Official Report (Hansard)
Date: 06 June 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Sammy Wilson (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Basil McCrea
Miss Michelle McIlveen
Mr John O’Dowd
Mrs Michelle O’Neill
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Harry Greer ) Northern Ireland Primary Principals’ Action Group
Mr Brian Jess )
Mr David McCartney )
Mr Martin Short )
The Chairperson (Mr S Wilson):
Good Morning. You are welcome to the Committee. We have already heard presentations from numerous primary principals, who usually represent local areas, rather the whole of Northern Ireland. However, I imagine — given the paper that you submitted — that your message will be similar to that of primary principals from Belfast and other areas. This session will last around 30 minutes and, therefore, I suggest that you spend 10 minutes on your presentation before hearing members’ points and answering their questions. Departmental officials will join us for this morning’s final witness session, and you are welcome to stay for that if you wish. Mr McCartney will begin — is that correct?
Mr David McCartney ( Northern Ireland Primary Principals’ Action Group):
No; Harry Greer will start. He talks more than the rest of us. [Laughter.]
Mr Harry Greer ( Northern Ireland Primary Principals’ Action Group):
Thank you. I apologise if we cannot stay to hear the officials’ evidence, but we have inadequate resources to leave someone else in charge of our schools. [Laughter.]
I thought that the Department gave you £12 million. [Laughter.]
We were grateful for that, and I will mention it later. We represent approximately 500 primary principals across the Province. Members will recall the comprehensive presentation that was made by David Hutchinson of Elmgrove Primary School. We will not reiterate that content because the Committee should already have a good awareness of the issues of primary-school funding. However, there is now a clear consensus that primary schools are underfunded. That will impact dangerously on peoples’ health and well-being and the quality of education that is provided. That should interest all MLAs. The key tenet of our presentation is that if one fails to invest properly in the early years of education, one will for ever reap the whirlwind.
From the outset, we want to emphasise that we do not advocate taking money away from other education sectors. However, we need more funding. The consensus across the country illustrates that it is incumbent on us to believe in all our politicians and elected representatives to do more for constituents’ youngest children.
We have a letter of 31 July 2007 from the Minister, in which she states:
“I do believe that the funding differential currently between primary and secondary is too great.”
We appreciate her saying that. Furthermore, she writes:
“I am convinced that investment in early intervention delivers real benefits in improving access to learning and thus reducing later differences.”
We wholeheartedly agree; however, we feel that little or no effort has been made to address that matter properly.
Members may ask where the Northern Ireland Primary Principals’ Action Group(NIPPAG) came from. As the Department’s senior officials are aware, there are 70-plus live issues in respect of primary schools at the moment. Over the last year and a half, this group has emerged out of desperation. We are concerned that proper progress in learning is, and will continue to be, affected.
We, like the Committee, aspire to a world-class education service. We often hear MLAs say publicly that they have similar aspirations. In Northern Ireland there are 1,262 people at the sharp end of delivering that service, namely the school principals, and there are 800 or 900 primary school principals. We do not have the resources to deliver what you want, and we ask you to address that problem.
Many primary schools have some surplus money. We do not want officials to tell us which schools they are; those schools have surpluses because they are doing without. My school has a small surplus because it has made seven teachers redundant in the last four years. Martin Short’s school employs some classroom assistants — we will shortly address the scarcity of money for that purpose — but it has made two teachers redundant. There may be some surpluses, but primary schools are doing without many things to have them.
We refer the Committee to the results of worldwide research. The most effective Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries invest more in early-years provision. Closer to home, we refer you to the example of Scotland, where the decision was taken that, from primary 1 to primary 3, the ratio of teacher to pupils should be 1:18. You may ask whether that can be afforded by the Scottish Government or the Northern Ireland Executive. However, it shows that, in Scotland, the debate is not financial — rather, it is based on philosophy and research. There, the decision has been taken to invest more in early-years provision, in common with the most successful OECD countries.
A child in year 8, the first year in secondary school, attracts £1,250 more funding than a child in primary 7. That allows secondary schools to have smaller class sizes. Furthermore, it allows their teachers to have non-contact time — that is, non-teaching time — when teachers can plan, prepare and assess. Our teachers do not have that at a key time in the development of the revised curriculum. If this is to be the curriculum to take our country forward for the next 15 years or so, it is a poor show.
Secondary school teachers are contracted to work 22∙5 hours per week, whereas primary school teachers are contracted to work 25 hours. That is strange, and none of the officials are able to explain it.
In the UK, all teachers have 10% non-contact time, in which they can plan, prepare, assess, review, evaluate, and so on. At this key time in the development of the revised curriculum, we desperately need that flexibility. Our teachers complain more of shortage of time than of shortage of money or other resources. They struggle desperately; they are under enormous pressure, as are primary school principals.
We could deliver much better support for special-needs pupils, but we desperately need support staff. The input of hardware for information and communication technology (ICT) has been fantastic and it is much appreciated, but we need technical staff to support that. We desperately need classroom assistants to deliver the revised curriculum as it is seen in the ideal form. We will return to that matter.
There has been a massive increase in the expectations of primary schools and in their workload, but it has not been matched by funding. For example, the pupil profile currently used is, basically, a secondary model imposed on primary schools without resources to deliver it. When will our teachers get the time to do that work? It takes an hour, perhaps an hour and a half, to write each. Performance review and staff development (PRSD) has been imposed on primary schools, which involves teachers reviewing other teachers. When my vice-principal reviews another teacher’s teaching in order to increase his or her performance improvement, who looks after the vice-principal’s class? That is not resource neutral. We cannot deliver all those initiatives with the current level of funding.
I turn to the steps taken this year to address our concerns. The Department held a consultation about proposed increases in funding. To plug the £1,250 gap, the Department suggested that it could give us £12 or £24, and asked us to choose which we would like. In the previous year, the Department complained that it had received only a 6% return to its consultation, and it told us that that did no show a sufficient level of concern for primary schools. This year, the percentage return leapt to around 50%.
There was a 100% response from the primary schools, and they agreed that the weighting for pupils should be 1·03, as opposed to 1·04, which was the figure that was offered by the Department. Nevertheless, we greatly appreciate the £12 million that was granted for teaching principals, because it is a very difficult, complex job.
Furthermore, we appreciate the Department’s intention to give a 4% increase to primary schools and a 2·5% increase to secondary schools. However, we worry about departmental officials’ understanding the impact of their policies, as 4% of nothing or very little is not very much, but 2·5% of a lot is a lot. Therefore, the difference between funding for primary and secondary pupils will increase from £1,250 to £1,258, so the Department’s efforts to address the differential have resulted in a widening of the gap.
When we discussed the matter with officials, we were told that they do not have the money to address the matter, and we appreciate that. In fact, we wish to put on record our appreciation of Will Haire, Robson Davison, et al, meeting with us and being very generous with their time. We believe that they are sympathetic. However, they told us that they did not get enough money to address our concerns properly, and that they would have had to take £42 million from secondary schools in order to address them. That leaves us in a difficult position, because we do not want that to happen. As I said to the permanent secretary, the inference is that the principals in the primary-school sector should just suffer on. The problem is that the issue of underfunding must be addressed.
It is difficult to compare primary-school funding in Northern Ireland with that in England, because primary schools in England get a bigger percentage, but they have to buy in more services. However, a key comparison is the proportion of secondary-school funding that primary schools get. In England, primary-school funding is 79% of secondary-school funding; in Scotland, it is 72% of secondary-school funding; and, in Northern Ireland, it is 61·8% of secondary-school funding. No one can provide a reason for that, but that situation cannot continue.
The same comparison was done with the top 29 OECD countries. The UK came fourteenth out of 29 in the ratio of primary to secondary school funding. If Northern Ireland had been compared on its own, it would have come twenty-sixth out of 29. You can draw your own conclusions from that. If you want a first-class education system and you want your primary principals to deliver it, you must give us the tools to do the job. It is not good enough.
I wear another hat as regional secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, and I see at first hand the damage that is being done to the health and well-being of school leaders and teachers. It is unfair, and we ask you to address it. In the UK, some steps have been taken, including the establishment of a monitoring group to examine bureaucracy and initiatives, and how they are managed. That is helping matters. Furthermore, in England, the primary review has been set up, which investigates the role of primary schools, their funding and initiatives that are being set up. We have nothing like that. Therefore, we are asking you to set up or be part of an inquiry that will produce a quick result and give us more money.
Several hundred primary school principals held a conference in Cookstown at the end of April, and six resolutions were passed. All the resolutions cover what I have said. We believe that underfunding is the biggest issue in education.
We realise that the transfer debate is ongoing. We are at the sharp end of that, so we realise that it is very contentious and difficult to resolve. However, in the opinion of all primary-school principals, that is not the biggest show in town. The biggest show in town for Northern Ireland is that money must be invested for educational improvement. I hope that we have made that very clear. My colleagues have other statistics and information, but that is the gist of our situation. The situation has become very difficult. Thank you for your time.
I must leave to meet a group from a school in my constituency, so Dominic Bradley will take over as Deputy Chairperson for the question-and-answer part of the session, and I will be back shortly.
(The Deputy Chairperson [Mr D Bradley] in the Chair)
I would like to make one other point, which relates to the Department’s attempts to resolve the situation. We have thanked you and thanked the Department for the £12 million package to help teaching principals. However, we have heard publicly, including from some members of the Committee, that in 2007, the Department gave £102 more funding per primary-school pupil. I will give you a breakdown of the impact of that and how it works. For a start, £61 of that £102 can be deducted for a 2·45% inflationary rise. Another £17 per pupil can be deducted for an increase in cleaners’ pay, which has gone up dramatically, without any resources.
Another £10 can be deducted for fuel, heating and running costs, which have also risen above inflation. The result is that the £102 that the Minister claims that she allocated, and that members of the Committee publicly said was given to primary schools, results in just £14 per pupil.
I will give you an example of what I can buy for that sum towards the delivery of the revised curriculum: a classroom assistant who spends 20 minutes each day in each of the P2 classes. Is that the Department of Education’s best effort to deal with underfunding and the need to produce good results from the revised curriculum? We know that the Department has been before the Public Accounts Committee because of its failure to improve literacy and numeracy standards. Unless action is taken on that matter quickly, it will have to face that Committee again. It must be put on record that there will be no improvement with that level of investment.
We are concerned about the large sums of money that have been quoted. The Department says that it has allocated £32 million, for example. The bottom line is that the actual impact of funding in primary schools on the ground must be understood. I have mentioned the impact that it has had in my primary school. It is not good enough.
I apologise that I added another point. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr D Bradley):
Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming along. The Committee is acutely aware of the issues that you have raised. We have received submissions from primary-school principals from east Belfast and north Belfast. We will hear from another group from north Belfast during today’s session. I am sure that they will raise some of the issues that you have just mentioned. We heard quite a detailed presentation on the same issue from Mr Stanley Poots of the Ulster Teachers’ Union. The Committee has agreed to make more detailed enquiries. Your attendance at the meeting is part of that process.
What is the best way to deal with that? Is it by readjusting the age-weighted pupil unit, or by applying special measures?
Mr Martin Short ( Northern Ireland Primary Principals’ Action Group):
I am the principal of a large primary school that has 500 pupils in Andersonstown, Belfast. The £10·5 million that has been allocated by the Department has been earmarked, for example, for new laptop computers for every teacher. The cost for my school was around £14,000. We received foundation money, which was also earmarked. Ethically, therefore, I had to put that money where the Department told me to put it. I employed one classroom assistant for the three P2 classes. However, at the same time, in the context of my school, I had to make one person redundant this year, and will have to make another person — possibly two — redundant next year. I have already announced one of next year’s redundancies. Basically, I do not have the necessary core funding in my budget to allow me to manage my school. Rather than the Department telling me how to spend money, I need to receive the money in core funding, so that, in the context of my school, I can make decisions that best meet the needs of the children in my school.
I will provide a brief history of my career. As an adviser with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), I advised principals on budgets. As a school-improvement officer with the Belfast Education and Library Board, I was involved in raising standards. When I worked with the Education and Training Inspectorate, there were initiatives for literacy and numeracy. Reports about those initiatives were that they did not raise standards. Any inspector would say that the main people who can raise standards in schools are the schools’ leaders — the principals. The best way to let principals do their jobs is to let them manage their schools. I would have told any principal that each school has a different context. The issues that I have to face are different to those that are faced by Harry, David and Brian. They are all different, because our schools have different contexts.
The best people to manage those matters are the principals.
Several years ago, Gordon Brown gave schools extra money — some people may remember that it was known as “Gordon Brown money”. He said that it should be given to the principals, so that they could best use it for the needs of the children. However, the Department now says that £12 million pounds has been earmarked for this, that and the other. We have absolutely no choice about the way in which we spend it. It is not being spent in areas in which we wish to spend it. The money must go into the core funding, so that the principals can decide how best to spend it.
That goes back to the question about whether we want to adjust the weightings. The problem is that if one adjusts the weightings, drawing from the same pot of money, somebody loses out. Ethically, that is a difficulty for us. However, some of our colleagues are at the point of saying that they do not care where it comes from any more. That should not happen among sectors.
Mr D McCartney:
In January of this year, the Department consulted principals on how they wish the money to increase. Last year, the response rate to the consultation was 6%. The feeling among primary-school principals is now so great that the response this year was 50%, on average, and in the South Eastern Education and Library Board it was 69%. That is a huge increase, and it shows how strongly primary-school principals feel about the issue.
The vast majority of primary-school principals said that the way to increase our funding was not by taking money away from other sectors, but by increasing the value of the age-weighted pupil unit (AWPU). It should not be increased by 0·03% or 0·04%, which would give a figure of £12 or £24 per head more — which, frankly, is an insult — but by 1·3% this year, 1·4% next year and 1·5% the following year. That would bring us into line as Harry was saying —
It is still short.
Mr D McCartney:
Yes, it is still short. However, it will bring us closer to the English or Scottish percentage. The Department asked us what we wanted, and we told it.
Mr Brian Jess ( Northern Ireland Primary Principals' Action Group):
We are only tinkering with the system by discussing these issues. A more fundamental question that the Stormont Assembly must consider is: what sort of education system do we want? Research from all around the world shows that we must invest in early-years education. Research by Professor Paul Connolly of Queen’s University, Belfast, showed that we must change children’s attitudes before the age of nine, otherwise they will be fixed. That applies to attitudes to sectarianism, to learning and to special needs, among other things.
We have a potentially very good curriculum, but we cannot deliver it due to underfunding. Do you want to play catch-up all the time by tinkering with the system, or do you want to change it and really catch up with, and overtake, the countries that are applying the measures that we are expected to apply?
The question about how funding is allocated is a good one. We want core funding. However, more fundamentally, one must examine the whole picture. If one plays with the core funding from primary schools, one will have to play with core funding from secondary schools. In order to do that, you must decide where you want the money to go.
The Deputy Chairperson:
Thank you, Brian. I note that you gave figures on the differential between Northern Ireland and England and Scotland. Does that reflect the differential in delegated budgets?
They are not directly linked. The problem is that, in England, about 89% to 92% of education funding goes directly to schools, whereas, in Northern Ireland, that figure is around 60%. The reasons for that include the fact that there is a huge infrastructure here, which the new education and skills authority may, or may not, address. We simply wanted to compare how much a primary school gets compared with a secondary school and reflect the importance of primary education.
Looking at Scotland, the fundamental question is: why did the Scottish Parliament conclude that having 18 pupils in a class, in the first three years in primary school, would be beneficial? There must have been a philosophical debate.
Dominic, I worry about that. When we talk to officials, we ask them: where is the philosophical debate about the quality of children’s learning? We know that the Department does not have the money; that it must get more money; that it is a battle to do so and that there is a “cake” that must pay for everything in Northern Ireland. That is fine.
At the sharp end, what is happening about the quality of learning? How much longer must we continue having primary schools that are impoverished and unable to deliver? A decision must be made very soon — that is critical. With 70 live issues on our desks, to be honest, it is not manageable. We are flying by the seat of our pants at times in trying to cope.
Mr D McCartney:
We are not able to lead our schools.
Mr Brian Jess ( Northern Ireland Primary Principals' Action Group):
In comparing the English primary and secondary schools, the infrastructure in England is the same, so the OECD figures address the imbalance between primary and secondary in their system. It is the same in Northern Ireland — those figures reflect the imbalance. It does not matter whether we get more support from the boards, it still reflects the imbalance between the two, whatever that system happens to be.
Mr D McCartney:
That is the only way that we can compare our figures with England and Scotland because of the different funding set-ups in Scotland and England.
The Deputy Chairperson:
As I said at your conference in Dungannon, across the whole range of educational issues we know that early intervention and early support is the key to solving a lot of problems that will eventually save us money — not only in education, but in tackling crime and other antisocial behaviour. That is a philosophical move that we will have to make. It is repeated like a mantra when we are speaking about autism, literacy, numeracy and the other range of issues, and it is a question of how we will get there, and how soon we will get there.
I would love this issue to be addressed before I retire. I would not like, as a retirement present, to think that that this will take another five, six, seven, or eight years. We have been at this for many years. Reports have been produced by the UK Government, all sorts of evidence have been collated, and all the evidence states the same thing. The Department, or the officials, over 20 years of this type of campaigning, have never been able to say that there is a valid reason that primary schools are funded so badly by comparison — there is no valid reason. We cannot be told that it is historical; that is the way it is — we have reached the crux. Something needs to be done — we are pleading with you as our representatives to push this matter forward.
I hope that the issue is sorted out before people drop dead, to be quite honest — and teachers are dropping dead, because stress kills people. There is a lot of stress in schools at the moment. One of the possible reasons why that issue is not raised so much is that principals and teachers have historically just got on with it. We are a type of people who do not complain too much. We try to make the best of the situation, and we are vocational in the sense that we try to make the best for the children. The staff in schools — ancillary, teaching staff and principals — are under a tremendous amount of stress, and they are suffering at the moment; there should be no illusion about that.
The other people who are suffering at the moment are the children. Children at primary schools are not getting a fair deal. Classes are being split up when a teacher rings in sick — that is not a good way to educate children. We are grateful to have this forum, but for years principals and teachers have just got on with it. We have reached the point where we are fed up. We know what the issues are — what we want to know now is whether we can have some action on them. The suggested increase in funding of 1∙02% to 1∙04% is an insult.
The Deputy Chairperson:
Thank you, Martin.
Mr B McCrea:
I attended the conference, and am aware of the issues. I have two specific questions. Why do you think that there is a problem in resolving this issue, given that the Minister has said that she has accepted the problem and the Departments says that they understand that there is a problem? Where, in your opinion, is the logjam? Do you think that it has been acknowledged that teachers are under stress, but that nothing will be done about it?
To answer your first question, there is no direction and there has not been anyone to give that direction until the last year or so. It is now your opportunity to give that direction. Every other country in the developing world — such as New Zealand, the USA, China, Germany, France and Spain — are all given direction, it is up to our representatives now to give us that direction.
To be fair, Caitríona Ruane has the will to deliver an education service, but she needs more money. However, we have severe concerns about the use of the Department’s current resources. It is really not much use for schools to have joint Gaelic football and soccer lessons or the opportunity to buy into Irish or Spanish lessons, when we cannot afford a teacher for tomorrow’s class.
It is fantastic that my own school is involved in a community partnership and that we do have Gaelic football, soccer and cricket from other funding. However, we do not need that when we have not got enough money for books or for a teacher.
The Minister needs significantly increased funding and the Executive have to look at that — that funding has to come. At the moment, the Department needs to be more effective in what they are doing and in getting that money to where it is needed.
Mr B McCrea:
I agree with that absolutely, but I want to pick up on your other point; I do not think that the message comes across. Can you tell me — and Martin touched on this — about the health of our teachers and about the genuine stress that they are under?
It would be worthwhile if, from your own personal experience, you could explain how genuinely stressful and difficult that job is. I know of head teachers who have just walked away, regardless of the package offered; but when one head teacher leaves a problem behind, who do you get to replace them?
Mr D McCartney:
All you have to do is look at the applications for principalships and vice-principalships. We have all, myself included, experienced illness as a result of stress at school, and a lot of our colleagues are presently off work and unable to lead their school, unable to provide a quality of education for children in their school — the very quality of education that we all came into the profession for. We cannot do that because we do not have the resources.
It is difficult for school principals to stand up and admit that they are struggling; however, we are here before you today so that you can record that we are struggling. A favourite saying among our colleagues is that they have “closed down”. People who have closed down cannot lead or be visionary; they can be good day-to-day crises managers, but that is all that we can do at the moment.
There is no vision for developing a revised curriculum for those children; we have not got the resources and are bogged down continually in crisis management. That is why we are here.
Mr B McCrea:
Could you tell me — I do not know how you would work it out — the percentage of people that are seriously at risk from stress?
In your own constituency, Basil, there are 42 primary schools in the Lisburn City Council area. At one point several months ago, there were seven or eight of those primary-school principals off long term with serous illnesses. Another principal was in hospital last weekend. I would say — without naming anybody — that 50% to 60% of teachers in those 42 schools are on the edge.
We are genuine when we say that we want to do our job well. We are committed to the children; in fact, that is part of the problem. We are so committed to making sure that things are as good as they can be for the children that we take on more and we are at the point where we cannot cope.
I worry that we have been telling people this for some time, and now there is real evidence showing that to be true. The recruitment problem that David alludes to has been seen by NAHT in the UK and has come to Northern Ireland. There is a professional qualification for headship and although many people went into that to prepare, very few of them want to become head teachers.
If you ask the staff of our school they will all say that they would not mind being a vice-principal, but that they are not going to do that job — people do not want to know. I can understand why; it is a very difficult job and there are tremendous stress levels. Privately, we could name those individuals, but trust us when we say that there are many people under great stress.
People think that we are mad for becoming principals. People say that they would not take on our job for two or three times the salary.
We are not the only people under pressure. The whole primary-school system is under pressure. For example, my wife is a school secretary, and, when she came home yesterday, she was crying because she had had to deal with a situation involving the police and social services in which a parent wanted their child to hit another child. She is the only secretary in a school of 450 children. That school’s office requires a second secretary to help her, but the principal does not have the money to employ another secretary, and that resulted in my wife coming home from work in tears. That is just a personal experience.
With regard to Mr Bradley’s first question, we are seeking additional core funding, but, at the end of the day, it is not so much a question of money. We want investment in time and personnel. In primary schools, there is no time to do anything properly. For example, if a classroom’s printer breaks down, I must fix it because we do not have an IT technician. Primary schools do not have enough personnel, and, therefore, teachers do not have the wee bit of time that they need to implement measures such as the revised curriculum. They go on courses for a couple of days, but then we do not give them time to prepare resources for children in the classroom. We are seeking investment in time and extra personnel.
Although we urgently require money to ease some of the difficulties, we also require a serious review of primary education.
Yesterday, I received a questionnaire from CCEA about pupil profiles and INCA assessments. The first question asked whether, when carrying out INCA assessments, I had found it necessary to redeploy technical staff. I replied: “What technical staff?”
INCA assessments, pupil profiles and PRSD are workable models for primary schools if they have the funds that are available to secondary schools in order to release teachers. Secondary-school teachers have non-contact time and, therefore, if someone is sick, someone can stand in for a day. Primary schools, which receive much less funding, must pay £180 a day for a temporary teacher. There must be some money lying around Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive that can be made available quickly.
In addition, we urgently require a deep and thorough review involving primary-school leaders in order to uncover all the causes of stress and to produce an affordable plan.
The Deputy Chairperson:
If what you say is true, and many primary-school leaders’ health is under threat, that points to what can only be described as an impending crisis. I have no reason to disbelieve what you say; you are here to reflect your colleagues’ concerns — those of the teachers who work at the chalk face in classrooms. We must all — MLAs, the Minister and officials — stop and listen to the message that you are bringing to us and decide whether action must be taken.
I met some of you before, and it is good to see you again. You should be congratulated for organising yourselves into a body with one voice. For so long, we have listened to individual primary-school principals speaking about their concerns. You have brought a focus to those matters; however, that is only the first step.
I am not a person for — and it is not the role of the Committee or the Assembly to offer — warm, fluffy platitudes. We must deal with harsh realities. I could not disagree with anything that you have said today. I might dispute percentages or funding methods in Scotland and England; however, I cannot contradict your basic argument — primary schools require more funding and primary-school teachers and principals require more support. Nevertheless, as an Assembly politician, I must deal with a Budget, which means that we must work around the fact that all public services are inadequately funded.
Martin Short spoke about the need for core funding. I agree; more funding in the education system should go directly to schools. He also said that there is no debate about the philosophy of education, and I partially agree with that. The transfer dispute has clouded education matters so much that other topics have been lost, and that debate must begin.
The whole area of restructuring the education system is one that can be moved on to assist with the short and medium term. A piece of legislation that would result in more core funding for primary schools is stalled because it is being blocked at the Executive. That is important, given that figures, which we will see later, show an underspend from the boards of £27 million. Although £27 million would not solve all of the problems overnight, if some of it were to go into the system each year it would resolve the difficulties.
The role of the Committee is to consider the arguments that you have put across, and to consider the situation in, for instance, Scotland. You said that there are 18 pupils in each primary school in Scotland, and you put forward the educational argument, rather than the financial argument. The Committee for Education needs to go down a similar road in presenting a critique of other primary-school education services across these islands to show how they do it and how we can do it. That can help to build a case for more money to go into primary schools.
Core funding can be changed, John. It is not a big job; one simply has to move the numbers around. You seem to accept the philosophy of the need to move on primary schools, but why was extra money put into secondary schools this year? The percentage of the funding that secondary schools received gave them a net increase in money. The argument on primary schools is not being listened to.
The gap in funding between primary schools and secondary schools widened this year. Without taking money from secondary schools, the addition that they get can be reduced and more can be given to primary schools. If the philosophy was there to invest in early years, it could be easily done by a change in a figure. It is not difficult to do that in the same budget, but funding for the secondary level does not need to be continually increased, increasing the gap with primary schools.
From where you are sitting, that argument is absolutely correct. If the Department had followed the course that you suggest, we would now have four secondary-school teachers here arguing that they are underfunded, and that the figures for funding for the primary-school sector should be adjusted. The cake is not big enough, so how that cake is used is vitally important. The vast majority of money is wasted in administration by bureaucrats, rather than by primary-school teachers and secondary-school teachers.
I beg to differ. The cake is certainly not big enough, but the way in which the cake is currently divided is fundamentally unfair. When a grammar school principal rang me and said that I should get my ICT technician to do X, Y and Z, I said that my ICT technician is a primary 4 teacher. Teachers do not get any time whatsoever, and they do tasks that are over and above their job. Your argument is that it is all right to have a difference of £1,258 in funding between a year-7 child and a year-8 child.
There are different demands for post-primary schools and primary schools.
We accept that, but the primary sector also has demands. The gap between the demands of the post-primary sector and the primary sector is not being met. The gap is too wide. Younger children, who are the future, are losing out. The post-primary sector benefits when we do our job right.
It all goes back to the permanent secretary’s view. I know that you support the tenor of what we are saying, but your fundamental message is: you boys can suffer on.
No, I am not saying that. The permanent secretary does not run the Department of Education.
He is the senior official with whom we speak. We accept that secondary schools need funding, and we do not want funding taken away from them. However, if they are able to say what they need and they get that, we are also telling you what we need. Why can we not get that funding? The reason cannot be that secondary schools would suffer, because the other side of that argument is that we continue to suffer.
I am not asking any of the education providers to suffer. I am asking for a realignment of how education is administered.
How long will that take?
It will take a lot longer if the legislation continues to be —
We need some sort of interim measures to help us until that happens. We need extra funding as an interim measure. I agree with Mr O’Dowd; there should be a realignment of how the education system works, and I support him fully on that. However, we have a problem with the in-between period, and we cannot afford to wait any longer.
Mr D McCartney:
The bottom line is that our children deserve the best education system in the world. The children in our schools and the children in your constituencies deserve the best education system in the world. If Northern Ireland were placed in the OECD study on the percentage of primary-school funding in comparison to secondary-school funding, we would lie twenty-sixth out of twenty-nine. Are members happy with that? We are not happy with that, and we want that changed. The Committee has the opportunity to do that for our children — the children in our schools and the children in your constituencies. Those children deserve the best, and we want to give them the best. We cannot do that now.
Every political party represented here recognises that primary-school funding is insufficient. Nobody at the table disagrees with that. However, if we keep the status quo, the political parties are telling their constituents, and us as principals, that they are not prepare to do anything about that. If nothing is done, the Committee will be asking my colleagues and me to work with resources that are totally inefficient. The Committee is asking us to do that job. The Department of Education is under-resourced, and it has to work with that problem. We have the same problem — we are both under-resourced. The Committee is asking us to work with that problem. However, we are asking you, as politicians, to fix it: that is your job. You are asking us to do our job, under-resourced.
We do not underestimate the difficulty of fixing the problem. However, Mr O’Dowd, we cannot continue to suffer because the secondary schools need X amount of money.
I am not asking for the status quo to remain.
It sounded like that.
Mr K Robinson:
It was interesting to listen to the critique. I feel like a history teacher this morning, because I went down the same road with the first Education Committee in Stormont 10 years ago. The Committee took the time and trouble — as John said — to go and find out what was happening in Scotland, and it produced a report at that stage. We looked at core funding, and we said that we did not need the “bolt-on funding” as it was described — the ring-fenced funding. A principal in charge of a school manages that school with a core budget, core staffing and flexibility, with three years to produce results.
The stress on teachers has been referred to. I have a scar to prove the stress that I suffered when I was in that job. Fortunately, I left the job before I came out feet first. However, I know the stress that you and your colleagues are under. I know exactly what you are talking about as regards the school office, the tears at home, etc, because my wife was a school secretary. There is stress on all staff in schools.
I have said repeatedly to the Minister in debates that children do not fail at 11 years of age. We are failing children — not just in primary schools, but in the pre-primary situation as well. We must move our funding into that area.
It was interesting to note that when your colleagues came to the Committee to give evidence years ago, they fell over backwards to tell us not to damage the secondary-school system. They did not want it damaged in any way. Everybody was trying desperately to be so nice to each other to move the situation forward. You have now become so desperate that you are highlighting the agenda and the differences.
In a recent question for written answer, I asked the Minister of Education when the equality of pupil funding in primary and post-primary sectors will be achieved. I will not dishearten you any more by giving you the answer but you can look it up on the Assembly website. I then asked the Minister why there continues to be a difference in educational funding per pupil in the primary and post-primary sectors. Again, you can look up the answer — you will find it interesting.
Nothing is going to change unless you continue to forcefully make your case. Our educational system will not improve and the quality of education that you want to give to your children — one that they deserve — is not going to be enhanced unless we look carefully at core funding.
That does not necessarily have to be extra funding; we must examine existing primary school funding. It is glib to say that cuts in administration will benefit schools. There is a political agenda in that response that I do not want to discuss.
We must ensure that principals receive as much core funding as possible so that they can genuinely locally manage their schools. It is a joke; you know it is a joke and I know it is a joke. Teachers are a geography co-ordinator one week and a maths co-ordinator the next. We tick all the boxes and have done so for years.
You have highlighted the problem in a very sincere manner. There is not a member sitting around this table who does not feel sympathy for what you have told us. We have heard similar views from other groups, such as principals from the Shankill. North Belfast principals are also lining up to come and see us. The problem exists right across the country.
(The Chairperson [Mr S Wilson] in the Chair)
The worm has turned. You have organised yourselves and have a great deal of support and sympathy at this Committee. The Department will have to realise that the primary-school sector is a key and vital sector. If the proposed visions for post primary education — and I am not getting into an argument about those — are to be brought to fruition, there must be a foundation. Without people such as yourselves doing the job that you want to do, we will never have that foundation. I suggest that you keep a handkerchief beside you when reading the written answers from the Minister.
Those written answers state that nothing is going to be done. However, Ken suggests that everyone on the Committee agrees with us and understands our plight. That makes the situation even more frustrating.
Mr B McCrea:
I am not even sure that they genuinely understand what has happened.
I would love for a member of this Committee to come to my school and shadow me for a day, just to see what it is like.
Probably for the first time, the Northern Ireland Primary Principals’ Action Group represents all sorts of primary schools: maintained, controlled, integrated, small, large, those with teaching principals and those with non-teaching principals. Therefore, this issue will become a public problem. Public representatives are charged with collective responsibility for sorting out this type of public problem. That must be done more rapidly than it is at present.
We do not want primary-school funding to become a public problem. It could potentially become a bigger problem than the current debate about the transfer system. The Education Minister and her Department have enough problems without this issue being thrown under the media spotlight. We want it to be solved in rooms such as this one; we want it solved it within the system and we want it solved now.
It is the remit of this Committee to improve standards in the education system. Therefore, I cannot fathom that nothing is going to be done, even though the Committee agrees with our case. What is the point of this Building? What is the point of the power-sharing arrangements? What is the point of the Executive?
Mr K Robinson:
Martin, you may question the point of those institutions. However, we have raised these issues with the Department time and again, and received the same answers.
Mr D McCartney:
It is not good enough. Our children, your children and your constituents’ children deserve better.
This problem has not just arisen in the last year under the stewardship of the current Education Minister; it has been ongoing for about 10 years. It is the establishment’s problem and not the Education Minister’s problem. Those of you who were involved in the Government 10 years ago have not acted on what happened then.
The Chairperson (Mr S Wilson):
I apologise that I had to drop out. In defence of the Committee, we have taken action. You accepted that extra money has been made available this year — £12 million for non-teaching principals and an extra £102 per pupil, as a result of the increase in the age weighted pupil unit. You may argue that that increased funding is not sufficient. However, we have been aware of the issue and asked the Minister and the Department what extra resources can be made available.
The Minister has responded to the views of the Committee. Some additional resources have been allocated. You may argue that that is inadequate, but you cannot argue that the Committee and those involved in it have done nothing.
We were fortunate in the debate, because we were able to show how that figure of £120 came down to £14, which worked out as 20 minutes per classroom assistant.
I want to make a point about the extra £102 that you, and others, have said was given to us. We are grateful for the money that teaching principals get; we are grateful for anything that we get.
Let me explain how that extra £102 was spent. At my school, £61 of that accounted for a 2·45% inflationary increase; £17 per pupil was used to cover an increase in cleaners’ cost, which the Department is not funding; and £10 went towards additional costs, such as heating and fuel. After those costs were deducted, £14 was allocated per pupil, the impact of which was the provision of classroom assistants for 20 minutes per day.
I am not saying that that is adequate.
We appreciate everything we get.
It is a bit unfair to say that the Committee —
We appreciate that.
We appreciate that. I made the point in the debate about funding being earmarked. I want to be given the money, which I can spend according on my school’s needs, rather than being given £14,000 worth of laptop computers, or being provided with a P2 classroom assistant, when I have to make two teachers redundant over the next two years.
We are thankful for the extra money; we thank the Education Committee for helping us, but it is still insufficient. At the end of the day we have nobody else to go to.
On that general point — which you may have covered in your submission — we have said that there should be a greater delegation of money available to school principals.
A common point has been made that the delegated schools’ budget is much lower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere. Principals would much prefer to take responsibility for how that money is spent, rather than the Department or boards spending it for them. If we want to find ways of releasing money, it is probably best to look at that level of delegation, which will enable principals to have the freedom to tailor spending to their particular needs.
I do not know whether we will get massive amounts of new money, but we have got to push for that.
Talking about massive amounts of new money; I heard today that the boards sent back £38 million.
The Department sent back £50 million last year.
I accept that the funding differential between the primary and secondary sector must be reduced; there is an imbalance. There has been a tendency for money to be allocated either to one-off or short-term initiatives, which is a point that other principals have made. That means money is spent on items that are, essentially, luxuries, rather than essentials. That is an issue on which the Department must be pressed and the Minister must address.
Perhaps information has already been given about the historic differential, but I want to achieve clarity on that. The argument is used in other Departments as well. It is endemic in the Northern Ireland Civil Service; following the historic pattern, actions are justified on basis that that has always been done in a certain way.
The same argument was brought forward in respect of libraries. Nobody knew where the figure had come from because it had been so long since it was introduced. What is the basis on which that is given? Has the basis of the original determination of the differential been explained? Over the years, what has been the pattern of that?
I have picked up from you that there is no basis for it, and that it has never been explained. What is the pattern of increase and decreases over the years, and how far does it go?
Mr D McCartney:
When the departmental officials join the meeting in an hour’s time, that is something that you need to ask them about, because we have already asked them to show the criteria that is used to justify those historical reasons.
In the early 1990s, the UK Government commissioned the Thornton Report. Members would do well to look at that report, which concluded, after much deliberation, that there was no justification for having a substantial difference in the funding provided for an 11-year-old and that provided for a 12-year-old child. We understand that older children are bigger and need bigger things — we are not disputing that. If the Government decides that secondary schools need a particular amount of money to be able to run, so be it. We want to know what is needed to be able to deliver the early start in education that will deliver the outcomes that are wanted not just by this Committee but by the whole of Northern Ireland. I am disappointed, Nelson, that people have not been able to recognise that.
This is a wider debate — it is wider than the Department of Education. We hear Sir Reg Empey talking about a skills crisis, for example, so it is clear that this debate relates to all Departments. The people in this country need to decide what they are going to do about educating the workforce and the children and about the economy, so that social cohesion can be achieved. Frankly, at the minute, we are not doing it. This has been going on for 20 years, Nelson, and the Department cannot answer explain why that differential exists, other than to say that it is historical.
I will give the Committee an example. I am the principal of a nursery unit, which has 26 full-time children. The differential figure for the children in my nursery unit is 1·35, but when they go into primary 1, it is 1·04. I have no idea where that difference came from. I disagree on one point — I believe that a five-year-old child needs more resources, more care and more attention than an independent child of 15 years.
Mr D McCartney:
We should also point out that we are discussing the differential between year 7 and year 8 children. The differential increases beyond year 12.
In England, secondary schools need a certain amount of money to be able to run, and they get that. Primary schools there get 79% of that amount. In Scotland, primary schools get 72% of the amount that secondary schools get. In Northern Ireland, we accept that secondary schools need a particular amount of money to be able to run, but primary schools get 61·8% of that amount. That cannot be defended, and it must be dealt with.
I want to make a point that was made earlier but which I feel needs to be emphasised. Debates about education constantly emphasise selection, the issue of what happens to children at 11 years of age, and the impact of that. I believe that the importance of early-years education should be emphasised, because if we fail children, or if they fall behind, at that stage, they will stay behind. It is difficult to recover from that — it is much better to invest at an early stage.
The half-hour evidence session has turned into an hour-long session. You are lucky that Dominic Bradley was in the Chair — I would have dropped the guillotine sooner.
Mr D Bradley:
It was an interesting debate.
I apologise for leaving — I had to attend to a school visit.
The Committee has taken this issue seriously. You may argue that we have only dealt with it at the margins, but this meeting is an indication of our intent that we want to see it dealt with. We will be considering how that can be done through the Committee, the Assembly, the discussions on in-year monitoring for funding and through the longer-term base funding. We will seek to be as inventive as we can, to ensure that the issues that you have raised this morning — and that others have raised with us — are, at the end of the day, resolved.
On behalf of the group, I thank the Committee for taking the time to listen to us. I want to leave you with one thought: we ask the Committee to consider our suggestion that it initiates an inquiry into the resources that are required to produce high-level results from the early years of education in Northern Ireland. That would be illuminating and it much appreciated. It may also provide Nelson with some of the information that the Department seems unable to give him.
Thank you very much.