Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Review of Teacher Education

15 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill

Witnesses:
Mr Tom Gillen ) Irish Congress of Trade Unions
Ms Deirdre Loughran ) University and College Union
Mr Jim McKeown )
Dr Denise Mitchell )
Mr Kevin McAdam ) Unite
Mr Paul Parsons ) Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People
Ms Pam Tilson )

The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):
I welcome Mr Jim McKeown from the University and College Union. Jim is a regular visitor to the Committee and needs no introduction. Please introduce your colleagues and make your presentation, after which members will have the opportunity to ask questions.

Mr Jim McKeown (University and College Union):
I thank you, Chairperson, and the members of the Committee, for inviting us to speak today. We were due to appear before the Committee in July 2008, but were unable to do so because of leave arrangements. We appreciate being given a second chance.

Our delegation comprises representatives of the main unions at Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College. Ms Deirdre Loughran is the branch secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) at St Mary’s, and Dr Denise Mitchell is the branch secretary of UCU at Stranmillis. Mr Kevin McAdam is the regional secretary of Unite. Mr Dooley Harte from the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance is unable to be here today, but, in order to represent a wider community focus on the issue, we are accompanied by Mr Tom Gillen of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

I know that members wish to talk about the forthcoming merger of Stranmillis University College with Queen’s University, Belfast, and we will address any concerns that members have. However, the main purpose of our presentation is to examine the stakeholder review of initial teacher education and the Minister for Employment and Learning’s proposed changes to the funding arrangements, which will only affect two institutions — St Mary’s and Stranmillis. As time goes by, the only institution that will be affected will be St Mary’s University College.

We strongly welcome the Committee’s determination to address the review of initial teacher education. It is a serious strategic issue, which, to a large extent, has lost its way in recent years. Members will be aware that, in 2003, the then Minister with responsibility for employment and learning and education, Angela Smith, instigated a review of initial teacher education at a major conference in Limavady. That was followed in 2004 by another conference, and, in 2005, by a major report, ‘Aspects of Teacher Education in Northern Ireland’, compiled by David Taylor and Rod Usher. A second report, ‘Policy Review of Teacher Education in Northern Ireland’ by Douglas Osler, which was commissioned by the Department of Education, was submitted in 2005. It focused on early professional development and continuous professional development. It was clear that a major review was under way.

In addition, from discussions that we have had with civil servants down through the years, it was also clear that there was a mood among those civil servants to shift the funding bases of the two teacher education colleges from historic funding to a system based on the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) model of funding according to student numbers. Historically, the colleges have resisted that change because they are small institutions. If student numbers for a college are set by Departments and are reduced annually, moving to a funding system that is based on student numbers threatens that college’s viability. The colleges had genuine concerns about that, as did the Government. In the mid-1990s, the Northern Ireland Audit Office recommended that the colleges be allowed to diversify in order to ensure and maintain their viability.

The civil servants were also concerned about demographic decline — the fall in the birth rate. For that reason, civil servants who allocate the number of college places have consistently reduced the quota of students in initial teacher education; a trend that has caused serious concern.

Mission drift has also concerned civil servants in recent years. By mission drift I mean that, because the colleges were small monotechnic institutions that mainly delivered teacher education for the primary-school sector, in order to remain viable, St Mary’s developed a liberal arts degree and Stranmillis developed a degree in early-years development. Those courses have proved to be successful, and they clearly meet a need in the community. However, some civil servants believe that those courses were a departure from the colleges’ core mission and responsibility to train teachers for the primary-school sector. There are also wider community concerns about newly qualified teachers not finding jobs.

The potential merger of Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University, which the University and College Union understands is at a fairly advanced stage, was added into that mix from 2007 to 2008. In June 2008, the Minister announced his decision to change the basis of funding from the historic model to the HEFCE model that is based on student numbers. Having recognised that that would cause the colleges significant problems, the Minister for Employment and Learning, in conjunction with the Minister of Education, agreed to maintain the number of places in initial teacher education and in the diversified courses for the next two years.

The University and College Union regards that as a stop-gap measure. In two years’ time Stranmillis University College will almost certainly be merged with Queen’s University, leaving St Mary’s as the only college to be affected by the Minister’s decision, if student numbers continue to decline. St Mary’s University College is seriously concerned about its viability as an autonomous institution.

I will address the assumptions behind the Department’s decision and the impact that it will have on St Mary’s University College. One of the immediate impacts of the change in the funding basis has been that a budget cut of around £379,000 has been forced on St Mary’s this year, compared with last year’s funding. In a total budget of £7·8 million, that is a big and difficult cut for the college to manage. St Mary’s has already reduced its staffing level by six, and the overall wages bill for the coming year has been cut by approximately £300,000. My union is seriously concerned that, faced with a continuation of such cuts, the college will struggle to maintain its autonomy. The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) has provided £50,000 conversion funding for the next two years, but that comes nowhere near to making up the shortfall caused by the cuts in this year’s budget.

Over the years, the Department of Education has reduced the number of teacher education places, and DEL had proposed a reduction in the number of places that would be available next year on the liberal arts degree course at St Mary’s. Fortunately, the Minister has put those cuts on hold and will maintain the current levels for the next two years. We welcome that, but we consider it to be a stop-gap measure that simply gives all parties an opportunity to take a more strategic view of the funding that is necessary for those institutions, particularly St Mary’s. There is time to devise a new funding model. It is incumbent upon all stakeholders and interested parties to try to achieve that.

I want to discuss the assumption behind DEL’s policy. We have concerns that the policy that has been announced by the Minister, and which has been articulated by civil servants for quite some time, is largely based on guesswork. Thorough analysis of the factors that affect initial teacher education has not been carried out. I say that because, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, one of our colleagues gained information that relates to the basis upon which the Minister took his decision in May 2008. It is absolutely clear that that decision was taken on the basis of an informal meeting. That was relayed to us in the Department’s response to the freedom-of-information request. Given that there had been an ongoing review, during which a lot of serious analytical work was done, we believe that it was incorrect to make a decision of that magnitude on the basis of an informal meeting.

I want to examine the assumptions that lie behind the Department’s approach. First, there is an assumption that those two colleges somehow stick out like a sore thumb and are funded differently from mainstream higher education institutions across the UK. It is true that they are funded on a different basis. However, they are specialist institutions with specialist needs. There is absolutely no statutory basis that dictates that the HEFCE funding model must apply to all higher education institutions. Higher education funding is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. It is within the ambit of the Minister’s responsibility to set a different funding model for initial-teacher-education institutions in Northern Ireland, if he is inclined to do so. There is no legal requirement to go down the HEFCE funding route.

Secondly, there is an assumption that running costs for St Mary’s and Stranmillis are somehow higher than those for other higher education institutions. There is a wealth of evidence to show that that is not the case; the Taylor and Usher Report of 2004 and the Osler Report of 2005 show that that assumption has no basis. The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) analysis, carried out in 2006-07, shows that the unit cost that relates to administration, premises, and general students’ running costs for St Mary’s was less than that of comparable higher education institutions and the two main universities in Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, the assumption that, due to demographic decline, fewer teachers need to be trained is highly debatable. Lately, much work has been done on that issue. There is now clear evidence that the demographic decline has turned and that the birth rate in Northern Ireland is increasing. Since 2001-02, the Department’s teacher-demand model has shown that the birth rate in Northern Ireland has increased. Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show that, in 2007, the biggest increase in birth rates since 1979 occurred in Northern Ireland. The rate was up 5% on the figure for 2006. The Department of Education’s school census for 2007 shows that the number of children in year 1 between 2010-11 and 2013-14 is projected to increase by 2000 year on year. NISRA’s statistical analysis for 2011 onwards shows that, during the next 10 years, there will be a total increase in the primary-school population of around 15,000. Therefore, the notion that fewer teachers are needed is based on a very sketchy analysis of the situation.

As regards the oversupply of teachers, there is a notion that large numbers of graduates leave our teacher-education institutions and universities and cannot find employment as teachers. Much of that is questionable. The Department for Employment and Learning, and the Department of Education, rely on the substitute teacher register for their information on unemployed teachers. That is not a good measure of true teacher unemployment, because a lot of retired teachers, many of whom are not seeking permanent employment, put their name on the substitute teacher register.

Furthermore, the register makes no distinction between the primary- and secondary-school sectors. There are significant differences between the two sectors, and I suspect that, if one were to examine unemployment rates among primary school teachers, one would find that the figures are not nearly as high as some would have us believe.

A survey by St Mary’s University College in 2006-07 found that 80% of its graduates who left in 2006 were employed permanently as teachers or had contracts for a minimum of three years. The unemployed in that group amounted to 2%. That issue requires serious study, rather than a reliance on the substitute teacher register as a guide to teacher unemployment.

The pupil/teacher ratio in Northern Ireland is in the region of 21·8:1, which is fairly high, whereas in Scotland, for example, it is in the region of 18:1. There is a case to be made that many of our primary schools have class sizes that are too high, and that something needs to be done in order to improve the pupil/teacher ratio.

Another of the Department’s assumptions about the colleges is that mission drift is a bad thing. Diversification came about as a result of an Audit Office recommendation that was made around 2000. For example, St Mary’s introduced a liberal arts degree, for which student numbers increased year on year — peaking in 2003 — whereupon the Department started to cap the numbers.

That course has been an academic success; it is comparable to degrees elsewhere in the UK. There is no evidence whatsoever that teaching a diversified course adversely affects the provision of initial teacher education. In fact, teachers who work on diversified courses and in the institution say that the courses provide a complementary dimension to their role and helps staff development and professional development.

Diversification is not unique to Northern Ireland. Other colleges have diversified, such as St Mary’s University College at Strawberry Hill, southwest London, which was a monotechnic teacher-training institution. In the Republic, St Patrick’s College at Maynooth diversified many years ago and now provides a range of courses as part of the National University of Ireland.

The degree course that is provided by St Mary’s University College, like that at Stranmillis, meets all quality assurance standards. There is no evidence whatsoever that it is an unnecessary intrusion into the work of the college. It meets a local demand, and more people seek admission to it than there are places available. It is a good course and the college ought to be allowed to continue to provide it.

The Minister’s decision was announced in a debate in the Assembly on 23 June 2008. When one strips away all the words that were spoken, the Minister essentially said that student numbers for the two colleges would be maintained for the next two years, but funding would become based on student numbers. That has a serious financial impact, and it will have a devastating impact on St Mary’s in the longer term.

The Minister also referred to the need for research on continuous professional development and early professional development. With respect, we view that proposal as nebulous. The Osler Report of 2005 highlighted the need for such research and for the colleges to become much more involved in continuous professional development, but nothing happened. If another couple of years go by as more research is undertaken, who knows where that will lead? We argue, therefore, that the Minister’s proposal provides no comfort to the college.

The Minister also stated that his Department has gone as far as it reasonably can on the matter, but we dispute that. The wider review of initial teacher education appears to have been dropped somehow, and that is wrong. That review is required, because all the issues must be examined, and the sooner that is done, the better. Therefore, the Committee’s role in ensuring that that wider review takes place becomes even more important.

The Department has undertaken no serious analysis of the issues, and I referred earlier to its assumptions and to what we regard as the flaws therein. The assumptions show a serious lack of appreciation of the role played by St Mary’s, in particular, and its contribution to the community. The quality of work in that institution is beyond reproach. In 2008, ‘The Guardian’, based on figures from HESA, rated St Mary’s twelfth out of 32 specialist institutions in the UK and eighth out of all institutions in the UK that deal specifically with education. That is a proud position, and the old adage, if it is not broken, do not fix it, must be applied.

The approach to funding must be re-examined. All of the student satisfaction surveys from St Mary’s show that the institution is doing a good job. The drop-out rate is lower than that of either Queen’s University or the University of Ulster. St Mary’s caters for a much greater proportion of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with some 52·4% of its students coming from that section of the community.

The college meets a need in the local community, and it plays a unique role in Irish-medium education. For the past 10 years, the extra funding that it has received to train teachers in the Irish medium has been £100,000. The level of funding has not changed, and St Mary’s argues that it needs at least £250,000 to meet today’s needs. The college’s role in continuous and early professional development must be extended. However, all in all, it needs proper and secure funding, so that it can be confident about its future.

Someone will raise the issue of cost. Civil servants will tell the Committee that too many institutions are involved in teacher education. Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College are the only two institutions involved in primary-teacher education, and soon there will be only one. Under HEFCE, an element of specialised funding is available, of which approximately £1 million currently goes to Stranmillis and St Mary’s. What will happen to that money after the merger with Queen’s University? Our argument is that additional money will be available and that it will be possible to devise a unique funding model for St Mary’s that will provide it with a level of fixed funding in addition to a supplementary level of funding that is based on student numbers.

In conclusion, we have serious concerns about the funding model. Teaching unions and non-teaching support unions represent many highly qualified and able staff who do a great job and who are worried about their future. Something must be done to assure them that the college’s viability is not under threat.

The Chairperson:
The Committee is conducting a review of teacher education, and, coincidentally, the merger kick-started that process. We have received a letter from the Minister in which he says that he has still not received the business case. Perhaps this will clear up some confusion:

“I have already stated that I will not be seeking accelerated passage for any legislation. Clearly these processes will take time to conduct and I therefore consider that the completion of a merger by the start of academic year 2009/10 would be difficult to achieve.”

Any proposed merger will require legislation, scrutinised by the Committee and authorised by the Assembly. I suggest that you take a copy of the Minister’s letter, because it addresses other issues — such as the funding model — that you have mentioned.

Although I acknowledge the reports conducted by David Taylor and Douglas Osler, this is, perhaps, the first time that a Statutory Committee has adopted a holistic approach to teacher education. Although the Committee is focused on employment and learning, we are looking beyond that. The next session is a presentation from a group that supports the advancement of deaf tutors, and so on.

Teacher education is a devolved matter. Not everything comes from England; the Minister can make his own decisions on this. This review has annoyed some people; I am not worried about whom I annoy, and I sometimes get out of bed in the morning eager to annoy people. The Committee has written to the Minister of Education requesting that officials attend the Committee to probe the reduction in numbers and to get some figures. There is some information about that people have got through the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That has uncovered issues, because some institutions received less than their entitlement, while others received more. The Committee will tease that matter out with officials.

I wonder whether the Committee can obtain a copy of the changes to teacher education that the Department has considered in the past and an explanation of why those proposals were not implemented. That information could give the Committee an idea of the thinking between 2002 and 2004. I reassure you — and you should reassure your members — that any relevant information should be forwarded to the Committee. It is an open review that is examining all forms of teacher education. I hope that our report will represent a holistic approach to teacher education. The proposed funding model is disputed. The Committee wrote to the Minister about issues raised by St Mary’s on the conversion funding and the shortfall. We have received an answer, and will forward it to St Mary’s for a formal response.

Since I have become Chairperson, the University and College Union and the trade unions have been open and helpful in enabling the Committee to receive the relevant information, regardless of the inquiry or work — I thank you for that. I hope that the information supplied by the Minister reassures you and your members. The proposed merger requires legislation, and the Committee is reviewing teacher education. We are under the impression that there will be no proposed merger — I say “proposed merger” because, as far as I am aware, no business case has been submitted to the Department — in time for the next academic year.

Mr McKeown:
It is helpful to know that, but that is certainly not the impression among the staff in Stranmillis. Every day, they are bumping into people from Queen’s with tape measures and quantity surveyors’ tools measuring and auditing every stick of furniture in the place.

Dr Denise Mitchell (University and College Union):
That is true. There have been surveyors going up and down the corridors and into people’s offices, measuring up. It has been happening for the last few months. Although we hope that the merger will not go through, realistically speaking, it seems probable. The majority of staff in Stranmillis are not in favour of the merger; in many ways, it is being imposed upon us for a variety of reasons.

The lack of negotiation and consultation has been mentioned. As staff, we feel that we are not involved in the negotiation process. There is one main project implementation group and several subgroups. None of those subgroups have any staff other than middle or senior managers on them. It has not been agreed to have union representation on any of the subgroups; therefore, as far as the unions are concerned, no one on those groups is making the case for the majority of the staff.

There is a merger website on our intranet, which has the minutes of various meetings uploaded to it, as well as various pieces of information about the merger. To date, very few minutes from any meetings of the implementation groups have been uploaded. Various groups have probably had a couple of meetings since June, but we are not being kept aware of what is happening in those groups and what issues are being discussed. We are hearing things through gossip and hearsay from some people who feed little bits of information to their departments, so in that way we hear some of the issues that are being discussed, but we feel that the staff are being kept out of the loop.

Last Thursday, the vice chancellor of Queen’s was invited to a meeting. Staff were asked in advance by the project communications manager to submit questions to be asked anonymously, on our behalf. The reason for the anonymity is that it is difficult, as a member of staff, to stand up and ask controversial questions given that, in a year’s time, Queen’s could become our employer. Several of our members, as well as other staff members, submitted questions; however, on the day, few of those questions were actually asked.

The whole college was invited to the meeting, and we had a group of students there who were very good and asked many questions, so that took over the meeting, more or less. We felt that our questions were not being answered. We want detail, but we are not getting it. We are being told that the detail stage has not been reached yet, but we suspect that detail is being planned but we are not getting access to information about it. As a staff, we are very unhappy with the situation.

Mr Kevin McAdam (Unite):
There is a general feeling in Stranmillis that, frankly, it is not a merger; it is a takeover. We feel that representatives of Queen’s are telling the college how things are going to happen, to the extent that the registrar is not talking to the trade unions from a negotiating stance, but is telling them that management will consult when they deem fit. They are also saying that there is no need or requirement for trade union representation on any of the committees, including the human resources one.

Therefore, there is a fear — I think that that is the best way of putting it — in the college that it is a takeover, and that we will be told what is happening to us when it happens. That is not what the trade unions either expect or are used to in relation to higher education consultation and negotiations.

Mr McKeown:
The UCU represents the lecturing staff both in Queen’s and in Stranmillis. Our members in Stranmillis are being told by senior people that their future role is likely to be that of “teaching fellow” in Stranmillis. No one has told the union about that. We have sought to enter into detailed negotiations with management at Queen’s and Stranmillis, but we keep getting the brush-off — you have seen the correspondence.

Our members who teach in Stranmillis have been put through a higher education role analysis — a national job-evaluation scheme — and that scheme has graded them as lecturers. When our members move into Queen’s, we will not accept their being called anything other than lecturers. Nevertheless, a climate is being created: because they are not involved in research, or have no research background, they could, somehow or other, be shunted into a cul-de-sac with teaching-only personnel and given the title of “teaching fellow”. We are not happy with that situation, and we will oppose it. It will marginalise the staff in Stranmillis and have a detrimental affect on future career prospects. It is just not on. Those people have gone though a national job-evaluation scheme that says that they are lecturers, so that is what they are.

Mr Newton:
One of the benefits of being Chairperson is that one gets to ask all the questions before anyone else. I have three simple points.

Denise said that the majority of staff are not in favour of the change, and that the students asked the questions that she had wanted to ask. The students from the National Union of Students - Union of Students in Ireland and Stranmillis students’ union, while laying out their case were, at the end of the day, quite enthusiastic about the potential merger between Queen’s and Stranmillis.

Mr McKeown referred to the status of the lecturer in Stranmillis and the status of the lecturer in Queen’s. Is that not a strong argument for continuous professional development to be implemented in Queen’s or St Mary’s? Your position on the demographic trend and the demand for teachers stands in stark contrast to the position that others have outlined. You seem to be bucking the trend. Why should your analysis be more acceptable than the analysis laid out by other professional bodies?

Mr McKeown:
Professor Bob Osborne from the University of Ulster recently published a detailed study of the issue of demographic decline in Northern Ireland. He supports the argument that women now tend to have babies later in life, and that is why, during the early years of this decade, the birth rate was declining significantly. However, Professor Obsorne’s evidence, and other statistical evidence from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), shows that that blip has now passed and that the birth rate is increasing and will increase significantly.

The arguments from the other sources may be valid. However, why not have a proper analysis of the information available in the public domain so that we can all judge for ourselves, rather than base the decision on the funding of St Mary’s on that assumption?

Dr Mitchell:
At most, students spend four years at college — in a way, they are travelling through. Perhaps they see that a merger with Queen’s would provide them with wider benefits, and perhaps they see more status being attached to their degrees as a result.

However, as has been said, staff fear that there will be a takeover. We are worried about our jobs and what will happen when our site is invaded by Queen’s lecturers. We are also worried about what will happen to the ethos of the organisation: St Mary’s has its ethos and so, too, does Stranmillis. Staff feel that we will lose that ethos if the merger goes ahead. We also worry about whether teachers will have to go down to Queen’s to teach their subjects, thereby moving out of the area in which they want to work — the Stranmillis campus.

As a union, we also represent non-teaching staff, and some non-teaching staff have already been more or less told that they can be slotted in at Queen’s. They, too, fear that they will have to move down to Queen’s and work outside the college. We are a very happy staff, and we work very well together. There is always a fear of something new and different. As Mr McKeown said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We do not feel that Stranmillis is broken. Mr McKeown mentioned funding, and that is one of the issues that have been used to justify the proposed merger with Queen’s.

Mr Newton:
How can you confirm that the majority of staff are not in favour of the proposals?

Dr Mitchell:
As secretary of the union, I have staff emailing me and talking to me daily about the situation. Branch meetings are held, and, at the last meeting in June — which most of the membership attended — the feeling was that they were not happy about the proposals.

Mr McAdam:
That feeling is reflected in other trade unions. It is certainly the case from Unite’s perspective.

Mrs McGill:
I declare an interest in both colleges, having attended them both in the past.

I am a bit surprised that representatives of the various unions are having such difficulty in getting their voice heard on the various committees. Dr Mitchell, you talked in particular about the subgroups, and you said that the students had been able to make their case at a recent meeting. However, given that all those different meetings are being held, I am surprised that the unions are not able to assert their position. Why is that? Why can unions not say what is happening, whatever the future holds? I cannot understand why their role is not established and accepted by the different boards of governors.

Mr Tom Gillen (Irish Congress of Trade Unions):
I come from the broader community; I represent the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. There is an issue with trade unions in broader society. A long time ago, trade unions were very popular and were needed, and their efforts to promote the advantages of civil society were welcomed. We felt included and were represented on a whole range of public bodies, for example, the harbour authorities and the hospitals — we think we might be gaining some advantage there again, and the Minister recognises that people who represent workers should really be included. Do not forget that we are providers and users of services; for example, we provide education, and we use education services.

Mr McKeown mentioned the Civil Service; I am concerned about the current ethos in governance. This is where you need to take yourselves really seriously and why we need an Executive to lead us on issues as important as this one. It is not that unions do not want to put views forward; rather, it is that management is allowed to ignore them.

The Committee has a responsibility, because we are talking about the provision of teachers in the community. I was involved in the early stages of the merger of Magee University College and the polytechnic at Jordanstown to establish the University of Ulster, and the polytechnic took over. Mergers create severe bitterness and, from them, evolve a hierarchy that we must cut through. Furthermore, we must establish the fact that the two colleges, which award accredited degrees, meet a need in the community and that that should be maintained.

There is an onus on the Committee to ensure that management engages with the unions. I am new to this, but I am disturbed and amazed to hear that the questions that are being asked are being ignored. The students are important, but you can help the unions by encouraging management to engage more fully.

Mrs McGill:
That would be important. As Dr Mitchell said, the merger will probably happen. If the staff are as unhappy as you say they are, the unions must have a role; they must be listened to. I am not saying that everyone has to agree with your view, but I accept what Mr Gillen said. Perhaps I should not say this, but the Committee should enquire about the role of the unions — whatever the future holds. The role of the unions should be strengthened, particularly in respect of the committees that were mentioned. One expects union involvement in any negotiations or discussions with management, as a matter of courtesy.

Mr McKeown mentioned the pupil:teacher ratio. That area must be explored. For years, we were told that classes were too big and that teachers could not cope. We have the opportunity to explore a better ratio.

I am concerned that the direction appears to be towards the delivery of teacher training at one centre. That would be outrageous. I want St Mary’s to be retained. You mentioned the contribution that it makes to the community and teacher education, and we have heard that a number of times. Stranmillis and St Mary’s have their own identities, and that has been well articulated in all of the discussions. I am concerned about the situation. The pupil:teacher ratio must be examined, and some papers should be produced on the value of reducing it.

Ms Deirdre Loughran (University and College Union):
The management style in St Mary’s is the opposite of that which has been described in Stranmillis. I am the UCU secretary in the college, and the chairman and I are consulted constantly about what is happening. We are asked whether we think that something will be a problem and how we feel about certain issues.

Just before our principal was appointed permanently, when the uncertainty was at its height, he called a meeting of the college staff — the canteen staff, lecturing staff and support staff. He addressed us in the assembly hall, gave us the information that he had and opened the floor up for questions. We did not have to submit questions before the meeting, so they were not vetted. He gave us as much time as was required to answer all the questions, and we felt that he answered them in as full and honest a way as he could — if he did not have the answers, he said that he was as unsure as we were. It is important that that excellent management style of communication with the unions be made apparent.

Mrs McGill:
That answers some of my concerns. That is how the process should be — if that can happen in one college, it should happen in all colleges.

Mr McKeown:
We assume that the merger will take place, because the governing body of Stranmillis University College voted for it in April. We cannot explain the failure of Queen’s and Stranmillis to engage in negotiations — we want those negotiations, we need those negotiations and we have legal rights to negotiations, of which we are all too aware.

Mr Hilditch:
I do not believe in mergers — from my experience in life, the lesser partner always loses out. In their evidence to the Committee two weeks ago, students’ union representatives from Stranmillis University College criticised the project implementation group, and its membership was not made clear. That group has received further criticism today. Who sits on the project implementation group?

The Committee Clerk:
We have that information, and I will circulate it.

Mr Hilditch:
That is good, because I have not seen it.

The Chairperson:
It is my role as Chairperson to sum up what is said in Committee meetings and try to find a way forward on certain issues. In regard to the ongoing work on the perceived merger, I suggest that the Committee write to the Minister, because, although it seems that work on the merger is progressing, the Minister is sending us letters saying that legislation is required. It seems as if fate will step in.

I accept Tom Gillen’s point about civil servants; he can rest assured that civil servants do not control me or any member of the Committee. Therefore, I suggest that we write to the Minister and include some of the queries that Dr Mitchell mentioned. We should also write to Stranmillis about engagement with the unions, as Claire McGill said.

Mr Easton:
Would it be worth writing to Queen’s to say that the merger is not definitely happening; that any final decision on it has to go through the Committee; that it requires legislation; and that, if it does happen, it will involve a partnership approach, rather than one body dictating the agenda?

The Chairperson:
I am all into partnership approaches.

Mr Easton:
So we will see you at the Executive meeting on Thursday? [Laughter.]

The Chaiperson:
It depends who is dictating the agenda. [Laughter.] I agree that we should write to Queen’s. Are Committee members in agreement?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
We have an open and honest relationship with the unions, so we will copy them into that letter and any responses that we receive. We do not want to hide any information from them. I thank all the witnesses for their presentations. Mr McKeown, there is an open-door policy here, so if you have any information that you think that the Committee should have, feel free to contact us.

The Chairperson:
I welcome Ms Pam Tilson and Mr Paul Parsons from the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). Pam forwarded a paper to the Committee, which highlights the fact that no provision exists for sign-language tutors to qualify as teachers. The Committee Clerk and I agreed that today’s briefing should form part of the Committee’s review of teacher education. Pam’s paper sets out CACDP’s background and its position on the issues that we are discussing today.

I ask Pam to make her presentation, after which members will have an opportunity to ask questions.

Ms Pam Tilson (Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People):
Thank you, Chairperson, and good morning. We appreciate being given the opportunity to speak to the Committee today. I will begin the presentation, and then I will hand over to Paul Parsons, after which we will be happy to answer questions.

The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP) recognises that its particular concern is outside the original remit of the Committee’s inquiry into teacher education. We are pleased that the Committee has agreed to broaden the scope of the inquiry so that we can tell members about issues of concern that we have in relation to teacher training.

It is important at the outset to spell out that CACDP’s remit does not allow it to undertake teacher training. CACDP is a professional awarding body for qualifications in British Sign Language (BSL) and International Sign Language (ISL), as well as other qualifications for working with deaf people, such as lip-speaking and electronic note taking. CACDP is also the professional registration body for sign-language interpreters.

CACDP can support tutors on its courses by providing curriculum training and by managing the assessments that are required in order to gain a CACDP qualification. However, it cannot train teachers or offer a professional qualification to teach in further education.

There are approximately 30 tutors in Northern Ireland, most of whom are deaf people. Some tutors have full-time jobs, and teach one night a week in a local college. Others travel round, teaching anywhere and everywhere to get enough work to earn a full-time living. The tutors are mainly self-employed. All those deaf tutors are committed to helping people who wish to learn their language in an effort to communicate better with other deaf people.

Without the tutors, CACDP cannot help people who wish to become registered interpreters. That is why, in June 2008, when the Department for Employment and Learning announced funding of £1·3 million over the next couple of years to increase the number of interpreters, it included money to increase the number of tutors available to teach hearing people who wish to become interpreters.

In order to increase tutor numbers, tutors must be given the opportunity to build careers as teachers and to be treated as professionals in their work environment. If that is to happen, they must be given the opportunity to gain a professional teaching qualification that will allow them to teach in further education. They must be given the opportunity to access that qualification in BSL — their first and, often, only language.

A detailed survey of all tutors on CACDP courses last summer revealed some startling statistics. It showed that, throughout the UK, approximately 45% of deaf tutors had some sort of formal teaching qualification. Despite that, however, it also revealed that no deaf tutors in Northern Ireland had a current teaching qualification. There are a couple of tutors — who are now approaching retirement age — who undertook a qualification in England back in the 1980s, but there are no tutors in Northern Ireland in possession of a current qualification to teach in further or higher education.

That lack of current qualifications affects their status in colleges also. A couple of tutors who teach for more than 15 hours a week each at Belfast Metropolitan College recently applied for associate lecturer status, but were unable to obtain it due to their lack of formal teaching qualifications. Those two tutors have over 40 years of teaching experience between them, but, because they never had access to a formal teaching qualification, they are paid less than teachers on other courses who work similar hours. They experience all the uncertainties that are attached to self-employment, and they feel the impact of their situation on issues such as pensions and employment rights.

The survey also revealed that the age profile of tutors is rising. Twenty years ago, deaf people might have thought that teaching BSL was one of the few available routes to employment. It is indicative of how society has moved on that that is no longer the case and that, given the right communications support, deaf people can, and do, work in all areas of life. That is obviously a good thing, but it highlights for CACDP the need to develop a new model for people who teach BSL and ISL that will produce a cohort of professionally trained and qualified teachers who are treated as professionals in their field because they have the same qualifications as anyone else who teaches in further education.

That will only happen if that qualification is available in BSL form and taught by BSL users. Previous attempts by some tutors to obtain City and Guilds qualifications — in a class with hearing students and with communication support — have proved expensive and unsatisfactory from the deaf tutors’ point of view. Imagine if you were trying to obtain a teaching qualification in a class that was delivered in German or Spanish. Even with good linguistic skills, you would probably struggle. It is much more sensible, for education and financial purposes, to teach deaf tutors using BSL, thereby giving students the opportunity to gain a teaching qualification in their own language.

When delivering its report to the Assembly, the Committee should recommend that steps are taken to provide for the development of tutors who wish to access a formal teaching qualification. That would go a long way towards putting deaf tutors who teach in further education on an equal professional footing with other further education lecturers. It would also help to create a pool of qualified tutors who can teach and develop badly needed interpreters.

Mr Paul Parsons (Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People):
It is worth considering the impact that the lack of formally qualified teachers has on deaf learners. Deaf students of all ages across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, achieve a little over half the level of educational attainment of their hearing counterparts. The ‘Must Do Better’ report from The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) contained a survey of parents that found:

“Only 3% said their child’s communication worker had a qualification in sign language that was higher than GCSE level.”

That is nowhere near adequate.

There are too few communication support workers for schools, colleges and universities. The number of training places available for professionals who support deaf learners in learning situations is dependent on CACDP’s ability to teach them British Sign Language. That, in turn, is dependent on the availability of deaf teachers. Therefore, because deaf teachers have limited access to training, a vicious cycle develops. However, the right intervention can break that cycle. The good thing is that breaking that cycle becomes self-perpetuating, and deaf people become the agents of their own inclusion in education. At present, there is a good opportunity to do something about that. I hope that we are able to intervene positively for the future.

The Chairperson:
Thank you both for that presentation. I have a comment and a quick question. The question first: are you saying that none of our universities or higher education institutions provides the resources that lead to a teaching qualification for deaf tutors?

Ms Tilson:
There is currently no provision at all here for deaf tutors who want to gain a teaching qualification using BSL. Plenty of institutions provide City and Guilds qualifications, but not through the medium of BSL. In order to take the course, a deaf tutor must have communication support on that course — interpreters, speech and text reporters and so on. Even then, the people who have tried to take that route have found it difficult. It would be much more educationally satisfactory, and make more economic sense, to provide a course taught by tutors who use BSL. That would enable students to use their own language in order to gain the qualification.

It must be borne in mind that tutors who gain a formal qualification to teach in further education may not necessarily go on to teach BSL. They might choose to teach mechanics, engineering, hairdressing or whatever. The issue is that deaf people who want to teach in further and higher education have no route by which to gain the formal qualification that they need in order to teach.

The Chairperson:
My comment concerns a Department for Employment and Learning press released that was issued after the Minister attended an event held by CACDP last week. It has been mentioned that £1·3 million in funding was secured in the comprehensive spending review. The press release states that:

“Deaf tutors who teach the language will also benefit from a programme of training in the higher levels of the language and relevant teaching qualifications and support.”

Where does that fit? Several Committee members have campaigned long and hard for more money for the deaf sector. If the Minister is saying one thing and you say another, how can such conflicting statements be merged?

Mr Parsons:
I will elaborate on a previous point by way of illustration. Among the issues to be dealt with is the problem that, although support can be provided for deaf individuals to undertake individual courses, students in a class automatically provide a support network for each other for dealing with homework, assignments and so forth. A deaf person immediately misses out on such support if he or she is the only person in the class who uses British Sign Language. Providing long-term access for individuals would be a really positive step forward in bringing together a cohort of deaf people to kick-start teacher education in BSL.

At present, no institution in Northern Ireland is delivering teaching qualifications through the medium of BSL. A specialised course should be delivered to create a cohort of people with those qualifications to support those who are studying for them. Perhaps through working with one of the universities, specialists, a few of whom exist, could deliver teaching qualifications in BSL directly to a cohort of sign-language users. That would be a good use of the money that the Minister announced.

The Chairperson:
I am slightly confused. The Minister announced an additional £1·3 million, which is a considerable amount. The Department states that the money will enable it to work with “key stakeholders” to:

“improve access to training courses for interpreting students, who traditionally have had to travel to England to learn their craft.”

Mr Parsons:
That applies to interpreters.

The Chairperson:
Yes, but the Department’s press release goes on to mention “language and relevant teaching qualifications”. People welcomed the announcement that that money was being made available, but is there some confusion about the purpose for which the Department intends the money? How do you envisage it being used?

Mr Parsons:
An element of clarity is required throughout the programme. We will work closely with officials and offer advice on how the money should be spent.

The Chairperson:
The Committee will seek that clarity, because there is genuine confusion — and I am not being critical — about where the money will go. It strikes me that none of the teacher-training institutions regard that as an issue. I repeat that because today’s meeting is being recorded, and representatives of some of those institutions are sitting in the Public Gallery.

Mr Newton:
I too welcome Pam and Paul. I am also slightly confused about the situation. Perhaps the confusion lies in the assertion in your submission, which says:

“No deaf tutor in Northern Ireland has the current qualification (the City and Guilds 7303).”

I would not previously have thought that it would be a huge problem to attain that qualification, but perhaps I am wrong about that.

What might a registered deaf student who moves on to further or higher education expect from tutorials, and so forth?

Mr Parsons:
Are you asking me what language support he or she would receive?

Mr Newton:
Yes.

Mr Parsons:
That is where the costs of access come into play. An hour’s lecture often requires two interpreters to support each other, and they need the appropriate technical knowledge and background. Therefore, the cost of their preparatory work must also be paid. A student who uses BSL is unable to look at a page and write notes, because he or she must watch the interpreters. Therefore, a note-taker is also required. The ideal support for a student comprises two interpreters and a note-taker. He or she can thereby leave the classroom having “listened” to the lecture and with the notes that would normally have been taken in that time, albeit someone else has taken them.

Mr Newton:
If that is the ideal situation, what is the norm?

Mr Parsons:
Pam will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that there are 11 qualified interpreters in Northern Ireland. According to the figures that the Minister used at the weekend, 5,000 deaf people in Northern Ireland use British Sign Language.

The money that has been announced will go a long way towards increasing the number of interpreters. Those interpreters are needed everywhere. They are needed, for example, each time a deaf person goes to the doctor, to a meeting at work, to a job centre or to resolve a banking matter. We could easily use 11 interpreters in each of the universities or higher education institutions here for the number of deaf students who want to learn. Often the intent to provide that support exists, but the professionals are not available to support the students as they learn, and that creates a cycle.

Mr Newton:
Therefore, if a registered deaf person arrives at Queen’s University, for example, presumably he or she would speak to the university about his or her needs, such as the reporting of the classes and tutorials that he or she will attend. Is the likelihood of that person getting the necessary support minimal?

Mr Parsons:
Yes. I return to the cycle to which I referred: not enough qualified deaf people are teaching language skills at higher levels because they do not have access to teaching qualifications, and, therefore, they cannot teach the support workers that others need in classrooms and lecture halls. Therefore, because those communication support workers are not available, people cannot access the training courses in order to teach more.

That situation is not unique to Northern Ireland, but it is a rather desperate and self-perpetuating situation for deaf learners, and it results in their achieving less than half of that which their hearing counterparts achieve.

Mr Newton:
How many registered deaf further and higher education students does that situation affect in Northern Ireland?

Ms Tilson:
That I do not know. The issue is that there are not enough interpreters who can work in the system in order to help deaf students. There are not enough interpreters because there are no tutors who are qualified to teach them. There are no deaf tutors with teaching qualifications who can teach at levels 3 and 4, in which people must be skilled in order to become interpreters. That circle must be broken because, unless there are tutors to teach interpreters, there will be no interpreters in the system to ensure that deaf students get the communication support that they need in order to complete their courses.

Paul quoted figures about the underachievement of deaf learners, but that cycle could be broken by putting more interpreters into the system in order to provide support for deaf students. However, that can happen only if there are deaf tutors teaching the language.

Mr Newton:
However, one needs to know how many students are affected. Is it 100 people or 1,000 people?

Mr Parsons:
In that age range, it is roughly one in every thousand of the general population. Therefore, if we know how many people are in further and higher education in Northern Ireland, we could quickly extrapolate that figure.

It is not an insignificant number when one considers deaf students as a group. It is probably not hugely significant when one considers how many students go through the door of each academic establishment. A normal-size university would probably deal with five students a year who have those types of communication support requirements. One ends up with a situation whereby a student who is on a course that has a number of options must choose classes when an interpreter is available, rather than the classes that they wish to attend. That should be avoided if at all possible.

Ms Tilson:
If an institution such as Queen’s University has five deaf students, and there are only 11 registered interpreters, and a deaf student requires two interpreters each time he or she attends a class, where are the interpreters who are needed for hospital, solicitor or court appointments?

Until there are more tutors who have teaching qualifications and can teach interpreters, there will not be enough interpreters in the system to square that circle.

Mrs McGill:
Could St Mary’s and Stranmillis colleges play a role in that type of teacher training?

Ms Tilson:
Traditionally, they have not been involved in training teachers for the further education system, which provides most of the BSL and ISL teaching. They could have a role, but, traditionally, most of the courses are taught in further and higher education institutions. Most people who wish to gain a teaching qualification to teach in further and higher education get the City and Guilds qualification via their local college.

Mrs McGill:
I know that, but I am just making the point that there are two established teacher-training institutions that have records for quality. I know that they focus on primary and secondary schools, but I wonder — given the difficulties that both of those colleges are experiencing — whether it is possible that either, or both, of those colleges could diversify and provide some sort of course. Clearly both colleges are well qualified to teach those who wish to become tutors.

Mr Newton:
It could be classed as continuing professional development.

Mrs McGill:
That is a key point. I do not know whether you are aware of the importance of the point that the Deputy Chairperson, Mr Newton, has made.

Mr Parsons:
It is a very welcome development that, at the moment, many more schools want to teach BSL and ISL as part of their general curricula. However, it is a struggle for us, because those schools may not have any teachers who are qualified to teach those languages. They will, under supervision, accept other experienced teachers who do not have the qualifications to teach in schools, but we are now at the stage at which it is becoming very difficult to find teachers to teach in those settings. Our job, as a charity, is to encourage more people to learn sign languages; we encourage better communication with deaf people. However, in Northern Ireland, we are getting to the stage where the available teachers have reached their capacity. If a system could be developed that would encourage others to teach sign languages, it would be very welcome.

Ms Tilson:
That refers back to what I said about changing the model of tutors who teach BSL and ISL. At the moment there is a cohort of teachers, many of whom have full-time jobs and are happy to teach, perhaps one night a week, at their local further education college. There are also a few tutors who are teaching in schools during the day and, perhaps, teaching at their local further education college at night in order to make a full-time living from it. The only reason why those people are able to make a living is that they are prepared to travel and, perhaps, teach four or five nights a week in local further education colleges and teach in schools in the mornings and afternoons. That model should be changed, so that people could attain formal teaching qualifications and become full-time teachers in further education and, thus, receive all the benefits of that, such as employment rights and pensions, rather than trying to make a living as self-employed tutors, teaching in four or five different colleges on different nights.

Mrs McGill:
There are two established institutions that have capacity, and there is a need in this sector. There can, perhaps, be some exploration of that issue.

The Chairperson:
The Committee will report on the issue, and we will have a blank canvas. The fact that things happened in the past does not necessarily make them right or wrong. The Committee will be examining all those issues.

No other Members have indicated that they wish to ask questions. Pam and Paul, I would like to thank you for your presentations today. I also want to thank you for being proactive in spotting that this review was happening and giving the Committee another avenue to examine. If you feel that the Committee requires additional information, please feel free to provide it.

The Committee will attempt to gain clarity from the Department on the issue of the additional £1·3 million for the provision of deaf tutors, because I am confused about what it is supposed to achieve. Once the Committee receives that information, we will be in touch with you.

Ms Tilson:
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk to the Committee.

Mr Newton:
I would like to comment on the issue of deaf tutors in Northern Ireland and the City and Guilds qualification. I am aware from previous work experience that the City and Guilds examining body can employ peripatetic tutors to provide the necessary coaching and build a portfolio of evidence et cetera. Therefore, I do not see why teaching in BSL should be an insurmountable problem. Can the Committee contact City and Guilds try to ascertain why there are no qualified tutors? I know that that organisation would be keen to sell its services and to enable people to attain those qualifications.

The Chairperson:
The Committee will investigate that matter.

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