Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Review of Teacher Education

24 September 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Paul Butler
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr Willian Irwin
Ms Anna Lo

Witnesses:
Mr Peter Finn ) St Mary’s University College
Mr Brian McFall )

The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):
Members will be interested to hear the updated briefing from St Mary’s University College, because the proposed merger between Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University was announced after today’s witnesses appeared before the Committee a few months ago.

Professor Peter Finn (St Mary’s University College):
Good morning. I am Professor Peter Finn, principal of St Mary’s University College, and my colleague is Brian McFall, director of finance. We will make two short presentations. As with any good teacher, some handouts are required in order to focus the mind, so I have circulated two handouts. If time permits, I will be pleased to take members on a short guided tour of the campus after the meeting.

The trustees, governors and staff of St Mary’s University College wish to thank the Committee for agreeing to have this meeting at our campus. The matter under consideration is the future of teacher education. To set the proceedings in somewhat of an historical context, St Mary’s is this week enrolling student teachers for the one hundred and ninth year in succession. Members may wish to look at the first enrolment book, from 1900, and the first cash book, because the first entry is student fees of £500. We have come full circle to the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Teacher education is at the heart of this college’s work. It always has been, and it always will be. For that reason, we are pleased — indeed, reassured — that the elected Members of the Assembly are showing such an interest in the future of teacher training, and in the important issues that are influencing the pattern of its provision.

Teacher education at St Mary’s is based on a particular model of provision, one which, we believe, delivers best practice. It is defined by the college’s status as an autonomous and specialist institution of higher education with a distinctive vision, mission and ethos. The college promotes a tradition of education that emphasises a person-centred approach, is inclusive and is rooted in the gospel values of respect for life, love, solidarity, truth and justice.

At the same time, we are committed to working in partnership with the other providers of teacher education. The model is not, of course, unique to St Mary’s. Our college shares its academic characteristics with similar colleges in Dublin, Limerick, London and Birmingham, as well as in other parts of Europe — Belgium being a good example.

At a time of great change in education generally, we recognise and respect the decision which has been made by the governors of our sister college at Stranmillis to seek a merger with Queen’s University. We recognise that such a merger follows the practice that occurred in Scotland in the 1990s.

The trustees and governors of St Mary’s are, however, resolved to protect and nurture the model of autonomy and the continued good practice of academic integration — but not merger — with Queen’s University. In that way, the college is assured that there will be no academic isolation, just as is the case, for example, at St Patrick’s College, Dublin, through its relationship with Dublin City University, and the Church of Ireland College of Education in Dublin through its relationship with the University of Dublin.

We briefed the Committee on 16 April, when we provided an overview of the issues affecting teacher education generally, and St Mary’s in particular. In submitting our opinions and views to your review, I suggest that elements of our presentation of 16 April be included in the evidence to be considered as you work to produce a report and recommendations to the Minister for Employment and Learning (DEL).

The elements to which I specifically refer are the key institutional characteristics of St Mary’s, our performance indicators, our views on the cost of teacher education, and our concluding comment — with the notable exception of the final sentence, as we now believe that, following significant developments in June 2008, the new funding model does not threaten our very existence. That is a substantial change.

On 16 April, we raised concerns about the viability of St Mary’s. Those concerns arose from a decision by the Minister to restrict total student numbers on the diversified or liberal arts degree to 260 at the same time as introducing a new funding model when student teacher numbers were falling. Following the briefing on 16 April, there was a considerable amount of discussion, dialogue, questioning and meetings around those and allied issues. All that activity was very necessary.

I commend those from various political parties and backgrounds who helped St Mary’s to communicate its case. I am happy to report that Sir Reg Empey, Minister for Employment and Learning, and his officials listened to our concerns and took them on board. During an Assembly debate about Stranmillis and St Mary’s University College on 23 June, he said:

“the colleges should be given the breathing space that the Committee members are keen to provide and for which I accept that there is a requirement.” — [Official Report, Vol 32, No 1, p16, col 1].

St Mary’s supports the Minister’s position unequivocally and commends him and his officials for facilitating that breathing space.

What significant developments after 16 April enabled us to view the new funding model with less concern? The key feature of the new funding model is that it is responsive to student numbers. Student numbers are, therefore, critical to the effective financial management of the college’s business. On 23 June, Sir Reg Empey announced several changes, which he said provided:

“a stable platform to work out a way forward.” — [Official Report, Vol 32, No 1, p15, col 1].

For the academic year 2008-09, he decided that the college could enrol its current number of diversified students, which is 286. He reached an agreement with the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, on a revised number of student teachers for entry in September 2008, and, in recognition of a period of change, he agreed to a conversion arrangement in which resources are made available to the college to help it bridge the funding gap.

We agree with the Minister that the college and the Department now have a clear vision of the way forward — to concentrate on teacher education. On 23 June, the Minister said:

“we have a solution that will provide stability for the period ahead and still meet the Department’s ambitions to move to a new funding model.” — [Official Report, Vol 32, No 1, p15, col 1].

He was correct, and within that period of stability — or breathing space — the long-term sustainability of the college must be secured.

What is the way forward for the college? As I said earlier, St Mary’s will not seek a merger but will continue to develop the autonomous and specialist model that preserves its distinctive educational vision, mission and ethos. I stress, however, that autonomy is not synonymous with academic isolation. In many ways, St Mary’s is interconnected with the wider family of higher education — and teacher education in particular — locally, nationally and internationally. For example, St Mary’s is an active member of the Higher Education Academy and the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers. We are a learning organisation, committed to rigorous quality assurance and ongoing enhancement of provision.

We recognise that these are testing times for small, specialist teacher-education institutions in Ireland, the United Kingdom and further afield. However, St Mary’s is determined to manage any necessary change effectively and to make the most efficient use of the resources that we obtain from the Government. St Mary’s has already paid a heavy price for the conversion from historical to unit-based funding, and has significantly reduced pay and non-pay costs in 2008. However, we are fortunate to have a skilled and committed workforce, a student body that is loyal to the institution and a range of influential external stakeholders who support the college.

The fundamental priority is to ensure that initial teacher education continues to be of the highest quality. We can hold our head high and state, without fear of contradiction, that we pass that test. I have produced a table that signposts the institution’s high quality, including its core business of teacher education. I have circulated that table, and I will highlight some of its features.

First we have the hard performance indicators, which are the published indicators that are measured by external organisations — including Queen’s University, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and so on. Those indicators are in the public domain and are a record of our performance. Then there are the equally important but softer performance indicators — things that are difficult to measure but are clear indicators of quality — and some examples of community usage, because we believe that a publicly funded organisation should be open to the citizens of the country.

St Mary’s University College is a very high-performing institution in the following: student satisfaction levels; participation rates; ranking in the ‘Guardian’ higher education league tables for our core area of education; quality of entry as expressed in tariff points; employment record; the extent to which our students are open to studying abroad in America and Europe; the QAA score for the Masters degree, and the percentage of students that we retain. The hard performance indicators are available for anyone to check.

The softer performance indicators are also important, because a quality institution does not just perform against the stated performance indicators; it has quality built into what it does. For example, we enjoy excellent relationships with over 300 partner schools, and there is much innovation in the curriculum and the interface between teacher education and school education. We are involved in two projects in particular; one with Queen’s University on primary science, and the other funded by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Those are excellent examples of good practice whereby teacher educators work with schools to develop children’s education.

We have a specialist interest in the global dimension of education, which has social justice at its core. We are working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Notre Dame on a forgiveness education programme that is particularly relevant to this society. The college has a strong international dimension.

Irish-medium education in the college is of the highest level, as is the framework for literacy, numeracy and special educational needs in our bachelor of education programme. The college has a royal literary fellow who works with our students on site and at Queen’s University. We recently submitted a bid to the PSNI to train its officers in citizenship and safety education for Irish-medium schools. The college has an outstanding centre for excellence in teaching and learning analytical writing.

In terms of outreach to the community, members may be aware of the outstanding school for GCSE mathematics that is held in the college at Easter under the auspices of the West Belfast Partnership Board, and we also facilitate the Clonard/Fitzroy fellowship, which is critical to interdenominational dialogue. We liaise with organisations on health screening, tourism, the West Belfast Festival, alternative education and outreach to schools, and in many other areas.

That was a brief overview of the quality of the college. If a quality institution and quality provision of teacher education are the college’s number one priority, the quality is clear to see.

The second priority is to ensure that the college is financially sustainable. We have decided to commission a review of our strategic options within the existing academic model. With the support of DEL, that will set our road map for viability. That road map is likely to include several elements. The college must receive a sufficient allocation of initial-teacher-education places from the Department of Education’s teacher demand model. Academic diversification must continue, and in our case that means liberal arts. However, importantly — and based on the views of the Department and the Minister — the proportion of diversified students must reflect our concentration on teacher education and our specialist status as primarily an initial-teacher-education institution. For the Committee’s information, we currently operate at a diversification level of just over 30%, which is similar to those at St Patrick’s College in Dublin and Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.

Additional work is required on induction and on teachers’ early and continuous professional development. I suggest that the college might seek specialist status in Irish-medium teacher education at all levels. I should bring to the Committee’s attention the fact that St Mary’s presented the Department with a strategic report on its future in June 2007, and the forthcoming review will draw heavily on that.

Mr Brian McFall (St Mary’s University College):
My main objective, as director of finance, is to ensure that the college remains financially viable. It is in that context that I will make a number of points that will reinforce a lot of what Professor Finn said.

During our visit to the Committee in April, we said that the introduction of the proposed new funding model would have the potential to make the college financially unviable, and that was our main problem. That mechanism has now been introduced. All things being equal, the new mechanism could result in annual losses of over £1 million in the next three years.

The college is almost entirely dependent on student numbers. Some of those numbers are allocated by the Department of Education, and some — the liberal arts numbers — are allocated by DEL. If the numbers were to be reduced significantly, St Mary’s could become unviable. In that respect alone, little has changed since April. However, the Committee took a close interest in the issue, and progress has been made.

As Professor Finn said, we had a positive meeting with the Minister on 19 June. It was accepted by St Mary’s that teacher education would continue to be the primary function of the college. We are not seeking to become a mini university, and we believe that financial stability can be achieved without going down that route.

As Professor Finn said, the Minister decided to delay the proposed reduction in the number of liberal arts places by one year. That provided us with some additional short-term funds. He also confirmed that conversion funding would be provided for the next two years, so that we would not be financially stressed by the introduction of the new funding mechanism. Furthermore, he confirmed that funding would be made available to us to investigate our options and to look particularly at how we could have a role in the continuing professional development of teachers (CPD). The Minister also promised that he would speak to the Minister of Education on that issue and look into how we could get involved in CPD in the short term.

The meeting with the Minister was positive. We feel that there is a common understanding of the future direction of St Mary’s. We are also reassured that the Minister sees a continuing role for St Mary’s in the future of teacher education, because, as he said in the Assembly on 23 June, he has no intention of closing St Mary’s. From a financial point of view, that means that a certain amount of stability has been introduced. The Minister was able to give us some breathing space, and that has been useful.

However, a fundamental problem remains. If the number of students allocated to St Mary’s is reduced significantly, we will have serious problems. The challenge facing St Mary’s is to maximise student numbers and to seek alternative sources of income to provide financial stability, which is essential for the continued existence of the college.

The new funding model has been introduced; it is based on the English funding council’s model. Our teaching grant is now dependent on the number of students that we enrol. For each student that we enrol, we receive a unit of funding — around £6,600 for teacher education students, and slightly less than £4,000 for each liberal arts student. Those amounts are broadly in line with the units of funding used in England. Following the English approach, the units of funding also include a premium to take account of our small and specialist nature.

The Minister promised that the college would receive conversion funding this year and next year, and, consequently, we have been allocated £50,000 to alleviate the impact of the change in the funding arrangements. There has been a shortfall in funds between where we would have been and where we are now, so we have reduced our staff costs substantially by not replacing a number of posts and by making two permanent staff redundant. We accept that we are not immune to the economic realities, and we will continue to make efficiency savings as best we can.

The key to financial stability for St Mary’s is student numbers. We need a minimum of 150 BEd students per year to ensure our financial stability. Our information is that the teacher demand model used by the Department of Education suggests that that figure is realistic. We are not seeking to artificially inflate the number of student teachers being trained in Northern Ireland. We want simply to recruit the numbers predicted by the teacher demand model. It would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be in our interests to create an oversupply of teachers.

If the merger goes ahead between Stranmillis and Queen’s, the number of providers will be reduced from four to three. That might provide some room for manoeuvre for the Department of Education, but that is for it to decide when the time comes. If St Mary’s is to remain largely a provider of teacher education, then expansion into the CPD market — as Professor Finn said — is an obvious means of securing financial stability. A guaranteed role, with funding attached, would give St Mary’s that element of stability.

St Mary’s provides the primary Irish-medium sector with teachers, and it appears that there is some scope for expansion in that area. We also believe that there might be some scope for additional funding to be allocated to St Mary’s to take account of the fact that there are additional costs in respect of training teachers through the medium of Irish.

At the risk of repeating what we said to the Committee in April, and what Professor Finn has just said, I want to draw the Committee’s attention to some specific performance indicators. The performance indicators are published every year by HESA. Most of the data that we provide can be found on the Unistats website, which is owned by HEFCE.

The participation rate of lower-income families at St Mary’s is 52·4%, which is one of the best in the UK and easily the best in Northern Ireland. The overall dropout rate for the college stands at 12·1%, which is lower than the Northern Ireland average, the UK average and the figures for our two universities. The average A-level entry points for St Mary’s stands at 320, compared to the Queen’s average of 360, and the University of Ulster’s average at 280.

The Unistats website also shows the percentage figure for leavers with graduate jobs. The percentage of our leavers who gain graduate jobs is 90%, compared to 81% for Queen’s and 70 % for the University of Ulster. Professor Finn referred to the national student survey, which records the figures for student satisfaction. This year, St Mary’s achieved an overall satisfaction rate of 89%, compared to 86% for Queen’s and 81% for the University of Ulster. St Mary’s can demonstrate that it compares favourably to any other higher education institution.

According to the statistics published by HESA, our unit costs are lower than the UK average for teacher education, and we provided the Committee with the actual figures in April. Looking at academic, administrative and premises costs per student, our students cost less than those of other institutions, and less than the average. St Mary’s offers value for money. It delivers high quality at a relatively low cost.

St Mary’s has a distinctive ethos that is worth preserving: its role is to provide teachers for the Catholic sector. The quality of the academic provision at St Mary’s is not questioned, and the performance data is there for all to see. Professor Finn has referred to it and I have referred to it, and the Committee can go and look at it.

As regards attracting students from lower-income families, the college’s participation rates are outstanding. In addition, it contributes to the economy and to the infrastructure of west Belfast. It would be unthinkable to allow a college such as St Mary’s to close.

The Committee will be making recommendations as a result of its review, of which this presentation is a part, and we are asking you to consider our case. We are seeking your support for the continued existence of a viable and autonomous St Mary’s; we are asking for your support in pursuing funding for CPD; we are asking you to recommend continued conversion funding until new income streams are found; and we are asking you to consider recommending additional financial support for Irish-medium education. The Committee can also support the college by recommending that the number of liberal arts students not be cut from the present level of 286.

Professor Finn:
We will conclude by recognising the considerable progress that has been made on teacher education issues since we first briefed the Committee on 16 April 2008. That is to the credit of the scrutiny role that members of this Committee perform, and we have also made it clear that the Minister and his officials have been responsive to the concerns that were raised.

In collating and considering the opinions of those who are involved in, and affected by, changes in teacher education, St Mary’s requests that the Committee supports several propositions when making its recommendations. First, that the St Mary’s model of a specialist and autonomous provider of teacher education with a distinctive educational vision, mission and ethos will be sustained and enabled to co-exist and co-operate with the other models that exist in the university sector.

Secondly, the sustainability of St Mary’s will require continued support for academic diversification — operating at around the existing levels — as well as constructive engagement with the Minister of Education on facilitating new, funded work for the college in the induction of teachers and their early and continuous professional development. Thirdly, the expertise and experience of Irish-medium teacher education at St Mary’s will be extended to support the Irish-medium sector as a whole and will be resourced appropriately.

Brian and I have made the propositions clear. Were the Committee to endorse them, it would be endorsing a successful model of teacher education that has stood the test of time — 108 years at this site. It is a model that has applicability in other parts of Ireland, in England and in places such as Belgium, and it recognises the diversity of our shared society.

Secondly, the Committee would also be supporting the high-quality provision of teacher education in the English and Irish languages. Thirdly, the Committee would be recognising the benefits of a liberal arts degree for hundreds of students, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds, who are choosing the university college environment of St Mary’s as their preferred place of study.

Finally, the Committee would be protecting the interests of the local community in west Belfast, which places a high value on the college as an educational and cultural resource. I thank the Committee very much for listening to our views. I sincerely hope that our recommendations meet with the Committee’s support.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. For the information of members, we are taking a holistic approach to the teacher education review. We have been contacted by an organisation that promotes sign language, and we will be facilitating it to give a presentation about the shortage of sign-language teachers. As the Committee considers teacher education, members will be able to see that it is not simply a choice between one education provider and another — the issue affects other areas also.

Considering that St Mary’s was at a crisis point when you met the Committee in April 2008, there has been a significant change. The Committee supported the motion that was debated in the Assembly. In fairness to the Minister, he allowed that debate to take place, as you correctly highlighted. He has given the Committee space and the opportunity to undertake this review of teacher education.

I took the liberty of downloading the Minister’s speech to the Assembly on 23 June. In fairness, he was open and honest about what he was doing to progress the issue and give the Committee space. Are officials implementing the Minister’s wishes, so that Committee members are afforded that space?

I want you to talk about conversion funding. Brian said that money was given to the college over a two-year period to provide that space. There still seem to be difficulties with the conversion funding. The Minister’s address led me to believe that the conversion funding would be provided to alleviate difficulties and provide the space for everybody to reach some type of agreement or resolution on the issue of teacher education.

Professor Finn:
I will give a general answer to the question, and I will ask Brian to give details about the conversion funding, because he recently had a meeting with the higher-education branch in the Department.

From the Chairperson’s question, I am picking up a different understanding of “conversion”: not conversion funding, but the conversion of a speech made in the Assembly to outcomes being achieved — that is absolutely critical. We have examined the speech. We listened to it carefully and understood it, and we have had two subsequent meetings with Department officials. We must agree that, on the whole, there has been a conversion from what the Minister said in June to the outcomes that are now emerging.

The funding model was introduced, and Brian has indicated what that is about. A payment was made to the college under the term of “conversion” for the two-year period. We differ on the definition of “conversion”, but, ultimately, the Minister put in place a conversion arrangement. We have enrolled 286 students in liberal arts, as agreed by the Minister, so that part of the agreement is in place.

In his speech, the Minister stated that, this year, we would be able to work with the Department to settle the number of liberal arts students for next year — that was an important point and one that we take very seriously. I understand that to mean that there will be dialogue on the matter and have signalled that to the officials, who have not led me to believe any differently. Last year, our difficulty was that we were presented with a number, and there was no discussion on it. We thought that we would get a very different number. I have spoken to the official concerned, and he has said that there will be a dialogue in January or February 2009. I accept, and am pleased with, that.

We indicated that research would be carried out to determine how to introduce continuing professional development and, with DEL’s support, we are now preparing to commission a review of how, in our present context, we will get involved in funded CPD work. Across the board, the conversion of the Minister’s speech to outcomes is sound, as far as I am concerned. There are some small issues relating to conversion, but those are the realities that we must deal with — perhaps Brian will explain more about that.

Mr McFall:
My original understanding of conversion funding was that, under the old funding model, we would have received about £5·6 million for this year, but we are receiving about £5·2 million under the new model. Under the new model, there is a difference between what we would have received and what we currently receive. On the other hand, DEL had a different view of what conversion funding was — their view was that, if our actual amount of grant was significantly reduced, they would attempt to bridge that gap.

The amount of actual grant received by us was not significantly reduced, but there is a big difference between what we would have received under the old mechanism and what we receive now. Of course I would prefer us to receive the amount we would have got under the old funding model, as that would have been another £400,000. After some discussion with us, the Department has decided to offer us £50,000.

I recognise the financial constraints under which the Department operates. One could take the view that the Department is being generous in giving us £50,000, because we did not suffer an actual reduction in grant. On the other hand, it could be argued that the Department is not being generous, because we are considerably less well off than we would have been under the old model, and that has led to real difficulties for us. For example, we have had to reduce staff costs by not replacing staff who have left and through several redundancies.

Professor Finn:
I want to make it clear, however, that we have had discussions with the officials and have come to an understanding with them on the issue, particularly with respect to the future definition of conversion. We are not interested in looking back and debating about definitions; we are concerned with those definitions going forward. We are now aware of the constraints. During the second year, we will be better informed as to how Department officials view the matter.

The Chairperson:
So you will be smarter than the officials? [Laughter.]

I appreciate what you are saying, and it is good that you have a positive attitude. I have looked over the matter, and my reading of the situation was that there would be no shortfall over that two-year period. With member’s agreement, I suggest that the Committee writes to the Minister to ask him for an update on the situation since his speech to the Assembly on 23 June.

In the debate that followed that speech, I was led to believe that there would be space to allow St Mary’s, Stranmillis, DEL, the Department of Education and the Committee to reach an outcome on that issue. Indeed, the motion was not pushed on that basis. However, it strikes me that a £400,000 shortfall would suggest that conversion funding was not brought in to alleviate some of those difficulties. Are members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

Mr Butler:
I thank the witnesses for their presentations today. I would like to ask questions about two points. Firstly, can you expand on the participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds? What percentage of the students who attend St Mary’s are from such a background, and how does that compare to the other institutions that provide teacher education?

Secondly, one of the propositions that you put to the Committee related to the increased provision of teachers for the Irish-medium sector. Can you also expand on that proposition? Is that a growing sector in relation to the provision of initial teacher training?

Professor Finn:
Your first question relates to the participation of students from low-income backgrounds. In answering that we also must examine the numbers of students who come from low-participation neighbourhoods, as those factors are interrelated. Our figures relate to the total college — that is the BEd and liberal arts students — and the data, produced by HESA, is at a global level. Brian will present the Committee with the exact figures, at a UK-wide level, in a moment.

St Mary’s is widening its access policy, as it is required to do. We are very proactive in pursuing that policy, and we work very closely with schools in disadvantaged areas. Our work includes encouraging young people who would not have otherwise have considered coming to St Mary’s to make the decision to come here.

St Mary’s figure for attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds is — I believe — the second highest in the UK, from a total of 180 universities. That figure is evidence of the great deal of work that we have carried out in that area.

However, there are two sides to that work. The figure is very high, but a lot of work is also required to assist students from a disadvantaged background when they arrive here. The amount of work that has been undertaken in counselling, student support and in other areas to help those students to get over some of the problems that they bring with them has increased. That brings me back to my previous point on the distinctive vision, ethos and way of doing things at St Mary’s. The entire ethos of the institution is based on social justice, and if we did not attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, something would be wrong.

Mr McFall:
‘The Times Higher Education Supplement’ of 5 June 2008, produced a table setting out participation rates in UK universities. In that research, St Mary’s came second for attracting students from a disadvantaged background, with an intake rate of 52.4%. That figure was only superseded one university — Harper Adams University College, in Shropshire, which achieved a rate of 58.4%

We achieved a considerably higher figure than any other institution in Northern Ireland. The University of Ulster performed very well — again, that was due to their distinctive mission — while Stranmillis scored 33·5% and Queen’s University scored 35·2%. The Northern Ireland average was 41·7% and the UK average was 29·8%. We are very proud of our figures in that area, and — as Peter said — it goes to the core of our mission. Additionally, the reason that St Mary’s exists and its location have a role to play.

Professor Finn:
I will answer your second question in a moment. However, before I do, I want to reinforce my point. Recruiting students from a disadvantaged background is one thing: it is quite another thing to retain and assist them. We must take into account the added value of a student coming here, graduating from Queen’s University, getting a good job and moving on in life. That cycle is critical for the economic and social regeneration of areas.

Your second question was about the Irish-medium sector. That sector has been subject to a substantial review, although its findings have not yet been officially published. We are aware that one aspect of Irish-medium development involves a degree of rationalisation: taking a look at where matters stand and then embedding quality. It is clear that there are real needs in the Irish-medium sector, such as the need for better quality training for principals and guidance on leadership issues that cover the entire array of major challenges that teachers face in an immersion-teaching context. It is an extremely difficult area. A recently published book on good practice in primary education in Belfast clearly indicated that teachers in the Irish-medium sector face challenges beyond those faced by teachers in English-medium schools.

St Mary’s has an excellent framework for provision. Several staff are highly experienced and qualified in that area and have taught in Irish-medium schools. We also have the benefit of the Áisaonad Lán-Ghaeilge, an Irish-medium resource centre that is funded by Foras na Gaeilge. It provides Irish-medium learning materials, IT resources and books. We also have specialists in Irish language and literature. Pooling those three areas together could have a huge impact on the Irish-medium sector, providing it with high-quality support.

At present, like many other aspects of provision, Irish-medium provision is a little disparate. We feel that, if the resources were brought together and targeted, there would be substantial and positive outcomes. Yes, the sector is developing, but in a different way; it is developing in quality, and it is developing better training provision. St Mary’s feels that it has the potential to make a substantial contribution to that provision.

Mr Easton:
I thank the witnesses for the presentation, and I have three questions for them. First, what other areas of funding are currently being considered? Secondly, there was a £350,000 shortfall. I know that two teachers have been made redundant and that some contracts have not been renewed, but is there still a shortfall? Finally, I notice that a course is being offered on PSNI citizenship and safety education. Can you perhaps tell me a little more about that — is there much uptake of it?

Professor Finn:
The other areas of funding will be dealt with in the context of the review that we will commission. The current arrangement is that, for a two-year period, we will receive conversion funding and make efficiencies while we await the introduction of another funding stream — which should happen about two years down the line. When we start our review and the board of governors sets out the consultants’ remit, the clear target will be the area of CPD. As the Minister said in his June statement, there is a great need in the system at a time of enormous change for an enhancement of CPD right across the board. I am not talking about additional funding being available today; rather, I am talking about St Mary’s carrying out the investigations, analysis and research to enable that new funding stream to kick in two years from now.

To turn to your second question, efficiencies have been made in two ways. Firstly, as Brian said, some staff have left and have not been replaced, and other staff have been made redundant. Efficiencies have also been made in non-pay costs, and we have been very strict in that regard. The Department froze our grant in June 2007, so we had to make efficiencies in non-pay costs at that time. We have dug deeper into non-pay costs; the finance director and I have rigorously examined them and have cut them down as far as possible.

You may have picked up incorrectly my comments on the PSNI programme. We have submitted a bid to the PSNI to provide the training for the officers. The PSNI has identified a need for safety and citizenship education in Irish-medium schools.

The PSNI has officers with an acceptable level of Irish who are willing and able to undertake that form of training. We submitted a bid to the PSNI to provide training in pedagogic techniques around citizenship and safety education, so that officers will be apprised of the environment in which Irish-medium or immersion education takes place. I hope that we will be successful in that bid. That is an indication that we are willing to think outside the box and to actively seek out opportunities to do other work that is very strictly related to our main business, which is the training of teachers.

The Chairperson:
I hope that no one in the public gallery heard that.

Ms Lo:
I have been here on various occasions, but thank you for having us here today. You said that 90% of your graduates got jobs in the past few years, yet we hear that many graduate teachers cannot get work. How is that figure arrived at? Are many of those people graduates of liberal arts?

Mr McFall:
HESA published that figure, and it is comparable to other institutions. The figure is based on an annual survey of graduates from all institutions in the UK. Of the graduates who replied to the survey that was carried out by HESA, 90% stated that they were in further study or employment. When you break down that figure, 90% of them are in graduate employment, which is a substantial difference between St Mary’s College and many other institutions.

You asked how that figure squares with the evidence that there are many unemployed teachers. However, that is merely anecdotal evidence. We have little tangible evidence that there are large numbers of unemployed teachers. A teacher might leave St Mary’s College this year and not get a full-time permanent job in his or her first year, but that situation has not changed in the previous 10 years or more. The figures that were produced by HESA, which carried out a long-term survey on graduate employment, suggest that, in about four years’ time, the vast majority of our teachers have full-time permanent, or long-term temporary, employment. However, we have yet to see tangible evidence that there are huge numbers of unemployed teachers.

When we ask about evidence, we are referred to the Northern Ireland substitute teacher register. However, we would not use that register as reliable evidence, as it contains double entries. The register is in the process of being cleaned up, but, at the moment, we do not accept it as evidence. We have yet to see reliable tangible evidence that there are huge numbers of unemployed teachers, and our students are not telling us that they are finding it impossible to get jobs.

Professor Finn:
If graduate teachers were unemployed, unemployable or in dire straits, I would expect, as principal of the college, to be inundated with letters of complaint. However, I have received only one such letter in the past two years.

Teaching is a profession, and, like all other professions, there is no direct entry from completing professional training to getting a job. All professionals know that there is a time lag. The time lag in Northern Ireland is no different from that in other parts of Europe or North America. There is a global context. In response to an article in ‘The Irish News’, I asked people to plan for the longer term, because the HESA study, which provides the definitive line on figures for graduate teachers, shows that, within four years of graduating, most St Mary’s students obtain permanent posts, with only 15% still in temporary employment.

It is worth considering the issue of what are called “GB returnees”. We can speak for only ourselves. We educate and train teachers to a very high level, and they seek jobs in the employment market. However, we turn down many students. St Mary’s interviews up to 1,200 students a year, which is an horrendous job one week a year. Many students who do not get into St Mary’s choose to do their teacher training elsewhere, mainly in England.

That means that, in a sense, a type of closed system operates in Northern Ireland, which uses the teacher demand model, defines how many teachers the system needs, and makes allocations. The reality, however, is that we do not live in a closed world — we live in an open world, and literally hundreds of people leave here to go to England and, to a lesser extent, to Scotland and Wales to study, and they come back. That scenario demonstrates that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and that, in many respects, there is little that policy-makers can do about the individual choices that were made by a person who, at 18 or 19 years of age, did not get into St Mary’s or Stranmillis — because, for the most part, they did not reach the very high standards set by those institutions — or who was unsuccessful in obtaining a place on a PGCE course at Queen’s University or the University of Ulster (UU), where the standard is equally high, and went to England to train to be a teacher.

There is an issue there. However, the question related to St Mary’s — and, obviously, we are here to present our situation. All the data show that our students are not struggling to find jobs in the medium to long term.

Ms Lo:
That is good to know. Your review is an important step. Will that review include the Taylor Report recommendations for collaboration and co-operation with the other colleges involved in teacher education training here?

Professor Finn:
As I made clear, our model is an autonomous model, but it is autonomy with academic integration with Queen’s University. St Mary’s has no intention of trying to corner some aspect of the CPD market on its own and somehow seek to do its own thing. We work with the other providers under the auspices of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET).

My hope is that, at that level, the providers will look collectively at the needs of the system, and that we can work with them. That, of course, requires the others to co-operate with us. However, I am making it abundantly clear to the Committee that the best way forward is a collaborative model, but collaborative within the context of recognising and respecting St Mary’s particular ethos, mission and autonomy.

In my presentation, I spoke of recognising, at all times, that we live in an interdependent world, and, as an interdependent entity, of course we would wish to work with the other providers in looking at the needs of the system. We do that in meeting the Department of Education to discuss areas of research.

UCET is a very good body for bringing together the perspectives of the university-level providers of teacher education to examine those issues. I think that I have said enough. I have indicated the college’s intention.

Mr Attwood:
Thank you for the presentation, which, on the one hand, I find very convincing, but on the other hand, I find somewhat curious.

In general, as I said, I found the proposals that you outlined convincing, and it is unfortunate that Stranmillis seemed not to grasp the potential development that you outline. I find it curious, however, because, as I understand it, St Mary’s is looking for 150 BEd students a year and the Stranmillis/Queen’s merger may create some room for manoeuvre.

You are seeking a guaranteed role, including funding and the expansion of CPD and Irish language — everything that you outlined, all of which seem to be worthy objectives. They are proper and significant objectives, but there is a tension between your seeking such outcomes and how DEL has conducted itself recently in the area of teacher training. As you said, DEL instructed you — without dialogue — on your numbers for next year. You are aware of the fallout from the proposed merger, and you know why we have undertaken the stakeholder review. However, we still do not have a grip on DEL’s role in that. Consequently, you can understand why I think there is tension between what I consider to be proper objectives and how DEL has conducted itself in relation to your institution, and teacher training generally, over recent years. How do you respond to that?

Professor Finn:
First and foremost, I recognise that tension. Everything that you have said squares up. You accept that the way forward that we presented is a convincing argument; however, you used the word “curious”. Looking to the future, particularly concerning the matter that relates to DEL — student numbers for the diversified degree, which is bringing in large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds — we have been promised dialogue. I now use “conversion” to refer to converting the Minister’s words into outcomes. I fully expect, and I am betting on, dialogue.

Two other elements come into play. The first is what you would expect us to say — hard work. Achieving our aims will not be easy. These are testing times. It will be necessary for the college’s management team to undertake a lot of hard work to deliver those outcomes, and we are under no illusions about that.

The second element is support, and I have already referred to that. In a democratic society, there are checks and balances, and one of the great beauties of democracy is that the civil service — in its broadest sense — does not have the final say. That rests with politicians. Final decisions are made by the elected members of a society’s assembly. Therefore, we are putting our faith and trust in the hope that civil servants will work with us. However, we are also well aware that we now have an elected Assembly, with Members who are responsible to the citizens, and that genuine checks and balances are now in place. We will attempt to work those checks and balances, and we will seek this Committee’s support and that of political parties from both sides of the Floor. For example, in the breathing space that we have had, we had an interesting and valuable meeting with a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, and that reassured me that our message is not falling on deaf ears. I have no doubt that, if we went down that road, the same would happen with the Democratic Unionist Party, because we have a case.

In broad terms, achieving our objectives will involve hard work, trust and utilising the checks and balances that exist in the democratic society that we now have.

Mr Attwood:
I hope that the vision that you have outlined matures into reality. However, I wish to probe you on two further matters. In the Minister’s speech to the Assembly in June, many assurances were secured. He also made — I am using that word again — a curious comment. The Minister said that, in his opinion, St Mary’s would be at “great risk” from an expanded York Street campus — a York Street campus that was unplanned, unannounced, and unfunded. The Minister said to the Assembly — for some reason — that this institution would be at “great risk” from the expansion of the University of Ulster because it only has one liberal arts course. He made that statement in June in the context of giving other reassurances. You are seeking guarantees in respect of diversified student numbers. You said that you wanted us to help you — and I hope that we will — in securing places for 286 liberal arts students in the college at any one time.

It seems to me that the Minister flagged up an even longer-term question about the viability of this college in a way that ignored all of the good evidence that you have given about why this institution is so successful in terms of socioeconomic background, etc. Does that cause you any concern?

Professor Finn:
Once again you have identified what you describe as a “curious issue” made in the broader context of a reassuring tone. The Minister mentioned this to us at our meeting in June. We also found it curious, and it got very little comment from us because I did not know too much — in fact, little or nothing — about the proposed development at York Street.

On a more positive line, I took the view that, if the Department sticks to its agreement to provide us with a number of diversified students more or less commensurate with where we are today, we will be very confident of our ability to recruit those students in competition with any university, not just the University of Ulster. There is a world of difference for students between an autonomous place like St Mary’s which has a certain ethos of care and one thing or another, and a large university. Students make choices; they know what they are getting into. Some choose big universities and some choose small colleges. We are confident that we have a model that will be able to recruit students who want to come to a place like this.

You could look at this in another way and in a benign way. The Minister said that such a development would put a college depending on one humanities degree at great risk. That is true — if we were depending on one humanities degree it could be a risk, but we have no intention of allowing ourselves to get into that situation. That is what today’s presentation has been about: diversification in the broadest possible sense. Any business which is challenged — and, in that sense, this is a business — can do a number of things. It can choose to merge and disappear, or it can downsize, or it can seek to diversify. We are seeking to downsize through the efficiencies, and to diversify even more broadly. We do not want to put ourselves in a situation where, if the University of Ulster builds a complex at York Street, we will be somehow dependent solely on our liberal arts degree. I am aware of the remark, and I did find it a bit curious. In the broadest sense, however, we are not going to get ourselves into that situation.

Mr Attwood:
I agree — I think that the officials who put that comment into the Minister’s speech do not get it when it comes to the history, nature and appeal of this institution. That is why I thought that that comment was improper, irregular and far from what the Minister should be saying in respect of this issue.

The Minister and his officials maintain that you cannot successfully keep the ethos of St Mary’s as a primary teacher-training institution with the number of diversified liberal arts students that you have. That is another example of the fundamental misunderstanding of why Stranmillis and St Mary’s are bigger institutions than that silly argument suggests. You have said that St Mary’s wants 150 teacher-training places every year and 286 guaranteed places for diversified students. How do you nail the Minister’s argument that, if the number of diversified students gets too big, it will change the ethos of the place? That is a claim that, unfortunately, Stranmillis did not try seriously to rebut. In my view, it had a hell of a good argument for doing so.

Mr McFall:
It must be understood that at present, around 30% of St Mary’s students are diversified. If we achieve the number of students that we have suggested for the BEd and the Irish-medium degree, we will not go beyond that 30% figure. There are other institutions throughout the UK and Ireland, and further afield in Europe, where an ethos such as ours is quite clearly maintained under those circumstances. Therefore, the proportion of students that we have suggested for the diversified degree will not increase.

Professor Finn:
In addition, 92% of academic staff at St Mary’s are teacher educators. The Minister’s argument does not bear thinking about. Ninety-two per cent of the people whom the college employs to be academic staff and lecturers are teacher educators: that is what they do. This raises questions about people’s understanding of what “ethos” actually means; where it comes from, how it is managed, and how it is developed and moulded over time.

That does not only relate to the ethos of St Mary’s. For example, I have taken a great interest — because there are various ideas on the subject — in the maintenance of the ethos of the Royal School Dungannon. I did teaching practice there for eight weeks, so I know and like the school. It has a distinctive ethos. You can feel it when you go into the school; you are aware of it. I am interested in the principal of the Royal School explaining how its tradition has been maintained throughout many years. Ethos is ethos. That school’s ethos is different to that of St Mary’s, but nevertheless the issues are the same.

Therefore, 92% of teachers at St Mary’s are teacher educators. If certain people have doubts about the matter, they should come to St Mary’s. It would be a good educational experience for people who have those concerns to come to St Mary’s, spend a day or two with us, work their way around the student union and the dining area, see the social and academic activities that go on, and test the temperature as to whether the place is a teacher-training institution or not. My advice to them is that, rather than standing back and, perhaps, intellectualising the matter with regard to proportions, come and taste, see and feel, because that is what ethos is all about.

Afterwards, they should get into a car, drive to Dublin and go to St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra which, like St Mary’s, is recognised as a high-quality teacher-education institution. They will find that 32% of its students are doing humanities degrees. After that, they should get the train to Limerick and visit Mary Immaculate College, which, by the way, was established under the same order as this institution in the late 1890s. They will find that 36% of its students do degrees other than teacher education, but they will find a place where teacher education is at the core of activity.

I just do not accept the argument, because it is not based on evidence. The evidence is at St Mary’s. If the doubters want to check it somewhere else, they can go to Dublin or Limerick and find the same evidence. From my point of view, that argument is simply a non-starter. It does not stand up.

Mr McFall:
Since our diversified degree was introduced, the evidence of our performance indicators shows that there has been no detrimental impact on teacher education from the liberal arts degree. If anyone suggests that there is, we would like to see their evidence, because we can produce evidence that shows that, in fact, the opposite is the case.

Mr Irwin:
OK. I am one of the new members of this Committee, so I am not aware of the full history of the issue. You said earlier that maintaining the numbers of students in the coming years would be vital to the viability of the college. Are you confident that you can maintain the numbers of students in the college?

Professor Finn:
The number of students is an important part of the equation. It is not the whole of the equation; we have made it clear that we are seeking other forms of funding through teacher induction and CPD.

There are two groups of students; the diversified students are the responsibility of DEL, and are dealt with directly between the college and the Minister for Employment and Learning. I am confident that the understanding that we have arrived at with the Minister and his officials is such that there will not be a dramatic development in that area. I have provided figures that show where we presently stand. I would be very surprised and, in fact, let down, if there were a significant change away from that position. No evidence, and nothing that I have heard from the officials, indicates to me that that is going to happen. I am reassured by the agreement that I had, no later than last Friday, that there would be dialogue about that.

The big issue — and you are right to hit it straight on — is the number of student teachers. The decision on the number of students entering teacher education rests with the Department of Education. The hard work that we have to do is to engage with the Department. We have already arranged a meeting with the teacher education branch. We have, in very fine detail, worked out the detailed outworkings of the teacher demand model. Our confidence comes from the fact that the teacher demand model projects certain numbers. We have the evidence; they gave us the evidence. We are satisfied with the numbers that have been projected. Unless someone in the Department of Education severely reduces the numbers that the teacher demand model has arrived at, we take confidence from that.

As I said, this is about hard work. It is about having a solid argument and doing the research. It is about bringing the evidence to the Department of Education. We want to have the same form of dialogue with the Department of Education that has been offered to us by the Department for Employment and Learning. The days of people from both Departments telling us, “that is the number; get on with it” must be over. That is no way to do business, if people are genuine about saying that they wish to sustain us.

The way of doing business in the modern world is to sit down, consider the situation and listen to each other’s perspectives. We have a vested interest in teacher education, as does the teacher education branch. We are both looking for the best result, which is the right number of teachers of the right type to do the right job. Let us have a dialogue about it. I am confident, after my recent discussions with the senior official in that branch, that the Department’s door is open to us. They have invited us out to Rathgael, and we will go there with a delegation of people who have done their work, and we will engage with the Department.

The Chairperson:
OK. All that is left to do is to thank you for your presentation and for hosting the Committee meeting today. It has been useful, given that the last meeting we had was in a crisis situation, and it seems that some space has been created. We will follow up on the Minister’s contribution to the June debate on this issue. If you have any other information that the Committee needs, or should be looking at, feel free to pass it on. Today’s event has been useful for many of us, particularly for the new members of the Committee, as it has brought matters up to date. Thank you very much.

Professor Finn:
Thank you very much for the manner in which we have been received here this morning.

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