Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Friday, 25 May 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Sammy Wilson (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs Mary Bradley 
Mr Paul Butler
Mr Jeffrey Donaldson
Mr Basil McCrea
Miss Michelle McIlveen
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Mervyn Storey

Witnesses:

Ms Caitríona Ruane (Minister of Education)
Mr Will Haire (Department of Education)
Dr Eddie Rooney (Department of Education)

The Chairperson (Mr S Wilson):

On behalf of the Committee for Education, I thank the Minister for her attendance at today’s meeting.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane):

Members of the Committee will recall that, at last week’s meeting, I said that we would all need some time to examine the issues that affect education and the huge changes that are required. The Committee has asked me to consider two aspects today: the review of public administration (RPA); and issues surrounding transfer procedures.

I am happy to answer general questions, but I have made it clear to Sammy that I am in listening mode today. I have not formulated a final policy on the matters in hand because we must take time and get it right.

One of my first duties as Minister of Education has been to meet key education stakeholders to hear, at first hand, their views on the proposals for education in the RPA. Those stakeholders expressed strong support for radical reform of education administration and delivered the overwhelming message that the key driver for reform must be the need to raise standards for all our young people.

To date, the consultations on the direction of the RPA have indicated that it can produce clear benefits for the education system. The early establishment of a strong and effective Education and Skills Authority (ESA) to replace the plethora of existing bodies and to serve teachers and other staff at the front line of education is an essential ingredient of the agenda for the modernisation of education.

The proposed reforms will streamline administration and release resources for redirection to front-line services. The reforms will have three key results: first, more efficient administration; secondly, much greater integration and consistency in the delivery of education policy, taking account of local need and providing equality of access and opportunity; and, thirdly, additional resources will be available for the classroom and for key front-line support services.

Those three key benefits will make an important contribution in ensuring that our education system supports all children in their learning, helps them to succeed and meets the needs and expectations of parents, the community and the economy.

The uncertainty of change can often cause unease, and stakeholders have expressed concern in that regard. I recognise that, and I am aware that important questions remain unanswered at this stage of the process. I understand the stakeholders’ uncertainties, but I believe that change — managed well — can be creative.

Several questions remain to be answered. Should we continue with the current drive to establish the ESA? My initial thoughts are that we should. To do otherwise will allow uncertainty to continue and will serve only to delay the realisation of the benefits for our young people. Everyone involved in, and affected by, the change process — pupils, parents, teachers and other front-line staff, particularly those most affected by change — must have clarity and certainty about the extent and pace of reform.

How do we ensure that members of staff who are affected by the proposed changes have a clear understanding of what it will mean for them? The formal establishment of the ESA will be an important first step. I intend to produce a full timetable for change, which will be shared with everyone who will be affected by the RPA proposals. I want to improve communication, and I have asked my officials to ensure that stakeholders have access to sufficient information early enough to meet the needs of their staff.

How can we harness the expertise and goodwill of the education sector to support the proposed changes and ensure their effective implementation? All key interests in the education sector have told me that they want to be involved in ensuring that the RPA changes are implemented successfully so that benefits can be maximised. I urge everyone in the education sector to engage fully with the RPA process and to support the Department of Education in giving effect to those changes. We need a real team effort to deliver a successful outcome.

How will the new arrangements promote and maximise equality, particularly for children with additional needs and for those who face inequality and social disadvantage? I am determined that we must not shirk from tackling the toughest challenges facing our young people.

Beidh an comhionannas i gcroílár chlár beartas na Roinne agus spreagfaidh sé gach a ndéanann ESA. Equality will be at the heart of the Department’s policy agenda and will be the core of everything that the ESA does.

We must ensure that the diverse voices across education are not squeezed out by focusing on the establishment of new administrative structures. I will work with all sectors to ensure that each has a real voice and the necessary capacity to contribute significantly to help to shape education to best meet the needs of our young people. I will also ensure that, in developing policies that will make a difference, we listen to school principals and a wide range of other staff, parents and young people.

The RPA education reforms cannot and should not be viewed in isolation from the reform of other sectors. There will be close direct and indirect links with the work of other Departments, and it will be a challenge for the Executive to ensure a joined-up approach to the implementation of the RPA. I will work closely with other Ministers to maximise cohesion. I intend to make a more detailed statement on the RPA to the Committee in the near future.

I turn now to the important issue of the transfer of children from primary to post-primary schools. I have been open and clear about my position: it is wrong to decide the schools that children will attend on the basis of academic selection. I believe it to be wrong in principle. It has damaging effects on the self-esteem of the majority of children, irrespective of whether they are in the grammar or secondary sector. It also has a disproportionate effect on those from deprived family backgrounds who do not receive the coaching and social support that many better-off parents provide for their children. Such a system belongs in a different era. It is not fit for purpose in a twenty-first-century education system and is a blot on our society.

Creidim go bhfuil dualgas orainn uile cothrom na Féinne a thabhairt do gach páiste. We need to ensure that there is equality for all children. However, I recognise that there are other, sometimes diametrically opposed, views on this issue. In my first weeks as Minister, I have listened to a wide range of groups to try to understand their arguments and to consider carefully potential ways forward. I will hold further meetings with the children’s rights sector, the Churches, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission and the Commissioner for Children and Young People. This issue affects everyone in society. My officials have produced a paper that sets out elements of the process and some broad options, and they will be happy to answer questions on those matters.

I wish to comment on some other important factors. I understand, and empathise with, the concerns of the parents of children entering year 5 in September 2007. They do not yet know the system of transfer that will be operating. We must all bear in mind the natural concerns of schools, parents and children. I want to assure every parent that, at all times, the best interests of children will be my priority.

Other significant changes are already taking place. Demographic change continues, and, in order to meet enrolment numbers, many grammar schools are accepting children who receive lower grades than the school would normally accept. Not only does that change the nature of the grammar sector but it has a negative, demoralising knock-on effect on the non-selective schools that serve the majority of our children.

A revised curriculum for all children between the ages of four and 14 is being implemented that will provide a broad, creative, general education. All children have access to the same broad curriculum at present, but they are separated at the age of 11. That cannot be right.

I want to build on and extend the base of excellence that already exists and, at the same time, provide opportunities for pupils to choose whether to follow a vocational or academic path. Society must recognise and accept that the vocational path is equally as important as the academic path, that children and young people will choose different paths at different stages and that children flourish at different stages. All those factors must be considered.

A resolution to the transfer issue is required, but that does not mean working in haste to patch up the system for a quick fix. I will not be rushed on the issue. It is of such fundamental importance to schools, parents, children and society at large that we must get it right.

A system must be put in place that gives every child the opportunity to succeed, does not divide them arbitrarily, is equitable and is in the best interests of a cohesive society. I want to find a way through the situation with the Committee and other sectors of society. I want to find a proper solution that gives every child a fair chance and allows every school to prosper. We live in one another’s shadows — ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Minister. I have a couple of questions on the two subjects that you dealt with in your presentation. Other members also want to ask questions.

The Department’s paper on the transfer procedure, which is fully in keeping with your concluding remarks, states:

"the Transfer 2010 ‘deadline’ is likely to be under severe pressure. Such pressure may bring into consideration interim or transitional arrangements ahead of the agreement and introduction of the permanent new arrangements."

Can you outline what those arrangements will be? For example, will they include the extension of current arrangements for another year in order to facilitate agreement being reached?

Ms Ruane:

I must consider all options, a Chathaoirligh. I do not want to go into detail about my feelings on any of them. I must hear from more people and consider other issues. I will then examine all options and will have the broadest possible discussion with all stakeholders. What I said in my conclusion stands: I will not be rushed on the issue. It is a fundamental issue for society. I will take my time to get it right.

The Chairperson:

The paper on the RPA, with regard to the implementation and timing of arrangements, states:

"The target date for the implementation of the RPA was 1 April 2008."

Does that mean that the Department is rolling back from that date? If so, what is the implication for the education and library boards and other sectoral interests?

Ms Ruane:

Obviously, the RPA is a major issue. There is huge uncertainly about it, which I can understand because many people will be affected by it. That date was set by the direct rule Minister. That is why I have stressed that I need time to consider all the issues. I need time to consider what is the best way to implement change. As I said last week, my Department does not have the luxury of standing still: it must listen to the genuine concerns of different sectors. Therefore, I will not commit myself at present. Officials can take the Committee through the document and its different permutations. However, I will take my time on the issue, without standing still, because it must be moved forward.

The Chairperson:

I do not expect you to give details on the matter. I understand that the date was set during direct rule. However, can you outline what the implications of that date will be for the education and library boards? All Committee members have received representations from staff from the boards who want to know whether their jobs are safe, whether they will be relocated or whatever. Are you saying that, as far as the education and library boards are concerned, there will be no change until after 1 April 2008, or does that date for the end of the boards’ remit still stand?

Ms Ruane:

As I have said in my submission, my initial thoughts are that progress must be made on the establishment of the ESA as quickly as possible. I need to examine the issue of the boards. I do not want to go into detail on that at present. I understand the difficulties that the boards face. I have had meetings with them and have had separate meetings with their chief executives and chairpersons. I have listened carefully to their concerns. However, we will return to those issues in due course.

The Chairperson:

The establishment of the ESA will have implications for the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) — taking on some of its front-line services — and for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) and other providers. It is to be the single employing authority and will take charge of controlled schools.

Will the establishment of the ESA not have implications for all those other bodies? If so, will the legislation not have to indicate what will happen to those bodies?

Ms Ruane:

Yes; there will be implications, and that is why we are having discussions with all those bodies, including the CCMS, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, NICIE and all the other sectors.

The Chairperson:

Is it possible to set up the ESA without having established what its powers will be? Will it then be possible to put those powers in legislation? If those powers are in legislation from 1 April, will there not be implications for all the other bodies?

Ms Ruane:

Yes. We are looking at all of that at the moment, Sammy.

Mr D Bradley:

Maidin mhaith, a Aire; tá fáilte romhat ar ais arís. Welcome back, Minister.

Ms Ruane:

Go raibh maith agat, a Dhominic.

Mr D Bradley:

Some stakeholders believe that, because the ESA will be the owner of the controlled estate, a conflict of interest will be created. First, how will you ensure that that possible conflict of interest does not emerge and that the fears of those stakeholders can be allayed?

Secondly, I note that heavy emphasis is placed on the ESA’s role in raising standards and challenging underperformance. I welcome that, but how will the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) relate to the ESA on those matters?

Ms Ruane:

We are developing policies to address those fears of possible conflicts of interest, and we have asked for the Committee’s views on that matter. We are also in discussions with all the stakeholders to understand where the difficulties are and how we can proceed.

I am sorry, Dominic, will you repeat your second question? I was reading when you asked it.

Mr D Bradley:

Your brief outlines the role of the ESA and places a heavy emphasis on raising standards and challenging underperformance. I welcome that, but how will the ESA interact with the ETI, the specific role of which is to inspect schools, help to raise standards, and to challenge underperformance?

Ms Ruane:

Those are detailed questions. Perhaps Will could assist in answering them.

Mr Will Haire (Department of Education):

The ETI is independent from the Department, and the legislation will strengthen that independence. The ETI will act as an independent scrutineer of the schools and will assist them by giving principals and boards of governors clarity on where they stand. The job of the ESA, therefore, will be to support the schools in their search for improvement. That means that the ETI’s challenging and scrutinising role and the ESA’s support role will coexist together.

Another key point is that the ETI will have a role in scrutinising the quality of the ESA’s services to ensure that the support services and the quality of the teacher training that it provides will be of the highest standard. Therefore, the ETI’s two roles will be key to any improvement. That is a crucial aspect of the legislation.

Miss McIlveen:

Minister, at last week’s presentation, you emphasised the role that budgetary concerns will play in the delivery of your priorities for the next few years. My understanding of the review of public administration (RPA) was that savings were to be made and that those savings were to be redirected into front-line services. Our briefing stated that the initial estimates were that the savings would be between £15 million and £25 million a year and that implementation costs would be around £80 million. We have moved on from that point, so will you give more precise figures on the latest savings that the RPA suggests can be made in education?

Ms Ruane:

All the Departments are looking at areas where savings can be made.

We want to ensure that those savings are put into front-line services. I do not have those details at present. However, when they are worked out, they will be presented to the Committee.

Mr B McCrea:

I have two questions: first, I am concerned that there is a risk that the ESA will turn into a huge bureaucratic monster that is slow and unresponsive to the needs of schools. I would like to know the Minister’s view on the principle of subsidiarity, whereby as much power as possible is devolved. I see that Mr Haire is ready to answer, so I will not finish the question. [Laughter.]

Ms Ruane:

Please finish the question.

Mr B McCrea:

Secondly, I am surprised that the Department cannot provide alternatives to the transfer test. I appreciate that that is a serious issue and that it must be examined, but surely the Committee could be furnished with the options that are under consideration?

Ms Ruane:

With regard to the ESA and bureaucracy; the current system is cumbersome and there are complex arrangements in place. There needs to be an overarching body, which can manage the system while representing and supporting all sectors, and that can focus on collaboration among schools as the way forward.

Equality must be the cornerstone of policy on job location. My Department feels that jobs should be at the front line and as near to schools as possible. On decentralisation, a model must be created that people in the North of Ireland feel is representative of them. The Department is currently looking at arrangements for making those arrangements as democratic as possible, and that is all I wish to say on that matter at this point.

Mr B McCrea:

I would like to press the Minister on that matter. My question was not about equality. I wish to know how large the ESA is going to be, and whether the Minister intends to devolve as much power as possible to schools. At the moment, where conflict arises between the voluntary and controlled sectors, the voluntary schools have much more freedom of action. Controlled schools feel that they have the dead hand of the Civil Service on them. Does the Minister intend to devolve power to the schools, albeit with an overarching framework and with guidance, rather than under the control of the ESA?

Ms Ruane:

That is an equality issue. As I said, equality will be the cornerstone of the system that will be set up, and it will be, along with the statutory duty, one of the driving forces for the ESA. With respect to alternatives, I repeat that I am not prepared to talk about those yet. I am looking at how children are to be transferred from primary education to post-primary education, and I have more people to listen to.

Mr B McCrea:

I am not asking the Minister to make a decision, but it would help the Committee if we could understand the options that are under consideration. There may be one option that is not being considered, but with which the Committee could assist the Minister. Given the timescales that the Minister has laid out, and the pressures being imposed on children entering year 5, could the Committee look at the options that are under consideration?

Ms Ruane:

I have not laid out any timeframes. I understand the urgency, but I am going to take my time and look at all options. I am happy to explore any suggestions that the Committee wishes to make, and my officials will be staying to discuss the options that are presented in the synopsis paper.

The Chairperson:

Minister, there is a note in paragraph 29 of the synopsis paper on the RPA to the effect that the policy proposals were subject to consultation in November 2006 and that the Department is still analysing responses. Subsequent paragraphs ask for the Committee’s views on a range of issues, such as equality, school autonomy, a single employing authority, etc. Could the Committee have a synopsis of the responses received to date? That would help members in formulating their thinking. If so, when would that be ready?

Ms Ruane:

That can be provided, and the timing can be agreed with the officials.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your time, Minister. I understand that you will not be able to meet the Committee next week, but we appreciate that we are the only Committee to have had the benefit of a Minister’s attendance two weeks in a row at the very start of the new mandate.

Ms Ruane:

At one level, I am frustrated that I do not have answers for the Committee. However, I came along today because I want to have a genuine working relationship with the Committee. Thank you, Mr Chairperson. I look forward to working with you and the Committee.

The Chairperson:

Thank you.

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