End of Session Report 08/09

REMIT, POWERS AND MEMBERSHIP OF THE COMMITTEE

The Committee for Education is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Standing Order 48.

Statutory Committees have been established to advise and assist the appropriate Minister on the formation of policy in relation to matters within his/her responsibilities. Specifically, the Committee has power to:

  • consider and advise on departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
  • consider relevant secondary legislation and take the committee stage of primary legislation;
  • call for persons and papers;
  • initiate inquiries and make reports; and
  • consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister for Education.

The Committee has 11 members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, and a quorum of 5.

The membership of the Committee is as follows:

Mr Mervyn Storey (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs Mary Bradley
Mr Trevor Lunn
Mr John McCallister 1
Mr Basil McCrea
Mr Nelson McCausland
Miss Michelle McIlveen
Mr John O’Dowd
Ms Michelle O’Neill
Mr Edwin Poots

1 John McCallister replaced Mr Tom Elliott with effect from 22 June 2009. Mr Elliott replaced Mr Ken Robinson with effect from 26 January 2009.

KEY ACTIVITIES, OUTPUTS AND ACHIEVEMENT

INTRODUCTION

1. The Committee’s primary focus during this period was to continue its scrutiny of a raft of policy reviews and proposed changes by the Department of Education, which will fundamentally reform Northern Ireland’s education system. The Committee responded to significant policy reviews including: School Improvement and Literacy and Numeracy, Special Educational Needs and Inclusion, and provided Departmental officials with direct feedback on a number of draft strategies and policy documents including Sustainable Schools Policy, Primary School Funding and the Review of Irish Medium Education (a full listing of areas where the Committee scrutinised policy is provided at paragraph 11).

2. However, the two areas which dominated the Committee’s time during the year were the First Education Bill from the Review of Public Administration (RPA) reform of education and the transfer procedure to post- primary education.

3. The Committee completed extensive pre-introductory scrutiny of the underlying policies and the proposed Education Bill in the September to December 2008 period, and continued this with renewed momentum when the Bill was formally referred to the Committee in December 2008. In the period between the Christmas and Summer recess, the Committee invited and received written submissions from interest groups, heard oral evidence from educational stakeholders, received regular weekly briefing from Departmental officials and undertook detailed clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill. The Committee is due to complete its deliberations on the Bill and report to the Assembly by 30 September 2009 (see paragraphs 5-7 below).

4. The arrangements for Transfer from primary to post primary schools remained an important focus for the Committee throughout this period. The Committee formally responded to the Minister of Education’s May 2008 proposals on Transfer in July 2008 by providing views from 18 key education stakeholders plus each of the 5 Political Parties represented in the Committee. It also highlighted that some of the Parties had a ‘growing concern that a period of reflection is necessary before any permanent arrangements are put in place’. The Minister updated the Committee on her proposals in early October 2008, and in February 2009 made a statement to the Assembly confirming that as a result of lack of political consensus, she would not proceed with her proposal to phase out academic selection - including the use of a CCEA commissioned test. For 2010 transfers the Minister announced she would issue guidance (in the absence of regulations and a Department of Education- provided test). The Committee wrote to the Minister on 20 February and 2 March 2009, and met with her on 10 March 2009 to request that she ‘reconsider the use of the CCEA test), as an interim compromise transfer arrangement’ (both letters and Hansard record of 10 March are available on the Committee website). The Minister outlined her reasons for not reconsidering the use of the CCEA test, and following consultation, published final Transfer 2010 Guidance in late June, with a statement to the Assembly on 30 June 2009. However, the subject of Transfer remains a concern for many and the Committee has received a large volume of correspondence on this. In addition the Committee also heard the concerns of a delegation from the NI Teachers’ Council on 19 June 2009. Transfer will undoubtedly remain an important issue for the Committee during the next session.

PRIMARY LEGISLATION

The Education Bill

5. The Education Bill (NIA 3/08) was introduced to the Assembly on 25 November 2008 and referred to the Committee for Education for consideration on 8 December 2008. The Bill, states its overall purpose as ‘A Bill to provide for the establishment and functions of the Education and Skills Authority; to make further provision about education, educational services and youth services ; and for connected purposes’. Consideration, and the formal ‘Committee Stage’ scrutiny, of the Education Bill became the main focus of the Committee’s work and activities throughout this session. Due to the size, complexity and far reaching impact of the Education Bill, together with some fundamental Committee concerns, the Committee agreed a Motion to extend the ‘Committee Stage’ of the Bill to enable the Committee to complete a comprehensive and thorough scrutiny of the Bill. On 2 February 2009, the Assembly agreed to extend the Committee Stage of the Bill to 30 September 2009.

6. During the period covered by this Report, the Committee considered the Bill and related issues at 32 of its 37 meetings. In the intervening period, after requesting written submissions and taking oral evidence from 15 key stakeholders, the Committee was briefed by senior Departmental Officials on selected key aspects of the Bill at 9 of its meetings. Also, for each stakeholder oral evidence session, Departmental officials provided a specific written Departmental response, which they presented to Committee immediately after the stakeholder(s) evidence sessions.

7. The Committee commenced its detailed clause by clause consideration of the Bill in late May 2009. To assist the Committee with its scrutiny, the Committee received advice from the Examiner of Statutory Rules and advice on several subjects from the Assembly’s Legal Services. Also, to assist the Committee, its Secretariat prepared a spreadsheet of stakeholder written responses to the Bill, together with the appropriate Departmental response to individual stakeholder submissions, all against the particular clauses and schedules of the Bill. During these clause-by-clause scrutiny sessions, the Committee requested Departmental officials to clarify points Members had on individual clauses and schedules. In response to stakeholder and Committee concerns the Minister of Education confirmed in mid June that she will be bringing forward to the Committee 13 Departmental amendments to the Bill, and on 5 August the Committee received confirmation that an enabling power amendment for regulations on key employment matters would be prepared and put before the Committee with a paper in the proposed regulations. The Committee had also raised with the Minister a number of other concerns, where it would wish to agree further amendments as appropriate, and, as necessary, put down its own amendments. One of these would involve another enabling clause for further regulations to bring ‘clarity, certainty and confidence’ to the Bill where this is lacking on ESA Committees, particularly Local Committees. The Committee has also registered specific concerns on membership of the ESA Board and the ownership of controlled schools, the latter being a wide ranging concern and a key subject for the Second Education Bill. The Committee is due to complete its deliberations on the Bill and report back to the Assembly by 30 September 2009.

Community Use of School Premises Bill

8. Also, during this period, the Committee considered a Private Members’ Bill put forward by Mr David McNarry, MLA – Community Use of School Premises. Although the Committee agreed with the underlying principles of the Bill it could not support the Bill at Second Stage, and the Bill was not moved by Mr McNarry. The Committee continues to press the Department on what actions are, and will be taken to address the concerns raised in the Bill.

SUBORDINATE LEGISLATION

9. The Committee considered, and through briefing and question and answer sessions with Department officials, approved three proposed statutory rules during this report period. A further proposed statutory rule which the Committee considered during this period, the draft Teachers’ (Compensation for Redundancy and Premature Retirement) Regulations 2009, will undoubtedly be a priority for scrutiny for the next session.

BUDGET SCRUTINY

10. To reflect the importance of budget scrutiny, the Committee took the decision in September 2008 to undertake regular education budget scrutiny sessions, normally through monthly budget briefing sessions from Senior Departmental Finance Officers. This included specific scrutiny sessions on the 2008-09 and 2009-10 education budgets, in-year monitoring bids/surrenders, BELB budget shortfall for 2008-09 and on-going scrutiny to increase relative funding to primary schools. The Committee, for example, pressed the Department on the lower percentage of the education budget which goes directly to schools in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK. The Department in recognition of this and that the earmarking of approximately £20 million of the education budget erodes flexibility on the use of resources, has been proactively assessing the scope for mainstreaming other earmarked budgets, having delegated some £27 million directly to primary schools from 2009/10.

Also, in response to the Committee’s scrutiny of the Common Funding Formula (CFF) for schools the Department not only delivered short-term changes to the CFF for 2009/10 but initiated a more strategic review of school funding arrangements which will include the CFF -the Committee awaits the outcome of this.

POLICY SCRUTINY

11. Despite the heavy workload and commitment to the Education Bill scrutiny throughout this period, the Committee took its responsibilities regarding policy scrutiny very seriously by responding to and providing feed back on numerous policy reviews and draft strategies by the Department of Education – some of which will have a major impact on our education system. This is reflected in paragraph 1 above and the following list of policy areas scrutinised. Scrutiny took the form of written and oral briefings by Senior Departmental officials and other educational providers, after which the Committee would question witnesses, with follow-up letters issued, confirming Committee views and further questions (the Committee’s website has available the minutes of all meetings and records of minutes of the proceedings, where applicable):

  • Primary School Funding - the Committee’s concerns regarding the relative level of funding for primary schools carried over from the previous session’s work and the Department responded with changes to the Common Funding Formula resulting in an increase in the fully delegated funding to primary schools by some £27 million in 2009/10.
  • Special Educational Needs and Inclusion Review – public consultation ends October 2009.
  • Specialist Schools – current issues of concern highlighted to the Department.
  • Sustainable Schools Policy – the Committee response to the draft policy (which included individual party responses) detailed the issue of the need to maintain local schools (particularly small rural schools) as key to the community was reflected in the final policy document.
  • Every School a Good School – A Policy for School Improvement and a Strategy for Raising Achievement in Literacy and Numeracy - scrutiny including evidence sessions with the Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce on the Bookstart Programme, and on outcomes in relation to pupil performance and relative attainment arising from an Assembly Research paper. The Committee is scheduled to discuss the Revised Literacy and Numeracy Strategy with the Department in December 2009, which should reflect a number of the Committee’s concerns including, for example, greater emphasis in encouraging good practice rather than punitive measures and ensuring that underachievement is not rewarded but addressed by focused/targeted intervention in a measured way.
  • Review of Irish Medium Education – await outcome of public consultation.
  • Early Years 0-6 Strategy – final strategy likely towards end 2009.
  • School Development Proposal Process – inform Committee scrutiny of area based planning of school estate in Second Education Bill.
  • Policy on Supporting Newcomer Pupils – concerns including lack of clarity in the use of funds available for newcomers and information on outcomes were acknowledged for action by the Department.
  • Review of Teacher Education - await joint DE/DEL Review Draft Report in autumn 2009.
  • Pupil Records and Reporting –significant concern was raised by the Committee regarding the definition and requirements of formative records of a pupil’s progress/achievement and further work was required by DE with public consultation on Regulations late 2009/early 2010.
  • Review of the Common Funding Formula – (see reference at paragraph 10).

The Committee also looked at a number of other policy areas including:

  • Middletown Centre for Autism;
  • Chief Inspectors’ Report – Education and Training Inspectorate;
  • Alternative Education Providers;
  • Food in Schools Policy; and
  • School based relationships and sexual education policy.

ENGAGEMENT – INFORMAL MEETINGS/EVENTS

12. At the outset of this session, the Committee agreed that where possible it would hold meetings in schools and venues outside Parliament Buildings on a more regular basis. During this session the Committee held four meetings in schools across Northern Ireland; in Holy Cross College, Strabane, Ballymena Academy, Portadown College and St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook. As well as completing its scheduled formal meeting work, the visits gave the Committee the opportunity to scrutinise additional subjects such as Area Learning Communities, Area Based Planning Groups, the Craigavon System of Education, Bilateral School Status, Specialist School status and the skills gap with school leavers. The Committee also held informal question and answer sessions with a group of young people from each of the four schools and pupils from the surrounding schools (see photographs at the end of this Report). The Committee received excellent feedback from the Principals and Teachers from the schools involved in these sessions.

13. Due to the increasing allocation of Committee meeting time to the scrutiny of the Education Bill, the Committee continued to ensure that it met with, and heard representatives from educational stakeholders on a wide variety of issues by meeting with these groups informally. Through the year Members of the Committee met with representatives from Craigavon Area Schools, the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust, Autism NI, Early Years, Buddy Bear Trust and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People’s office. These informal meetings gave representatives from these organisations the opportunity to have meaningful and direct engagement with Members of the Committee. Details of all the informal meetings and any follow-up actions with the Department of Education were brought to the attention and endorsed at a formal meeting of the Committee.

14. An additional 14 organisations, who had sought a visit from or meeting with the Committee throughout the course of the year, were invited to an informal meeting event held in the Long Gallery on 24 June 2009 to meet directly with Members of the Committee (see photographs). Again, any follow-up action from this event was agreed by the full Committee.

15. Also, during this session the Committee co-hosted on 18 February 2009 with the Committee for Employment and Learning and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment a panel discussion of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) experts at an event in the Long Gallery. Panel members and the invited audience of some 100 STEM stakeholders welcomed the opportunity to voice their concerns and to call for effective and immediate action arising from the overdue publication of the STEM Review Report; action urgently required for economic recovery in Northern Ireland at this particular time. The three Committee Chairpersons confirmed their commitment to driving forward the STEM agenda.

COMMITTEE MOTIONS

16. As reflected earlier in this Report, the Committee agreed a Motion to extend the Committee Stage of the Education Bill to enable the Committee to complete a comprehensive and thorough scrutiny of the Bill. On 2 February 2009, the Assembly agreed to extend the Committee Stage of the Bill to 30 September 2009.

LIKELY KEY PRIORITIES FOR THE NEXT SESSION

17. Undoubtedly the completion of scrutiny of the First Education Bill and the scrutiny of the Second education Bill will be the main focus of the Committee’s work throughout the next session. The Committee is due to report to the Assembly on the First Bill by 30 September 2009 and will embark upon its formal consideration of the Second Bill once it has been introduced formally to the Assembly by the Minister. Transfer from primary to post-primary school, which will continue to be an issue affecting many children, parents and teachers, will be an important area for Committee for Education scrutiny during the next session. Other key priorities will include: the Review of Special Education Needs and Inclusion and the Early Years 0-6 Strategy. On subordinate legislation key priorities will include the proposed Employment Regulations and any other Regulations emanating from the First Education Bill, and the draft Teachers’ (Compensation for Redundancy and Premature Retirement) Regulations 2009.

Annex A

Committee for Education – Expenditure for the period

1 September 2008 – 31 August 2009

Budget Area

Details

Expenditure

Committee Travel – committee members and staff travel and subsistence in relation to visits and meetings outside Parliament Buildings Includes the cost of 4 committee meetings held outside at the following schools:
  • Holy Cross College , Strabane
  • Ballymena Academy
  • Portadown College
  • St Paul ’s High School, Bessbrook
£1,385.10
Advertising – the cost of public notices relating to committee inquiries, the committee stage of bills and meetings held outside Parliament Buildings Includes the cost of public notices in relation to:
  • The Education Bill, and
  • 4 meetings held outside Parliament Buildings
£2,188.96
General expenses Cost of refreshments for Committee meetings, working lunches, seminars and witness expenses £1,949.39
   
£5,523.45

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