Minutes of Evidence:  29 March 2001


Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Mr Gallagher
Mr Hamilton
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh
Mr K Robinson

Canon Houston      )
Mr G Orr               )   McKelvey Transferor Council
Rev Lee Glenny      )                  (TRC)
Rev Jim McAllistair )

The Chairperson:

We are pleased to welcome members of the Transferor Representatives' Council (TRC), who will give evidence on the review of post-primary education. The Rev Derek Poots has apologised for his absence and he is replaced by the Rev Jim McAllistair. You can now make a short presentation, which will be followed by questions.

Canon McKelvey:

Mr Chairman, we would like to formally place on record our admiration of your role and the role of the Committee members. At this time in the history of education in Northern Ireland, your contribution is vital. This is the first time that we have met you since the death of your esteemed member, Mr Tom Benson, and we pass on our condolences.

What we have here is yesterday's cold meat warmed up. The paper you have is a copy of the view foils of our presentation to the review body. We thought we should share that information with your members. We apologise that you did not receive it sooner. It may contain too much information for the present time frame.

We identified a major gap in the research. Children, parents and teachers were consulted, but there was no consultation whatsoever with people who serve on boards of governors. We represent a two-level constituency.

We will share insights that we obtained from a questionnaire to which 700 transferor representatives responded. We will give you what we hope is the distilled wisdom of three Church boards.

We also represent an elected constituency. The three Church boards represented here are elected by the membership of their Churches and are accountable to annual juridical meetings of those Churches. We probably represent the largest elected voluntary organisation you will encounter in this debate on post-primary education.

There are genuine fears in the community that in this review political dogma rather than educational criteria will determine the future. We are concerned about Christian values and we believe that cross-community confidence in whatever is proposed is absolutely essential.

We were reassured yesterday by the chairman of the review body that any change would be incremental, not revolutionary. We want to avoid the creation of an independent post-primary sector. Grammar schools should not be made scapegoats - they did not invent selection at 11-plus.

There is a fear that good aspects of the present system will be lost. The identification of what is good - good practitioners and good schools of all types in all sectors - needs to be upheld. There are failures in the Northern Irish education system, but it is generally a success.

There are dedicated teachers whose academic levels on entry to St Mary's University College and Stranmillis University College are 11 points higher than some colleges in Britain. Therefore, we must respect our teachers.

We have a concern about the curriculum which Mr Orr will expand on because that is his field of experience in the primary sector. We want to see the primary sector sorted out because there is no point in reviewing the secondary sector if you do not eradicate the upward transference of underachievement. Likewise, we want to see curriculum change preceding any change in the secondary system. Schools are merely the vehicles, and it is the curriculum that is important. We need a period of quiet and calm. We are very keen on CCEA's new Key Stage 4 proposals. Key Stage 3 should have a smaller core - English, Mathematics, and perhaps IT, which we see as the new commonality between all types of schools. No matter what people do in the future, they will need those skills. We would like to see that common base.

We envisage a secondary system with a variety of schools, and ease of transfer between those schools. Post-11, we want a more forgiving system. We pleaded with the review body yesterday to give us more information on what it envisaged as an academic school, a technological or vocational school, or even a performing arts school - if we could afford one in Belfast. Genuine parity of esteem for all schools is one of our cardinal values. Each type of school must have adequate funding and staff, and an open and accountable funding procedure.

We want to see community ownership of our schools, with ownership coming from the grassroots up rather than being imposed from the top down. I do not have to tell this representative Committee about the rural/urban balance, or the political and religious divergence in Northern Ireland. One size will not fit all. Local school provision should reflect local needs, and the closer to the community that decisions are taken the better. Our major recommendation in this area is for local community education audits. The Department of Education should be tasked to draw up an agreed, informative and facilitated process. The education and library boards, in their current format, are best suited to provide that facilitation, but their brief must be strictly spelt out. We are not making a vested-interest case for education and library boards, rather for a community dialogue process. Elected local representatives must be involved - dealing with trustees, transferors, local employers and teachers - and it should have a strong cross-community element. We have travelled to Harrogate, and we have had visitors from Harrogate here, and looked at different ways of approaching integrated education, post-sixth form, where two schools are co-located and co-operating. We want to see more imagination.

As for selection: please discontinue the present system as soon as possible. Of our 700 respondents, 80% had no confidence in it, 60% regarded the present system as unfair, but 80% thought that selection was inevitable in an education system where there is a shortage of places in some schools and an overprovision of population. Our recommendation is that any movement should be two staged. There should be Key Stage 2 assessments and entrance tests, not only for grammar schools. Secondary schools in Belfast are oversubscribed - how do we deal fairly with that? By 2005 agreed forms of educational guidance should be introduced, perhaps based on revised methods of assessment. More so than any of our recommendations, we plead with you to take this on board.

There is a major need to change the mindset in this community from testing (success and failure) to educational guidance. Theologically and educationally, our base is that no child is a failure. Our view is that every child is made in the image of God, and God does not make failures. Society, families and systems may fail children, but no child is a failure. We have to find a proper form of educational guidance which will enable parents and children to realise their potential.

We have concerns about transfer at 14-plus and believe that the current research being conducted in Northern Ireland is too little, too patchy and at variance. We would like to see much more work being done in this area before it is presented as a panacea for the entire Province.

We perhaps take a broader view of education than other organisations in that we are well rooted in the communities in which we serve. We have parishes and congregations in areas of social need. We do not need documents to remind us of this.

One of the biggest problems in Northern Ireland is that many parents do not accept their parental responsibilities. Parents and families are the prime nurturers of children and adequate community resources should be made available to help people develop parental and family skills. Teachers cannot be expected to pick up every problem in society. Our teachers are overburdened; at times they barely have time to teach the three Rs because so many school policies are being thrown at them. We have to be realistic about that.

We represent three Protestant Churches; we represent part of this community. There is a huge need for a restoration of confidence. Too high a percentage of respondents to our survey - close to 80% - felt that controlled schools were not esteemed equally with other schools. There are misconceptions. My colleagues in the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) could close a school just as quickly as my colleagues in the education and library boards.

However, the perception of people from our constituency who help manage our schools is that there is a lack of sensitivity and a greater need to encourage a sense of ownership of those schools. The implications of the Belfast Agreement on this issue need to be explored positively from the point of view of the Protestant community.

The Rev Jim McAllistair's advice to us throughout has been to concentrate our analysis not only on where we have been but on where we are trying to go as a community. We have pleaded with the review body to avoid overlap, and we hope to have an alliance with the Committee on this. Let us tackle one major change at a time - not two - and let us have a vision of education that comes from the community upwards and is owned by the community rather than having dictatorial top-down policies, which do not work. Ultimately, if one is forced to have an opinion, it is not a valid opinion. I would ask you to fully recognise the role and contribution of governors of all types in the management of change in schools.

That is more or less what I said to the review body yesterday, and this is probably a good kicking-off point for members to address us and put their questions.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your concise presentation. I now invite members of the Committee to put questions.

Mrs E Bell:

Thank you for your very clear indications of what you would like - I agree with much of what you have said. Could you expand a little, for example, on the local community audits that you mentioned? You said there would be a limited number in the post-primary sector that would pick up on that. Would schools be invited to come forward and then a certain number would be chosen? What would the process be?

Canon McKelvey:

That is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the debate: what are the ground rules? First, my colleagues and I felt that the types of school described in the documentation provided by the Department were totally inadequate for any valid judgement. The Committee and the review body have been looking spot-on at different schools. It is particularly difficult for parents. If you were a parent, you could not make a decision on the basis of the information provided in the documentation.

When the Committee and the review body have done their work we would like options to be presented to the Northern Ireland community. Schools could be academic (I do not want to use the unhelpful word "grammar") or concentrate on technology. As already happens in one or two schools, schemes could be run under one roof. But we do not support a universal comprehensive system for Northern Ireland. However, where you have the luxury of a couple of existing secondary schools and a grammar school, the community could be given the option to dialogue at local level about the complementary roles of those three schools, which could possibly bridge the religious divide also.

We are not experts on finance, so that is perhaps the weakest part of our submission. It is expensive to equip schools for technology and to take that through to General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) level . We have a falling population in our schools and we will have a limited budget no matter how well the Committee does its job. We must oversee how that money is spent at a local level, but we must also give people choice.

In any one community in Northern Ireland there may be a need for a certain type of vocational training, dictated by the types of job that are on offer in that area. There must be a local community forum, an amalgam of councillors, business people, Churches, parents and teachers.

Mr McHugh:

You mentioned that parents need to take more responsibility - can you expand on that? Your last point addressed vocational education being tailored to the needs of a specific area. However, we need to have an outward-looking, flexible workforce, perhaps working outside the North. Can you comment on that?

Mr Orr:

Parents are the primary educators. It is crucial that a child gets a good start in life. Many children come to nursery schools or primary schools and they are already deprived. Many come with low-level language skills, hardly able to communicate. Nursery school teachers often help to generate the development of language. Schools can help but they cannot overcome that original inadequacy.

We want parents to take their responsibilities seriously but many are not in a position to know how to do that. We want a programme for parental education, to help parents if they so wish it. Many parents, despite training, opt out. On the other hand, many parents are keen to help their children.

Many parents set their children down in front of a television, which can be valuable. However, it is not nearly as valuable as sitting down with a storybook, reading it to the children and talking them through the story. In simple things like that we can encourage parents. However, it is an area that we have tended to overlook and underestimate, but it ties in with the points we have made about early primary education.

If children are failing in primary school, a secondary school - no matter what type - has to pick up those failures. It is a difficult job to turn that around. We must promote parental education and offer parents those skills. We are not suggesting that parents do the work of schools, but we feel equally that schools should not have to do the work of parents. A partnership would be effective.

Rev Jim McAllistair:

Last week, the Department sent out an initiative for parents. Forty-one Belfast schools received money for training parents. I received a copy of the initiative last Monday morning since I am at the coalface inasmuch as I am on several boards of governors and I am chairman of one of them.

We did not touch on the financial aspects, but our organisation includes many people who are knowledgeable about finance.

Canon McKelvey:

We are keen to see initiatives such as homework clubs. In areas such as Sandy Row children did not pass the 11-plus until Churches, parents and schools worked together. The 11-plus is not everybody's index of success - but that alliance worked.

Following on from Mr McHugh's question, the Northern Ireland education system must be capable of educating young people so that they can take up positions from Boston to Brisbane. Unfortunately, too many of them have already done so. Many of the country's leadership qualities have also migrated. That is not to underestimate those who have remained.

The Chairperson:

That is very careful phrasing.

Canon McKelvey:

If I were a Jesuit, you would say that it was casuistry - the Church of Ireland studies it also. Northern Ireland's major natural resource is its people. We have no bauxite, tin mines or anything like that here.

Mrs E Bell:

We might have gold, according to the news this morning.

Canon McKelvey:

If that is so, why are you all sitting here?

Mr McHugh's point is valid. If we are to look at this issue constructively - and the CBI and the Institute of Directors would be advocating school/business links - then something in the dialogue suggests that we will almost have to reinvent the wheel. We have benefited from the experience of chairmen of boards of governors who were formerly senior inspectors. Most of my teaching was done in further education and I grew up in a linen village. Two or three of the major cranes that dominate the Belfast skyline belong to Cedric Blackburn, who rose through the apprenticeship system and through a local college. I look at chaps who have completed their apprenticeships. I look at those I taught at Lisburn Technical College as well as those I taught at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. We must esteem such people.

Whether it be GNVQs and HNVQs, we must find a system whereby children - regardless of the type of post-primary school they attend - have a channel through to third-level education. The esteem in which employers hold universities is a problem. Mr Orr made the point about primary schools, but there is an issue about how people reach the top of the education process.

Mrs E Bell:

A number of primary schools in Belfast - and, I hope, in North Down - as well as having homework clubs are now keeping their schools open to 10.00 pm so that parents can avail of training.

Mr Hamilton:

You have already touched briefly on the matter I intended to raise. In your submission you mentioned schools specialising in either academic or vocational education. How would you achieve parity between those schools, in that parents, pupils and employers may continue to look on one as being inferior to the other?

Canon McKelvey:

This is the challenge to the community mindset. It is a challenge to people like us - to you as politicians, to us as religious communities and to people in the media. I happen to think that you can abolish selection tomorrow. You can play around with different types of secondary school but it is the mindset that matters.

We do not want controlled schools to have corporeality in Northern Ireland. We have five boards but we do not have a unified "grand champion". Many interesting things are happening in controlled schools but they do not receive as much publicity as integrated schools or other agencies.

There are success stories in Northern Ireland. For too long Northern Ireland has been accustomed to bad news, but educationally, Northern Ireland should be good news.

Companies advertise for people with a background in certain areas and those people move. But the Rev Jim McAllistair has experience of prospective employers coming to secondary schools looking for qualified folk, as opposed to looking elsewhere.

Rev Jim McAllistair:

We can look at the current scene. I know Belfast best, but I am not a Belfast man. Where I come from you learnt English as a second language.

I know Belfast best but I also know Antrim and Ballymena quite well. The best IT teaching, learning and equipment is found in the secondary schools (as we now call them), not in the grammar schools. Many people from industry and other sectors say they want people who have first-rate IT skills.

I have a difficulty with that, because it seems to me that we could be providing another social place. One hundred years ago, employers went to the elementary schools to find people for the factories. People might return to that level to look for their "workers". Several schools for which I am on the board of governors have straight links with companies such as Shorts and BT. These firms come to us because they think that that is where they will get people with the best IT skills, which is good in one respect but bad in another. Esteem must be viewed in several ways.

Mr Gallagher:

Thank you for your clear submission and your equally clear oral presentation. I want to go back to the issue of community confidence. You mentioned the example of authorities such as the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) and the fact that you are split across five boards. To take that in conjunction with your reference to the lack of confidence in the present system of educational administration - I think your survey said that there was 80% dissatisfaction -

Canon McKelvey:

Sorry, I misquoted. It is 70%.

Mr Gallagher:

All right, 70%, which is pretty high. Does that apply across primary and secondary sectors?

You make it clear that Northern Ireland should avoid the growth of an independent sector. You have also said that you are not looking for a counterpart such as NICIE or CCMS. Nevertheless, you probably have a higher percentage than any other sector of children in your schools from the other denomination. There is a serious lack of confidence in your community about the controlled sector. You said that the Good Friday Agreement has implications, and I take it from that that you mean that the Good Friday Agreement can help to redress that in some way. Can you tell us how you envisage the Good Friday Agreement doing that and whether any other mechanism could be helpful as well?

Canon McKelvey:

I refer to our submission, which is quite extensive and would give you a couple of nights' reading. Those are the perceptions of our community. Seventy per cent of respondents agreed that controlled schools are at a disadvantage compared to maintained and integrated schools in that there is no Province-wide body such as CCMS or NICIE to present their needs in a holistic fashion. Seventy per cent agreed that there should be dedicated committees in education and library boards containing a majority of representatives from the controlled sector.

We are in a dilemma because we do not want any further splintering in an already well-splintered system. However, we do feel - as we said when we met before - that with an issue such as pre-school education, there is a need for a Province-wide policy and not a five-board policy. The Minister may be listening to us on this. We are not seeking a five-board-wide legislative body, but we feel that there should be some body that represents the controlled sector Province-wide. This is not about having a Protestant Church majority. When we look at the composition of a nine-strong board of governors, as well as four people from the transferors there are also local council representatives, and teacher and parent representatives. We would like to see that brought together. It would be a body which could monitor the overall impact of Government policy on the controlled sector and address its concerns to the Minister and this Committee.

You raised a second point, Mr Gallagher, on the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Orr:

Mr Gallagher raised a point initially about primary and secondary education. The concern is not about the schools, it is about the structures.

Canon McKelvey:

The Good Friday Agreement aspect is related to parity of esteem. The community that we represent has been somewhat slow in challenging the Good Friday Agreement scenario. I get the impression - and I am speaking for myself now, not for the TRC - as I go through our communities that people think that somehow we lost. I personally do not regard it in that way but I think that a change of mindset is needed. Your Committee is made up of people from a variety of parties. Northern Ireland will start to operate properly when Protestants start to articulate Roman Catholics' concerns and when Nationalists start to articulate Unionist concerns.

The Chairperson:

Mr McElduff?

Mr McElduff:

I am not likely to take up that challenge so early.

Canon McKelvey:

Oh go on!

The Chairperson:

You were certainly given the first opportunity.

Mr McElduff:

I will give it some thought. I have a couple of questions, which may be difficult to answer. Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say that you have a genuine fear that political doctrine and dogma are driving this process?

Secondly, you appear to be opposed in principle to the all-ability post-primary-school arrangement which would reach across society universally. What is so inherently wrong with all-ability post-primary schools? Some people say that they offer the best chance of cherishing all our children equally.

Mr Orr:

I think you are asking why the TRC does not support the comprehensive ideal. If we were starting with a clean sheet, there might be some merit in considering the comprehensive system. But we are not starting with a clean sheet. Evidence suggests that comprehensive education does not necessarily mean successful education. There are good comprehensive schools and there are poor comprehensive schools. Evidence suggests that comprehensive schools in rural areas tend to be more successful than those in urban areas because the schools in urban areas tend to ghettoise.

One reason we are concerned about comprehensive schools as a modus operandi is that they may ghettoise. How could there be parity of esteem between a Campbell or a Strathearn comprehensive school on the one hand and a St Luke's in Twinbrook comprehensive school on the other hand. There would be ghettoisation socially and politically. It would be almost impossible for that situation to give fairness across the board.

Canon McKelvey:

In Northern Ireland it is also beneficial to get some children out of their home backgrounds and give them a distance to travel. I went to Belfast Inst and travelled 15 miles into Belfast from the country. I met people from all social backgrounds in that school. My life was greatly enriched by it. I have an abhorrence of what Mr Orr has just described - the so-called "postcode comprehensive". I have gone to good comprehensive schools in Northern Ireland. They do exist. I have also conducted a prize-giving ceremony at a comprehensive school that streamed its pupils. I met myself going out the gate. I never got a school prize in my life and I had great delight in telling that to the pupils. In that school the academic pupils were still inside but the secondary-stream youngsters had left for the afternoon.

"Comprehensive" on the notice board does not mean that there is a comprehensive system under the roof. The same applies to grammar schools. I want to know what is inside the wrapper.

I am sure that Mr McElduff has heard of Sir Brian Mawhinney. Northern Ireland has had political dogma before, which was imported from the Home Counties. It has taken Northern Ireland a considerable time to rid itself of some of this. That is a shorthand way of saying that where we sit and where you sit is not important, and neither are your party political manifestos important; the children and how they are treated is the important element.

Mr K Robinson:

I am delighted to hear that Canon McKelvey went to the same school as Sir Brian Mawhinney. It was a rather unfortunate choice of establishment.

The community ownership issue intrigues me. You talked about rural/urban, religious/political and dense/sparse populations but you missed the social impact on education - although Mr Orr did mention it in his response. May I suggest that if you are conducting community audits, you should go back to local school provision which reflects local needs.

There are schools within 100 yards of one another where two groups of parents are driving in opposite directions. One can see the potential danger for ghettoisation there in the upper level. That ghettoisation can be seen transferring down to primary level and perhaps even to pre-school level, where local groups of parents are driving agendas for social reasons rather than educational reasons. How do we break out of that spiral?

It is coming across very clearly that to some degree you feel that the controlled sector is a third-class citizen in the educational field. I agree with you on that. From my experience I have always felt that the controlled sector was rather undervalued and that we did not have people to speak up on our behalf. That is reflected in the current structures at board level and that needs to be addressed. At present the disadvantage of our system is that it is somewhat splintered. How do we address the issue without further splintering the system? What is your definition of a vocational school? That word "vocational" is bandied around, and it means different things to different groups.

Canon McKelvey:

We want to build bridges in this community, and I would like to pay positive tribute to the education and library boards for being the vehicles of bridge building. Perhaps one of the reasons you are here today is due to successful bridge building across the community between local politicians, trustees and education and library boards. Some representatives on education and library boards may disagree with us looking for a dedicated committee within an education and library board.

We will push the Minister on the Northern Ireland aspect because we believe in controlled schools. They have a history, they have made a contribution, and they are open to every child in the Province. We tried very hard not to increase the number of schools in an already overprovided society. We changed our stance to permit controlled integrated schools, even though our representation on that board has been cut in half. That is one of our grievances which needs to be addressed by the powers that be. However, we accept what you are saying about social divisiveness because there is a chalk-and-cheese attitude about some schools sharing the same campus. That has to be challenged. One of the positive things about grammar schools in Northern Ireland is that they have never been egalitarian in the way that they have been cross-channel. All the political parties in Northern Ireland are more egalitarian than they would care to admit. There is a great Presbyterianism about Northern Ireland.

With regard to Mr K Robinson's last point about the vocational sector, I see technologists as being the former millwrights of this world, the men who could work with wood and metal, the designers and the engineers. The old black crafts are coming through now. In 1999-2000, according to the Institute of Directors, 80% of the new jobs created in Northern Ireland were in high-tech industries. The IT industry must forge ahead but the old skills must also continue. There is a shortage of plumbers and electricians. Further education colleges have problems getting the funding to buy piping to allow a plumber to at least try three bends in a pipe. Those are the realities of today.

With regard to the vocational sector, further education colleges have pioneered that quite well. I regard playgroup leadership and nursing as vocational careers. But my colleagues and I believe that everyone has a vocation.

Mr K Robinson:

I would like to come back to the primary level. I would like you to comment on the scenario of two schools sited close to one another but with different aspirations for their pupils. How do we cope with that socially divisive system?

Mr Orr:

Could you please be more specific about what you are describing?

Mr K Robinson:

You spoke about community ownership, a community audit. A community might decide that it wants its children to be educated in a particular way: they will go to a certain second-level school and a certain third-level institution. They will have a primrose path. Another school - perhaps 100 yards away - looks at its pupils and says "We want to keep the children out of the courts; we want to keep them off the streets. We do not really care if they go to school, but we would like a nice flower bed out the front." The aspirations are different and the two communities grow apart. Will we simply give them the wherewithal to grow further apart, or will we challenge that?

Mr Orr:

No, certainly not. Our starting point was to look at the way in which secondary education is currently organised across the Province. There are areas, for example, where there is what could be termed "comprehensive education", places such as Cookstown, Fivemiletown and others. The system seems to satisfy the residents. They esteem it and value it. It would be quite wrong to impose something in a doctrinaire way from the centre which destroyed what people valued and supported. You will never get 100% support for anything. To allow people in those areas to have a say about the future education of their children is what we mean by a community audit. It can never be 100%, but I suspect that there would be strong support from people in those areas. We recognise the desirability of giving that kind of local involvement and ownership.

The Chairperson:

The Rev Jim McAllistair wanted to make a point.

Mr K Robinson:

He is probably going to say the same thing as I am. I am thinking about the early start programmes and so forth in north Belfast, where focused attention is being given to communities which up to now have either not valued education or have not valued the type of education they are being offered. You are beginning to turn that around but it is being done in a comprehensive manner rather than in a piecemeal way in different small communities.

Rev Jim McAllistair:

There are people, for example, on the Malone Road - and I am not using the "Malone Road" in a disparaging way - who will send their children to the schools they want them to go to, whether or not the schools are located locally. Open enrolment must be looked at, not least because in many cases it takes people out of their communities. People from Kilkeel come to schools in Belfast. It is not good to have children educated so far away from their community. We were talking about the 11-plus and selection, but we have not come here to debate those particular points. However, everyone is in a position to do something about the social divide that is established at school level and is mostly created by parents.

The Chairperson:

Unfortunately, the clock has beaten us. I am tempted to say "Here endeth the lesson" - but in very reverent tones. Thank you very much for your presentation. We have enjoyed the exchange of views and perhaps we may have an opportunity to share our views again.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more

Useful Contacts

Contact us

Contacts for different parts of the Assembly

Contact Us