Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 100- 118)



Mr Hunter

  100.  Minister, is it a correct, reasonable and logical conclusion to draw from the Department's memorandum that there are in Northern Ireland some children with the most severe and complex difficulties being taught in buildings that are not designated, designed, to facilitate their education? The reason I ask that question is that, at one stage, paragraph 3.3, you acknowledge that special schools are full, and in paragraphs 4.9 to 4.11 you say that sometimes they are housed in accommodation which has not been built in accordance with the Department's School Building Standards. Now is this a fair conclusion to draw?
  (Mr McFall)  Yes, it is a fair conclusion. Can I give you an example. Last week I visited Glenveagh School and that was a school built three years ago for 108 pupils, there are now over 150-plus pupils. Mrs Murphy, the Principal, is trying to do something for the children at the upper levels with the connection with the higher education, but she wants to keep their involvement, but in many ways that school is insufficient for the present needs. So, you are quite correct, in that issue. And, in terms of the severe and complex issues, as I mentioned earlier on, there is a lot of work to be done in that area yet, Mr Hunter, and, in terms of buildings, we do have quite a backlog of capital projects, and irrespective of where I go, primary schools, secondary schools, special education units, I am met by educationalists, and MPs and others tell me about the priorities in their particular area, so they have quite a job to do in that area.
  (Mr Manning)  I think that you are perfectly right, there are some schools in Northern Ireland where children with profound and multiple learning disabilities are educated. Since 1987, when responsibility for the former special care schools passed from the health authorities to education, a capital building programme was devised at that time; since that time, roughly ten schools have been built on greenfield sites, purpose-built, and, as the Minister said, in some cases numbers are now exceeding that for which they were built. However, there remain a number of schools that are, I suppose, down the waiting list on the capital programme, and it is an urgent priority that these schools are prioritised as soon as possible for rebuilding; but the numbers are certainly declining, in terms of pupils housed in poor accommodation, and the building programme over the last ten years has seen the development of some exceptional resources, in a number of areas, for pupils with these major problems.
  (Mr McFall)  And I think we will have to give thought to the type of buildings we have, because in Glenveagh, when I visited the other day, I was struck by the space, the height, the airiness of the school, and the Principal, Mrs Murphy, said that this coincided with her outlook, her vision, for the children, because she encourages the arts and the creative expression of these children and widens their environment, and we must do that in appropriate settings.

  Mr Hunter:  I think, Chairman, so that the record is complete, I ought to explain my line of questioning is perhaps more hostile than I really believe; as a politician who believes in the imperative of low taxation and controlled expenditure, I understand the problems the Minister has to deal with. Can I move to another point?

  Chairman:  Yes, do.

Mr Hunter

  101.  Earlier, the Minister referred to a delegated budget, and I am just wondering about the arguments for and against separate accounting, so that individual schools demonstrate how they are spending the delegated budget. What is the Minister's thinking on this?
  (Mr McFall)  Again, of the four schools I visited last week, three schools were resolutely saying they do not want delegated budgets because the whole needs of the child are catered for by the Education and Library Boards, and, given the complexity of the needs of individual children who come in, that they are reassured about that issue. One school which I did visit, it was Harberton, where the Principal, Martin McGlade, was on record as saying he wanted a delegated budget, I asked him about this particular issue, and what he wanted was the flexibility in the budget, and I think it was a very sensible issue he brought up with me, because if we look at the present situation with that, if the teacher costs are taken outwith a budget it leaves there the current costs. Now schools can save or overspend in the current costs, but the present system is that if there are any savings it goes back to the Department, and Mr McGlade was particularly exercised about that issue. But I think it is a very sensible thing and I think it is something that can flow out from this Committee's deliberations, and I would be very happy to look at that issue.


  102.  I am going, in a moment, Minister, to go back to Mr Beggs, but you did yourself make allusion to expenditure patterns, when you made your original statement. I would just simply ask, so that we have it at this particular point in our own questioning, and for the record, how much of the additional funding for schools in the public expenditure consultation paper will go to special education, and what percentage uplift in resources do you see for 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, compared with the current financial year?
  (Mr McFall)  That is a very difficult question, Mr Brooke, so I think I would be less than honest if I tried to, say, what we would say in Scotland, flannel that one for you, so would you mind if we wrote to you on that particular issue. But I do know that, in terms of special educational needs for mainstream, we are talking about over £40 million for the year, but that is a matter for the schools and the Boards to look at, although we have a special term, which we designate in that, and it is `unavoidable expenditure'. So we have over £40 million in that; but, in terms of the next few years on the special educational needs in mainstream schools, we will certainly write to you on that. On the other issue, with the Code of Practice, I have already given you those figures, of £3.5 million for half of this year plus £7.5 million for the next two years. But we will certainly flesh out that for you, if you are happy with that.

  103.  Yes, thank you. I think it would be quite helpful to us if we had it earlier rather than later, if that is feasible?
  (Mr McFall)  We will get back to you within a few days.[

  104.  And, let me make quite clear, in terms of the latitude, an early answer is more helpful than an immensely precise one.
  (Mr McFall)  You will receive that early next week, if that is okay with you, very early, and if you want it earlier than that we can do that.

  Chairman:  We will leave that for discussion between our Clerk and yourselves.

Mr Beggs

  105.  While the amount of funding attached to or which follows a statemented pupil transferring from mainstream to special school may be minimal for the mainstream school, the Northern Ireland Audit Office report, at paragraph 4.31, indicates that for Boards this can result in a substantial amount of funding overall being potentially lost to special educational needs in mainstream education. Would the Minister care to comment on that matter?
  (Mr McFall)  Yes. That particular issue, brought up by the Audit Commission, is going to be considered by the LMS review, which we have looked at, so it is under active consideration, and it is a valid point.

  106.  Thank you. The Minister has already referred to the shortage of qualified psychologists in Northern Ireland, the Boards also expressed concern at the increased demand for educational psychologists, as a result of the Code of Practice, and the identified shortage of such professionals in Northern Ireland. This shortage, they indicated, had arisen partly because DENI allocated funds to appoint additional educational psychologists in relation to the Children Order without ensuring that enough people would be trained through funding additional training places. What steps will be taken to address the current shortage of educational psychologists?
  (Mr McFall)  The first thing I would say, Mr Beggs, is that the shortage of educational psychologists, indeed the growing shortage, is not confined to Northern Ireland; indeed the DfEE have recently established a working party to consider the changing role and status of the profession and identify its future training requirements. So we are registering our formal interest in that, with that group, and we expect our own conclusions, when we look at that, to be in line with theirs. But, obviously, urgent action is needed to address the situation, and I will be inviting Boards to devise an action programme for the purpose, and at the same time setting aside funding for this purpose within next year's additional allocation, so there will be a specific amount of money for that, for Boards, and that will be an encouragement to Boards to allow people to go and train. And I am keen that that action programme should include measures which will both expand the post-graduate intakes at present and make training arrangements more attractive to serving teachers.

  107.  It is recognised that the educational psychologist plays a key role in special educational needs, and as a result of the Code of Practice that role has been changing and developing. What plans has the Department to promote the development of skills and professional practice of current educational psychologists to assist them in meeting these additional demands?
  (Mr McFall)  Can I ask Paddy, and then maybe come back to you on that.
  (Mr Manning)  The present core of educational psychologists in Northern Ireland, while they are all employed by separate Boards, are part of a body of psychologists within Northern Ireland who undertake continuing their professional development. They have a number of days that they meet every year on professional development and they are currently drawing up their list of priorities for the next year. Currently, this year, they have already had training in looking at ADHD, looking at autism, looking at assessment and diagnostic techniques, across a whole range of difficulties; they have also had joint training days for looking at the Code of Practice, looking at how the different Boards are responding to the Code of Practice. So, while they are all employed—and the Audit Office made the comment, in their report, that it may be better to look at a Northern Ireland system of educational psychology rather than one run by each of the Boards; but, in effect, when you look at the way in which they are trained and their continuing professional development, that is actually the case.

  108.  Thank you. Chairman, I welcome the responses we have been given, because I am very conscious of the expressed view of a former Chief Officer in Northern Ireland, who said that every time he appointed an educational psychologist he needed to appoint another one to look after him; but, with the extent of training that has now been done, no doubt the service has become much more professional since that remark was made?
  (Mr McFall)  Can I just add to that, Mr Beggs, that I am silent on that comment you made, that is the first thing, but, secondly, I think, there needs to be a review of qualifications and the training arrangements for educational psychologists, I recognise that, and that will be a departmental view. I am also aware of the extra burdens that you say have been put on educational psychologists, because, with the five-stage process we have now, psychologists are coming in at stage three, so there are going to be extra burdens. And, in one-to-one meetings with educational psychologists over the past few months, they have mentioned issues to me that could perhaps help them regarding, say, the bureaucracy of the Code of Practice and how we can minimise that bureaucracy. So that will be one issue for the regional group of Senior Officers, looking at that at the inter-Board level to see if we can do that, so that they get the best out of psychologists and do not have them administering and being involved in bureaucratic work. And we have also highlighted the issue of the psychologists within the departmental discipline strategy for behavioural problems.

Mr McWalter

  109.  Can I just ask, while we are on the psychology tack, and just to follow up Mr Beggs's question, I have some sympathy with what he says, actually, in that the whole business of therapy has been quite difficult, in that some therapists are trained to take the view that, for instance, all of the traumas really are sexual traumas which occurred very early in a child's life, or whatever, Freudian therapy, and so on. I would just perhaps like to place on the record the idea, I am a philosopher, and I would just like to place on the record really that there is a lot of stuff going on in cognitive therapy which actually is immensely impressive and does not sort of assume that you know what the cause of someone's cognitive difficulties is, but simply try to come to terms with their cognitive difficulty as presented and seek to negotiate a way in which the person can try to improve in that. And that, of course, does relate directly to the fact that perhaps a lot of the educational psychologists, as trained, in fact, have got very little understanding of the modern trends in cognitive therapy, and I would be quite interested to perhaps just place that on the record. I do not expect an instant reply to the observation.
  (Mr McFall)  Maybe to take up the points in your question, and I speak here with a practical bent as well, that many teachers, as I mentioned earlier, feel unskilled to identify special educational needs, and the appearance of these newly identified or categorised conditions has compounded this, so we need Board training programmes and we need school training programmes, not just for the Code of Practice but also to make it more sensitive, in terms of that. So my Department has issued guidance to all schools regarding the good practice, and we are making arrangements in the resources we have for what we call the special educational needs co-ordinator training, and also to introduce accreditation for them; it is not an examination as such but it is accreditation with the training colleges and the universities and Open University there. And the Boards are also introducing school support teams on that, and the latest teacher training programmes in the colleges make the special educational needs component compulsory, and that is from this year, whereas it was not compulsory before, so we are starting that at the teacher training level. And, when it goes into the early professional development of the teachers in the schools, we have that link between the schools and teacher training colleges and other accreditation colleges to keep up that link and keep up that issue, so that is very important. And, on a very personal level, a point that Mr Beggs made, and yourself, Mr McWalter, on the issue of psychologists, I have got my own views on issues like that, but the more integrated the psychologists become in the process the better, we have seen it in the past, that children have been taken out, and "What's your problem?" and then they get put back in; there has got to be this inclusion, and that includes the professionals as well.

  Mr McWalter:  Chair, I am rather pleased to have added the supplements to Mr Beggs's question.

  Chairman:  Again, I am going to ask Mr McWalter to follow up in a moment on a different subject, and the purpose of this session is very much to ask questions of the witnesses, but, since we have a slight margin of time, I will trespass momentarily down memory lane again. I can certainly remember, in the days when I sat in your chair, Minister, being asked to answer an oral question on the floor of the House about the number of educational psychologists employed by local education authorities, and being given the sentence which I was obliged to deliver that the Scilly Isles were the only local education authority in the country not to have one, which, inevitably, unreasonably amused the House of Commons.

Mr McWalter

  110.  We have explored quite a lot in terms of therapies but I would also like just to ask about nursing support, school nurses, and the extent to which they are in a position to be able to support the operations of special educational needs. Perhaps if I can leave it like that for the moment and see what I fish out by way of a response; do you feel that they are well-equipped to be able to contribute to this?
  (Mr McFall)  I think they can contribute, but I think we do have a problem, and it is a departmental problem, where we have the Health Board and the Trusts responsible for the speech and therapy nurses. And we have, for example, a school in Northern Ireland at the moment, a special school, which has a hydrotherapy pool but the nurse is off ill at the moment so there is no replacement from the Trust on that issue; now that is the whole thrust of the educational commitment to the individual child gone, as a result of this situation. So what your question—and I am sure you have gone into it, and you knew maybe the point you were taking along—is pointing at is that we need to make education and health closer, and I was dismayed by the issues which I found, in the past few months, on that, and I have asked the Department to look at that, and I think we do have a group that has been set up between education and health, am I correct, Paddy, on that issue, and we are getting them to look at that very issue, so that they bring the educational coherence to the needs of the children.
  (Mr McCormick)  A group has been set up at practitioner level between the Education and the Review Boards and representatives of the Health and Social Services Boards and Trusts to draw up a blueprint for service level agreements which the Education and Library Boards can then negotiate with their individual local Trusts. That is almost at final stages now.

  111.  So it has not actually met, in short, no?
  (Mr McCormick)  The group is almost at the final stage now.

  Mr McWalter:  Right, I see. Thank you very much for that. I think the other matters, Chair, you wanted me to raise, one way and another, have been covered in the evidence.


  112.  Very good. I have one or two questions of a round-up nature. The Department's commitment to encouraging teachers to undertake professional qualifications, which will enhance their experience and expertise, is obviously welcome, though, I have to say, it appears to be at variance with current policy in respect of funding for award-bearing, in-service courses, which was withdrawn in 1996-97. Will steps be taken to redress this situation and expand opportunities for professional development within the special educational needs?
  (Mr McFall)  I have discussed that, Mr Brooke, with my officials, and it comes into the category of the educational psychologist and the need for further training, but I think Paddy could give you a deeper insight into that.
  (Mr Manning)  Yes, the funding was withdrawn for award-bearing and service courses; however, there has been no decline in the number of teachers taking up courses. Recently we carried out an inspection, the Northern Ireland Inspectorate carried out an inspection of the award-bearing courses at University of Ulster and Queen's University; during that year the funding was withdrawn and some teachers were concerned that they would not be able to participate further. However, the reports from Queen's University and from University of Ulster are that there has been absolutely no shortfall in the numbers of teachers taking up courses; in fact, some courses, particularly for special educational needs, have been oversubscribed, and that would be the Advanced Diploma in Special Education and the Masters courses, so that while we were concerned ourselves that this withdrawal of funding for award-bearing (INSET) would have a detrimental effect, this actually has not happened in practice.

  113.  I am glad I asked the question, because I have received a thoroughly reassuring answer. While it may be premature to require a formal qualification for SENCOs, does the Department have any plans to take action on any of the recommendations of the Newcastle report, in respect of SENCOs, and I am perfectly happy to give references if necessary, especially those on job descriptions and the role and status of SENCOs; and, if the Department does, on what timescale?
  (Mr McFall)  From my discussions, I get the feeling that the trend is not towards formal qualifications for SENCO, but, again, maybe if, in the practical sense, Paddy could look at that.
  (Mr Manning)  What we have done is to initiate SENCO training, which has been taking place over the last two years, within the Boards, that has been the responsibility of the Curriculum and Advisory Support Service within each of the Boards; however, what the Department has done, it has allocated a significant proportion, I think about £600,000, of the £3.6 million, for the first year of the Code of Practice to SENCO training. Now what that has done has been to introduce a computer module, which is running alongside the CLASS project in schools, which will minimise the amount of bureaucracy linked to the Code of Practice for SENCOs. And what we have tried to do is to encourage the Area Boards, in their SENCO training, to ensure that the status and the time allocated to the special needs co-ordinators is commensurate with the difficulty of the job. The Newcastle research was a benchmark against which the Department will judge the success of the introduction of the Code of Practice, but we have had the advantage of a lead-in year, we have had the advantage of the problems there have been with the introduction of the Code of Practice in England and Wales, and we are quite confident that the SENCO training and the emphasis that we place on things will have a significant impact on the quality and status of special needs co-ordinators within the schools.
  (Mr McFall)  Could I just add to that, Mr Brooke, that the money we have given for training is ring-fenced, so they have got to look at that. The computer module that Paddy mentioned, I think that will be very helpful to all staff, but I have to recognise that the research reports that have looked into that have indicated a variation of time that different schools and teachers apply to SENCO, so there needs to be some increasing focus on that, with certainly stages for action.

  114.  I want to go back to an answer which was given to us by the Department, a written answer, which was given to us back in July, on the time limit for assessment and what I would describe as some omissions in the Northern Ireland Code of Practice. You said: "The Northern Ireland legislation on time limits for assessments differs from that in England, reflecting in particular local consultation outcomes and previous DfEE experience." What I was interested in is what came up in the consultations and the previous DfEE experience which prompted the decision not to include regulations parallel to those in England?
  (Mr McFall)  Could I just say that the first two stages in the assessment was to take 18 weeks, and I think the practice in England and Wales indicated to us that there could be an inflexibility in that area, because it was strategy, and we wanted to make it more flexible, so we combined that just to make everything 18 weeks. But David, in particular, has been dealing with that area, and we decided to simplify our regulations to make it more straightforward and more flexible. Perhaps David could give us a further insight.
  (Mr McCormick)  Yes. When we first consulted, Chairman, we consulted on the basis of what was in the English regulations, and the general consensus, although I suspect for different reasons from different sources, was that the regulations were overcomplicated. The other aspect of the consultation was we tried to learn from the experience in England, I talked to people from the DfEE, I talked to people from LEAs, and crucially I talked to the English Audit Commission, who have the role of ensuring that the LEAs are performing up to those standards; they told me that they had abandoned early attempts to try to assess all of the various time limits which the English regulations had included, in favour of one aggregate time limit of 18 weeks. And we decided, on the basis of that and the general feeling out there that things were too complicated, that we would replace the series of time limits on stages with one overall time limit. At the same time, we were keen not to lose those time targets, those subsidiary time targets, so we placed those in the Code of Practice; some people have regarded it as relegating them from regulations to the Code of Practice, but, in fact, the Code of Practice is a document to which Education and Library Boards must, by law, have regard. The Boards themselves have undertaken that they will do everything that they can to meet those time limits, we have given assurances to parent groups that if there are problems with the time limits we will investigate them in exactly the way we would have done had they been in regulations. And, if I may make one final point, one of the criticisms made was that, for example, there is a right of appeal for a parent if a Board decides not to assess a child, the allegation was that a Board could delay making a decision on whether or not it should assess the child to deny the parent the right of appeal, and I cleared with Aidan Canavan, President, and he has now made this public, that if that situation arose he would be prepared to deem, on a request from a parent, that a Board had constructively avoided making a decision and would actually treat that as an appeal, and it would therefore be subject to all of the Tribunal procedures. So that was the basis of it. But there have been some approaches from groups about it; I think once it has been explained to them they have understood what we are doing.
  (Mr McFall)  Could I just add to that, you mentioned about the Special Needs Tribunal, Mr Brooke, but the President, Aidan Canavan, has been in post for a while, and we are looking at this issue, I know my officials have spoken to him, we are looking at it as rather less confrontational and more mediation, and a lot of work has gone on into that aspect. So therefore there is a very positive relationship there.

  115.  Thank you very much indeed. I have a suspicion that Mr McCormick, in the course of that answer, has answered my next question but one, and I will tell you what my next question but one was going to be, but I am not sure that he has actually answered my next question, so I will come back to that in a moment. I was going to ask him what plans the Department had to ensure the involvement of parental support groups in the implementation of the Code, and I am giving him the credit for having answered that, though he may wish to add to it. What I was going to ask, before that, is whether the local consultation on the issue to which there was reference, did that include parents' groups, and how were parents' interests being addressed by not having the time limits? Now you have come back to the second part of that but I do not think you actually indicated whether parents' groups were part of the consultation?
  (Mr McCormick)  Yes, they were, Chairman, very much so.
  (Mr McFall)  And the lack of representation, Mr Brooke, from the parents, I think indicates a positive relationship between parents and Boards on that issue.

  Chairman:  I have a couple of things I want to come back to, which we discussed earlier. Let me just verify whether any of my colleagues have any other questions they want to ask.

Mr McWalter

  116.  I think perhaps just to place on the record the business about the relationship between the Boards and the health groups, I wonder whether you might perhaps write to us, indicating more formally what the nature of that body is and really to give us some idea of how it works. I think, in a sense, because matters are sometimes more simple in Northern Ireland, often not, but in this particular case possibly, we may have there a kind of pilot also which is of wider use and significance, and I would be grateful to see details about that?
  (Mr McFall)  There are a number of significant problems existing at the moment, but we would be delighted to share that information very early with you.


  117.  I think this has been an extremely good session, and we are very grateful to you and your colleagues, Minister, for the manner in which our questions have been answered. I will say, I think it would be helpful, in the same way as Mr McWalter has indicated, some written follow-up would be helpful. Mr Beggs asked an earlier question, which will be verifiable from the record, about the lack of specialist services, psychiatric and clinical psychology, for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I think it would be worth revisiting the answer to see whether, with reflection, there was anything else you wanted to say, and I am not, in any way, pressing for it at this moment. And then my own question, relating to the selection process and grammar schools, I think it might be worth revisiting that answer, to see whether there was any way in which you wanted to expand that answer, too. But we are very happy to take those in writing after the event.
  (Mr McFall)  Perhaps it would be best in writing. I would be happy to give that. There is good research information available on issues such as that, but I would be happy to do that, Mr Brooke.1[5]

  118.  I repeat the pleasure we have derived from taking evidence from you, which we thought was given with crispness and coherence, and thank you very much indeed.
  (Mr McFall)  Could I just say, finally, thank you very much; this is my first occasion, and it was not as bad as I thought it would be, we were treated very nicely. However, what I do say is that, as a result of your deliberations, I have got what I have termed with my officials a ten-point action plan, looking at this issue, and we will take that away, and indeed I will cover that in the written submission we will make to you, very soon, as well. Thank you very much.

  Chairman:  That is very kind. There were only five of us; had the whole Committee of 13 been present it might have been a more arduous process, but the Almighty was quite clearly on your side. Thank you.

4  See Ev. p. 87. Back
5  Replies covering the Committee's questions can be found on pp. 89-90. Back

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 14 April 1999