Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 22 October 2008

Review of Teacher Education

22 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Paul Butler
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr Willian Irwin
Ms Anna Lo
Mrs Claire McGill

Witnesses:

Rev Ian Ellis )
Rev Robert Herron ) Transferor Representatives’ Council
Miss Rosemary Rainey )
Rev Dr Donald Watts )

Mrs Catherine Bell )
Mr Fergus Devitt ) Department for Employment and Learning

The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):

I wish to take this opportunity to welcome you to this morning’s meeting. This is the ninth evidence session in the Committee’s review of teacher education. You were asked to attend in order to provide your views on the effects that the funding model and proposed merger between Stranmillis University College and Queens’ University, Belfast, may have on the future of teacher education.

Some members raised the issue of the maintenance of Stranmillis and its distinctive ethos after the merger. I know that you have concerns about that issue. The Transferors Representatives’ Council (TRC) was represented on the governing body of Stranmillis until 2004. Perhaps you will tell us why that is no longer the case.

I will hand over to you to make your presentation, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Once again, thank you for coming to give evidence.

Rev Robert Herron (Chairperson, Transferor Representatives’ Council):

I am a member of the Presbyterian Church, and chairperson of the Transferor Representatives’ Council, which represents three Churches in education: the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Donald Watts is the Clerk to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and a former chairperson of the council. Rosemary Rainey is from the Methodist Church and is the vice-chairperson of the council, and Ian Ellis, secretary of the board of education of the Church of Ireland, is secretary of the council. Ian will begin by talking about the background of the Churches’ involvement with Stranmillis, and how we see that leading into the ethos issue.

Rev Ian Ellis (Secretary to the Transferor Representatives’ Council):

I will circulate a summary sheet of our points before I begin. I will also circulate copies of a leaflet which gives the context of what we believe the controlled schools ethos is about. The leaflet might be helpful as background information, and give an insight into what we said about ethos in controlled schools on previous occasions.

I will say a few words about the historical background of the Churches’ involvement with Stranmillis, and about the contribution that we made to the college over the years, before raising some of our concerns about the proposed merger. Then you will see where we are coming from.

We are not against the merger per se. We believe that there are good educational — and probably financial — reasons for such a merger, but we have concerns with regard to the issue of ethos. That is what we are here to talk about. That is the end point, and I will now try to help the Committee to see how we got to that point.

Some members may already be aware of the history of Stranmillis, but I will provide some context in order to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field. Since shortly after Stranmillis was founded in 1922, the Protestant Churches — that is, the Church of Ireland, and the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches — were given rights of nomination to the board of governors. The Stormont Government founded Stranmillis in order to provide state-funded, non-denominational teacher education in Northern Ireland. However, the Catholic authorities were not prepared to live with that concept, and very soon thereafter wanted to be able to prepare their own teachers for their own schools. It became clear, therefore, that Stranmillis was to be a training ground for teachers who were going to be teaching mostly in what would become known as the controlled sector, where the majority of Protestant children would be attending.

Catholic teachers were prepared at St Mary’s University College, and in the initial years, the Catholic male teachers were prepared at Strawberry Hill, in Middlesex, England. Eventually, that system was rationalised into preparation in Northern Ireland.

Stranmillis became the de facto place in which to prepare teachers who were to serve in the controlled sector, where, in the main, Protestant children were attending. In recognition of that, eventually after some contention and immense pressure, the Stormont Government of the time granted the Churches rights of nomination on the Stranmillis board of governors. Church nominees remained on the board of governors until 2005. In 2005, the Churches were initially told that, because of the incorporation of Stranmillis, there would be no problem and that Churches nominees could remain on the board of governors. However, as that process developed, it became clear from the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) that there was a problem, and we were told that we could no longer be given those rights of nomination because they contravened equality legislation.

At the time, the TRC made strong representations to DEL. However, the Department said that it was not prepared to go against or contradict its own legal advice, and that it was fairly certain that if there was a legal challenge, it would lose it. We were told that we were in a hopeless situation, that we had no rights in legislation, and that, unfortunately, the Department could no longer grant those rights of nomination to the board. We were, effectively, removed from the governance of Stranmillis.

Since then, however, we have fought other battles for transferors’ rights with regard to the governance of schools. We have also sought legal advice, and involved the Equality Commission. The experience of that battle told us that whenever one looks at the governance structures across the education sector, there is equality. If we had looked at the issue in that way when we were looking at Stranmillis, perhaps the outcome would have been different. As things stand today, however, we are no longer on the board of governors of Stranmillis.

From 1922 to 2005, our contribution to Stranmillis was unbroken. Our group was among the most dedicated of those serving on the board. The important point for us, however, was that the presence of Church governors on the board meant that the Christian faith was officially recognised in the ethos of the college. The Department was not justified in removing Church governors from the board. If we had used the kind of arguments that we used recently about schools, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to revisit and redress that issue, because something has been lost. It is important that members grasp the sense of loss that is felt by the Protestant community, and in all of those changes there is a strong view that the Protestant Church seems to lose rights and influence wherever it had them.

A few years ago, TRC produced a leaflet that outlined our contribution to what ethos could and should be in a controlled school. Ethos could be described as a slippery word – it is nebulous and hard to define. Other words, such as atmosphere, climate or culture, are used interchangeably or in conjunction with it. However, ethos is related to history, customs and traditions. It also relates to the dynamic of relationships in a school, and between the school and other bodies, such as owners or former owners. Ethos is an important part of a controlled school, as it is in maintained schools, which tend to have a strong focus on ethos.

As Church participants in controlled schools, we believe that there ought to be a controlled-school ethos that is based on the Christian values and foundations on which they were historically founded. Controlled schools were Church schools that were handed over in good faith, in return for which Churches were given certain rights of nomination. If Stranmillis is, effectively, the major provider of teachers for the controlled sector, then the student teachers, in their preparation, ought to be given an awareness of, sensitivity to, and appreciation of, the context in which they will teach, because it is unique.

The context is subtle, and we want new teachers to understand that controlled schools are not secular. Rather, they are Church-related schools that hold non-denominational worship in assemblies, teach a bible-focused RE curriculum and have a history that connects them with the Protestant Church schools of former generations. Something about that ethos is unique, and Stranmillis, due to its unique setting, was able to deliver and prepare teachers for it. We are concerned that all that could be lost in the merger. Therefore, we seek clear assurances that a means will be found, in whatever new arrangements are put in place, in order to give student teachers an appreciation of, and sensitivity to, the distinct Christian ethos in controlled schools.

We share that concern with our maintained-school friends. We have strong links with schools in the maintained sector, and they strongly support us. They would want us to know that they value the controlled-school link with the Christian Churches, and that would be important for them in future discussions about how we work together. That is the core of our concern. There may be some good educational reasons for coming together, and we are not trying to prevent that, but we want some mechanisms that will secure the ethos preparation.

We also want to make a point about equality of treatment for teachers. You may wonder how that is related to today’s discussion but, if you think about it, it is slightly. At present, teachers who studied at St Mary’s can apply for posts in the maintained, integrated and controlled sectors. However, teachers who emerge from Stranmillis are likely to find posts in only the controlled sector, and perhaps in the integrated sector. The majority will not, in the main, find their way into the maintained sector because of the teacher exemption. That is an issue, because teachers who are currently in preparation at Stranmillis face, in a sense, a double jeopardy.

If, in the future, Stranmillis becomes a place of excellence, and attracts students from a Catholic background, Protestant students will face a further jeopardy because they will find it difficult to get a place at Stranmillis. If the quotas remain the same, that will mean fewer places for Protestant students. We are, therefore, concerned about the outcomes for those student teachers. Some thought must be given to what is likely to happen to the patterns of enrolment and employment.

Perhaps this meeting of the Committee is the place to float the idea of introducing a certificate from Stranmillis that would demonstrate an individual’s ability to teach in a non-denominational setting that has a particular ethos. The certificate could be used by employers in the same way that the maintained sector uses the certificate of religious education. That is simply a thought. Once institutions are brought together, however, their patterns of enrolment and employment are disturbed.

Those are the key issues for us. We are realistic, and we realise that we are not living in the early twentieth century — it is no longer the 1920s. The religious and political parameters have changed. Our chief concern, however, is that the core values of Stranmillis have a reference to an historical beginning, and that there will continue to be a connection with the controlled sector. We want Stranmillis to be a modern training institution, strengthened by what Queen’s University can bring to it with regard to research and practice. However, we also want a mechanism that ensures the renewal of its core Christian values, and a respectful awareness of those values fostered among teachers who are preparing to work in schools that have that unique ethos, where the majority of pupils are from the Protestant community.

We wrote to the Committee, and to Queen’s University and Stranmillis, in the hope that there will be a constructive engagement about this issue, which, we hope, will be addressed satisfactorily. Those are they key issues about which we wanted to speak. Thank you for listening.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation and for the documentation that you sent to the Committee. The Committee wrote to Queen’s University and Stranmillis about the issue of ethos, and in relation to the presentation that was made to us by representatives of the Stranmillis students’ union. Both institutions have indicated that, in their words, the ethos would be preserved and enhanced in a merger. You said that you, too, wrote to them — did you receive responses?

Rev Ian Ellis:

We received a response from Peter Gregson, the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, but nothing yet from Stranmillis.

The Chairperson:

It would be useful if you could provide the Committee with a copy of those letters.

Rev Ian Ellis:

I can provide a copy of the letters that we sent and of the response from Peter Gregson.

The Chairperson:

My next question may be totally off the wall, but here goes. You said that, in 2005, the Department indicated that it had legal advice stating that it was no longer legal for the Transferor Representatives’ Council to sit on the board of governors for Stranmillis. Do you know in which year the proposed merger was first mooted?

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

The incorporation was going through during 2004-05, but we heard about the merger only very recently. We are no longer represented on the board of governors, so we do not know when the idea of the merger was generated.

The Chairperson:

Do you have documentation from the Department stating that it received legal advice indicating that it was no longer legal for the Transferor Representatives’ Council to sit on the board of governors for Stranmillis? I note that you mention that the principles behind the historic transfer of powers were enshrined in an Act of Parliament.

Rev Ian Ellis:

That Act related to schools. The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 includes legislation that allows Churches to receive nominations to school boards of governors. There was no legislation that gave the Transferor Representatives’ Council a right to a place on the board of governors for Stranmillis — that was decided by the Stormont Government in the 1920s. That Government decided that Churches should have places as nominees on the Stranmillis board of governors; there was no legislation enshrining it, but it was a custom for 70 or 80 years.

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

The legal advice at the time came from equality lawyers in DEL’s legal department. The Minister and the permanent secretary said bluntly that they were not prepared to go against equality advice that was given by the Department’s lawyers. The Department must have a record of who issued the advice and why.

The Chairperson:

As part of its own review, the Committee is looking at all aspects of the merger, not solely numbers-related issues. It is important that the Committee obtains as much information as possible. Witnesses from the Department are due to give evidence. Some queries may be raised in their presentation. Thank you for your presentation.

Mr Newton:

First, other than being among politicians visited by the Moderator when he took up his post, I have not been approached by representatives of the churches on the matter being discussed, which is a very sensitive issue for three of the four main Churches. The issue of ethos was discussed during that visit, but with nowhere near as much emphasis as has been placed upon it today.

You obviously support the merger and have described your removal from the board of governors as wrongful. That will, undoubtedly, be tested. If the legal advice that was given was correct, I am at a loss to understand what arrangements might be put in place in a meaningful way in order to protect the Christian ethos in a merger of Stranmillis University College with a secular university. That is my first question.

Rev Ian Ellis:

We raised our concerns with the Minister for Employment and Learning when we met him in June. He came up with the helpful analogy that if two companies, each with a separate ethos, come together in a business merger to form a new company, it is perfectly possible for each to retain its own individual ethos within the larger company. There are ways of doing that, even in the business world. There is, surely, sufficient imagination and sensitivities in order to find a way to safeguard the ethos of Stranmillis.

We have used the words “subtle”, “awareness” and “sensitivity”, but there is a wider public perception that the maintained sector, which supplies teachers for Catholic children’s education, is supported by the state and has a particular ethos, which is appreciated in that sector’s teacher education. On the other side of our community, however, where the majority of teachers are being prepared to teach Protestant children, there is no ethos support. To the ordinary person, and without delving into the specifics, there seems to be a huge imbalance in equality.

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

We do not know how Queen’s University would preserve the ethos of Stranmillis. The difficulty is that Queen’s University’s charter states clearly that it is a secular institution.

However, as far as we are concerned, both have been secular institutions since 2005. Therefore, it makes no difference whether it is “secular” Stranmillis or “secular” Queen’s University. A mechanism must be introduced that allows for the provision of teachers for the Christian ethos, Protestant church-related schools, which are in what is normally called the “controlled” sector.

Although we put that issue to people in 2005, no one was prepared to think about it. At that time, direct rule was in place, and I do not think that the Government totally understood what the issues were.

Mr Newton:

Will you expand on the equality of opportunity for teachers? That has relevance to the issue of ethos as well.

Rev Ian Ellis:

As I tried to say in my introduction, when newly qualified teachers emerge from Stranmillis or St Mary’s they seek employment. Teachers from Stranmillis can easily apply to schools in the controlled sector, or in the integrated sector, but, by and large, they will have little opportunity in the maintained sector, because a certificate of religious education is required. We can understand why our Catholic friends insist on that requirement, because they may wish to have sacramental preparation included in the teaching of the young at primary school, and they will obviously want some kind of quality assurance on that. However, teachers from the Catholic sector can easily apply for positions in the controlled sector, because there is no such barrier or hoop to pass through in order to find employment in that sector. There does not seem to be a level playing field.

On the other hand, schoolchildren who are considering becoming teachers might be attracted to the new merged institution, because it will be a high quality institution. It will have the strength of Queen’s University, and it will be able to benefit from the research carried out there, the new ideas about pedagogies and so on. That will be an attractive place to which very capable students will be able to apply. In the future, more and more Catholic students may apply to complete their teacher training at the new Queen’s University institution, rather than at St Mary’s. The new institution will probably offer the option of gaining the certificate of religious education — by correspondence course or by some other method — and the students who take that option will then be able to apply for positions in Catholic schools.

Catholic students entering the new institution would be able to benefit from the high quality education and have the full benefit of wide employment prospects when they finish. Whereas, we envisage that fewer Protestant students will be admitted to that institution, because the competition for places will be greater, and they will be unable to gain a place at St Mary’s. Therefore, the opportunities for Protestant pupils who wish to become teachers will be reduced, and their employment opportunities will be limited.

That issue must be addressed in the interests of fairness and equality. It is not easy to speak about that issue, because one can end up sounding sectarian, and we do not mean to do so. However, it seems that the system is stacked against the employment and training of Protestant children. I may be expressing that inadequately, and my colleagues may be able to put it better.

Rev Robert Herron:

Ian is articulating possibilities, but some of those issues need to be evidence-based. I have not seen any research recently on the religious makeup of the workforce, but it would be interesting to see such information — an exercise could be carried out.

I have been concerned for some time that controlled schools becoming integrated schools, in effect, reduces the opportunities for protestant teachers, if the school is to reflect a mixed makeup in its teaching force. Only one kind of school transforms into an integrated school. There are several concerns, and we can articulate the possibilities and discuss what could happen, but, following comments that I have made at several recent functions, some union representatives have told me that there seems to be an issue concerning the religious makeup of the teaching workforce at present. I do not have figures, so I cannot elaborate on that.

Miss Rosemary Rainey (Transferors Representatives’ Council):

As someone who was a teacher and who was involved in trade unionism in the teaching profession, on behalf of teachers, I would stress that there should be equality of opportunity and equality of treatment. Not only should that happen, it should be seen to happen.

Mr Newton:

I know that the Committee will see your letter from Professor Gregson at Queen’s University, but were you encouraged by the thrust of his letter?

Rev Ian Ellis:

Yes. The vice chancellor has said that he is happy to meet us and have a discussion. He offered to meet us this week, but that offer was made at such short notice that we were unable to take it up. I have the letter from him with me, if the Committee would like to read it.

Professor Gregson has agreed to meet us to address directly the issues that we have, and we are pleased with that response. He will be away for a while, but we plan to meet him in November.

The Chairperson:

It is important that any concerns that you, as a representative body, have are aired before this Committee. That is why the Committee invited you to come here today. The Committee is conducting a review into teacher education, and it just happened that the proposed merger between Queen’s University and Stranmillis was thrown into the mix.

All of the evidence presented to the Committee is being recorded, and we will examine it closely before we form any conclusions or make recommendations. It is important that any concerns that people may have — whether as individuals, or as a group — are aired before the Committee.

Rev Ian Ellis:

We were alarmed at the speed of the merger process —

The Chairperson:

As were we.

Rev Ian Ellis:

As we are not on the board of governors of Stranmillis by right, we were not party to any initial discussions about the merger, and we were given no warning of it. The merger seems to have entered the public domain rather abruptly, and, possibly, we are trying to respond to it on the hoof. I feel that we must try to remain positive. Perhaps, if there is constructive engagement between the vice chancellor, the head of school and ourselves, we can find a way through this. It is a dimension that must be addressed. I am not sure whether it is a deal-breaker for the merger.

The Committee has many wider implications to examine, but there are issues that must be considered. Firstly, there is an issue of fairness. There is also the fact that parents in Northern Ireland want schools that have a Christian-faith core; that is the message that parents are giving to us. There may be a small number of parents who do not want that, but the majority of parents do — on both sides of the community. Those parents may not be ardent in their religious commitment or express those sentiments in the same way that we do, but they seem to be saying to us that they want that kind of school. If that is the kind of school that they want — with the historical connections that such schools have — then our teachers must be prepared properly for those settings and contexts.

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

It is good that the Committee is examining the wider context of the provision of teacher training. When teacher-training provision first became an issue with DEL in 2004 we felt that the subject was being examined as a series of micro issues, and that the macro issue was being ignored. In other words, the Department was examining the incorporation of Stranmillis and saw that there were three Protestant church people on the board of governors and no Catholic representatives. The Department did not understand that Stranmillis must be viewed in the context of St Mary’s and the other institutions that provide teacher training. Therefore, it is important that the macro issues are examined in the future.

It is important to consider also two of the major problems that we have as a community in Northern Ireland, the first of which is the shared-future agenda. What is clear from everyone involved is that, if we, as a community, want to move closer together educationally, we require two strong sectors: the present maintained sector; and the controlled sector with a genuinely Christian ethos in a Protestant tradition.

We frequently hear from the Catholic Church that it is willing to begin talking to us about co-operation and joint planning. It has even been suggested that, ultimately, we move towards joint management. We can talk about those issues when we establish clearly what the controlled sector is — a sector with a Christian ethos with a Protestant tradition. That is vitally important if we are to push the shared-future agenda forward.

The other important matter, which was, interestingly, pointed out to me by Martin McGuinness when he was Minister of Education, is that there is a major education problem in Protestant working-class areas — for want of a better term. We must provide schools in those areas with the best possible teachers. If Protestant young people want to train as teachers, but are disadvantaged in the way that Ian has described — which is bound to happen; it cannot be avoided — the best teachers will not go into those schools. That is vitally important for education and for community cohesion. Those are big issues. If we miss the big picture, we will not get the right answers on the micro issues.

Mr Butler:

Thank you very much for your presentation. You mentioned Stranmillis’s Christian ethos. Is it correct to say that it had become a more secular institution before 2005? What is the outworking of the Christian ethos in that institution? In 2005, you were removed from the board of governors. What Christian ethos and values are currently evident at Stranmillis?

Rev Ian Ellis:

I am not sure what you mean. Are you asking what the difference is now?

Mr Butler:

Before 2005, while you were still on the board of governors, would the perception have been that Stranmillis was a secular college? Has its secularisation been a gradual process?

Rev Ian Ellis:

I am not sure that I can begin to respond to that question.

Rev Robert Herron:

We all recognise that secularisation affects all of our lives, churches and schools. It affects every sector and is an issue for us all. However, all schools have rituals and practices. They have prayers, which contain an element of worship and reflection. That is also evident in the practices and rituals that have been part of Stranmillis’s history. Its opening ceremony is held in St Bartholomew’s Parish Church, which is a Christian church. Therefore, religion is part of all of our lives.

Mr Butler:

Do those practices still go on?

Rev Ian Ellis:

Yes. They still go on. Our fear is that they will cease altogether.

Rev Robert Herron:

The words “secular institution” were mentioned. Our fear is that secularism will become the default position in society. That is certainly not the direction in which we want to go. We recognise society to be a much more pluralist place, and we welcome that. However, we will certainly resist strongly any attempt for secularism to be the default ideology and practice in society and community.

Mr Butler:

You said that DEL officials sought legal advice on your position on the Stranmillis governing body at that time and that, if you were on the board of governors today, you would challenge that. Can you explain how you would challenge it?

Rev Ian Ellis:

Recently, we made a similar challenge about the governance of schools. Under the review of public administration, a policy paper proposed a change to governance in schools. The outworking of that policy would have removed transferor governors from certain controlled schools.

The Department received legal advice, which said that transferor representatives could not sit on the boards of schools that the Churches had not formerly owned. That meant that we would have been removed from up to half of the controlled schools. We have fought a long campaign, and we have met another Assembly Committee and most of the political parties about that issue. We have also obtained legal advice and have presented a case to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which has helped in our representations and has encouraged the Department to rethink its decision. We understand that the Department of Education is finding a way through that issue and that it will be satisfactorily resolved.

Rev Robert Herron:

At the very least, we will certainly be requesting a full equality impact assessment.

The Chairperson:

The equality agenda helps everybody. [Laughter.]

Mrs McGill:

You are all welcome. May I assume that you support the merger with Queen’s University?

Rev Ian Ellis:

We are not opposed to it.

Mrs McGill:

Is that the considered and well-argued position that you all share?

Miss Rainey:

We are not opposed to it.

The Chairperson:

You are talking like a politician.

Mrs McGill:

I am interested in that because I was listening to your arguments about ethos, and I share the view that the Protestant sector, like the Catholic sector, should retain its ethos. We have a diverse community and pluralist society now. My original question, though, is: are you very definitely in favour of the merger?

Rev Ian Ellis:

First, we do not know the details. We have not seen, nor do we know the logic behind, the finance figures. We look upon the situation from the perspective of educationalists, and we see educational strength in such a merger. Whether we would have chosen that particular merger is a different question.

Perhaps we are speaking individually, but there might have been strength in a merger between Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College, which would have preserved a Christian ethos. That, to us, might be a preferable route, and it is one that we mentioned to the Minister. However, strong forces appear to be ranged against that kind of merger.

Mrs McGill:

I listened to your arguments and the strong case that you made about the ethos of Stranmillis. In the light of your point about the composition of the teaching workforce, would you not prefer to retain Stranmillis as it is? Would you not prefer to be back on the board of governors? Is that not what you are really arguing for? Am I wrong about that?

Rev Robert Herron:

We are trying to be realistic about the numbers involved and the budget constraints. I have a theology degree from Queen’s University. I assume that it is not a “secular” theology degree. Therefore, we would like to talk to people and to understand how Queen’s University and its Faculty of Education envisage the future of teacher training — how they will prepare teachers in future for the controlled sector and how they do so at present.

Miss Rainey:

The Department of Education caps the number of students that can be admitted to Stranmillis and other colleges. If the trend in admissions continues, the vast majority of students at St Mary’s and Stranmillis will be taking non-teacher-education courses and specialising in subjects such as leisure studies and liberal arts. The Minister, and other people to whom we have spoken, perceive that that would represent the future of Stranmillis University College, if it was to remain on its own.

Stranmillis continuing in its current form is seen to be unviable, because of the numbers game and the type of courses that would then be on offer. Stranmillis would lose some of its high status as a provider of quality education and would offer more liberal-arts courses and so on. That is one of the reasons why we see wisdom in the proposed merger. However, Ian and I were at the meeting with the Minister for Employment and Learning, and we told him that a merger between Stranmillis and St Mary’s should be the first consideration.

Mrs McGill:

Has the opportunity for a merger with St Mary’s passed?

Miss Rainey:

I do not know.

Rev Ian Ellis:

A merger between Stranmillis and St Mary’s has been ruled out by several different bodies.

Mrs McGill:

It has been opposed by the “strong forces” that you mentioned?

Rev Ian Ellis:

We have not been party to any of those discussions. That makes it very difficult for us to contribute, and, therefore, we feel somewhat cheated.

Mrs McGill:

My colleague Paul Butler referred to legal advice. Has your contribution ended, or do you have an opportunity to get a place on the Stranmillis board of governors and make a case? How weak is your position?

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

According to the Equality Commission, our position is very strong. However, if there is going to be a merger and Stranmillis is going to cease to exist, there is no point in us arguing for places on the board of governors. That argument would have been relevant in 2004-05, but we must move beyond that if a merger is going to happen. We are not suggesting that we should be granted places in the senate of Queen’s University. If there is not going to be a Stranmillis University College, the issue is redundant.

Mrs McGill:

Stranmillis has not ceased to exist yet. Why do you not want to have a say, even at this late stage, and make your case more strongly?

Rev Ian Ellis:

I suppose we thought that we had fought that battle and lost it. At that time, we felt that our biggest battle was in the schools. We felt that we had a stronger case to make because our rights were in the relevant legislation. Therefore, we focused our energy in preserving our places on school boards. We felt, perhaps wrongly, that our case with regard to Stranmillis was weaker because we were not covered by any legislation. However, it is very difficult to return to battles that have already been lost.

The Chairperson:

I am conscious of the time because representatives of the Department will be making a presentation.

Mr Easton:

Do you feel that you have not been properly consulted throughout the process?

Rev Ian Ellis:

Yes.

Miss Rainey:

Yes.

Mr Easton:

That has answered my first question. You are not, as of right, on the board of governors as Church representatives. I do not know how that board operates, but can you apply as individuals?

Rev Ian Ellis:

When a reconstitution of the board comes around, DEL puts an advertisement in the paper and members of the public are invited to apply. When we were removed from the board, DEL obviously had spaces to fill. The Department put an advertisement in the paper inviting applications from members of the public, but, lo and behold, very few people applied. The Department rang us and asked us to encourage people to apply. We encouraged some of our church people to think about applying to Stranmillis. Some of those people applied, were interviewed and have found their way onto the board of governors.

We helped the Department to solve a problem that it created for itself. It is important to realise that those people are there as individuals in their own right; they are not our nominees.

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

Interestingly, some of those people, whose names we helpfully put forward, were interviewed and turned down — despite the fact that not all the places on the board were filled. DEL never explained how that happened. We proposed people who were perfectly capable of sitting on the board of Stranmillis, and the places were left empty rather than filled by those people.

Mr Easton:

My last question is about equality and the ratio of Protestant to Catholic student teachers. A certain number of students from the Roman Catholic community must be taught at Stranmillis, which is fair enough, but can you tell me what the ratio is? If I understood you correctly, you said that the Protestant community is disadvantaged because 99·9% of students at St Mary’s are Roman Catholic.

Rev Ian Ellis:

I do not have the figures with me, Mr Easton, but I know that the Department has them, because they were produced when the incorporation was being discussed. I suspect that a small number of students at Stranmillis are from the Catholic community, and they might be studying a range of courses, not only teacher education. The number of Protestant students at St Mary’s is much smaller, but I do not have the precise figures.

I was talking about the perception of the future, based on the availability of a quality product that is likely to be attractive to students. For example, Queen’s University runs a PGCE course, on which are enrolled some Catholic students who are preparing for post-primary education. While doing that course, they attain the certificate in religious education, which is provided elsewhere. They attain that certificate voluntarily and in their own time, and it equips them for employment in the maintained sector. I am looking ahead and thinking that, if that is already happening with the PGCE course at Queen’s, it is likely to happen with a combined course in the future.

The Department can provide the Committee with the figures, because I do not have them. I concede that the numbers are small at the moment, but my perception is that quality will attract the best students.

Rev Dr Donald Watts:

I would like to return to the question on consultation and explain why we felt that we were not properly consulted. However, I preface my explanation by saying that that consultation is in the past, and, to return to Claire McGill’s point, we hope that there is now a more constructive attitude than there was in 2004.

However, in 2004, the Department issued very publicly a consultation document to which we were asked to respond. It stated starkly that there would be no change to the governance structures of Stranmillis, and we all concentrated on that document. People kept coming into my office and saying that church people would be removed from the board of governors at Stranmillis. I kept saying that that would not happen, because I had the documentation in front of me, and it stated that DEL would not do that. People persisted to the point that I phoned DEL and asked the person who was handling that consultation whether my reading of the document was right or wrong. He told me that I was absolutely correct and that there would be no change to the governance structures.

A few hours later, he phoned back and told me that he thought that there might be something else in the background that was not contained in the consultation document that we had received. That something else was a second consultation document, which was hidden on the Internet and which stated that DEL would remove the Church representation from the board of Stranmillis.

That is what we had to deal with, and it comes close to a literal view of duplicity, because there were two documents, and the two did not tally. I do not think that all the DEL officials knew that there were two documents that did not tally. By the time we got on top of the fact that there were two documents, we were being told that the equality lawyers had ruled and that that was the end of the matter.

I had an interesting conversation with the English Minister who had responsibility for employment and learning at that time about whether we were being ruled by politicians or by equality lawyers. For my trouble, I got a very interesting lecture on the importance of equality. I know the importance of equality as much as anybody. We stand for equality, but we stand for real equality, not the kind of thing that was being done at that time, which was, without question, behind the door.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation.

Mr Newton:

I have a request. I note the overarching Christian emphasis on the stewardship of creation in your document. That is something that is delivered by the teaching profession in primary schools, and the knock-on effect of that is that it must be included in teacher training, the area from which this investigation emerged. I would appreciate it, as would all Committee members, if you would send us some documentation on that particular issue.

Rev Ian Ellis:

In what context would you like to know about the stewardship of creation?

Mr Newton:

In the context of teacher training.

The Chairperson:

I want to raise the point that Rosemary made earlier about the cap on student numbers. To me, that is a big issue, and that is why we have requested that officials from the Department of Education come to the Committee. We will be teasing out that whole issue.

The Deputy Chairperson has made a request for more information, and if you believe that you have any other information that might be useful to us, feel free to pass it on. Thank you very much for your time.

Rev Ian Ellis:

Thank you for listening to us.

The Chairperson:

Next on the agenda is the Department for Employment and Learning’s (DEL) response to the evidence sessions relating to the Committee’s review of teacher education. I welcome Catherine Bell and Fergus Devitt, who are definitely no strangers to the Committee. So far we have had briefings from nine organisations, including Queen’s University, the University of Ulster, Stranmillis University College, St Mary’s University College, the unions, the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People, and we have just heard from the Transferor Representatives’ Council.

I have asked the Department to provide the Committee with its view on those evidence sessions before we proceed with producing our report. This is likely to be the best opportunity for members to ask questions of the Department. The session is being recorded by Hansard so mobile phones must remain switched off. There is a lot of interest in this, so I will hand straight over to Catherine and Fergus.

Mrs Catherine Bell (Department for Employment and Learning):

Thank you very much Chairperson. I am pleased to have this opportunity to come to the Committee. We will bring you up to date, and we look forward to getting the Committee’s report, which will come at a crucial time.

As members will be aware, the teacher education review is a joint review between the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning. We had hoped to have the review finished before now, but several things have had an impact on it. It is in the final stages however, and it will go to the two Ministers in the next week.

Obviously, the review of public administration (RPA) and the strategic review that was carried out by George Bain have had an impact. We revisited the teacher education review in order to look at the full range of professional development to ensure that it continues from initial teacher education right through to the continual professional development (CPD) of teachers.

The review refers to the funding model. The respective role of the two Departments in initial teacher education is mentioned, and it reflects issues, such as demography and the Northern Ireland substitute teachers register, which may have an impact on the number of teachers required.

When we finish the review, it will follow the normal process and go through the two Committees, the Ministers, the Executive and public consultation. I will hand over to Fergus, who will talk about the funding model and other issues.

Mr Fergus Devitt (Department for Employment and Learning):

I want to bring the Committee up to date and to confirm some of the information that members have already received about the funding model during the evidence sessions. Both teacher-training colleges are aware of the funding that they are getting for the current academic year — that is, 2008-09 — and the fact that that funding includes £50,000 of conversion funding for both St Mary’s and Stranmillis. An additional £30,000 has been allocated to St Mary’s, to allow it to work towards the development of strategic options.

Since the last time I met the Committee, the permanent secretaries of DEL and the Department of Education have met the new bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Noel Treanor. A few weeks ago, the permanent secretary and I met the principal of St Mary’s to discuss funding issues and several other elements.

In relation to Stranmillis, the Department has still not received a business case and economic appraisal for the merger proposals. We understand that that is nearing completion, and we were told that it would be with the Department at the end of this month, although we have not received it yet. I am sure that we can discuss those matters in more detail.

Mrs Bell:

When the Department receives the economic appraisal, the next stage will be to evaluate it, and that will be done by the Department’s economists. It will then go to the Department of Finance and Personnel. That will also be the case for any appraisal that we receive from St Mary’s. I said at the outset that we look forward to receiving the Committee’s report because it is timely in relation to the wider teacher education review and to the appraisal that we expect from Stranmillis. We are happy to take questions.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Catherine. Do you reckon that the review of teacher education will go to the Ministers next week?

Mrs Bell:

Yes, we believe that it will.

The Chairperson:

As regards the business case and economic appraisal, the merger of Queen’s and Stranmillis was proposed several months ago. Perhaps I am too cynical, but it does not make sense to me that there are highly qualified professionals in two well-established institutions who throw a hand grenade into the mix by saying that those institutions are merging, and who — allegedly — do all that they are supposed to do, yet, months down the line, they still have not produced a business case and economic appraisal. That does not sit well with me.

Mrs Bell:

The scope of the business case is wider than the merger between Queen’s University and Stranmillis, and we have not seen that document. However, according to the green book, the economic appraisal must consider all options, one of which is to do nothing. The cost of those options must be calculated fully. I am not defending the timeline; I am simply outlining what is involved in producing an economic appraisal. Although I am not involved in that appraisal, I can say, from past experience, that it takes several months to produce an economic appraisal.

Without predicting what is in that appraisal — I have no idea what is in it, because I have not seen it — it is not unusual for the Department to have to seek clarification on what is contained in such documents. Therefore, it is not unusual that it has taken a considerable amount of time for the appraisal to be produced, because we asked the institutions to examine all options, not only the merger.

Mr Devitt:

It is fair to say that preparing an economic appraisal and business case proposal to green book standards is quite rigorous. Stranmillis has appointed consultants to help to do that, to ensure that as many issues as possible have been addressed and to avoid having the Department of Employment and Learning — and potentially the Department of Finance and Personnel — continually coming back with issues. That may be part of the reason why it is taking so long but, as Catherine said, the process takes a considerable amount of time.

The Chairperson:

Let me put it another way: the media’s announcement of the merger was a bombshell that created a lot of difficulties for the Department and the Minister. If I were the Minister, I would be annoyed that, to date, I have not received a business case. Are you saying that the possibility of a merger was suggested to the Department, and the Department said that other options had to be considered?

Mrs Bell:

No. The governing body met the two permanent secretaries and the two deputy secretaries to inform them of the contents of the Taylor Report. At that time, it was clearly put to the governing body that the relevant Departments — or Department for Employment and Learning in this case, as it will assess the economic appraisals — had to follow due diligence. Due diligence means the business case and the economic appraisal. They did not know about the economic appraisals and business cases when the bombshell on the proposed merger was dropped, because, at that meeting, we made it clear that there was due diligence to go through.

The Chairperson:

They have caused you problems. Every week, the Minister has to say that he has not yet received a business case or an economic appraisal. We are talking about highly professional institutions, but they have gone down this road without having the evidence to hand to back up their proposals. It gives people space in which to become cynical.

Ms Bell:

One of the things that might have caused the institution to go back and revisit —

The Chairperson:

The Assembly caused it to go back.

Ms Bell:

That is correct, but they had to revisit their figures when the Minister decided to give the additional money in conversion funds. I am talking in a vacuum, because I have not discussed the business case, and I have not seen it.

The Chairperson:

There is a lot of interest in this, and I will invite members to ask questions shortly. I know that the Committee has received figures before, but I would like up-to-date figures on the teacher numbers from 2004. Officials from the Department of Education are coming before the Committee, and I want to compare their figures with those from DEL.

At a previous presentation, it struck me that some type of co-operation or discussion took place in 2005, and then this all came out of the melting pot. That is why I want the figures from 2004.

Mr Devitt:

We can provide those for you, but I do not have them with me today.

The Chairperson:

I know that you do not have them with you, but it would be useful to receive an up-to-date account of the numbers of student teachers, not only those at Stranmillis, but at the University of Ulster.

Mrs Bell:

Do you want figures from Queen’s University as well?

The Chairperson:

Yes.

Mr Devitt:

Do you want the figures from the five providers? Do you want only the numbers in initial teacher education, or do you want the numbers of those in diversified courses as well?

The Chairperson:

I want everything.

Mr Newton:

Chairperson, you have emphasised where we, as a Committee, need to go in the not-too-distant future. There is a lot of concern about the continuous professional development aspect of initial teacher training. With regard to the green book exercise, getting the document is only point A, and points B, C, D, E and F develop as the discussions start to roll out. I am sure that they will be protracted discussions and not easily achieved. The sooner the document is available, the better.

Ms Lo:

I understand the Chairperson’s frustration in waiting for the economic appraisal. I understand that, sometimes, it can take up to nine months to prepare an economic appraisal.

For the life of me, I cannot understand how it can take two Departments so long to produce a review of teacher training. Obviously, not all the information that was gathered five years ago remains relevant. Will you throw some light on the reasons why the process has taken so long?

Mrs Bell:

I appreciate the frustration that that has caused. The review really started from work that was done by the Education and Training Inspectorate. In January 2008, the Department thought that it was ready to proceed and called together the five key stakeholder organisations in order to share their views in confidence.

However, other matters had to be considered, and, as the Department went through the report again, it discovered wider issues that it wanted to consider, rather than put out the report as it was. I would be the first to say that the length of time taken is unsatisfactory. However, it is hoped that the report will be with Ministers next week.

Ms Lo:

That answers one of my questions. St Mary’s and Stranmillis have each been given £50,000 in conversion funding to help them to manage the change in the funding formula. St Mary’s University College has been given £30,000 just to look at the strategic option — what does that involve? That is a lot of money.

Mr Devitt:

The money will be used by St Mary’s to examine its strategic options for the future. The Department believes that that will involve the employment of external consultants; it is not work that can be done in-house. Therefore, the Department is willing to co-operate with St Mary’s by providing money towards the cost of those external consultants. That is where the £30,000 comes in.

Ms Lo:

An economic appraisal generally costs about £5,000. What will £30,000 cover?

Mr Devitt:

It will cover a range of issues. Based on the Department’s experience of employing consultants, it would not be unusual for a piece of work of that magnitude to cost £30,000 to £60,000. The consultants will look at the college’s options in moving forward and what co-operation it might need to maintain continuous professional development. Hence, the Department estimates that its contribution for that work might be around £30,000.

Mrs Bell:

St Mary’s is not undertaking an economic appraisal, because it has not yet decided upon its options. I was party to the initial discussions with the Minister, and the college is examining a range of professional issues and is employing people with the relevant professional perspective, rather than people who might be regarded traditionally as consultants. However, at this stage, it is not an economic appraisal.

Mr Attwood:

I have two or three questions. First, I wish to pick up on the Chairperson and Anna Lo’s questions about the review to which the Minister for Employment and Learning referred in the Assembly on Monday as not being the “Government’s finest hour”; he was certainly generous, in my view. Serious questions must be asked of the Department in relation to the review. Have Queen’s University and Stranmillis pulled the carpet from under the Department by making the recommendation to merge before the review is completed?

Mrs Bell:

No. The teacher education review looks at what is required of teacher education in the twenty-first century, taking into consideration the link between early professional development and continuing professional development.

The review is a professional review. I do not mean that it is being done professionally, but that it is about the professional nature of teacher education —

Mr Attwood:

You cannot divorce the institutional framework for teacher training in the North from the future requirements as outlined in the review, if and when that is published. Is there not tension between the time that it has taken for the Department to get to the point where it might publish the review and two of the institutions that deliver teacher training in the North making such a far-reaching, controversial proposal? Would it not have been more sensible for the Department to tell the respective institutions that the review is forthcoming, and that they should examine everything in the round when the review is published? That would have prevented those institutions from taking unilateral action — which is clearly what they have done. Those institutions tried to bounce this Assembly and the Department in respect of the proposed outcome.

Mrs Bell:

Stranmillis took a decision, some time ago, based on what they saw as a diminishing allocation of numbers for teacher education. They took the decision to commission a piece of work to examine strategic options, and a number of things came from that report.

Mr Attwood:

The Stranmillis report contained many of the themes that you say are going to be included in the review. Is that not evidence that Stranmillis — individually at first and subsequently in conjunction with Queen’s University — was trying to claim its piece of the ground and define the way in which teacher training should develop in the North? Is it not also evidence that it was suggesting that the review should follow it, rather than the review, the Department, the Minister and the Assembly being the authority on those matters?

Mrs Bell:

Both of the institutions are involved in teacher education. If they effect — and I use the word advisedly — a merger, they will continue to do what they are currently doing. Whatever parameters the review sets, they will form a basis from which the institutions will progress.

Mr Attwood:

Representatives of Queen’s University came before the Committee and presented their report outlining their vision for a future school of excellence in education, and that suggested to me that Queen’s and Stranmillis — not the Department — were making the decisions about the future direction of teacher training. They would not outline a proposal of that scale and with that level of investment, detail and ambition unless they intend to tell us that they — not the Department — will decide where teacher education is going.

I cannot work out where the Department fits into all of this. The issue that, among other things, brought Stranmillis and St Mary’s to question their future viability was the proposed change in student numbers and funding. Mr Devitt was present at a meeting that I attended several months ago when a person who is heavily involved in this matter said that those proposals were intended “to provoke a situation”. How does the Department explain why someone who is deeply involved in this matter said to me, Mark Durkan and others that the student numbers and funding proposals were intended “to provoke a situation,” namely: to make colleges decide what direction to go in? How, in those circumstances, can the Department be confident and happy that the matter has been handled appropriately when, in effect, the Department was hoping for and anticipating — if not engineering — a situation from which Queen’s University and Stranmillis would take their current direction?

Mrs Bell:

The teacher education numbers come from the Department of Education and are based on a teacher-demand model. My Department had agreed that there would be an allowance of diversified places. However, we manage public funds, and we were mindful that we were moving into a situation where the role of our teacher education colleges would no longer be only to provide teacher education. That was not intended to provoke a reaction; rather, we had received an audit report some years earlier. We were also looking at information that was given to us by the Department of Education. We were in a bizarre position where the fewer teachers there were, the more their training cost. From the point of view of achieving value for public money, the Minister could no longer allow the expansion of diversified places.

Mr Attwood:

Let us take that at face value — although I have doubts about it. When it comes to specialist education institutions, the Department’s funding formula is not fit for purpose. I put that to one side for the moment.

Mark Durkan and I were told that the numbers and the financial situation were engineered to provoke a situation. That may have been done for other reasons as well; however, it does not give us confidence that we are being given all the information on the Department’s involvement in the matter.

Mrs Bell:

I can only tell you that it was not done to provoke a situation.

Mr Attwood:

I can only tell you, Catherine, that a senior person who is deeply involved in the matter said that.

Mrs Bell:

I cannot second-guess what has been said by someone else.

From the Department’s perspective, the issue was value for public money. We could no longer continue with the way things were. We knew that Stranmillis was doing the work through David Taylor’s review, but it was not done to provoke a situation.

Mr Attwood:

I have two questions. To demonstrate to you why I lack confidence in what the Department is doing in this respect, I refer to what the Minister said during the debate of 23 June. The Minister — and his speech was written by him, his advisors or officials — said of St Mary’s:

“Other universities may expand their campuses in the Belfast area, and that may bring a suite of courses within walking distance of north and west Belfast, especially if the University of Ulster were to expand its site at York Street.”

That is something that the University of Ulster’s board has yet to sign off on, and on which it has received no proposals because there is no funding. The Minister went on to say:

“That will put a college that depends on one humanities degree at great risk.”

That was the Minister’s comment about the future of St Mary’s University College: his statement shows disrespect to a college that has such a profile of success and which is so important to West Belfast.

Mr Devitt:

No disrespect was intended in that. The meeting which the permanent secretary and I had recently with the principal of St Mary’s demonstrates that there are productive working relationships between the Department and St Mary’s.

Mr Attwood:

We can come back to that in a second. Nonetheless, irrespective of the current issue, the Minister put a further question mark over the future of St Mary’s University College by saying:

“That will put a college that depends on one humanities degree at great risk.”

That is why I have doubts about what is really going on.

Let us look at it more positively. When representatives of St Mary’s University College attended the Committee, they said that they saw a future for the college, based on its having a minimum of 150 BEd students a year; that the reduction in the number of training providers from four to three, following the merger, might provide some room for manoeuvre for the Department to allow the college to expand continuous professional development, the Irish-medium sector and so on. Do you see a future for St Mary’s University College based on those factors?

Mrs Bell:

It is not for us to say what the future holds for St Mary’s. That is why we have given the college money to examine strategic options.

The Minister wants St Mary’s to express its views. He approved the request for additional funding for further Irish-medium education from the Department of Education. He also wrote to that Department to seek its views on continuing professional development. I cannot go any further than that.

Mr Attwood:

To reassure me and the Committee, tell us whether you envisage St Mary’s having a future based on those numbers and that profile?

Mrs Bell:

We would have to make a cold assessment of the information contained in that strategic option, in the same way that we do with anything else.

Mr Attwood:

Representatives from Queen’s University told us that they met officials from the Department on 18 March 2008. Is there a minute of that meeting?

Mrs Bell:

Do you mean their meeting with the permanent secretary of the Department?

Mr Attwood:

I would have to check the minute, but a meeting was held on 18 March 2008, and I think that the permanent secretary attended.

Mrs Bell:

Yes, there is a minute of that meeting.

The Committee Clerk:

When we requested minutes from any other meetings, we were told that there were none.

Mrs Bell:

Sorry, that is not how the request was presented to us, but we will provide the Committee with a minute of that meeting.

Mr Devitt:

I think that the request was specifically for any meetings between senior management of the Department and the management of Stranmillis.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps you would check that out.

Mr Devitt:

Yes, and we are happy to provide the minutes of any meeting.

The Chairperson:

It was probably a genuine error.

Mr Attwood:

The request was for minutes of any, and all, meetings between Queen’s, Stranmillis and the Department.

Mr Devitt:

Perhaps there was some miscommunication of the request, because our interpretation was that the Committee wanted minutes of the meetings between the Department and the senior management of Stranmillis.

The Chairperson:

We accept that we are at fault sometimes.

Mr Attwood:

My question, in any case, was about a different set of minutes — those from a meeting on 6 December 2007. What I find so curious about all this is that the Department’s minute states:

“QUB proposed a total integration of the college within the university to secure a school of education.”

The next line is presumably based on what Stranmillis told the Department:

“In Stranmillis’s terms this is a takeover and merger and it would be difficult to see Stranmillis’s unique identity being sustained.”

Did representatives from Stranmillis meet you or other officials, at any time, to discuss the proposal that was being developed by the principal of the college? Was there discussion of a proposal that Stranmillis should develop its own role and educational outreach, not a merger?

Mrs Bell:

After the new principal took up her post, she had several meetings with departmental officials to develop her understanding of the college, the way forward and the Department’s review on teacher education. I cannot recall meeting specifically to discuss the principal’s view on how to move forward. She came to speak to us about foundation degrees and, in the course of that meeting, said that she wanted to consider other options for Stranmillis, including her own.

I recall another meeting, at which only the principal and I were present, but that was to increase her understanding of teacher education and how the Department operated. There was no meeting at which she specifically outlined what she wanted to do. Teacher education formed parts of discussions, but the principal gave no detail on how she envisaged the future.

She was concerned that she wanted a teacher education institution that carried out action research rather than blue-skies research, which is what a university would perceive as research. I have no recollection —

Mr Attwood:

Therefore, at no meeting was the future outlined by the principal, followed by stunned silence from departmental officials, because that was more than they had expected to hear from her?

Mrs Bell:

I do not recall such a meeting. As I said, when the principal came into post, several getting-to-know-you meetings took place. Any discussion that I and, I assume, other officials have had with her would have been much more general.

Mr Attwood:

I want to return to the minute of the meeting at which Stranmillis told the Department that it was “a takeover and merger” and that, therefore, it would be difficult to sustain Stranmillis’s unique identity. That meeting took place on 6 December 2007. The evidence given to the Committee by the vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster suggested that something happened during the Christmas period whereby, in his opinion, his university’s proposals were no longer of interest. Stranmillis’s evidence shows that in January 2008, it started to have difficulty contacting the University of Ulster. Were you present at the meeting with the two permanent secretaries on 6 December 2007?

Mrs Bell:

Yes, I was.

Mr Attwood:

I find it curious that on 6 December 2007, Stranmillis told the permanent secretaries that the Queen’s University proposal was “a takeover and merger”, and that, therefore, its unique identity would be lost; yet, in the same minute, its tone is much more positive about the University of Ulster’s proposals. Within days of that meeting, however, the University of Ulster’s sense was that relations had changed. In January 2008, there is evidence that the University of Ulster and Stranmillis were not communicating well. However, issues have arisen from that, especially with regard to Mr Costello’s evidence to the Committee.

I find it difficult to get my head around why, given that Stranmillis had expressed what appears to have been a quite, if not downrightly, negative view about Queen’s University’s merger proposal, within weeks, it seemed to be the only show in town. That does not stack up.

Mrs Bell:

All that I can say about the meeting is that it included the two permanent secretaries and my opposite number in the Department of Education along with a representative number of people from Stranmillis’s governing body. They told us that, in the light of the Taylor Report, they had been following up evidence that had been given to Mr Taylor about his work, and they wanted to bring the two Departments up to date.

During the course of the meeting, some of the governing body’s members expressed the view that, of course, they would prefer Stranmillis to remain an institution on its own. They talked about Queen’s University’s proposal, although not in detail, because it was not appropriate to do so. They also talked about the University of Ulster and its proposal to transfer primary-teacher training to the Stranmillis site.

During that discussion, we were robust in saying that any proposals that were brought forward had to be taken in the light of what is required by due diligence and green book standards. It would not simply be a matter of the Department giving the University of Ulster additional higher-education places: all of that would be considered in due diligence. In fact, there was no reference to economic appraisal. We were robust in saying that Stranmillis needed to challenge every proposal from every institution, just as we will be robust in examining the economic appraisal. It was not for the Department to say whether Stranmillis should merge at all or merge with Queen’s University or with the University of Ulster.

The Chairperson:

I believe that I have been good to you today, Alex.

Mr Attwood:

You have, indeed, Chairperson, although I have not been at the Committee for two weeks.

Mr Butler:

I want to ask a question about the substitute teachers register. There have been concerns about newly qualified teachers’ ability to get jobs and the number of retired teachers on that register. Has the Department considered that matter?

Mrs Bell:

That is dealt with in the teacher education review and is an issue for the Department of Education, because teachers are its professionals. Often, teacher education is the second choice for young people in England who fail to get accepted onto their first-choice course. However, that is not the case here: young people who choose to study teacher education in of any the institutions are committed to becoming teachers. Therefore, it is worrying that full-time permanent posts are not available for them when they graduate.

The Chairperson:

Once again, thank you for your presentation. Will you forward the requested information and any other useful information to the Committee? I am sure that the Committee will be in contact over the next few weeks, because it meets quite regularly.

Mr Devitt:

Thank you, Chairperson.

The Chairperson:

I also thank Hansard for covering the Committee’s sessions. Its accurate recordings of proceedings will assist our review, because we will be able to return to some of the presentations.

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