Examination of witnesses
(Questions 54 - 59)
WEDNESDAY 4 NOVEMBER 1998
and MR MALACHY
54. It is a very great pleasure to have
the opportunity of examining you again. It is, I think, a compliment,
though conceivably an inconvenient compliment, which the Committee
has not paid to any other witnesses, that we were not able to
complete the examination on the previous occasion. We were very
anxious that we should do so. I am sorry that this is an inconvenient
moment in terms of the chronology of the educational year, but
we are very appreciative that you have been able to come back
and I know a number of my colleagues have questions they want
to ask in order to round off the examination we did last time.
I will not go back over the ground rules which we set on that
occasion because I think they are broadly familiar, but I am conscious
that one of the reasons we needed to have a second session was
because, admirably, there were a number of questions on which
all of you wished to express an opinion and I realise that may
well happen again on this occasion. I need to be reminded what
arrangement we have for who decides who is going to answer?
(Mr Martin) Chairman, in the absence of our previous
Chairman who is on holiday at the moment, I am lead spokesperson
and I will co-ordinate our responses.
55. Having asked the question in the way
that I did I perhaps ought to add a coda that there is no need
for everybody to feel that they need to answer each of the questions.
We will trust your judgment as to who should come in on what.
Although this is the resumption of a match which we had previously
to abandon, I do not know if there is anything you want to say
at the start of the proceedings on this occasion or whether you
will be quite happy for us to go straight into questions?
(Mr Martin) Chairman, thank you for your welcome.
There were one or two issues which were raised by the Northern
Ireland Audit Office with the Department of Education. I do not
know if you have been made aware of these, but if you feel it
is appropriate I would be happy to make a formal statement on
them just to set the record straight. If you wish to do that,
I will continue, but we are happy to respond through the Department
of Education to the Northern Ireland Audit Office if you so wish.
56. Let me just test the opinion of the
Committee. How long an exercise would that be?
(Mr Martin) About two to three minutes, Chairman.
57. Well I think if it is going to be two
to three minutes and it is going to be in the record hereafter,
I think it would be helpful if you did allude to them?
(Mr Martin) Thank you. Chairman, we have two members
who were not here the last time. We have Mr O'Loane as an additional
witness and we have Mr Irwin instead of Mr Topping. Reference
was made by us on the previous occasion to the Northern Ireland
Audit Office report as a draft report and the NIAO, I understand,
has raised this with the Department of Education. I want to say
that while the version copied to the Boards on 24 June was in
final draft form, the report was in fact laid before the House
of Commons on 7 July, although it was not published until 26 August.
I wish to indicate that the formal status of the report was not
clear to us on 22 July but there was no intention whatsoever on
our part to undermine its status by referring to it as a draft.
I want to acknowledge the final status of that report and to advise
that its findings and recommendations are now under consideration
by the Boards. The second point is that reference was made in
three different paragraphs of our evidence to the report having
been drawn up about two years ago. The NIAO has raised this also
with the Department of Education. It emphasised that the field
work for the report was completed during 1997/1998, largely using
data from the latest full year available, i.e. 1996/1997. So it
was inaccurate for us to describe the report as two years old
and our references were made in the context of the fact that the
statements sampled dated from 1994-1996. The key issues such as
delays in statementing which were raised by the Audit Committee,
and indeed by yourselves, related to circumstances before the
phased implementation of the Special Education Needs legislation,
and this legislation and the Code of Practice now provide a procedural
and timed framework within which assessment can take place. I
just wanted to make this formal statement to ensure that we were
not misleading anyone in respect of these issues.
Chairman: Thank you
very much and I think it was admirable that you did it in the
way that you did. Mr Hesford?
Mr Hesford: Chairman,
may I seek the Committee's views? My questions were questions
covering Mr Martins statement which has just been made therefore
I do not propose now to go forward with my questions.
Chairman: As you have
the floor, are there any other questions you would like to ask?
Mr Hesford: No, thank
Chairman: Well, Mr
Martin has done an admirable job of reducing the amount of cross
58. Good afternoon. Just looking at the
question of the resource allocation for statemented pupils between
different Boards, how will the Boards address the need for appropriate
benchmarking and monitoring performance, for example, when comparing
(Mr Martin) Chairman, there are a number of recommendations
in the Audit Committee report which relate to this. Since the
last meeting of this Committee, the chief executives have jointly
taken certain steps which we feel will begin to address them.
We have set up a regional strategy group to be chaired by a senior
education officer who will report to the chief executives. One
of their main tasks, one of their terms of reference, will be
to examine all the issues which were raised in the Northern Ireland
Audit Office report and that particular issue was one of the major
issues which was raised. So we will be asking the group to tackle
this issue, to look at the apparent anomalies, to seek explanations
where that is appropriate and then to take appropriate steps to
try and ensure as far as possible that there is commonality in
the approach to that.
59. Have you any idea yet where that may
lead you or have you an open mind? Clearly it is important; the
accuracy of the measurement of performance are absolutely crucial,
are they not, in comparing the various performances of the various
Boards. Do you have any further thoughts or are you content to
leave it to that group at this stage?
(Mr Martin) It will be a broadly based group and
they will call on expertise as needed. A key issue that is being
addressed on the wider front in Northern Ireland at the moment
is the issue of the introduction of accruals accounting. The new
system of accruals accounting should give us the framework and
the mechanism with which to tackle this issue because it will
ensure that we have the best possible financial information, that
we will be able to establish clearly defined unit costs and that
we are comparing like with like. We hope that the introduction
of accruals accounting, which is to take place in the new financial
year, will be one means of helping us to address this.
Mr Grogan: Thank you.