Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 18 May 2007
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Sammy Wilson (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs Mary Bradley
Mr Paul Butler
Mr Jeffrey Donaldson
Mr Trevor Lunn
Mr Basil McCrea
Miss Michelle McIlveen
Mrs Michelle O’Neill
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Mervyn Storey
Ms Caitríona Ruane (Minister of Education)
Dr Robson Davison (Department of Education)
Mr Will Haire (Department of Education
Dr Eddie Rooney (Department of Education)
The Chairperson (Mr S Wilson):
I welcome the Minister of Education, Ms Caitríona Ruane. Thank you for coming to the first meeting of the Committee for Education. We have been informed that you will also be in attendance next week and the week after that. We will eventually be able to offer you honorary membership of the Committee. [Laughter.]
I understand that you will make an introductory statement and perhaps answer some general questions. I have explained to the members of the Committee that now is not the time for detailed questions but for general enquiries about your direction and that of the Department. We will then have a presentation. Will you be able to stay for that?
Ms Caitríona Ruane (Minister of Education):
I will give a presentation and answer questions. Unfortunately, I have to buail an bóthar — hit the road — after that.
I am sure that the departmental officials will be happy to answer questions from Committee members after the presentation. The floor is yours, Minister.
Thank you, Sammy — a Chathaoirligh — and members of the Committee for Education for this opportunity to speak to you. First, I wish to say how much I look forward to working with you. I do not have to tell you that we have a huge job to do in the coming weeks, months and years. This is an exciting time to be the Minister of Education here in the North, and with the restoration of the Assembly, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, we have every reason to be confident for the future of all our young people.
I do not know whether you saw last night’s television programme about four babies who have been born since the return of devolution. That programme conveyed a real sense of what people want and their hopes for their children. The task ahead is an onerous one.
Ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mé ag dúil go mór le dul i mbun oibre sna míonna agus sna blianta atá romhainn. Is tréimhse shuimiúil chorraitheach í seo d’Aire Oideachais. Le hathbhunú an Tionóil, na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas, agus Chomhairle na Breataine-na hÉireann, tá cúis mhaith againn ar fad a bheith muiníneach as an todhchaí atá ann d’óige an lae inniu.
For those members of the Committee who do not speak Irish, I repeated the words of the previous paragraph, because I was not sure that we would have a translation facility.
The 340,000 young people who are in our education system represent the future. We have responsibility for more than 20,000 teachers and thousands of classroom assistants, as well as catering and transport personnel, administrators and many other educationalists. The children and all those involved in the education system are at the heart of one of the core services of Government. We must give our children the best possible education — a broad, stimulating experience that puts fun as well as academic excellence into learning. They should enjoy their youth while becoming articulate, confident and creative young citizens.
We must have a wide vision for education in the twenty-first century. The education years really must be the best of people’s lives — a time of enthusiasm, challenge, learning and fun.
When my children are doing something special in school — extra-curricular sports, language classes, plays or drama — they go to school happy and with a smile on their face. Many Committee members are parents too; we must consider together how to develop such special school events.
We want our children to have high aspirations, to feel safe and protected, and to feel challenged and interested. We want them to take a global view, because what happens in every other part of the world is directly linked to what happens here. For example, the challenges of climate change, fair trade and waste management are relevant now, and for the future.
Education can form the bedrock for a stable community, equality and a prosperous economy. The potential of education is immense, and we owe it to all our children to do our best by them. We need to learn from best practice: hence the importance that I place on working within the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. However, I know that delegations have also visited New Zealand and other parts of the world. We should not tie ourselves only to those bodies or to ideas that come only from within Ireland or Europe.
Much needs to be done. We know of the excellence in our education system and of the great results that many of our young people achieve. Like me, Committee members will have met many young people who are wonderful examples of confidence, enthusiasm and talent. However, we also know that the system does not serve everyone as well as it should. After 12 years of compulsory education, about 40% of our young people leave school without a level 2 qualification. Some 4,000 leave the system every year without appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy. That is an indictment on all of us. Without qualifications, young people face real challenges in securing and retaining employment. They do not get on to even the first rung of the ladder. That must be addressed urgently.
Many young children with learning disabilities need better support. Special educational needs will be a key priority for me, and I note that the manifestos of all the political parties cite special educational needs as a key priority. We need to deal with that issue. Two of the best visits that I made over the past week were to a special school and a unit for children with physical disabilities. I felt like crying at times — not because there was a lack of educational provision, but because of the huge challenge that faces us. The work that is going on in special schools and units is tremendous. The people there need more support from politicians, and that will be one of our big challenges. A major review of special educational needs is under way, and I look forward to sharing its outcomes with the Committee in due course.
For increasing numbers of young people, English is an additional language, not their first language. Those children need support. Issues arise in special schools as well. In one school that I visited, there was a girl from another country whose first language was not English and who also had special needs. There is a challenge for us — how can we help such a child?
We can learn from other European countries about the teaching of languages. If our children are to participate fully in institutions such as the United Nations or the European Union, we will need to help them to learn other languages. We are some way behind other countries in our way of teaching and in how late we begin. It would be interesting to go to classrooms in different European countries to see how early they start to teach languages. We need to grapple with such issues.
We can learn from the Irish-medium sector. Many children go into that sector at three years of age without a word of Irish, and, in a year and a half, they are fluent. Something special and unique is happening there and, rather than dismissing it, we must learn from it. We have to consider other languages as well.
For many young people, the curriculum does not appear particularly exciting or relevant. Too many young people drop out of school before the end; too many leave with limited qualifications; and too many leave without a love of sport and with a poor understanding of health issues. Perhaps too many of them are obese.
Obesity is a social time bomb that will affect everyone, and the earlier we intervene, the better. We have failed to lay the basis for a healthy adult life for some young people, and we must ensure that that is now achieved.
The revised curriculum provides schools with the opportunity to offer a more vocational curriculum for young people aged over 14. I am very supportive of that broad direction, and I would like to work with Sir Reg Empey and Nigel Dodds to see how that can best be developed.
We know that many schools are not in good condition; some are an absolute disgrace. There is too little youth provision and much of it is not in good order. I could go on, but we all know the problems in our schools, and they are challenges that we must face. The core point that I wish to make is that I want to face those issues with the Committee and work together on them. I take my responsibilities as a Minister very seriously. I have a duty to lead that I will not shirk. As a scrutinising Committee, you share a major role with me. Advice and scrutiny from the Committee will help and challenge me, and I look forward to a robust working relationship.
You will have that — do not worry. [Laughter.]
Sammy and I held a meeting the other day, and, although there are issues about which we will have many powwows, there are many areas in which we can work together. Moving forward and making changes together is key. We all have responsibilities. I am open to working with the Committee, and I hear from the Chairperson that the Committee feels likewise — I look forward to that. I do not have all the answers, and I will not pretend that I have. Beware of anyone who claims to have the answers, especially a week after they have begun a job — they are either listening too much or not enough.
We all have differing views on education. As I have said, we will debate those differences vigorously, robustly and sometimes sharply — we may sometimes feel like footballs bouncing around football pitches — but I look forward to working with the Committee.
As I discussed with Sammy, the parties agree on many issues and, by working together, a consensus on the best solutions can be found. If, in four years’ time, we have dealt with disadvantage, increased quality in schools, tackled literacy and numeracy problems and addressed the issue of special needs, we will have done something very special. I am sure that we agree that increased and better-quality provision for special needs is essential, and finding the best way forward to achieve that will be important.
Like members of the Committee, I am learning my brief. I have been to teacher conferences in Down, Cork, Belfast, Donegal and Sligo, and I shall attend the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference tonight. I have visited youth centres, and attended a volunteering event yesterday. I have also visited schools in all sectors — primary, secondary, grammar, Irish language, integrated and special needs — as well as the Middletown Centre for Autism.
I have met principals and governors and heard about their problems and frustrations. However, I have sensed a huge commitment and passion. For example, a week before my nomination as Minister, I was invited to a school awards presentation, and I turned up a week early. [Laughter.]
That was one of those lovely moments when you shrug your shoulders and wonder if you are in the right place. On a serious note, however, I arrived at 8.00 pm, and the caretaker, principal and vice-principal were still there. That demonstrated a huge level of passion and commitment.
Teachers are too often criticised for getting too many holidays and not doing enough work. We must start to value our teachers, principals and boards of governors. I recently attended a boards of governors’ conference. The role that they play — which is voluntary — is vital, and they need our esteem and support.
Members will be glad to know that I am almost finished. As politicians, it is easy to blame everyone but ourselves. We have a huge challenge to take control, give political leadership, inject dynamism and provide clear direction.
I listen to everyone with an interest in education — the unions, the schools and young people. Many issues are being raised about the transfer procedure, the review of public administration (RPA) and the various other reviews that are under way. As Sammy said, I wish to take some time to come to conclusions. I cannot formulate views on all policy instantly; you would not expect that of me: beware if I do. Nor do I expect the Committee to come immediately to its consensus. Let us work together in the coming weeks to listen to each other, to understand the issues, and see how we can take them forward. Let us find practical ways of working and building together, and show that there is a different way of doing business.
For too long, we have employed a combative way of doing business. Now there is a sense of excitement about the fact that there has been agreement. I have asked pupils in every school that I have visited what they think about what has happened, and they have responded by saying that it is great because politicians are talking instead of fighting. There are lessons that we need to learn from our young people. We have defined a new way of having a debate, so that it does not look as though we are always fighting. We need to show people that we are working together, listening to all the differing opinions, and deciding on ways forward, despite our differences.
I look forward to sharing with you any events that are held, and I would particularly welcome any ideas that you might have for joint events. I am also keen that we consider the issues to be addressed in future. The Committee and its research can be of great assistance to the Department. We have no monopoly on expertise; we must listen to each other, plan together and think together.
There is a lovely saying in Irish: “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí” — “Praise youth and it will flourish”. At one of the meetings that I attended, someone said to me, “We need to empower our young people. We need to hear their voice”. We are all working for them, yet they have the least power in the system at the moment. Sin an méid.
Thank you very much, Minister. May I ask how long you can stay for questions?
May I start with one question —
Shall I answer each question individually?
I think so. I appreciate the Minister’s approach and I ask that we keep the questions general. We welcome the fact that you will be here for the first three meetings of the Committee and we look forward to working with you. Our role is one of scrutiny, so there will be times when we will have our differences, which will become apparent, but we all have a common goal, which is to ensure that we have the best education system possible to deliver the necessary skills.
May I ask one question, Minister, on your general approach? You have outlined a range of measures in which the Department is involved, some of which involve massive change. You have inherited most of those measures from the direct-rule administration, but some are changes that you would like to introduce yourself. The evidence from many people at the chalk face of education is that they are punch-drunk with changes and initiatives. You are aware of those initiatives — they are listed in our brief — and they are well known in public. Some of those involved in education are asking whether they can just mark time and try to get on with the job of educating youngsters.
How do you see your role, and what can you do to reduce the burden of change, which seems to be dragging the whole system down and which is causing great difficulties at the chalk face?
I agree with you. The first thing that struck me was the level of change in education. However, having listened to people from across the sector, we are all agreed that we need change.
Change, when it is managed well, can be very creative. Change, when it is managed badly, is not good. Creative ways to manage change must be found. However, we must also be careful that we do not allow matters to stand still, because that can lead to stagnation.
Your question is particularly relevant because there is much change and pressure across the education system, and I am examining various ways to ensure that that does not happen all at once. The Department is considering a phased approach and different ways of doing things — but I do not want everything to stand still because I do not think that that would be helpful.
Last week, I attended the first meeting of the Executive. Ministers must demonstrate very quickly that they are taking control, bringing about change, and making a difference for the people for which they are working — in this case, for the children in the education system.
I have been listening to teachers. Next Thursday, I will be attending a conference where I will meet approximately 400 school principals, and I will be bringing forward proposals in relation to the changes that will be taking place. This is an exciting time, and the changes will be managed very carefully. I look forward to working on those changes with the Committee.
Two issues have been raised about the curriculum. The first is about the revised curriculum and entitlement framework, and the second is that many schools feel that there has been a lack of training in preparation for that. Will the timetable still be adhered to, or will it be revised as a result of the issues that have been raised?
The Department is reconsidering the curriculum and entitlement framework, as it is aware of the concerns about the lack of training, the amount of change taking place, and how teachers are going to cope, particularly in September. I will be bringing forward proposals on that very soon.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about special educational needs. I declare an interest as a governor of Parkview Special School in Lisburn. I spend quite a bit of time trying to raise money for the school because its budget is insufficient for the facilities that it wants to provide. The staff and pupils would be delighted if the Minister would visit the school.
What is the position of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, which was suspended because of the stance it took on special educational needs? The board refused to implement the cuts that were imposed on it by the Department of Education and, as a result, democracy was swept away. Unaccountable, unelected commissioners were appointed who, quite frankly, adopted a totalitarian approach to education in my constituency and in the constituencies of other Committee members in the area. Schools are being closed with scant regard for the views of the local community, and special educational needs provision is being cut. It is time that democracy was restored in education in my constituency and in the constituencies of other members of the Committee.
I ask the Minister, as a matter of urgency, to look at the need to reinstate the South Eastern Education and Library Board so that a degree of accountability can be restored to the delivery of education in that area, at least in the controlled sector. That way, public representatives could have some say in the matter, rather than being invited along for a cup of tea and being told what is happening, with very little opportunity to do anything to change it — particularly with regard to special educational needs.
I accept that the Minister is genuine in her desire to address special educational needs, in particular. However, at present, special needs schools in my constituency have no one to turn to who can represent their community and take decisions. The commissioners are accountable only to the Department of Education, and no local representatives can have a say in the delivery of education in any constituency in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area. Frankly, given the new dispensation in Northern Ireland, that situation should not be tolerated for one moment longer.
I would love to visit Parkview Special School, and I would be delighted if you would convey that message to staff there. Thank you for your comments; as you said, special needs is a matter that is dear to my heart. I will therefore focus on it.
With regard to spending cuts, Peter Robinson, a DUP Minister, and I need an urgent meeting about funding; more money is needed to deal with special needs. All parties must come together to ensure that more funding is directed into special needs. I do not think that anyone here is against that. Education is underfunded, and we need to work out how to get more money into it. Therefore, Jeffrey, if you have more influence over Peter Robinson than I do, please use it to that end.
I do not want to go into detail about the comments that were made about the South Eastern Education and Library Board. However, it is better to keep the local democratic structures, and we must consider how we can do that. Some issues about that board need to be examined, and I will do that soon.
Mr D Bradley:
Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire, agus ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leat as do cheapachán. Guím gach rath ort féin agus ar do chuid oibre sna míonna atá romhat.
Congratulations on your appointment; I wish you well in your work, and, as you said, quite a lot of it lies ahead of you.
I welcome your commitment to special needs and to literacy and numeracy. The definition of special needs is very broad, and it covers much more than that which we usually consider as special needs. Underachievement, especially for boys, is a matter that the Committee should explore.
I was interested in your comments about language teaching. You mentioned that the progress that has been made in this country is not quite as good as that which has been made on the Continent, and you made comparisons with the success that the Irish-medium sector has had teaching languages to younger children. Do you intend to introduce modern languages into primary schools?
At the beginning of the meeting, the Chairperson mentioned the overload of innovation that schools face, and he referred to the revised curriculum. You said that you are planning to meet a group of primary-school principals next week. However, the feedback that I have received from some principals is that although they are committed to the revised curriculum, they feel that they and their staff have not received the necessary training to implement the curriculum from next September. In addition to that, they do not feel that they have the resources — particularly personnel — to implement the curriculum at primary 2 stage from next September. Many principals hold the view that it would be better to have the option to defer the introduction of the revised curriculum for one year rather than to introduce it in September, especially given that their staff will not have the necessary resources. Is that option open to you?
Go raibh maith agat, a Dhominic, ar son na rudaí deasa a dúirt tú. Thank you for your comments and good wishes, Dominic.
I would love to see primary schools teaching more modern languages — and by “modern”, I do not just mean the traditional French and Spanish. There are new communities in our society, such as the Chinese community. Polish is also a key language.
I have personal experience of three ways to learn a language. First, I learned French in school. Without any disrespect to my French teacher — because it was not her fault, it was the system —
Mr D Bradley:
She is not listening in today. [Laughter.]
She is in Castlebar — but just in case it gets back. After six years of learning French, I could not carry on even a little conversation with you.
Secondly, at 21 years of age, I arrived in Nicaragua and El Salvador without a word of Spanish. Within three months I was fluent. I learned Spanish the same way that I learned English — the same way that we all learn our mother tongue, whichever it is. When you get up in the morning and go downstairs and your mother says, “ Hello, how are you?” and you get your grammar mixed up, nobody says, “That was the wrong verb. You shouldn’t say that.” You enjoy hearing your three-year-old niece saying, “No I willn’t.”
Thirdly, I watched my three-year-old child, who had not had a word of Irish, learn to speak it within a year. Then, when we were in a Spanish-speaking country, she was able to pick up the language. She had developed an ear; she did not panic the minute she heard someone speaking in a different language. She thought, That was interesting. If you are trained in a particular way as a young child, it is much easier to learn languages.
That is a long-winded way to get to my point, which is that children must be taught languages at an earlier age. We should look at doing that in primary 1 — in fact, if pre-schools could do it, that would be all the better.
There is a unique opportunity now. We have Brazilian and Portuguese communities who speak Portuguese living here, and Latin American communities who speak Spanish. The Polish community is amazingly go-ahead. They speak Polish, Russian and English — and some are learning Irish, so they have four languages. I would love our children to be able to do that.
I know that Dominic Bradley has a particular interest in language, and I welcome any ideas that he might have. So my answer is yes, I would like to introduce modern languages into primary schools.
Mr D Bradley:
The answer is yes, then?
You took that as a yes, did you? [Laughter.] We must find the best way to do it. It must be done carefully. Overload has been mentioned, and the last thing that teachers should be thinking is, Janey mac, here is something else that we have to do. It must be done in a careful and sensitive way, and we must then celebrate the results.
On next Thursday evening, I will be attending a reception for modern-language teachers. That will be interesting. I hear what you are saying about being overloaded with information. The teachers say the same thing, and they say it with a sense of pain, because they like the new curriculum, which celebrates and gives power back to teachers rather than throwing programmes of work at them and saying, “Do this, do this, do this, do this.” If they take a school trip or do something for the environment, they feel guilty. That should not be the case. Education is much broader than programmes of work for every half-hour of the day. A curriculum that celebrates teachers and their professional skills must be introduced sensitively. I know that there are issues around training, timing and technology. The Department is considering those, and proposals will be brought forward.
Minister, if you do not mind staying, there are still three members who have comments to make. I remind you that everything you say will appear in Hansard, so if you give us the name of your French teacher, we will make sure to send her a copy. [Laughter.]
Mr D Bradley:
It will be used in evidence against you.
Mr B McCrea:
You are very welcome, Minister. I wish I could say a little bit in Irish. Unfortunately, I cannot. I will ask you a number of questions rather than make a speech.
I note the aim of your Department:
“To educate and develop the young people of Northern Ireland to the highest possible standards.”
You might consider that, perhaps, the aim might be to give the young people of Northern Ireland the skills and ability to compete in a modern, competitive world. That would provide some focus on the purpose of education.
What interaction do you have with industry in the many places that you have been? Are we educating people to give them the skills to do something? What plans do you have to achieve the required outputs?
We have discussed the English language. The Germans have a motto that Spanish can be learned in three weeks, English can be learned in three years, and someone can study German for 37 years and still not get it right. That demonstrates what language is about. However, do you accept that the international language of business is English, which is why not many of our students take up modern languages because we do not have a geographical proximity to other places? English is required throughout the world to do business, so it should be an education priority.
Another issue is the role of life skills. Many people in Northern Ireland, particularly those from the more deprived areas, leave school and have difficulty in boiling a pot of potatoes, so they are forced to spend their money at the local fish-and-chip shop. That is not to be disparaging. Are there any plans to try to give life skills to those people?
All Departments in any Administration are guilty of silo thinking. When the viability of schools is considered, the fact that they are at the core of our communities should be taken into account. It is not sufficient to examine this issue on a purely economic basis. Therefore, the decision to close so-called ineffective rural schools is not necessarily the right one. Are we really sure that we are going down the right road if we look only at the efficacy of education because of its impact on the community as a whole? I have mentioned that matter to the permanent secretary.
I thank you for the sentiment that you wish that you could say something in Irish. I really appreciate that.
The highest possible standards in the modern, competitive world have been mentioned. The new curriculum considers how best we can do that. We need to be flexible, think outside the box, examine active citizenship and think about how we work with different sectors and the range of needs.
Our education system has given huge esteem and status to the academic sector and not enough to the professional, technical, vocational and other sectors. That needs to change, and it is one way of dealing with disadvantage and young people leaving school without proper literacy and numeracy skills. People need to be stimulated and to understand why they need to know about right angles, for example, if they are working on a building site or if they are installing a cooker.
A Latin American pedagogist, Paulo Freire, speaks of making learning real for people. That is the challenge for us. If education is real, people enjoy, understand and are stimulated by it.
Basil McCrea is right — there are too many silos. We must work with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning. To be fair, the Departments were left in that situation because of the lack of local leadership. We need to seize the opportunity now and work on a cross-cutting basis. That is why I welcome the anti-poverty strategy, which will cut across all Departments.
We could have a good debate about English as a language. I hear you when you say that it is one of the major world languages, but that depends on what part of the world you are in. In China, English is a major language, but so is Chinese, as is Arabic in the Middle East and Spanish in Latin America. We must be careful that our world view does not have a Eurocentric focus. Rather than assuming that English is the most important language, we should look at four, five or six key languages. How do we prepare for that? Do we want only Spanish, Italian and Polish people working in Europe making decisions for this island, and for England, Scotland and Wales? We need our people at the heart of those institutions, influencing the EU directives that we all hear about. However, in order to get jobs there, applicants need a couple of different languages. We will have more debate on this issue.
Mr B McCrea:
We will indeed have a debate on this issue.
English is obviously a very important language —
Mr B McCrea:
It is the language of business.
There are a couple of different languages; we need to be careful not to prioritise one language over the others. We will continue that debate.
Life skills are a major part of the new curriculum. There will be difficulties with the new curriculum, but it will also be very exciting. Our children will be taught a broader range of subjects, and that will be a challenge.
Basil McCrea asked about rural schools: schools are very important in a rural community. I know that the Committee will be discussing the Bain Report, and I am examining the challenges that George Bain has presented to us. We must examine what is best for the North of Ireland, taking into account factors such as the importance of schools in rural communities and the amount of time that children, especially young children, have to spend travelling to school. We need good schools for all our children. We must plan the schools estate so that the money is at the front line and children are at the centre. That will be a major debate. I come from a rural community; I understand the importance of schools in those communities. We need to make every school a good school and to work through the challenges that face us.
We are severely eating into time that we do not have. Three more members have indicated that they want to ask questions. If they could keep the questions brief —
And keep the answers brief also?
The Chairperson:And keep the answers brief also. I do not want to be accused of squeezing anybody out of this discussion, but I know that we have kept the Minister well over her time. I appreciate the fact that she has stayed longer than planned.
Minister, I find your comments about languages very encouraging. The attitude that the rest of the world should learn English and that we do not need to learn other languages is out of date and arrogant, so more power to you. I cannot help but think that after four years of this Committee, we will all have a bit of Irish, the way things are going.
My question concerns the integrated education movement. Will you attach the same priority to integrated education as your predecessors? Will you give it an even higher priority or tinker with it in any way? What are your thoughts on integrated education?
I believe that choice is important for parents — within reason, obviously. If we gave every single parent a choice on every single issue, we would have a very unwieldy system. I have huge respect for the integrated education sector. In the space of two weeks, I have visited an integrated school, had two meetings with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), and attended the NICIE conference and a NICIE film award at Queen’s Film Theatre.
The integrated education sector is important, but there are different ways of integrating. I note a huge, and growing, level of integration in different parts of the North — learning communities and some interesting projects in Omagh and Antrim. I want to get out to those places and see that in practice. The more that we can work together and learn from one another while celebrating diversity, the better.
Reference has been made to integrated schools. Part of the Department’s development of area-based planning, and planning for the whole of the North, is considering how best to manage the needs of the different sectors, including the Irish-medium and integrated sectors. The sooner that our children can be linked together, the better. I hope that that answers the question. The integrated sector is very important.
Minister, in all your public pronouncements to date, you have placed emphasis on equality and reiterated the importance of parental choice. Will you give an assurance that you will end the Department’s discrimination of certain sectors that have been ignored — the independent Christian sector and the independent sector in general in Northern Ireland? I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of an independent Christian school.
My children have been learning Spanish and German in the independent Christian sector since they started primary school. I would appreciate it if you would undertake to consider the way in which that sector has been ignored by previous Administrations.
I welcome the fact that your children are learning different languages; that is great. The Department is considering the independent sector. Departmental officials have had meetings, but I have not yet arrived at any decisions or opinions. The issue of faith-based schools and new communities is huge. Therefore, it is something that the Department will be considering.
Mr K Robinson:
Dzień dobry, Minister.
I am sorry?
Mr K Robinson:
Thank you. [Laughter.] I presume that —
Mr K Robinson:
As modern languages have been the talking point, I have just greeted you in Polish.
OK, thank you. [Laughter.] Dzień dobry. I am taking that as a compliment rather than an insult.
Mr K Robinson:
It could have been gru bgott or guten morgen, but I chose dzień dobry.
Minister, I have a couple of concerns to raise with you. Is the general change in education being driven by the recent Westminster inquiries, or is it being propelled by a genuine, if belated, desire to change educational opportunities constructively for all our children? I noted the comment about priority from my colleague across the table. I do not think that you mentioned the controlled sector this morning. I hope that you and your Department will treat the controlled sector with equal concern.
Minister, will you address the scandal of the current number of young unemployed teachers? Teachers are finishing college and are not even guaranteed a year in which to practise their chosen profession. They could be used to help the more mature teachers who are struggling and burning themselves out, particularly in inner-city schools and those that are near housing estates.
Last Sunday, I attended a function after a church service, and a school principal — a person of great experience — came to me almost in tears. His school is full: it does not have financial problems, but the principal’s teachers are burning out in front of him. Other members have made that case as well. That is the core issue. It would be great if schools could provide lessons in many different languages, and you have majored in languages this morning. I would like you to get those young teachers employed in schools. They must be allowed to gain the experience that would help them to take the weight off the shoulders of those teachers who have carried the burden for so long, before they break totally.
I hope that I have not just majored in languages. I talked a lot about dealing with disadvantage, and I talked a lot about special needs. Regarding the controlled sector, I thought that I had mentioned the fact that I visited schools in all the different sectors and —
Mr K Robinson:
Minister, if I may interrupt you, the management structure in special schools is controlled. Possibly, it is to that to which you referred.
Of course I am interested in every sector. I ask members to tell the schools in their areas to invite me to come to visit them. I would be happy to do that. I have met with the education and library boards on two occasions to consider education across the Roinn.
I agree with Ken Robinson about young unemployed teachers. The number of teachers who cannot get jobs must be investigated. In fact, one of those interviewed on this week’s ‘Spotlight’ was a young teacher who could not get a teaching job when she came back here after completing her training. Promotional opportunities for teachers must be considered, because a system must be created in which teachers can move between sectors, including into the youth sector. More flexibility and more opportunities for teachers must be generated.
There is a lack of teachers on either side of the border in certain sectors. Therefore, we must find a way to harmonise teaching in border areas and to help teachers to take opportunities on both sides.
Many moons ago, I worked for Trócaire, part of whose work is as a development educational organisation. It developed a process whereby teachers looked at the curriculum and were involved in developing citizenship; many development educational groups, such as Trócaire, Christian Aid and Oxfam, are involved in such projects. There are ways to identify opportunities to bring teachers out for a while; some of that is happening, and we should build on it.
Mr K Robinson:
Minister, will you address any impediments that may prevent teachers moving from one sector to another?
We need to look at the barriers to teachers moving between sectors. We will be working in the North/South Ministerial Council to find out what the barriers are in other sectors as well.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire; tá a lán oibre romhat.
Thank you very much for attending the Committee. I want to raise the issue of literacy and numeracy. The Department has had some bad press about the proposed literacy and numeracy task force, and as Marion Matchett, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said, many children leave school after 12 years with low levels of literacy and numeracy. I taught in a further education college for many years and found it almost impossible to teach some school-leavers because of their lack of skills in those areas. However, that problem could be eliminated in the lifetime of the Assembly.
I am also a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning. At our meeting on Wednesday, which the Minister, Reg Empey, attended, it was pointed out that the number of people who leave school with very few skills after 12 years is frightening. Literacy and numeracy skills are essential for a successful economy. We are going to have heated debates on other issues such as new-build schools. I am a member of the South Eastern Education and Library Board and know that many of its school buildings are crumbling. However, we can work in the Department of Education and in the Department for Employment and Learning to eradicate poor literacy and numeracy in the lifetime of the Assembly.
I agree. As I said earlier, if there were one achievement that we could celebrate as a Department, Committee and Assembly, it would be the eradication of the literacy and numeracy problem. We have to believe that we can do that. All the parties’ manifestos referred to that issue in some form, as poor literacy and numeracy are linked to disadvantage. We have to grasp the nettle and bring about change. I look forward to working with the Committee on that issue — it will be an indictment on us if we do not bring about change.
However, we can only do that if we have enough money. All four parties on the Executive must sing from the same hymn sheet on the issues of education and disadvantage to get the resources that we need. Anyone who has as good a relationship — or a better relationship than I have — with Peter Robinson, please use your influence. I noted your comments in a newspaper interview, Sammy, that you see part of your role as lobbying both the Minister of Education and the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Let us look at creative ways to get rid of illiteracy and give our children a fair chance. I mentioned earlier the example of Paulo Freire; his methods show that there are ways of making education exciting and stimulating.
I was in a controlled grammar school, and one of the children said to me that I spoke a great deal about equality but wanted to know what I was going to do about the many prefabricated buildings in the school. Let us get rid of all prefabricated buildings in the schools estate. That would be an achievement for the Department and for the Committee.
Minister, I thank you for your time. It has been an interesting first discussion. Your officials might not take the same view because you are eating into their time, but it has been useful to have a general discussion, and we appreciate the fact that you have stayed twice as long as you said you would. We look forward to seeing you again next week.
Thank you very much.
Go raibh maith agat.