Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 16 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Sammy Wilson (Chairperson) 
Mr Dominic Bradley (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mrs Mary Bradley 
Mr Trevor Lunn 
Mr Nelson McCausland 
Mr Basil McCrea 
Miss Michelle McIlveen 
Mrs Michelle O’Neill 
Mr Mervyn Storey

Witnesses: 
Ms Caitríona Ruane ) The Minister of Education 
Mr Jackie McMullan ) Ministerial Special Adviser 
Mr Will Haire ) 
Mr Paul Price ) Department of Education  

(The Deputy Chairperson [Mr D Bradley] in the Chair)

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr D Bradley):

Apologies have been received from Paul Butler and Ken Robinson. We will now move to the ministerial briefing on transfer to post-primary education.

Maidin mhaith daoibh go léir. Fógraím an seisiún seo foscailte mar sheisiún poiblí. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhat, a Aire, agus mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leat as teacht go dtí an Coiste. Táimid ag feitheamh le cloisteáil uait faoi na moltaí atá agat le haghaidh aistriú daltaí ón bhunscoil go dtí an mheánscoil.

You are welcome, Minister, as are your officials and advisers. We are glad that you have come here to inform us of your proposals for the transfer of pupils from primary to post-primary education. After your 10-minute briefing there will be a question-and-answer session.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane):

I hope that members are aware that we will be here for an hour. I have to be in Newry to present awards.

I welcome the Chairperson of the Committee.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I will give way to the Chairperson.

(The Chairperson [Mr S Wilson] in the Chair)

The Minister of Education:

I welcome the opportunity to brief the Committee about my proposals for the new non-academic transfer arrangements, including a proposal for a transitional period, in which a limited form of academic selection will be permitted in some schools.

Before I discuss the details of my proposals, there is no point in proceeding without taking the opportunity to discuss with the Committee the events of recent days. I met Executive colleagues yesterday to discuss the details of my proposals, which represent, in my view, an opportunity to remove much of the rancour that has soured this debate, and to focus on the important issues.

We all know what those important issues are. The future of our education system depends on key drivers for change — demographics, system failures and the expansion of choice for children at 14 years of age. We must also recognise that the 11-plus will be sat this year for the last time. Without agreement, there is a very real risk of “unregulation”. Unfortunately, the Executive did not discuss my proposals in any depth. I believe that those proposals represent a sensible and realistic way forward that will command the confidence of the vast majority of our teachers, principals and educationalists, and many parents. It is also unfortunate that we learned nothing new about some of the entrenched positions. We should not lose sight of what is important, which is the education of our children.

I also put a proposal to the Executive for a further full Executive meeting or series of meetings convened by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, at which to discuss my proposals. I have also made it clear that I intend to proceed. My preference is to secure a proper discussion of my proposals with the Executive and in the Assembly. I will bring forward regulations to the Assembly.

As the Minister of Education, it is my responsibility to introduce proposals for the reform of the education system.

I have made it clear that the current realities have left me with no other option but to proceed. Therefore, I have initiated the development of a new test by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

The proposals for transfer that I am putting before this Committee form one part of a coherent reform package. Given the continuing demographic decline, there is a need for a sustainable schools estate that will meet the educational needs of each local area. There is a need for greater collaboration between schools and with further education colleges to support the entitlement framework. There is also a need to raise standards and for greater equality in the transfer arrangements.

After the last transfer test we will move towards a system based on children transferring to post-primary school at age 11. That system will be based upon non-academic criteria and on those children making informed choice on their educational pathway at age 14; much in the same way as the young people do now when electing their GCSEs.

Academic excellence is a key plank of post-primary education. The ending of academic selection will mean equal educational provision and opportunity for all children. The system must therefore be about delivering quality education, including academic excellence.

In order to manage this process of change, I am prepared to allow a three-year phased approach. That approach will allow those schools that require time to adapt to use academic selection in a time-bound manner.

I have stated that 2013 should be a key date in the development of new arrangements. This is for a good reason. It should be the point at which area-based planning in the post-primary sector ensures that the entitlement framework is available to all young people.

How then do we get from the current system to a post-primary system reformed to deliver in 2013? What will happen with respect to transfers in 2010, 2011 and 2012? This is an issue that I have been exploring exhaustively with educational stakeholders. I have listened and have genuinely tried to find a consensual way forward.

I believe that it would be impossible for anyone to achieve an across-the-board consensus. However, I am satisfied that my proposals command a significant level of support, and I take particular heart from the support that I have received from educational professionals, represented by the teacher’s union. There is broad agreement among these stakeholders that the transfer test must go, and the logical consequence of that is that academic selection must also go.

To summarise, I propose that we move forward in accordance with the timeline that has already been outlined. In September 2009, pupils will transfer on the basis of the current system for the last time. In September 2010, pupils will begin to transfer under the new arrangements to post-primary school, at age 11, on the basis of non-academic admissions criteria. In order to facilitate transition to the new system, schools can apply for the option of admitting by academic selection on a limited basis. That will permit selection for up to 50% of a school’s intake in 2010.

The 2010 post-primary intake will be the first to avail of the full benefits of the choices available at GCSE under the new entitlement framework when those children reach age 14 in 2013. The CCEA has been instructed to draw up a standard test which will not distort the teaching of the revised curriculum. The remainder of these school’s intakes will be based on non-academic admissions criteria.

In September 2011, the ratio of intake will become 30% academic:70% non-academic. In September 2012, the ratio of intake will become 20% academic:80% non-academic. In September 2013 all admissions will be on the basis of non-academic criteria. For these three transitional years, I am prepared to put in place arrangements which allow schools the opportunity to select a proportion of their intake academically on a declining basis. This will mean that schools have time to adjust and prepare for the new arrangements.

Bilateral arrangements do require an assessment mechanism. However, I do not want this assessment to disrupt the delivery of the primary curriculum as it has done for so long in the past. Therefore, it should not and will not be conducted in primary schools.

Bilateralism, even for a short transitional period, is not an easy thing for me to suggest; I maintain entirely my opposition to assessment-based transfer at age 11.

Tá fís agam de chóras a d’fhág an roghnú acadúil ina dhiaidh, agus tá mé réidh le hoibriú le comhghleacaithe leis na céimeanna a dhéanamh leis an fhís sin a fhíorú.

To translate: I have in sight a system that has moved beyond academic selection and I am prepared to work with colleagues to take the steps necessary to realise that vision.

There is a further feature of the current situation that demands change, namely the underpinning legislation. For my proposals to take effect, changes to existing primary legislation are required. Those will give effect to bilateral arrangements for a three-year period prior to the ending of academic selection. New subordinate legislation will be required to regulate the operation of non-academic admissions criteria.

Reform is often difficult; we all understand that. However, I put it to you that we agree on a number of issues. We want an education system that meets the needs of all our children and responds to their individual needs and aspirations. We want an education system that gives all young people an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of social and economic background. We want a system that promotes both academic and vocational excellence. We want a system in which schools collaborate with each other, rather than compete with each other. We want schools that celebrate individual children. We want to encourage schools to be able to provide young people with the range of choices at ages 14 and 16 that they need and deserve. We want a system that brings schools together in learning communities defined by their ability to offer all young people in their area access to the entitlement framework. In support of this, planning of the estate and provision will be done on an area basis.

Given the range of issues that we may agree on, I genuinely hope that we can plot a course through the difficult issue of transition; a way forward that satisfies the needs of teachers, schools, parents and, most important of all, our children. The alternative prospect — a period with no regulation — is clearly undesirable for all concerned.

As parties, we have dealt with more difficult issues. We sit in the Executive together and I believe that these proposals form a basis on which we can move forward. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson (Mr S Wilson):

Thank you, Minister. We have got until 11 o’clock for questions.

The paper that you submitted to the Committee mentions — three times, I think — that the proposals will now go for consultation. Are those proposals open to change?

The Minister of Education:

As I have said, I brought the proposals to the Executive, and I will now bring the proposals to the Assembly. I will fulfil all of my statutory duties in relation to consultation.

The Chairperson:

That is not quite an answer to the question that I asked. If we are going through a consultation period, is it possible that the proposals will be changed during that time?

The Minister of Education:

I will certainly examine any good ideas that come forward.

The Chairperson:

I have difficulty with that because it is not the impression that you have given here, and on the radio, this morning. I understand that there has been a refusal to consider other parties’ proposals in the Executive. Indeed, the SDLP proposal that there should be a discussion on your proposals and other parties’ proposals has been refused. I am trying to ascertain whether you are prepared to consider proposals made by anybody but yourself.

The Minister of Education:

I have difficulty, Sammy, in that I never know which part of the DUP I am speaking to. You said a couple of days ago that you found the proposals to be a basis for moving forward. However, your party colleagues in the Executive refused to even discuss them.

It is a Minister’s job to bring proposals to the Executive; I have done that. I requested that a meeting be convened to discuss my proposals. Obviously, I will consider anything that improves my proposals. I have brought forward proposals that are difficult for me; I would like academic selection to end today. I do not think that children should be put through a transfer test. I think it is unfair; it is far too young an age. I listened to the media reports this morning, on which some of the most articulate people were the young people, who were saying that the tests are not fair. Because I listened to the educationalists about the need for managed change, I was willing to compromise and bring forward the proposals that I have outlined to you. I really think it is time that the DUP got its act together in relation to this issue. There is a compelling need for change, and I am the Minister who will bring that change about. It is my duty and my job to do that.

The Chairperson:

I ask this question for the sake of all of the parties represented on the Committee. Are you prepared during the consultation period to consider views and proposals that are being formulated by the other parties represented on this Committee?

The Minister of Education:

I have already answered your question, and have said that I look forward to any proposals or any positions that improve my proposals.

The Chairperson:

If you are happy to consider views sent to you by members of the parties that are represented on this Committee, what is the difficulty in doing that with your colleagues in the Executive?

The Minister of Education:

I have written to the Committee on numerous occasions asking them to produce proposals. I am still awaiting them. It was prior to Christmas that I wrote to you, but the Committee did not reach a consensus view. I am very disappointed that you did not do so, despite the fact that I have answered your numerous questions and my officials have worked very hard on answering them. In answer to your question, I have said that I will look at any positions that improve my proposals. The proposals are a compromise way forward; they are a good and sensible way forward. Change is going to happen and is happening as we speak. I am of the view that it must be well-managed change, and that is why I have introduced these proposals. I look forward very much to hearing the views of the Committee, of your party and indeed of all the parties, because there are many different views.

The Chairperson:

I would just like an answer to this question; Minister. If you are not prepared, at Executive level, to consider the views of other parties, how can we take any assurance from you in the Committee meeting this morning that you are prepared in this context to take the views of other parties on board?

The Minister of Education:

I was at the Executive meeting, Sammy, and, with respect, you were not, a Cathaorligh. You were not at the Executive, I was there. I issued a proposal —

The Chairperson:

By your own admission this morning, you were only prepared to discuss your views. That is what you said on the radio, are you retracting that now?

The Minister of Education:

Do you want me to answer the question?

The Chairperson:

Yes, I would like you to answer the question.

The Minister of Education:

I was at the Executive Committee meeting. For the record, I proposed that the First and deputy First Minister convene a meeting to discuss the proposals that I, as Minister of Education, Aire Oideachais i dTuaisceart na hÉireann, brought to the Executive. That was rejected by both unionist parties. The question that must be asked, and the question that parents, teachers and principals will be asking, is why was that rejected? Why are they blocking change, when everybody, regardless of their political affiliation, understands the need for change in education? There are 50,000 empty desks, and 12,000 children are failed by the system every year. There is demographic decline that must be dealt with. There is a new curriculum, and it is really important that schools collaborate rather than compete with each other. Change is happening, and representatives of political unionism need to ask themselves some questions. Why are they trying to block and frustrate change? I can not allow change to be blocked or frustrated.

The Chairperson:

With respect, Minister, we have heard that bit of the story about four times already this morning, but I am still unclear. You are prepared, in the Executive, only to discuss your proposals, you have just told us that, but you also tell us that you are prepared to discuss the different proposals from the parties here at the Committee. Why can that not be done with Executive colleagues, or are you really saying that, just as you are not prepared to discuss the proposals of other parties in the Executive, you will not discuss the views of different parties here in the Committee?

The Minister of Education:

As I have said, at all times I have engaged with this Committee; at all times I have come before it; at all times I have asked the Committee to comment on my proposals.

I am still waiting for them. I have asked you to bring forward your own proposals. At all times and at different points in this debate, I have asked you for written comments on issues that I have raised. I look forward to the Committee’s comments on my proposals and I hope that we can engage in a very positive way.

The Chairperson:

I want to be clear on this. I do not want us to waste time bringing proposals to you, if you adopt the same attitude towards proposals from the Committee as you have adopted in the Executive, where you have stated — as you confirmed to us this morning — that you are prepared to discuss only your proposals; not those of anyone else. Unless there is some contradiction, I presume that that attitude extends to any of our proposals.

The Minister of Education:

I was at the Executive. I understand exactly what happened at the Executive and so do the public.

I wait for, and look forward to, the Committee’s comments on my proposals. I hope that they are forthcoming.

The Chairperson:

I think we probably understand your position on that. I will raise one more thing before I bring in other Members.

Last time you appeared before the Committee, and on a number of occasions in the Assembly, you indicated that one of the reasons, and I accept that it was not the only reason, that we could not have any form of academic selection was that it did not fit in with the revised curriculum. The argument was that, because the revised curriculum was skills-based, it could not facilitate a test.

In light of your comments to the Committee and to the Assembly, and since the revised curriculum is now in place, how do you intend to run tests in each of the next three years?

The Minister of Education:

I welcome that very valid question.

First, I want to put on record that I am totally opposed to academic selection. These are compromise proposals. I would prefer if there were no academic testing of our children at such a tender age. The revised curriculum is good; primary school teachers like it and say that it is already making a significant impact on pupils. We will see that as time passes.

In order to ensure that the primary school curriculum is not distorted, I have told the permanent secretary to instruct the CCEA to devise a straightforward, single-assessment test focused on the expected levels of literacy and numeracy at transfer age.

The test must not require a skewing of either the curriculum or prior practice; it should be taken on a single day and last no more than one hour. The test should enable children taking it to be ranked on the basis of ability. It will be subject to quality-assurance processes, and a supplementary test must also be prepared. I want the test to be taken in a post-primary setting, preferably in schools that request bilateral status from the Department.

I agree with you that academic testing at the age of 11 is not good for children, and we must minimise disruption; the curriculum is, obviously, very important.

The Chairperson:

I believe that you misunderstood my question, Minister.

You told us before that it was not possible to base a test on what children are currently being taught in primary schools, because the revised curriculum was skills-based and, therefore, could not facilitate a test. Are you telling us that you have revised that view, and that the revised curriculum can be tested?

The Minister of Education:

I am telling you that the test will not distort the revised curriculum because I will not permit it to do so. I have given clear instructions to the CCEA in relation to how the tests should be carried out.

However, let me be clear, Cathaorligh, Chairperson, that I do not want testing. I do not believe that testing is the way forward. These are compromise proposals for the phased ending of academic selection. From my understanding of your comments, I am glad that you appear to have changed your view on the revised curriculum and testing.

The Chairperson:

You do not understand my view, and you have not understood the question. The question was that, if, by your command, it is now possible to devise a test that is compatible with the revised curriculum, are you now saying that the original reason, or one of the original reasons, that you gave for not having a test is no longer valid? Are you saying that you can command a test that does not in any way distort the revised curriculum, and, therefore, can be facilitated with it?

The Minister of Education:

I will answer the question again. With respect, the way that I answer a question is the answer to it. I have ensured that clear instructions will be given to the CCEA that there is to be no distortion of the primary-school curriculum.

My preferred option is for no academic selection. I would prefer there to be none right now. That is what I am working towards. Having listened to educationalists about time being required to manage change, I have taken their views on board. That is the answer to your question, Sammy.

I know that the DUP is being caught in contradictions on the issue, but the revised curriculum is good. Primary-school teachers have told me that they like it and that they do not want a distortion of it. I will be meeting trade union representatives on Monday to further reassure them that there will be no distortion of the revised curriculum. I will also tell them that the test will not be sat in primary schools. Furthermore, I will tell them that although I do not like the tests, they are necessary in the interests of transitional arrangements and in getting consensus with educationalists, the vast majority of whom understand the need for change.

I welcome the fact that you appear to have changed your position and that you do not want any distortion of the revised curriculum. We can make progress with such positions.

The Chairperson:

I welcome the fact that you have now changed your position to that which I have always maintained, namely that it is possible to have tests without distorting the revised curriculum. It appears that that can be done simply by the wave of the ministerial wand. I am pleased that you have found a way round the earlier difficulty that you had.

The Minister of Education:

We will agree to disagree, Sammy.

Mr D Bradley:

If schools feel that the new test is acceptable and fair, they may want to continue to use it; indeed, it may become known as the Ruane transfer test. How can you ensure that the test will not be a permanent feature of the education system in Northern Ireland?

The Minister of Education:

I am clear that it will not be a permanent feature of the education system in the North of Ireland.

No tests at that age are acceptable. I will not encourage the use of the test. In fact, as Minister, I will actively discourage its use. Such tests are not the right way to go — [Interruption.]

The Minister of Education:

Perhaps I could finish answering the question. I will not encourage the use of the test; I will actively discourage schools from using it. However, it will be the choice of the schools as to whether to use it. Parents will then have a choice on a declining basis. As I said, in 2010, schools can apply for the option of admission by academic selection by up to 50% of their intake. That figure will decrease to 30% in 2011, and 20% in 2012.

That also means that there will be a fundamental change to all schools, because every school that is not currently open to all children will become open to all children. That will make a big difference to children’s lives. It will also be part of a package of reform.

That is a plan for the phased ending of academic selection by the end of the three-year period. The SDLP is aware that we do not need academic selection in our system; its representatives are on record as saying that it is opposed to academic selection. Educationalists have told me that we need time for transition, and I have listened to them.

I know that some people are disappointed — I heard them on the radio this morning. Some people are calling for me to end academic selection immediately, and I would love to do that. People should be reassured that the vast majority of post-primary schools will be operating the non-academic admissions criteria.

Mr D Bradley:

The fact that you are proposing to introduce the test and, at the same time, you are dissuading people from doing it seems to be a contradiction.

Nevertheless, given that there will be fewer places available and more pupils competing for those places, it seems logical to assume that there will be more challenges to outcomes. What consideration have you given to that, and will current legislation cover the new test and the many challenges that might arise from it?

The Minister of Education:

First, you are presuming that fewer places will be available. Many people appreciate that change is happening and understand the demographics. Many grammar schools already accept pupils with A, B, C and D grades, and, in fact, some grammar schools — indeed some of the 31 grammar schools that propose to introduce unregulated academic selection — are currently undersubscribed.

As a consequence of the public debate, many parents recognise that academic selection is not necessarily the best way to proceed and are already choosing not to take that option. Therefore, let us not presume who will or will not take the tests.

There is no contradiction in introducing a test that, for a period of time, will allow managed change for people who want academic selection. I would prefer not to introduce such measures; however, for schools that feel they need it, it will provide time to adapt to the changes that I will instigate. I am allowing them that time because I have listened to them — I have always said that I am a listening Minister, and I have listened.

Furthermore, I have given clear instructions to the CCEA. Members will know that, currently, there are 1,100 appeals to the transfer test and 1,400 special circumstance appeals. That is 2,500 appeals from approximately 15,000 young people’s tests. The system is robust, the CCEA is experienced, and I have informed CCEA that I require quality assurances for the new test, and, of course, we will be proposing legislation in the Assembly.

Mr D Bradley:

I am not assuming that fewer places will be awarded through academic selection. In your submission, you told us that the intake permitted by academic selection will be 50%, 30% and then 20%. Therefore, there will be fewer places available through academic selection — that is the purpose of your proposals. Consequently, it seems logical to assume that more people will seek fewer places and, therefore, there will be more challenges. From your answer, I am unclear about whether the current legislation will cover the new test and the challenges that will arise from it.

The Minister of Education:

You are presuming that the same number of people will choose to be tested. I hope that the vast majority of young people and parents will decide not to undergo the test.

With regard to legislation; I will bring forward the legislation necessary to cover every aspect of my proposals, and I am addressing that now.

Mr D Bradley:

Will you get agreement on that legislation?

The Minister of Education:

I look forward to it. Your party and other parties said that they are opposed to academic selection, and I very much look forward to the debate in the Assembly, Dominic. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr D Bradley:

You need cross-party agreement —

The Minister of Education:

Let us cross that bridge when we come to it.

Mr Storey:

You should not interpret any comments made today as a political endorsement of your proposals. In case you are unsure, I will make matters abundantly clear. You continually inform us that you are the Minister and that you are listening. You must have cloth ears. Those proposals do not form the basis of an agreement. That was clear yesterday in the Executive, and it is clear here today. So, do not come to this Committee and attempt to misinterpret, or give your version of, the DUP’s position.

Do your departmental officials endorse the proposals that were presented to the Executive, and were they involved in writing the paper?

Will you tell us whether that paper was political, or whether it was prepared by departmental officials?

You made another statement yesterday, which was nothing but the height of hypocrisy and arrogance. In reference to the re-establishment of the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB), you said:

“I will also be asking for recognition from members that the future work of the board will be characterised by courtesy, mutual respect and uphold the principles of equality and they will respect their statutory duties.”

When will you abide by your own words and do as you say, as you require others to do to engage in the process? You have obviously set a standard for the re-establishment of the South Eastern Education and Library Board that you have failed, miserably, to apply to yourself. From a cross-community perspective, it is abundantly clear — from the comments made by the Deputy Chairperson, Mr Dominic Bradley — that legislative framework will not get approval in this House.

How, therefore, do you propose to make progress in the absence of that approval? Will you continue to bury your head in the sand and give us more confusion and less leadership, like you have done to date?

The Minister of Education:

There is a major challenge for the DUP in that regard. The DUP — [Interruption.]

The Minister of Education:

I did not interrupt you, Mervyn.

Mr Storey:

The DUP does not need lectures on its political analysis, thank you very much.

The Minister of Education:

It is very important that the DUP gets its act together concerning education. The DUP is caught in a web of contradictions. The party says that it wants to raise standards, and that it cares about the young people that the system is currently failing; yet the party’s members bury their heads and are refuse to acknowledge that change is needed. There is an attempt to frustrate and block change, but change is going to take place. Changing nothing is not an option. In relation to your question — [Interruption.]

I do not share your opinion, but you are entitled to it. You are entitled to your opinion on what political leadership is and what it is not. Members of the public have their own views on what political leadership is. I give political leadership in my Department. I work very closely with my officials. I give them clear political leadership, and I give them clear instructions regarding how my proposals will be progressed.

It is not the job of my officials to endorse this paper, but they did. My officials helped to write this paper. We have been working on this paper since I came into office.

I do not accept that I am arrogant. I met the political members of the SEELB, and I also met the other representatives of the board. I listened to the views of both sets of people. Those board members who were not members of political parties found the process very traumatic during that time. I guaranteed them that the Department will ensure that any board here operates in line with all of its statutory duties, and I guaranteed that there would, of course, be a culture of tolerance and respect. That is the way that business needs to be done. I always do business in a respectful way, and I expect other people to do the same.

I do not want to not pre-empt the Assembly, because it is the decision-making body concerning legislation. I look forward to submitting my proposals to the Assembly and I look forward to the debate.

Mr Storey:

What will happen if you do not get that consent? From your comments yesterday and today, it is obvious that you are determined — either by your ministerial magic wand or by your actions to date — to move on irrespective of what people say.

How will you bring about that change? You are very good at telling me what the DUP should be doing, but let me remind you that a MORI poll conducted by the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ showed that 62% of Sinn Féin voters want to retain some form of academic selection. How are you going to deal with them? I hope that it will not be in the same way that you have dealt with issues in the past.

The Minister of Education:

I do not make policy on the basis of headlines. I do not have the same faith in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ as you appear to have. There are plenty of polls that we could quote, but I do not make policy in that way — I make policy based on hard facts. I would like to throw a question back to you, Mervyn. Will you state clearly whether, if the Department makes proposals that can command the support of between 85% to 95% of the 228 post-primary schools here, your party will oppose them? Is this about party politics, or is it about the vast majority of our children? I will continue to put each and every child at the centre of my proposals.

Mr Lunn:

Minister, I first want to acknowledge that it is good that you have come to the Committee on the day after you presented your proposals to the Executive, because you have been criticised more than once — sometimes unfairly — for not attending Committee meetings.

I think that you yourself have said that you hope that, over the course of the three year period when the ratio of academic to non-academic intake will be reduced from 50%, to 30% and then to 20%, parents and schools will realise that there is not the same demand for academic testing and that it may fade away over that period. The result of that may be that we will not need so many places in grammar schools because not as many pupils will be doing the transfer test.

However, you have also said that the new transfer test will be shorter, will be based on numeracy and literacy and will be a one hour test. That makes me think that it will be a lot easier, and that, perhaps, a lot more parents will decide to give their children the opportunity to take the test, because they may have a better chance of passing it. How do you reconcile those two scenarios? More children may apply to take an easier test and, on the basis of that test, it may be much harder to establish which are the A-, B- and C-grade candidates.

The Minister of Education:

Thank you for your opening remarks — I am glad to be at the Committee meeting.

You will know, because we have had many discussions about it, that I do not like any form testing for 11-year-old children. These are compromise proposals. We are allowing the test; we are not encouraging it. We will be putting in place an education system involving targeted school improvements and investment in the post-primary estate in the North of Ireland.

Already, it is evident that parents are making choices based on non-academic admissions criteria. More and more children who have done well in the transfer test are choosing to attend some of our very good secondary schools. There are oversubscribed secondary schools that are doing amazing work — sometimes people forget that. One of the reasons that I appointed people such as Pat McAleavey from Keady and Adeline Dinsmore to the area-based planning process is that their schools are high achieving, all-ability, post-primary schools. Their schools are among the many secondary schools that are doing tremendously well, and they all deserve a lot of credit for the work that they are doing.

Mr Lunn:

Would it be fair to say that your ideal outcome after the three year transitional period would be that parents will have demonstrated that there is no need for academic testing? The transition period may change the hearts and minds of some of the people who currently have a reservation about abolishing transfer testing.

The Minister of Education:

Sorry, I did not answer that part of your question. That is absolutely what I hope will happen. I think that what you will see, by and large, is parents deciding to send their children to the nearest suitable school. We need to move towards that situation. Over a period of time, there will be schools with different streams, which will have vocational and academic excellence, as well as a combination of both.

A child who wants to be an engineer will have good vocational and academic skills; a child who wants to be a doctor will have good communication and academic skills; and a child who wants to be a tiler will have good mathematical and vocational skills: is that not positive? I want a network of schools to work together to provide a curriculum that offers a broad range of choice. I hope that people are able to keep an open mind on how to move forward. The three-year period of transition allows the Assembly time to make progress.

Mr B McCrea:

Minister, I have three questions, and I will ask them one at a time to give you a chance to respond. You proposed that the Executive hold a special meeting, and the UUP Minister Michael McGimpsey proposed the establishment of a subcommittee to include the SDLP, the DUP and the UUP. The Executive voted on his proposal. There is, apparently, little difference between the two proposals. However, in the subsequent debate on the latter proposal, the Assembly supported it. For the sake of compromise, is it not a good idea for an Executive subcommittee to examine your paper?

The Minister of Education:

I listened carefully to, and participated in, the debate in the Assembly on the establishment of a subcommittee. I took on board many of Members’ points, and I went a step further than the motion’s proposal. I wanted all, not only some, Ministers, to have an opportunity to discuss my proposals. Therefore, I asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to convene a series of dedicated Executive meetings with all Ministers, who constantly tell me that they want a say in my proposals. I went a step further than was requested of me by the Assembly this week. Was that on Monday? It has been a long week, and much has happened. Sorry; the debate was on Tuesday.

Mr B McCrea:

That is fair enough. However, given the current situation, Ministers have heavy workloads and it is possible that not all would be available to attend meetings of the Executive. Given that you had a good, but impractical, idea, would it not make sense to establish an Executive subcommittee to hold a series of meetings and report back? That is not a million miles away from your suggestion. However, it would allow those with more involvement in education and with a greater command of your complicated proposals to debate the issues. Other colleagues could be guided by the findings of that ministerial subcommittee.

The Minister of Education:

With respect, Basil, over the past year every single Minister and MLA has informed me that they are extremely concerned about education and interested in education. They told me that they want to have a role in education, and I work from that premise.

I do not want to exclude anyone; I want to include all Ministers. If Ministers are too busy to discuss education, they have a choice: to attend Executive meetings or not. However, why start on the basis of exclusion? All proposals that Ministers make, including those on the Budget, the Programme for Government and so forth, are discussed by the Executive. Therefore, I brought my proposals to a meeting of the Executive.

Mr S Wilson:

You do not include Ministers, but you are determined to include your views: is that not the crux of the matter?

The Minister of Education:

My job, as Minister of Education, is to introduce proposals to the Executive, which I did.

Mr B McCrea:

Minister, you made your position on academic selection crystal clear. Are you still completely opposed to any form of streaming, placing children in sets or using academic criteria at any stage in the process?

The Minister of Education:

I was never opposed to streaming and fair banding.

People have different views on that matter. I said that some countries do not use streaming; however, I am not opposed to streaming or fair banding. Many good secondary schools operate that policy.

Mr B McCrea:

On 15 October 2007, during Oral Answers to Questions, you outlined to the Assembly that you considered certain aspects of the Dickson plan to be good, because it involves transferring children at the age of 14. You mentioned twice that you considered selection by ability to be “unacceptable”. There is some inconsistency in your position — and perhaps you can clarify whether your position has changed — in that previously, you fundamentally opposed any form of streaming or setting in favour of mixed-ability, whole-class teaching.

The Minister of Education:

With respect, Basil, I think that you are confusing academic selection with streaming and banding. The Dickson plan operates selection based on so-called ability at 14. I said that I like elements of the Dickson plan, but not its support for academic selection. That is different from fair banding and streaming, and children choosing academic pathways in some subjects and non-academic pathways in others. Some children excel at maths and English — they may be placed in a stream to learn more intense maths or English — whereas others are good at art or geography. There seems to be some confusion.

Mr B McCrea:

I am happy for that issue to be dealt with later. Finally, people appear to be buying second homes in areas that they consider contain good schools. Can you assure the Committee that there will be no selection by postcode?

The Minister of Education:

There is no evidence of a mass exodus of people to areas close to certain schools. However, I accept that we must dismantle the current education apartheid and ensure that schools accept people from varying backgrounds. Part of my proposal is to examine social justice criteria; that means that all schools would have a certain percentage of free school meals built into their criteria.

Mr B McCrea:

Will you bus children to schools from outside the geographic area to ensure a social justice balance?

The Minister of Education:

No. We will introduce admissions criteria. I have listened to many people — including you, Basil — who raised concerns about postcode selection; that is why the proposals include social justice criteria.

Ms O’Neill:

I welcome the fact that you have outlined clearly your proposals, and, despite some parties’ political opinion, those proposals have commanded wide support from educationalists. This week, educationalists including the Churches, secondary school teachers and trade unions have, rightly, commented positively. The DUP — the negative voice — has suggested that grammar schools should choose only students who achieve A or B grades. My sources indicate that such a policy would lead to the closure of 20 to 40 grammar schools, which, in turn, would result in a loss of skills, resources, facilities and teachers. Do you agree with that analysis?

The Minister of Education:

I have always said that I do not support academic selection. Therefore, I disagree with the DUP’s proposal to accept only A and B grades, because that will lead to strictly “academic” schools. I believe that children can receive academic and vocational excellence in schools in their local area.

Initial reports that I have seen, bearing in mind demographic decline and the number of children who are obtaining A and B grades as well as C and D grades and who are attending grammar schools, suggest that there is a possibility that 20 grammar schools could close, if the DUP’s proposals were to be accepted. The reality is that my proposals are not those proposals; that is not the route that we will go down. Rather, we will create a network of schools with a phased ending of academic selection and different pathways, both academic and vocational, in each school. Schools such as Holy Cross College, St Paul’s High School and Ballyclare Secondary School provide excellent vocational and academic pathways, and cater for children of all needs and abilities.

Mrs O’Neill:

I accept that we are going down the route that you have proposed. However, the DUP Chairperson said that he was concerned about whether you would take his proposals on board. If those are the type of proposals that he is putting forward, it must be put on the record that they will lead to the closure of 20 to 40 grammar schools, which the DUP claim it is protecting.

The Minister of Education:

I share your concerns about those proposals. I listened carefully to what Neil Morton said on the radio this morning and I read his article in one of the newspapers this week. He makes some very valid points. It may be interesting for the Committee to explore some of the impacts of that route.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps, Minister, you should do that, because it would appear that Sinn Féin has got its briefing notes mixed up. You say 20 grammar schools, and Michelle says 45. There seems to be a bidding war going on here. I do not know whether you briefed her or she briefed you. Maybe you have not talked to each other, in the same way that you are not talking to anyone else.

Ninety per cent of pupils who go to grammar schools have obtained A or B grades. There are 67 grammar schools. If you take 10% of those youngsters away, that works out as 6·7 grammar schools, not 20, and certainly not 40. Maybe a numeracy lesson would be good for you, Michelle.

The Minister of Education:

In relation to that, Cathaorligh, these proposals are your babies, Sammy. We would like to know how many schools would be affected under your proposals. I have reports that show me that there is going to be a huge impact. One of the reasons grammar school principals are voicing their concerns about your proposals is that they understand the impact. I have heard grammar school principals talk about the number of job losses that would occur. Secondary schools have been affected by job losses. That is why we must bring about change. I would like to hear from you, Sammy, about how many schools your proposals will affect.

The Chairperson:

I have given you a rough rule of thumb. If you take the remaining 10% of youngsters who go to the 67 grammar schools, that works out roughly at 6· 7 schools. The unknown variable, as you very well know, Minister, and as the Catholic sector has told you, is that if they do not go down the route of testing, and some Catholics decided that they wished to attend voluntary grammar schools, the voluntary and controlled grammar schools could experience an upsurge in numbers.

The Minister of Education:

Which schools would be affected by your proposals?

The Chairperson:

I am not closing any schools.

The Minister of Education:

With respect, if I had come forward talking about a rough rule of thumb, serious questions would be asked. There are questions about the impact of your proposals that this Committee must debate.

The Chairperson:

I do not think you understand the dynamics of the situation, although you have been warned by the Catholic sector that if they are left out in the cold with no test, and if the voluntary and controlled grammar schools go down that route, all the adjustment might take place in the Catholic grammar school sector. That will be a problem for you, bearing in mind the community that you represent.

The Minister of Education:

I met Cardinal Brady and many of the bishops. I listened very carefully to what Bishop Hegarty said, and I have noted the leadership that has been shown by the Catholic Church on this matter. They have said that academic selection is immoral, that the issue is one of social justice, and that we must give every child a fair chance. I welcome that. Rather than selectively quoting the Catholic position, you should understand where the Catholic sector is coming from and the leadership that it has shown, along with the integrated sector and the Irish-medium sector on this issue.

The Chairperson:

I am spelling it out for you, because you do not seem to understand the dynamics of the situation and what the consequences of your proposals might be.

The Minister of Education:

I understand quite clearly, Sammy.

Mrs M Bradley:

Minister, we have moved from having a test to not having one and back again. Many P5 children have been told by their teachers and their parents that they would not have to sit a test. This morning their parents and teachers will have to tell them that not only will they have to sit a test, but that the test will be carried out in unfamiliar surroundings. Is it not the case that you have come up with the thirteenth 11-plus that will have the same ill-effects as previous tests?

The Minister of Education:

Go raibh maith agat faoin ceist sin.

Nobody has to sit a test. I have made it very clear that nobody needs to sit a test. I have submitted transitional proposals for parents who want their children to sit a test. I will actively discourage people to do that. I will say that there is no need for that test. I have told the Committee that these are transitional arrangements. Sometimes, I am told that your party is opposed to academic selection.

Mrs M Bradley:

We have always been opposed to it.

The Minister of Education:

Yet every time I bring forward proposals, there is nit-picking instead of people working with me to end academic selection. Your party and mine are opposed to academic selection; let us work together. The arrangement is transitional. Dominic Bradley is an educationalist, and he will have heard from many educationalists. The other night, I met a teacher from the school that Dominic taught in who said that they did not like academic testing; they wished that they did not have to go through three more years of it, but they are glad that there is time to manage the change. The proposed transitional arrangements are and good and sensible. I do not like the test, Mary. I wish that there was no testing. I wish that the test had not been introduced 60-odd years ago. From the minute that I took office, I have worked day and night to end academic selection. The proposals are a way of bringing about the phased end of academic selection.

Mrs M Bradley:

Minister, why are mixed messages coming from your Department?

The Minister of Education:

There are no mixed messages. The messages are very clear. As we speak, my Department is preparing a leaflet that will be sent to every household in the North of Ireland. People asked for clarity; they have clarity. People asked for the details of my proposals; they have details of my proposals.

Instead of nit-picking and trying to block and frustrate change, Mary, work with me to bring about change.

Mrs M Bradley:

This is not about trying to frustrate change; it is about considering properly the children that we represent. It emerged clearly this morning that children will be taken out of their own schools to sit a test that will be set by your Department. That is unacceptable for any child.

The Minister of Education:

Mary, I suggest that you read the proposals and listen to what I said here about the clear instructions that I have given to CCEA. Children will not be taken out of their schools. If parents choose that their children sit a test, the test will be carried out in the schools that apply for bilateral status. I have always said that I do not agree with the test; I would prefer it not to exist.

Mr D Bradley:

We are not nit-picking. We are asking you, Minister, questions that the general public are asking us. We are not asking questions only about transfer. In an Assembly debate, on Tuesday 13 May, I asked detailed questions about area-based planning and the sustainable-schools policy. You did not provide a detailed answer to those questions. The proposals that you revealed yesterday are general, and there is very little detail in them. There is nothing about area-based planning or the sustainable schools policy. That is the general context of reform, and we must know the whole context, rather than being drip-fed information with a four-month interval between each drip.

Mrs M Bradley:

Not only that, but it is not right.

The Minister of Education:

I would welcome any proposals that your party has to improve my proposals. I look forward to receiving them.

In relation to your comment about area-based planning, there has been intensive engagement on that matter.

I announced the new sustainable schools policy that I will be introducing very shortly to some post-primary principals in Templepatrick on Wednesday 14 May. Good educational leaders are leading the area-based planning process, and I welcome that — these are wonderful people who have shown how to build an education system for our children for years, and have done so.

Mr McCausland:

The Minister referred to social justice, where there are a certain percentage of children from a disadvantaged background who are required to attend a particular school. Would there also conversely be a maximum figure? How would it be determined which children would be bussed from one area to another in order to achieve the mix of social justice?

The Minister of Education:

The question presumes that children would need to be bussed — I can think of many areas where there are working-class children who have schools right beside them and those schools are bypassed. The children are not allowed into those schools. We need to find a way in which children from working-class backgrounds, who are currently denied access, can access their local schools. That is a challenge for the schools system and it is a challenge that I look forward to rising to.

Schools have a menu of criteria that they use to determine admissions criteria, and I have been very clear about the menu of criteria and social justice. I have listened very carefully to people’s concerns about a postcode lottery, and I have taken those concerns on board. We need to make sure that there are good schools for all children, and that children have access to schools in areas where they currently cannot access.

Mr McCausland:

Minister, you did not answer the question. I can think of some grammar schools — of a whole range of schools that are situated in affluent areas. If a school is in a very affluent area, how would it be determined — it would be easier to hear my question if you did not have someone whispering in your ear the whole time — how would it be determined which children would be bussed into that school from a different area to balance the fact that there are no children from more disadvantaged and less affluent areas around?

The Minister of Education:

There are no areas in the North of Ireland which do not have some level of disadvantage. Some areas have higher levels of disadvantage and lower levels of disadvantage — areas like Bangor, areas in North Down, Derry, Newry — all different parts of the North have pockets of advantage and disadvantage. I would not be the one determining the criteria for each school. Each school will have a menu of admissions criteria for which we will be legislating, and that legislation will be passed on to the schools. Social justice is one of the issues that will be one of the admissions criteria.

With respect, I have listened to your concerns over a postcode lottery for one year — now that I am bringing proposals to deal with postcode lottery, suddenly there is concern about bussing children from particular areas. To the people who are concerned about bussing children to school, I ask about the thousands of children that currently pass each other in the morning and evening as they are bussed to and from different areas. We need a schools system where children are going to attend a range of schools nearest to them. That is the approach that I am taking and that is what the end result of my proposals will be.

The Chairperson:

Minister are you saying that each school will be required to take a certain percentage of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds? Or is the menu of criteria one which they can chose from?

The Minister of Education:

I am trying to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be able to access schools in their area.

The Chairperson:

If it is a menu, Minister, a menu indicates that there is a choice. If I am the principal of a school who decides that I am not going to make that part available to youngsters, will the Department stipulate that I must choose that part of the menu and specify that 5% or 10% of the children come from disadvantaged backgrounds?

The Minister of Education:

We are exploring setting a quota, because we want all schools to be open to everyone, and there has to be equality in the schools system.

I have an appointment that I must attend, so can this be the last question?

The Chairperson:

The is only one member of the Committee who has not had a chance to ask a question.

Miss McIlveen:

The Minister might not want to listen to what I have to say.

The Minister of Education:

I am always open to what you have to say.

Miss McIlveen:

I have lost count of the number of times over the past few days that I have heard “I am the Minister of Education”. Unfortunately, we know that you are the Minister of Education, and, really, you should not be the Minister of Education.

You say that people have to face reality. Perhaps you, Minister, need to face reality. Do you accept that, at the end of the day, you require cross-community support in the Chamber to remove academic selection? That is a question that you have time and again refused to answer. Bearing in mind that you are not prepared to take on board anything that has been said in this Committee, in the past or even today, what was the point of having this meeting?

The Minister of Education:

Are you saying that I need the agreement of the Assembly for the commencement of Article 28 (2) or, as you seem to be saying, to make any decision on education?

Miss McIlveen:

You require cross-community support in order to remove academic selection.

The Minister of Education:

Is that your question?

Miss McIlveen:

Yes.

The Minister of Education:

Well, Michelle, I am going to bring about an end to academic selection. It is wrong, unfair and unjust, and I am disappointed that you do not share my view. I am disappointed that your party is trying to block and frustrate change, because the people who will suffer as a result of a lack of coherence and the contradictions in your party’s position are children. We need change; and I say again: I am the Minister of Education who will bring about that change. Some of you have difficulty in accepting that, but that is the reality of the situation, and change will happen.

That was the last question, Chairperson.

The Chairperson:

Since you have ended on a controversial note, and avoided answering the question on this occasion, perhaps you will write to the Committee with the answer.

You have made a firm declaration this morning, although you have retreated from an equally firm declaration in the Assembly that you will end academic selection. Your paper indicates that that requires legislative change, and that legislative change requires cross-community support. If you do not want to give us a verbal answer now, perhaps you will write to the Committee explaining how you intend to get round the requirements for cross-community support in the Assembly for legislative change, and how you therefore intend to get rid of academic selection in the absence of cross-community support.

The Minister of Education:

I look forward to the debate in the Assembly. I also look forward to receiving written comments from the Committee expressing a consensus view on my proposals. I will, as I always do, respond to written questions from individual MLAs or from this Committee.

The Chairperson:

I suspect that you will be eating your words, just as you have had to do so with regard to academic selection, because we all remember that you made a promise in the Assembly to your supporters that there would not be any more academic selection. You said this morning that, by waving your magic wand, you will be able to introduce academic selection for three years and without any of the distorting effects that you said it would have. I look forward to seeing how your concluding words this morning match reality over the next year.

The Minister of Education:

My concluding words are: the inescapable fact is that the 11-plus is gone after this year. That is the reality that everyone needs to deal with. Thank you all for your time this morning.

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