Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 31 January 2008

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 ) The Minister of Education
Mrs Dorothy Angus )
Mr Will Haire ) Department of Education
Mr Paul Price )

The Chairperson (Mr S Wilson):
This morning’s meeting is a public session and is being recorded by Hansard. I welcome everyone and thank them for their prompt attendance. Please ensure that all mobile phones are turned off.

I welcome you, Minister, to this meeting of the Committee. You will be aware that the statement that you made in the Assembly in December has generated a great deal of public debate, that many issues of great concern remain and that there is uncertainty. The Committee felt that it was important to have this session with you, and that it should be held in public in order to clear up the concerns and questions that still hang in the air after your December statement.

Do you wish to make an opening statement? I know that you only have an hour, so if your opening statement is kept as brief as possible we will have more time to ask questions.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane):
As you know, I do wish to make an opening statement. Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. It is good to be here today. I wanted to meet the Committee to make sure that members understand exactly the direction in which my proposals are going. It is a very important time for education in the North of Ireland, as people will be aware. A great deal of change is occurring, but change managed well is good change. I do not think that any member of the Committee would disagree that change is badly needed.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Committee for Education again. Members have submitted a range of questions, and I have given the Committee Clerk a written response to them. Therefore, some of what I intend to say today will rehearse that response.

As previously indicated, I will also seek to explore with the Committee some of the questions that were posed during my discussions with stakeholders; discussions which have been focused on the immediate question of transfer and admissions criteria for 2010, and the nature of the system in the long term.

Déarfaidh mé arís chomh tábhachtach agus atá sé teacht ar chomhaontú. Agus muid ag obair le chéile, tá mé cinnte go dtig linn an bealach chun tosaigh is fearr a fháil le riar ar riachtanais iomlán dár gcuid páistí; beidh sé bunaithe ar chomh-fhís agus beidh torthaí oideachais den scoth agus comhionannas deiseanna oideachais do gach páiste mar chuid lárnach de.

I want to reiterate the importance of building consensus. By working together, I am confident that we can find the best way forward to meet the needs of all our children, based on a shared vision that places high-quality educational outcomes and equality of educational opportunities for each and every child at its epicentre.

First, I will explore the broad themes of the Committee’s questions, beginning with the transfer and admissions criteria that will operate in 2010 for all our schools. Those are the immediate questions that the Department is discussing with the main educational stakeholders, alongside the longer-term questions. Those discussions are ongoing at many different levels, and progress has been made. The Committee will, obviously, appreciate that those discussions are confidential and that I will not be able to go into detail about them today. However, around broad themes, the discussions revolve around key questions — questions that I would also like the Committee to consider.

How can we have an inclusive transfer process based on shared information about the child? How can we ensure the engagement of all the relevant players?

How can we ensure that shared information will be used in a way that helps parents but that does not become the determinant of admissions? How do we match children to the appropriate method of teaching? In other words, how do we meet the needs of every individual child? That is the key aim towards which I hope we are all working. How do we ensure that every child has a fair chance?

In cases of oversubscription — and there has been much talk about this — clearly defined admissions criteria will be used, which will be provided for in regulations after statutory consultation. Previous consultations suggested that there was broad consensus on the following issues: family criteria to include sibling criteria and first/eldest child criteria; community criteria to include named/feeder primary criteria; and geographical criteria to include parish and catchment-area criteria. Whatever the exact permitted criteria may be, there will always be a need for them to be intelligently and carefully regulated and monitored.

The Committee has also asked about my intention to introduce greater flexibility and agility into our schools structure, particularly so that we can deliver expanded post-14 provision and choice to young people. From 2013, we have proposed a process of election at age 14. I envisage that that process will be well managed and structured. Equally importantly, it will inclusive and fair. The young person, in conjunction with parents, schoolteachers and careers professionals, will elect which educational pathway to follow. That is already happening in the majority of our post-primary schools in the North of Ireland.

The young person’s post-14 educational pathway may be academic or vocational, or a combination of both. That may be provided in the school that they attend, or they may go to another school to study particular subjects. Alternatively, they may do some subjects in further education colleges. They may move to different schools to specialise in particular subjects, and schools may also collaborate to offer a wider range of subjects.

Introducing flexibility throughout a child’s education is the key. Area-based planning and school collaboration can ensure that the ability of an area to offer a range of pathways is related to, and responsive to, a child’s needs. I have been asked many times about postcode selection, most shamefully by those who suddenly appeal to an equality agenda to protect a transparently unjust, unequal system. They know as well as I do that a child on free school meals has less than half the chance of admission to a grammar school than that which all other children enjoy.

Only when a range of educational pathways can be matched to the needs of individuals can we be guaranteed equality in our system. I am confident that we will successfully match children to the right post-primary provision. We will do that through effectively managing the current spare capacity in the system and working with post-primary schools in all sectors to ensure that that happens. Indeed, in my statement of 4 December, I said that some schools may require additional time and support to adjust. Once again, I want to reiterate that we are prepared to support that transition.

Area-based planning is at the heart of my proposals. As you know, I intend to make a statement in February that will set out how my Department will secure an overview of any potential restructuring in the area-based planning process, which will include terms of reference for that approach. I will engage with the Committee on this matter before I make that statement. What I can add is that some local areas and sectors are already engaging in area-based planning, and that is often prompted by demographic change and a desire to provide a broader range of choices.

My discussions with stakeholders also include questions about how we can retain school distinctiveness and diversity. Can that be done within the concepts of collaboration and a learning community? How can those models offer the prospect of retaining what is best in our system, while catering for the diverse educational needs of our children, be they academic, vocational or a combination of both?

If, for example, children in a particular area are largely served by four schools, two of which are currently selective at age 11, what are the options? If applicants, parents and schools can agree the best post-14 educational route, why would it not work for one or two of those schools to offer mainly academic education from age 14, alongside two other institutions offering mainly professional and technical post-14 provision? Why could either, or both, of those mainly academic institutions not be institutions for 14 to 19-year-olds that are defined largely by their academic provision?

Alternatively, why can they not be 11-19 institutions offering, to 14-year-olds, the clear academic pathway in their area? Why should Government make that decision for them? The possible oversubscription of an institution at either 11 or 14 is the point that is often raised in that regard. However, one should take a broader view: the North’s over-provision is such that almost all local areas in the North have too many school places.

Sa chiall is leithne, ní féidir le grúpaí áitiúla scoileanna a bheith ró-shuibscríofa. Má théann scoil ró-shuibscríofa i bpáirtíocht le scoil fo-shuibscríofa, cad chuige nach féidir linn dóigh a fháil le cumas an dá scoil le freagairt ar ráchairt áitiúil a fhorbairt? Tá ceisteanna ar an rialtas faoi conas rollaí scoile a shainmhíniú agus dolúbthacht cumais sa chóras.

In a wider setting, local groups of schools cannot be oversubscribed. If one oversubscribed school is partnered with an undersubscribed school, we should be able to find a way to realise the potential that the two schools have to respond to the local demand. There are questions for Government about how we define school numbers and the capacity for flexibility in our system. I am discussing those issues with stakeholders, and the discussions are moving forward to a mature, practical and broad consensus on building an education system that is fit for the twenty-first century and laying down a solid foundation that will ensure educational excellence and equality of educational opportunity.

Some people who are opposed to change, have argued that the process will involve massive restructuring and huge costs. I do not accept that. After ten years of dramatically falling pupil numbers, we have 50,000 empty school desks. That number is expected to rise to over 80,000 in the coming years. Structural reform is unavoidable; George Bain’s independent review is clear on that. The structural changes to be made are far from unnecessary, they will help embrace the massive potential that this opportunity has given us to modernise our service provision and education system.

The Committee has rightly stated that it has an important role to play in the formation of education policy. So I am eager to hear the Committee’s contribution. If the Committee can reach consensus on the issues, I will gladly take their thoughts on board. If consensus is not reached and admissions criteria regulations for transfer 2010 are put in place, that transfer will be unregulated. I hear that that might find favour in some political circles. In the event, some schools have declared an intention to develop and operate an independent common entrance exam.

It is important to be clear about the prospect of such a situation. The current transfer tests are delivered for the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) — an independent body of formidable expertise and experience. The transfer tests are delivered by that body because they need to be. The tests are a highly-pressurised and much-challenged mechanism. In the face of approximately 1,100 appeals for remarking each year, they must be transparently accurate and robust. Furthermore, they must be complemented by a special-circumstances procedure for those who have, for instance, dyslexia or dyspraxia. Their abilities cannot be accurately assessed by two one-hour tests, and there are approximately 1,100 such cases each year.

The transfer tests are perceived to be the most important decision-maker in a child’s educational progression. It goes without saying that they are contentious and disliked for that reason. It is also for that reason that, although the Government are responsible for it, they ask a dedicated, expert, independent professional body to ensure that every aspect of its delivery is as watertight as possible.

A small number of schools are considering taking on that function. An unregulated system should not be welcomed by any party in the Assembly; it is fraught with administrative and litigious perils. The Assembly must consider the unregulated system and the independent common entrants’ examination as a non-prospect. We must sit down and engage with people with whom we do not always agree, and that is what I am doing.

I find that when you do this, the dialogue becomes practical and mature, and allows for much more common ground that is all too often precluded by a polarised public debate.

The debate has moved on; no one is arguing for retaining an antiquated system designed around academic selection in 1947. Instead, I am hearing a debate about transforming the education system into a dynamic educational model that reflects the world we live in and will equip children with the qualifications and skills that they will need for the twenty-first century — all our children; not just the selected few. The debate reflects the fact that academic selection is not only unjust, but unnecessary.

Ní raibh riamh modh de roghnú acadúil ann a raibh gean air. Fiú iad sin a chosnaíonn roghnú acadúil go dúthrachtach, déarfainn nach próiseas iontrálacha atá siad a chosaint ach cineál scoile — scoil den scoth ag a bhfuil caighdeáin arda agus a thairgeann an todhchaí is gile do pháistí. Cosnaím sin fosta. Thig linn sin a dhéanamh trí bhuntáistí an chórais a choinneáil agus a fheabhsú agus trí chosáin a fhorbairt a riarann ar thallana, chumais agus ar mhianta ár bpáistí. Is é an dúshlán atá romhainn córas comhordaithe a fhorbairt.

There never has been a popular method of academic selection. Even those who passionately defend academic selection are defending, not an admissions process, but a type of school; an excellent school with high standards offering children the brightest future. I defend that. We can do that by retaining and improving what is best in the system, and by developing new pathways suited to the talents, abilities and aspirations of all the children.

Our challenge is to develop a joined-up system. We have a broad consensus among educationalists on the importance of age 14 as a key education decision point. We have broad educational consensus and authoritative independent advice — the Costello Review and the Bain Review — on the need to deliver young people the entitlement framework and expend educational choice from age 14 onwards.

Demography is increasingly making academic selection an irrelevant admissions practice and is the route of systemic decay. The grammar school was designed for 30% of children. In 2006, 69 grammar schools admitted 42% of transferring children. On current projections, that proportion will rise quickly. Meanwhile, in 2006, the 155 non-grammar schools took 58% of transferring children, resulting in 144 of those schools being undersubscribed, and in 59 of those schools, one in four places was empty.

Non-grammar schools face unsustainability and decay, and many grammar schools are no longer grammar schools in the former sense of the term. Only seven out of the 69 grammar schools exclusively admitted children with A and B1 grades. That cannot be right. I am determined to ensure that my Department, in partnership with all educationalists, will ensure that every school will be a good school, will be sustainable and will have a clear focus on high standards. It is simply staggering that 12,000 children — almost half of the children in the North in that year-group — left school without grades A to C in GCSE English and maths last year. That is why I have introduced my revised school improvement policy ‘Every School a Good School’. I presume that all Committee members have a copy of that policy. If they have not, I will be happy to provide them with a copy. I launched the policy in Ashfield Girls’ High School, and I know from talking to schools right across that North that they are very pleased that the policy has been introduced.

The Committee had submitted questions: I have given my answers. I have also put some questions to the Committee, and I await and look forward to its response. Let no one here be in any doubt about my determination to drive forward the process of managed change to provide a modern, dynamic, flexible system that is fit for purpose in today’s society, with equality for all children at its core. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson:
Minister, thank you. You said that you would give the Committee an hour, and you have used over 40% of that time with your opening statement, which does not leave too much time for questions from members.

I hope that, having been given the opportunity to have your say, you will do the Committee the courtesy of staying a little longer if members have questions at 11.00 am.

Ms Ruane: 
I am happy to take questions. I have an hour, and I have another appointment. I will answer questions; I have come here to engage with the Committee.

The Chairperson:
One matter has vexed the Committee considerably. The Committee asked questions on 17 December 2007, and reminded the Department of them on 14 January 2008. We received a paper giving us the answers when we came through the door this morning. Quite frankly, that is not a good way of doing business. That is not the first time that that has happened, Minister. It makes it difficult for the Committee to do business. I invited you to make a statement, so I suppose that it is partly my fault, but 40% of the time has already been taken up by your statement, and we were presented with that paper only when we came in. That makes it difficult for us to conduct business.

Ms Ruane: 
Equally, as Chair of the Committee — as Cathaoirleach don Choiste seo — you also have a role to play. With respect, you have the answers to the questions. I have been engaging with the Committee; this is the sixth time that I have attended it. I am very happy to be here, and I want to engage with you in all processes. The Chair, at all times, must represent the Committee. Sometimes I am unclear as to when you are representing the Committee and when you are speaking for yourself. My party colleagues on this Committee also are unclear about that point and have raised it.

This is a two-way process, a Chathaoirligh, and I respectfully suggest —

Mr K Robinson:
I am not sure that it is the role of the Minister to tell the Chair of this Committee how he should operate. I object strongly to that.

Ms Ruane:
It is a two-way process. I respectfully suggest that we work together.

The Chairperson:
All members will have an opportunity to have their say this morning, in the limited time that you have left to them, Minister. I will start by asking one question, and I will try to give time to as many members as possible.

You finished off your statement by saying that you intend to drive forward the process. Given that the rules of the Assembly require consensus on any major legislative change — and it is clear from all of the discussions so far that there is no consensus on your proposals, especially those concerning academic selection — how do you intend to drive the process forward? For example, do you intend to find a way of avoiding the Executive or the Assembly and the cross-community vote, which will be required? What plans do you have to try to reach agreement with those who disagree deeply with your view of the way forward?

Ms Ruane:
A Chathaoirligh, go raibh maith agat don cheist sin. Thank you for that question. First, I have been very clear about that, and I will say again that I wish to bring forward legislation in the Assembly, and I intend to do so. I intend to take my proposals to the Executive for approval. I am engaging with this Committee. Members of the Committee, including you, Chairperson, have a clear position on academic selection. I am engaging with you; you and I have had meetings about the issue, as you know. I intend to engage with all of the Committee members. I have met all of the party representatives here, and we will continue to meet to find a way forward.

I am also meeting different stakeholders, and we are making good progress. I expect to reach consensus with the education stakeholders. I hope that this Committee can reach a consensus. The Committee has a huge responsibility in relation to our children’s future, and I look forward to hearing its consensus.

The Chairperson:
I have a second question. Let us assume — and it is a big assumption — that the Committee and all the stakeholders were to agree with your plans for 11- to 14-year-olds. The answers that we received this morning tell us that the introduction of the 11-14 schools in Craigavon required four years of planning and a further three years for implementation. We are working to a deadline of 2010; what do you see happening in the period between now and then, given that similar plans took seven years to implement in one small area of Northern Ireland?

Ms Ruane:
You will know that I am introducing sustainable schools and area-based planning as part of my school-improvement policy, ‘Every School a Good School’. Much of the work is already under way, and you will know what is happening in different parts of the North of Ireland. Many of the sectors are working together; a lot of collaboration is happening. The changes to the education system can be well-managed and they will produce results for our children. Over the next few years, a major process of change will take place, which will involve work with all the different stakeholders. Much of that change is happening now. We need imagination and vision, and we must deal with the practical realities of what is needed in each area. That is happening in the areas. I respectfully say that some political parties are being left behind because the educationalists and the education sector have moved and they understand the changes that are needed. That is coming out clearly from the discussions that I am having with the stakeholders.

The Chairperson:
With respect Minister, no structures are currently in place for area-based planning. You have suggested that the plan for ages 11-14 is to be extended across Northern Ireland. In vast parts of Northern Ireland, no planning is in place for any such arrangement. According to your answer, the planning in Craigavon took four years and the implementation took a further three years. The ‘Every School a Good School’ policy and your references to area-based planning bear no reality to what was required in the small area of Craigavon. I ask you again: if it took seven years for a small area of Northern Ireland to implement that plan, how long will it take for the plan to be implemented across the whole of Northern Ireland? As the plan is being started from scratch, what will be done during the interim period, even assuming that the plan finds agreement in the Assembly?

Ms Ruane: 
In case you did not hear me the first time, I will answer your question again. I did not say that the 11-14 system will be introduced to every area. I said that it will not be a one-size-fits-all system; different areas will have different solutions and that must be done on the basis of area-based planning. In some areas, an 11-14 system might be introduced, in other areas 14-19 might be introduced, and 11-19 in other areas. That will depend on the area.

With respect, Cathaoirleach, you need to understand that the process is already happening in many areas. Many schools throughout the North, in every sector, are collaborating and working together. Many schools have realised that they cannot roll out the curriculum entitlement framework unless they collaborate. There are some amazing examples of collaboration. Some schools are way ahead of the Department. For example, in Keady in County Armagh, the schools in one of the sectors got together 25 years ago. They said that they did not need the 11-plus and that it was not fair to the children, and they decided to work out a way for primary and post-primary schools to deal with that. They are dealing with it by allowing the children to transfer to the nearest post-primary school. There is provision for all the children, and the standards at the schools are excellent. Ways can be found to deal with academic selection without imagination. We can sit here and try to block change, pick out the detail and try to pull it apart, or we can work together to try to create a new system. I ask you to join me in doing that because we need to do that. We must stop failing our children.

The Chairperson:
With respect, Minister, I did not think that the meeting was about the entitlement framework or collaboration between schools. I thought that it was about the transfer process, but if you want to answer questions about those issues —

Ms Ruane:
They are all linked.

Mr D Bradley:
Failte romhat, a Aire. I also have concerns about your proposed timescale to develop a variety of schools before 2010 that will be capable of dealing with, as the Chairperson said, 11 to 14 and 14 to 19-year-old pupils. Given that, apart from in Craigavon, we do not have any schools that specifically cater for pupils aged 11 to 14 and 14 to 19 and that, even within a single sector, reorganisation takes a long time and your proposals will require cross-sectional reorganisation — examples of which in places such as Fermanagh indicate that sectors do not collaborate but move on parallel tracks with no apparent meeting point — is that timescale realistic?

In addition, in relation to costings, you said that your reforms could be accommodated within existing structures. However, if costings have not been undertaken, there is no guarantee of that. Further down the road, as things develop, we do not know whether huge unplanned-for costs might be involved in such reforms.

Given that those 11 to 14 and 14 to 19 year-old-pupil schools do not exist and that it will take several years to develop such a system, will the focus for many years to come not continue to be on transferring at age 11?

Under the Costello Report proposals, pupil profiles were considered to be a key element in transfers. Are they still a key element, and will they remain so for years to come?

You said that area-based planning is the lynchpin of your proposals. However, to date, we have not been informed about the proposals’ geographical breakdown or about which people will make decisions and what powers those people will have. As well as your policy on sustainable schools, we must have that information as soon as possible.

Ms Ruane:
Go raibh maith agat faoi na ceisteanna sin.

First, concerning costs, as I said, we are advancing the sustainable-schools policy and have been costing many of the post-primary system changes. Demographic decline has obviously had a huge impact on secondary schools, and it would have been unsustainable for us not to deal with its economic implications. These proposals mean that the schools estate can be restructured and financed under the sustainable-schools policy and within the budget.

Secondly, area-based planning is obviously the way that we will be moving forward. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and there will be different arrangements in different parts of the North. There will be a variety of school-building programmes, geographical limitations, rural and urban factors, and many other considerations for schools. Different schools have different criteria, and we are currently working to address them. We are working on the detail of what we must do in relation to area-based planning, and the results of that will be presented in February. However, it will not be a case of various sectors working in isolation — they will work together, and such work has already begun on many issues.

The Chairperson said that he does not understand how the entitlement framework fits into the debate on primary to post-primary transfers. That astounds me, because every education policy is interconnected and relevant to the issue of transfers. Area-based planning must involve every sector working together in order to consider the numbers and needs of children: do they attend Irish- or English-medium schools, do their schools have a Catholic ethos, or are they in the controlled sector. Those are the issues that must be dealt with and on which we are working.

Mr D Bradley:
I referred to the role of the pupil profile because your proposals will take several years to be rolled out and, in the interim, the focus will remain on transfers at age 11.

What role will the pupil profile play at the age of 11?

Ms Ruane:
That question presumes that the focus will remain on the age of 11.

Mr D Bradley:
It is realistic.

Ms Ruane:
It is a presumption because it depends what happens in different areas. We should not —

Mr D Bradley:
We do not know the policies yet.

Ms Ruane:
We should not pre-empt the area-based planning discussions, which I am sure that you are not. Obviously, pupil profiling — or some form of reporting — will have a role to play because parents, teachers and the young person must be involved in informed election. Mr Bradley, you are an educationalist and know how children choose. All children in the North already make key decisions at the age of 14, which are very important — there is consensus on that.

Mr K Robinson:
Minister, I do not know whether to mark your homework because it arrived on my desk so late. However, we will soldier through. Guidance was mentioned in several of the paragraphs in your very late response to the Committee. As the permanent secretary will concur, not so long ago the House of Commons committee was very critical of the guidance and career structure in our schools. How do you hope to address that structure when you put so much reliance on it in your new regime?

A vision without any delivery is a nightmare, and Committee members are concerned that we are walking into a nightmare scenario. One education and library board has indicated to the Committee how it is moving forward. I am sure that we are all inundated with letters from concerned parents and schools.

You mentioned the ‘Every School a Good School’ policy; I hope your Anglo-Saxon is good because I received a phone call from a primary school principal to discuss that policy, and he used a lot of Anglo Saxon about it — he did not rate the policy at all.

Children do not fail at the age of 11 — we are failing them in their earlier years. By concentrating on the ages of 11 to 14 and upwards, instead of dealing with the core problem of inequality when a child enters the school system, you are missing the target altogether. That is a terrible omission.

Ms Ruane:
First, it is not your job to mark my homework. Secondly, change is difficult to accept and, as I said, we will work with people to bring about change. The educationalists that I meet say that change is required — as you know, doing nothing is not an option.

I accept that there is a huge deficit in the careers advice in our schools, which must be improved. We have launched a joint strategy on careers with the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL); more focus is on careers is required as well as good broad-ranging careers information in our schools, which is a view that you and I share. The Department will put structures in place on that.

I have held discussions with the business sector, and it is very concerned about the literacy and numeracy levels of some of the young people leaving schools of all types. That is something that we must look at, and I reiterate the staggering figure, which sends shivers down my spine, of 12,000 young people who do not even achieve a GCSE in English and Maths.

Mr K Robinson:
Why are the early years not being addressed then?

Ms Ruane:
I am coming to that — you asked me five or six questions, and I am answering each one in turn.

Mr K Robinson:
You arrived so late that I have to squeeze those questions in.

Ms Ruane:
If you want me to answer your questions, I will. I have answered the questions about homework, change and careers. I am now answering the question about vision and delivery, which you forgot about. Then, I will answer the question about early years.

I have a vision and a delivery plan. There should be no doubt about my delivery plan. This strategy will be delivered.

The Chairperson:
Can you tell us —

Ms Ruane:
With respect, a Chathaoirligh. People should be in no doubt that I plan to deliver my vision. I would much prefer to do that with the Committee working with me. I am happy to answer questions from Committee members but would love my officials’ time to be used in the way it should be — to work out the detail of our proposals. We will sit and answer questions until kingdom come, but every politician around this table has a responsibility to help create a new system of education.

I could not agree with you more about Early Years. The reason that we have brought in a revised curriculum is because our children were starting formal schooling and beginning to prepare for a test that would determine their educational pathways far too early; the transfer and 11-plus were distorting the curriculum. Hopefully, that will no longer happen, as this is the last year of the transfer test. I am thankful for that. I absolutely agree with you that intervention in the early years is essential. I am working very carefully on budget proposals, and I have noted what Members said about Early Years during a debate in the House.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs O’Neill:
Thank you, Minister for answering the questions, both orally and in written form, in your opening address. I had hoped that they would go some way to allaying the members’ concerns, but going by the Chairperson’s opening remarks that is obviously not going to be the case.

Scrutiny is obviously one of the roles of the Committee, but it is also there to assist and advise the Minister. I do not believe that the Committee is being constructive in its approach to the transfer procedure.

Minister, you talked about consensus. Concerns obviously exist amongst parents and teachers, who want to see a clear process as soon as possible, so what can the Committee constructively do to assist you in getting to that position?

Ms Ruane:
Some members of the Committee have not been constructive, and it is disappointing for me to have to say that, because we are losing opportunities to build our education system.

However, other members of the Committee have been very constructive, and I welcome that.

Mr Storey: 
Name them, then.

Ms Ruane: 
No, I am not going to name people.

I believe that the Chair is not playing a constructive role, and there is confusion about when the Chair is speaking for the Committee, because sometimes he claims to speak for the Committee, and yet members have told me that they were not even aware that he was going to issue a statement. I am happy to put all that behind us — [Interruption.]

The Chairperson:
Any statement that goes out in the Committee’s name is approved by the Committee, including members of Sinn Féin, who perhaps do not read their papers enough.

Mr Butler:
If you want a rowing match and a free-for-all, Mr Chairman, that is what we will do, but do not try to speak on my behalf, or Sinn Féin’s behalf.

The Chairperson:
What goes out in my name from the Committee has Committee approval.

Mr Butler:
No, it does not. You put the approval in when members of Sinn Féin are not here, so do not try and speak on our behalf.

Ms Ruane:
A Chathaoirligh —

Mrs O’Neill:
Will you answer my question?

Ms Ruane:
You asked about the Committee, and I would like to answer.

I have told you what I believe the relationship to be at present, and I welcome the fact that there are Committee members working constructively. However, I am concerned that there is, at times, an ambiguous relationship with the Chairperson. I am willing to put the past behind us, but I expect a respectful relationship, and at the moment it is a little Jekyll and Hyde; one minute we are having wonderful discussions in my office, and the next derogatory statements are being issued with references to Mr Bean, etc., and that is not a constructive or responsible way forward. I would welcome an engagement with the Committee, I was glad to meet all the individual spokespersons for the parties, and I look forward to meeting them again, because I believe the role of this Committee is very important. It is also important for the Committee to reach consensus, but if it does not it is failing children, which is unacceptable.

Mr Storey:
Today, Minister, you were late, and your paper was only given to us five minutes before you arrived. If you believe that somehow you are going to achieve a consensus by dealing with this Committee in the way that you have up until now, appearing so reluctant that you have to be dragged here on the number of occasions when you have been asked, you are burying your head in a political reality.

The political reality is that we have secured academic selection, and you will not get consensus at the expense of it. You came to the Chamber today and completely wrote off 30% of the school family in the grammar-school sector. You simply said that it was unacceptable that we should pander to that 30%, a percentage figure that is higher than the vote that you and your party colleagues represent. Obviously, if we treat you in the same way as you are treating the grammar schools, you should not be in the Executive. You should not be given respect and no one should listen to you.

You took the grammar schools out of the equation and then you pandered to an element in the education system that only represents 1%. Despite that, you say that equality is at the heart of all that you do. Let me quote the words of a principal, a practitioner in equality.

“The concept of equality that you state is the key principle underpinning the new model must be sacrosanct.”

That was said by a practitioner who, I have to add, was not from the controlled sector.

“Unfortunately, your belief that criteria of community, geography and family will secure equality is unfounded. Practitioners in the field will inform you clearly that such criteria will — without doubt — entrench segregation, reduce opportunity and limit social mobility in many circumstances.”

Minister, when will you realise that you cannot push ahead without any clarity and then come to the Education Committee, where you berate the Chairman and make accusations against unnamed members of the Committee? At least have the decency to name those members.

Finally, you say that your discussions are confidential. So, you have a wonderful vision that you are sharing with stakeholders, but you come to the meeting and say that those discussions are confidential. Yet, you are prepared to make assertions about meetings that you have had with other members of the Committee. That is totally unacceptable. Minister, as far as we are concerned, we will mark your homework. That is our duty. We will continue to scrutinise your performance, which has — to date — been abysmal and has been an absolute failure.

Ms Ruane:
Go raibh maith agat faoi na rudaí sin.

Mr Storey:
Will you please answer me in English, because I do not understand Irish?

Ms Ruane:
I will translate what I have said into English. That is not a problem for me.

Mr Storey:
Just answer me in one language. That will be sufficient and will save time.

Ms Ruane:
We need to build a culture of respect for diversity. You do not have anything to fear from a language other than the one that you speak.

The Chairperson:
It is also a question of time, Minister.

Ms Ruane:
Excuse me. I am answering Mr Storey’s question. His comment on my being late for the meeting was extremely unfair. I was present, but there no quorum. I appreciate that some people experienced difficulties with traffic and others were delayed. One should be less petty in the way that one makes points.

I know that it may be difficult for some people to accept my right to be in the Executive. Sinn Féin receives votes in the same way that other parties do and is, therefore, entitled to sit on the Executive. What is wonderful about the new arrangements is that all parties are sitting on the Executive, by right. I know that it may, at times, be difficult for Mr Storey to understand that. However, that is the way that it is and that is the way that it will continue to be. I will continue to sit on the Executive, even if he has difficulties with that.

It is important that the Committee reaches a consensus and that we all work together. It is important that we put aside our party political differences; our differences about how matters should progress; and, that we actually sit down and agree a way forward. If we can learn from discussions that have taken place on many contentious issues, let us do that. However, we should not play politics with our children’s education. I, certainly, did not write off any child. In fact, every time that I speak, I speak about the right to a fair chance of every child, and that my proposals are about putting every child at the centre. I will continue to do that. Every child — no matter which school they attend, or which sector that school is part of — will be treated equally because equality will be at the heart of that policy.

I am sorry that Mr Storey finds it difficult that my discussions with stakeholders are confidential. If one understands Government and the formulation of policies, one would realise that one could not go to the stakeholders, who have a clear role in the matter, and tell them that they are having a one-size-fits-all solution and they must take it or leave it. I did not do that.

I am engaging with them in a constructive debate, and I am sorry that it is not my role at this point to disclose my confidential discussions with stakeholders. When those discussions are complete, I will come back to the Committee. If that creates a difficulty in the meantime, I am sorry, but we will just have to live with it.

Mr Lunn:
In your written answer on the question of election at 14 years of age, you state:

“Receiving schools will be able to consider the previous educational experience and performance of applicants and advise them on their election.”

Is that not back-door selection or does it not, at least, allow an opportunity for that?

In connection with that, the possibility of grammar schools trying to set up a common entrance exam has been mentioned. Your only reference to that was in your oral statement this morning, and I did not pick up all that you said. However, at the end of your statement, I think that you said that it is a “non-prospect”. Does that mean that it is impossible? Could you possibly live with that if it involved only a small number of schools, or is it entirely out of the question? From your previous answer, I know that you are not prepared to pay for such an exam, but that is as far as the debate has gone. Therefore, will you help me out by expanding on your position?

Ms Ruane:
I am clear that pupil profiles cannot be used for academic selection. I aim to introduce proposals to ensure that there will be no academic selection. There will be election, based on informed choice, in which school reports will, naturally, play a part.

If you have children, I am sure that you have often pictured the scenario in which you sit down with teachers, who tell you that your child is doing well at maths but needs to do more work on English. Perhaps at the age of 14, the child should choose a particular academic route, such as maths, or a vocational route. That is what I mean by informed choice, and it will be informed by a child’s performance, and so forth, from the age of 11 to 14. There is no intention that a pupil profile will be used for academic selection.

Mr Lunn:
I do not wish to interrupt you, but your written answer is less clear. It states:

“Receiving schools will be able to… … advise them on their election.”

Surely that is another way of saying that a school can tell a child that he or she is not suitable for that school.

Ms Ruane:
No, because parents and children will have a choice based on admissions criteria. Following discussions with the school, parents will make informed choices.

Mr D Bradley:
Is that when the child is aged 14?

Mr Lunn:
Yes. Minister, you did not answer my second question.

Ms Ruane:
Sorry, Trevor, you asked me about the common entrance exam. I have been clear that I want to reach consensus. I am working with the stakeholders, and I hope that schools will not go down that road. I have made schools aware of the implications of doing so and that I have no duty to fund such an exam. Schools are aware of the level of appeals made against 11-plus results.

One reason that stakeholders and I are having such good discussions is that schools are aware that a broad range of factors impact on all the issues, in addition to which there is a declining demographic. A consensus can be reached whereby no schools will break away or set their own entrance exams, and that is in the best interests of children.

Mr B McCrea:
I challenge your assertion that you have support from the entire academic fraternity. In a research briefing published in November 1998, ‘An Evaluation of the Craigavon Two-Tier System’, Professor Tony Gallagher notes several reasons why that system was so popular, one of which is:

“It would appear that a higher proportion of pupils in the Craigavon area obtain places in grammar schools”

That is why the system was popular. You spoke about underachievement, Minister, but there is evidence that

“pupils who are not selected at the age of 14 are less well served by the Craigavon system, particularly in the controlled sector”.

Finally, Minister, Professor Gallagher said:
“While the delayed selection system which operates in Craigavon has been a success … the evidence … does not suggest that it provides a better alternative to the 11-plus system used throughout the rest of Northern Ireland. In particular, the evidence does not suggest that a two-tier system”

such as that which you are proposing,

“provides a better educational experience for less able pupils than the 11-plus system.”

Those observations represent at least one body of informed opinion, and there are others, such as the Association for Quality Education (AQE).

I challenge you, Minister, by saying that although there may be support for your position, there is also a lot of opposition. If this Committee does not support your proposals, never mind achieve consensus, are you still determined to deliver your vision? Do you think that it is possible? How do you intend to do that if you do not have this Committee’s support?

Ms Ruane:
Basil, you were obviously one of the people who got caught in the traffic, because you missed my earlier outline of my proposals. I suggest, respectfully, that you read what I said at the beginning of this morning’s meeting of the Committee.

Mr B McCrea:
I was caught in two traffic jams, and I am sorry about that. I have given you some published information, and I am just asking you a simple question. If there is a problem with this Committee, do you intend —

Ms Ruane:
If you read what I said to the Committee this morning — and I know that you will — you will see that I am not proposing the Craigavon model. [Interruption.] Let me finish, Basil. The model that I am proposing is a very different model. There are some interesting elements in the Craigavon model. However, I do not support it because it simply moves academic selection from 11 years to 14 years of age. My proposal is that there will be no academic selection at any age, and that we introduce a system of election rather than selection — election, based on an informed career strategy, three years of post-primary schooling, parental —and, most importantly, child — involvement in the process. The child was left out of the process at the age of 11 years.

I accept the report that you have quoted from, and I agree with it, because a system that employs academic selection based on perceived abilities will cause difficulties. The reason why my proposals do not include academic selection is that I want every child to be given a fair chance.

In answer to the second part of your question, I look to this Committee to build consensus. It is important that consensus is achieved on how we move forward. I hope that it can be reached, and I look forward to examining the Committee’s proposals. However, as Minister of Education for all children in the North of Ireland, I have a duty to make sure that every child fulfils her or his potential, and I will make sure that I do everything possible to carry out that duty.

Mr B McCrea:
Minister, I did not say that you were going to introduce the Craigavon model. I was simply pointing out that there was a difference of opinion about the effectiveness of any decision at 14 years of age. You say that you want to engage with the Committee, but it appears that we will all have to change to your way of thinking, because there is going to be no movement whatsoever from you.

Michelle O’Neill asked what the Committee could do to help you. I will ask the other question. What can you do to help us in our deliberations? What could you do better? Quite frankly, it is not working at the moment. I have listened to ad hominem attacks on people, which do a disservice to those who made them. We are trying to solve the situation, and I would like to know what you intend to do to help us to make a decision.

Ms Ruane:
Well, I got out of my bed at 6.30 am to make sure that I was here to help the Committee to reach a consensus, and I look forward to its proposals.

I have met every single education spokesperson, and I will continue to do so. I have met the Committee Chairperson, which I will continue to do, despite being attacked gratuitously in the press. I want to work with the Committee, and look forward to doing so. I hope that we can work together so that every child in the North of Ireland can fulfil his or her potential. I hope that in these changing times, new relationships can be built. I plan to work towards that.

I have another engagement now. I thank all members for joining us at today’s meeting.

Mrs M Bradley:
Is that it?

Mr Storey:
Will the Committee receive a copy of the Minister’s comments?

The Chairperson:
There will be a Hansard report of the meeting.

Find MLAs


Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre


Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly


Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more