "reasonable numbers".
I am glad that Mr Storey, I think it was, mentioned Blackwater. I would love to invite Mr Storey down to Blackwater. It is a wonderful integrated school just outside Downpatrick. It is a school that has certainly improved its numbers. It is on a site that will never allow for the number of children that it needs attending it for it to be a sustainable school. It has two mobile huts in the middle of it. The roof of one has collapsed to the floor, but the school cannot move it away because it cannot get in a crane. It is a lovely school. It is talking about closing and moving to what, hopefully, will be a new school, potentially in mid-Down, that is being paid for by the Integrated Education Fund and parents. There is a process under way. We have an integrated school that does not have the full numbers, but it cannot have those numbers anyway because the site that it is on is very limited, although I absolutely love visiting there.
The Bill talks about public services coming together. All of us in the House have committed to cross-departmental working and collaboration, so I do not understand what the concerns are about that.
Ms Brogan recognised the aspirations of the Bill — thank you very much — and said that she wanted to work on it in the Education Committee.
Do you know what? If that helps to improve the legislation and make it better for integrated education, that is fine. I do not mention Irish-medium education in the Bill and kept it focused on integrated education, but, if we can improve something that could help other sectors, I will be happy with that.
Mr Harvey talked about 'New Decade, New Approach'. I thank you, Mr Harvey, because I looked around earlier to see who else in the Chamber was involved in the Programme for Government negotiations for 'New Decade, New Approach'. There were representatives of different parties there. I was told that, if I got the independent review of education into 'New Decade, New Approach', a civil servant would eat his hat. He still owes me that hat. That review is something that I wanted. I made it clear when I was sitting at that table in Stormont Castle that I had already started the Integrated Education Bill, that work on it had already begun and that the long-term objectives would be the independent review of education; in fact, the footnote in the appendix is by my hand. I made it clear at that time, and there were no objections, that the Integrated Education Bill would be an interim measure to bring integrated education onto a level playing field with other sectors.
Mr Harvey said that state grammar schools and controlled schools were open to everyone. They are; I am not arguing about that. I spoke to Mr Stalford about this before. I would rather that all schools had that integrated ethos, not just that people can go in through the door but, when they go in that door, they are not assimilated and there is an integrated ethos there. They will not be what that school is. I have spoken to many pupils who have been to very good controlled schools that are mixed. They tell me that they were not of the majority religion in that school and were not celebrated. That is the difference between integrated and controlled schools. They are amazing schools with amazing mixing, and that is fantastic, but we could do just a wee bit more.
The Member talked about parental choice. Where is the choice for parents who want to send their children to integrated schools? In our constituency, Strangford Integrated College turns away a full year group of children. Our parental choice for integrated education is not there. He talked about the money side of the promotion of integrated education. Money is already put into NICIE to promote integrated schools. I have to say that it has only been in more recent times that NICIE has been allowed to go into schools to talk about transformation. Certainly, it has been doing that after a school has decided to transform, but this is about promotion of transformation. The Integrated Education Fund helped to fund NICIE before that. The promotion of integrated education would help to remove the limitation on it so that we can finally see more than the 7%.
Mr O'Dowd said that integrated education has protection in law. I will not tell a former Minister of Education how to suck eggs, because he knows all about it. He asked about NICIE: it certainly receives a large budget to encourage and facilitate and, now, to promote. It is outside of the Department. He talked about the definition of integrated education being offensive. In my opening statement, I said that there were many schools that could recognise that definition and say that it would suit them. However, the 1989 Order is not replaced by the Bill. A school will still only be able to legally be called an integrated school if it has been established under that Order. It means, then, that I add to what the 1989 Order says. They have been through that process and they come to be called an integrated school. There is a definition of who they are, and the ETI can then inspect it. It is not about being offensive to any other sector; in fact, as others have said, if any school could not say that that is what they provide, I would be astonished. The Bill adds to the 1989 Order.
I absolutely understand what Mr O'Dowd meant when he said that religion should be separate from education. That is bigger than this Bill. When I spoke to the SDLP representatives and they asked me about that, I said, "I am not going there". That is far beyond integrated education. It is something that, perhaps, the independent review of education may consider. I was pressured by humanists to see whether I would put secularisation in the Bill, but I said no. This is about integrated education.
Is the legislation necessary when we have the New Decade, New Approach commitment coming forward? I believe that it is. The reason that I say that is that the independent review of integrated education is five years old, as has been highlighted. Some of the recommendations have been taken forward — thank you for that, former Minister Weir — but not all of them. In fact, the clauses in the Bill address some of the recommendations that have not been brought forward by the Department.
Mr O'Dowd talked about identity not being neutral in integrated schools. I will not argue with you on that. I believe that integrated schools have a job to do to ensure that they are fully inclusive for everyone. That is why I have included the requirement that the ETI must inspect the ethos of integrated schools. I agree with you: I have experience of a wonderful integrated school that is completely inclusive. When your daughter hurts another player on a hurley field, you get a bit scared.
Hurling, yes. It is better than Gaelic. I come from an area where hurling is god. My daughter was playing hurley — not camogie — and she hurt another youngster at the integrated schools' cup, which was quite terrible. Hurling is in my lifeblood, so I cannot say anything.
Mr McNulty, just when I am talking about Gaelic games, you said that you were surprised that integrated education has not grown. It is hard for it to grow when it is so difficult to set up new schools, and transformation is not easy. As Ms Bailey said, parents have to remortgage their houses to set up a school. They have to bring forward development proposals, and they have to self-finance for the first number of years before the Department will recognise the school. You do not have to do that for controlled or maintained schools, so it is an uphill battle.
You were absolutely right when you said that young people are light years ahead of us. I have declared before in the House that my daughter was involved in the Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI). Those young people, who will probably be sitting in the House in the next 10 to 15 years, terrify me, because they are light years ahead of us.
You asked a key question: how do we measure the success of our young people's education? That is a very hard question for me to answer. As many Members will know, I am on the all-party group on disability. I have been to various schools that look after young people with special educational needs. You could have a young person in a class who, all of a sudden, can pay attention for an hour, and that would be an amazing achievement for that young person. Another young person could get to the stage where they have completed five GCSEs, and that would be an amazing achievement. We then have secondary schools. I talked earlier about the number of GCSEs that are achieved at those schools, and that is best that those pupils can achieve. Then, we have grammar schools that achieve wonderful exam results.
How do we measure the success of our young people's education? It comes back to this: if we measure it based on academic grades, some schools will do wonderfully. Another measurement of success could be the change in a child from the day that they enter the school until the day that they leave. It is a very difficult one. I do not believe that academic grades are the only way in which we can measure the success of a school. I would rather see a teacher's report that says, "Johnny, who sits in the corner, was an absolute pain when he came through the door, but, all of sudden, we've got him to the stage where he has passed his maths and English GCSEs, and — do you know what? — we've got him a vocational qualification, and he's going to be working as a joiner". That would be amazing.
You raised a concern about faith-based schools. I am a great believer in faith-based schools. I chose an integrated school for my daughter because it is a faith-based school. It happens to have all faiths. All schools in Northern Ireland are faith-based schools. All schools in Northern Ireland are required to have a Christian ethos. Religious education is a compulsory school subject.
Article 5(1) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 stipulates:
"every grant-aided school shall— (a) include provision for religious education for all registered pupils at the school".
Integrated education follows that as well.
You said that the Bill is the start, and I have to say that I agree with you. It has opened a conversation. It has opened up the ability for some of us to come across from our parties and say what we want to happen. It is not the end, and I know that, if the Bill goes through to the Education Committee, it definitely will not be the end. There will be a lot of discussions, and I fully expect that the Education Committee will have to extend the time for witnesses to come in and give evidence.
Mr Lyttle outlined the findings of many reports over the years that have defined the need for integrated education. He outlined the significant cost for our current education system, which we all know is under huge financial strain. He highlighted the increasing oversubscription of integrated schools and the 'Good Relations' report, which stated that 21% of children who had put down integrated education as their first preference were unable to get a place in an integrated school. He talked about the independent review of education and how some of the recommendations have gone forward while others have not.
Mr Stalford talked about giving preference to integrated education. I respond to that in the same way that I responded to Mr Butler: if we are not just talking about equality but equity, it is only right and proper that we support a sector that does not have the same level of support as others.
Mr Weir rightly talked about the quality of education rather than the sector. Of course people absolutely want to send their children to a good school. However, some of us consider that good schools are not just academically good but are about the holistic nature of the school and its ethos. The quality of integrated education means that all children, including a high number of mainstreamed special educational needs pupils, are all together in the one place. He discussed the strategic review of education, and he questioned the "special circumstances" referred to in clause 7. He asked, "Why not wait until the independent review of education concludes before bringing forward this Bill?". Integrated education cannot wait, and, to be honest, this debate will probably go forward to the independent review of education in order to give an outline of what parties think about a single education system. It has been five years since the independent review of integrated education.
I believe, absolutely, in strategic reform, but I do not believe that parental choice is being provided for now for integrated schools. The Member accused me of having "muddled thinking". I am not going to go down that road too much. I had an amazing drafter, who was able to go through the Bill word by word with me. I am just disappointed that a former Education Minister wants the House to vote against parental choice for integrated education and legislation to improve on that.
Christopher Stalford said quite a number of things with which I absolutely agree. In fact, in the House on other occasions, I have said that I agree with Christopher on a number of things, which will probably get me disciplined by the Alliance Party. Children should be educated together, but I want more than that. I want an integrated ethos, where children are integrated, not assimilated. As I said in my initial speech, the independent review of education will be like the Bengoa report. It will take years to implement, and, in the meantime, as I said during the New Decade, New Approach negotiations, the Integrated Education Bill will help integrated education to move forward.
I give absolute confirmation now on behalf of the Alliance Party that we will give the Education Minister full support for the delivery of the independent review. Why would we not? We wrote that provision and put it in New Decade, New Approach. Mr Stalford said that he is a religious person and that his religion came not through school but through home. I agree with him. I would rather see religion outside of school, but the issue is bigger than the Bill. I am not going to do that. I am not going to take religion out of schools because that really would kill the Bill.
Mr O'Toole said that 7% of children can be educated together, and, although more want to be, they cannot. He confirmed that schools, sectoral bodies and teachers are wonderful. I do not argue with him — they absolutely are. That is why I am in the House and am not a teacher. I do not know how teachers do it. He talked about the education system being at fault and about how it needs to be improved. I absolutely agree with that, which is why the independent review of education is coming forward. He talked about an incoherent education system. Reform will take time, and, if we have the opportunity to tackle division, why would we not do it now? Mr O'Toole understands that the Bill and discussing education gets to who people are and what their identity is.
He asked something that I do not think I will be able to answer: how can those who are unable to go, or do not go, to an integrated school celebrate one another and themselves? That is something that I would love to see more of through the Assembly, perhaps, and the work of the Assembly or local councils. There is more to celebrate through our diversity than there is to keep us separate, but perhaps that is for a different occasion, not the Bill.
I thank Ms Bailey and the Green Party for their support. She confirmed that the Bill predated New Decade, New Approach and that the current education system is in trouble. She discussed the Department's appointments to GMI boards, which is something that I was not aware of. I will have to look into that. Thank you for that, Ms Bailey. She said that if we could start education again, we would not have the system that we have. However, she recognised that we cannot start from scratch and that we already have a system but said that the Bill helps to bring forward part of that system. She reminded the House that parental choice led to the Irish-medium and integrated sectors, but she recognised that not all parents have a choice. Many have only one choice in their area and, sometimes, the choice for integrated education is full. I confirmed that, in many parts of Northern Ireland, there is no integrated school that parents can choose and that, in the areas in which there is an integrated school, such as mine, the post-primary is completely oversubscribed.
Ms Bailey said that she would prefer faith to be taken out of schools, but, at this stage, all schools are faith schools. She rightly said that integrated schools are about more than pupil numbers. That touched my heart, because it is why I got involved in integrated education. Integrated education is about the curriculum, culture, sport and the arts; it is all about ethos. Mr O'Toole mentioned that as well. An integrated ethos is something that not everyone understands, and I hope that, through the Bill and our discussion of it, perhaps more understanding of what an integrated ethos is can be shared across the House.
Mr Allister said that this was a determined assault on academic selection because I mentioned the term "different abilities". I have not said "all abilities". It is disappointing that Mr Allister is not here. To be honest, I would rather see academic selection out of schools — that is not anything to be hidden. However, because I took in-depth consultation and listened to people, I did not include that, because integrated schools are not against selection. Lagan College has a grammar stream, and Strangford College had a development proposal for a grammar scheme turned down, although it may be going back in. I may not want to have transfer tests done, but the Bill accepts that, by including "different abilities", some integrated schools have a grammar stream, and that is it. I have therefore included that in the Bill.
I am sorry that Mr Allister is not here to allow me to address that with him, but the Bill is not going to get rid of transfer tests. Integrated schools have told me that some of them want transfer tests and some do not. This definition, or meaning, of integrated education talks about differing abilities. That is not just about those who have a vocational outlook on life or special educational needs. Some of us have children who are academically gifted, but we still want them to go to an integrated school and not to a grammar school.
Mr Carroll said that People Before Profit would prefer secular education. I respect that. He said that he would support the Bill and that he is happy to promote and resource integrated education. He talked about financial efficiency. I have to admit that the Bill is not about closing other schools to promote integrated education. We would much rather see schools coming together and the natural amalgamation and mixing that others have talked about. Financial efficiency happens to be one of the things that a lot of reports bring forward when they talk about integrated schools and the mixing of schools. You do not need to have separate schools, but, in the system that we have currently, we have various sectors and parents have choice, so financial efficiency is talked about. It is something that could be achieved in the future, but the Bill is not going to take away the other sectors.
The Minister confirmed that children being educated separately is something that we have and that the education system is complex. She talked about the reference to benign apartheid. She also said that natural integration happens in some schools, and she mentioned Methody. Absolutely; it does.
"Super-mixed" schools are available across Northern Ireland, and there are many wonderful "super-mixed" schools. I go back to Judge Treacy, who said that integrated schools are a "stand-alone concept". While people can use the word "integration", there is a process to follow if they want to integrate. I would absolutely welcome a school like Methody coming forward, because it could that so easily.
Going forward, the plan needed for our education is the independent review of education. Therefore, I am delighted that, after the negotiations for New Decade, New Approach, the DUP got on board. There has been significant investment in education. Education is really expensive, but, of course, we are always going to spend money on health and on our children.
The Minister talked about support for shared education. Absolutely, shared education is helping to break down barriers. I support sharing. It is a pity that the Fermanagh Trust model for shared education was not implemented. I met people from the Fermanagh Trust — my goodness, it was such a long time ago — and they talked about bringing schools together. Rather than a top-down approach — they felt that, unfortunately, that is what shared education was — they wanted a ground-up approach. That would start with schools sharing teachers, and, for example, the best maths teacher and the best English teacher teaching across campuses. The schools might then start sharing the cost of things like stationery. They would naturally evolve into an integrated state, and the community and schools would come together. It would have been lovely if that model had been used. Unfortunately, all those years ago, that model was not able to go forward.
New Decade, New Approach required a hard negotiation. As I said earlier, there is a civil servant who, if he happens to get wind of this debate, knows that he owes me a hat: the one that he is supposed to have eaten. We got the independent review of education into that agreement. During the negotiations, it was made very clear that the review would be bigger than Bengoa and was, because everyone has a vested interest in education, likely to cause more difficulty than health for the Assembly. As Mr O'Toole mentioned, our education system reflects our identity.
The Minister asked what the Bill covers. As far as I am concerned, nursery education is non-sectoral and therefore outside the Bill.
It may well be the fortieth anniversary of integrated education, but the Bill was held back when the Assembly was collapsed. Had there been the opportunity to introduce it three years ago, I would have done so. Believe me: leaving it to the last plenary day before recess to bring forward Second Stage, so that it might get through before the end of the mandate, was not my plan.
The Department certainly does fund NICIE. However, the Department has only recently allowed NICIE to promote transformation as an option for schools. I believe that parents who want to send their children to an integrated school do not have a choice. The Minister talked about the Bill placing integrated education above other sectors, but the Department already places other sectors above integrated education. The fact that parents do not have an integrated education choice is proof of why the level of integrated education remains at 7%: it suits the Department for it to be that way.
As was said, the 2019 'Good Relations' report confirms that 21% of children do not get accepted to their first choice integrated school and are turned away. The Department holds no data on where those children end up going to school. If there is a commitment to supporting all sectors equally, how come there is data for maintained and controlled schools but not for integrated education? The data is missing.
The community conversation methodology has come to the fore and been used by the Education Authority. It gives the community a voice. When a new school is being planned, the current system uses the religious demographics of an area and empty desks. The community conversation turns that around and asks the community, "What do you want?", and there have been some successful community conversations.
The independent review of education is to look at a single education system. The House is in trouble: if that happens, what will happen to the parental choice that so many Members mentioned? Not every sector has a fair and equal voice. If they did, 21% of children would not be turned away from their school of choice.
I have not diluted what "integrated education" is, because the requirement in the Education Reform Order 1989 stands. I checked the legality of that. I checked it with the drafter and with the Bill Office. The only thing that I am changing about the 1989 order is to add "promote", so I do not see how it is possible that I have diluted the meaning.
Thank you for your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker. I really appreciate all the comments made today. When I met parties, I confirmed that, although I am passionate about integrated education, I want to ensure that legislation on it is good and inclusive. I thank the team in the Bill Office who helped get the Bill to Second Stage. I again pay tribute to Fiona McAteer and the team that worked to help me behind the scenes. We took a very in-depth look at integrated education. This Bill feels like my baby. I hope that you will let my baby take its next steps and that the Education Committee will look after it for me. I ask each of you to vote for the Integrated Education Bill to pass its Second Stage. Everyone gets to participate in integrated education. No one gets to dominate. Thank you.
The Question will be put again in three minutes. remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Before I put the Question a second time, I remind Members present that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.
Question put a second time.
Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly currently has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirement for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask you, Members, to ensure that you maintain a gap of at least 2 metres between you and others when moving around in the Chamber or the Rotunda, and especially in the Lobbies. Please be patient at all times, observe the signage and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks.
The Assembly divided:
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Bailey, Mr Lyttle
Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Harvey, Mr Weir
Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved: