Draft Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): My colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party and I welcome in principle the enabling legislation and the planned introduction of common formula funding. We await with interest the speedy publication of the scheme, and hope that the Department will allow an adequate period for open, transparent and inclusive consultation. The Minister may be able to tell us whether any assessment has been made to determine whether common formula funding will mean that schools will have equal spending power.

A number of issues related to the common funding formula need particular consideration, but we welcome in principle the measures to give children greater protection and prevent bullying at school. I am sure that the Minister will confirm, however, that in most schools in Northern Ireland, governors, teachers and parents already have agreed policies and measures in place to prevent bullying. Nevertheless, the inclusion of those provisions in the order will strengthen the position.

The first of our concerns is about teachers' salaries. Further detailed consideration needs to be given within the formula to reflect the natural progression of teachers towards the top of the salary scale, while leaving schools the freedom to make staffing decisions within their delegated budgets. There is still room for more guidance to assist school governors in determining appropriate individual salary ranges for principals and vice-principals, and salary levels within those ranges.

There is something wrong with the current funding provision when many small schools in Northern Ireland use 95 per cent. of the funding allocated to them in salaries and wages. That does not leave much to be spent on children.

Secondly, there is a need to tackle the problem of underachievement in a minority of schools, especially among younger males. Further research is required to justify present funding levels before any additional allocations are considered. Furthermore, it is not appropriate to use free school meals as the basis for targeting additional funding. Allocations should be based on objective measurements based on key stage results. For example, can the Minister tell us whether all our primary schools use standardised tests on a regular basis? If not, why not? Would there not be some merit in their doing that? Is sufficient use made of diagnostic testing in schools in general?

Another concern about the common funding formula is its impact on schools, especially with regard to the funding problems facing primary schools. It is essential that we look into that matter again in more detail. We must also think about the balance of funding between the primary and secondary sectors. It is important not to allow the current level of underfunding in the primary sector to continue. However, any planned increase in funding for the integrated and Irish-medium sectors should not be given to the detriment of other school sectors. Spending power should be equitably distributed.

The Ulster Unionist party would welcome the Equality Commission's view on scrapping the

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exemption of teacher employment from fair employment legislation. All schools should have the option to interchange staff.

Fourthly, the formula proposes to give the Department power to remove members of boards of governors in order to address school management weaknesses. Reassurance must be given that that power will not be misused, and that the Department would exercise it only as a last resort, and then only after all other practical alternatives had been exhausted. Only in recent years in Northern Ireland have area boards devoted a lot of time to providing training opportunities for those who serve as governors in all types of school. A lot has been achieved, but there is much more to be done.

Finally, we need to refine the way in which money is allocated under the formula for the upkeep of buildings. The formula must reflect the fact that it is much more expensive to maintain old buildings than more modern purpose-built ones.

To guarantee and maintain openness and transparency, the schools common formula must be reviewed annually or biannually. It is important to have such a review mechanism to re-evaluate the scheme and demonstrate that it is achieving value for public money invested. I ask the Minister to address the problems surrounding teachers' salaries, underachievement in a minority of schools, and the overall impact of the common funding formula.

9.16 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): On behalf of my party, I broadly welcome the instrument. As the Minister has said, the common funding formula is at the heart of it, and I broadly welcome that. It seems to me that it is a means of getting the money to where it is most needed, and inasmuch as it also illustrates a general move of power away from Ministers and Departments towards the schools and communities most directly involved, I am more than happy to welcome it.

When implementation of the common formula starts to bite on the schools that must be better provided for than under existing arrangements, the Minister may find that she has made something of a rod for her own back—or rather, as we all hope, for the back of the Education Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I have some experience of such reforms of funding formulae in Scotland. The Arbuthnot formula for health service provision is one with which you and I are both familiar, Miss Begg. Most people signed up to it until they found out what it would mean in terms of pounds and pence for their particular hospital or health board. However, I suspect that that is a problem for another day, and in general terms I am more than happy to endorse the Minister's sentiments about the common funding formula.

Like other hon. Members, I have a couple of extra queries, and mine relate principally to the position of grant-maintained independent schools. If the order were being dealt with properly in the committee structure of the Assembly, it might be possible to

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explore some of the issues at greater length and in more detail. Concerns have been expressed to me about the position of grant-maintained integrated schools not being as clear as it might have been. It might be helpful if, at some stage in the not-too-distant future, the Minister could make some effort to address those concerns.

Under article 3(7), the Minister has a duty to consult on the draft scheme, but at this stage I flag up the inevitable uncertainty about how the local management of schools' finances will be dealt with once the single formula kicks in. We know nothing about the formula, other than that it will be common. I should be grateful if the Minister would indicate what will happen if funding for grant maintained schools transfers from the Department for Education and Skills to the relevant local education and library board. In particular, will there be a role for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education?

The Minister largely dealt with my second query. It relates to the removal by the Department of the voting-in of a co-opted board of governors under paragraph 23(1)(a). I am grateful for the Minister's assurance that the provision will be used only in exceptional circumstances. If she considers the provision, however, she will see that its terms are drafted subjectively. I suggest that there is a need to establish objective and transparent criteria for the removal of governors. That would not be part of the legislation and might well be done through departmental guidance notes. The provision is somewhat open-ended. It seems to place a great deal of power and very little accountability in the Minister's hands, and an early clarification of the means by which the power will be used should be forthcoming. Those points might be considered to be detailed or even nit-picking. They are, however, important, and I hope that they will be addressed. I am happy to indicate my party's assent to the legislation.

9.22 am

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Opposition Members have spoken on behalf of their parties, but I am speaking purely for myself. I was not going to intervene until I heard the Minister's opening remarks. In saying that I speak for myself, I also want to make it clear that I speak as a former teacher and as a parent. I am about to skate on thin ice by being politically incorrect. [Interruption.] That is not unusual, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) probably wants to point out because he has heard me before.

On corporal punishment, the Minister said that it is self-evidently right that we should introduce the provision because it conforms to the European convention on human rights. I am not in favour of thrashing children until they scream—this is why I am on thin ice—but the word ''self-evident'' means that the matter is beyond dispute and that we should not even think about it because we have to conform to the ECHR. I would say that the same principle applies to asylum. We should never say that we will do something because we want to conform and do not need to think.

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As a teacher, I never hit anybody. I came close to throwing blackboard rubbers at people but I did not do so. I have never smacked my children and am not in favour of corporal punishment. I am, however, against stacking the odds so greatly against parents and teachers that they become too frightened to lift a finger. One ends up with a situation in which children get out of control and there is no way in which to address the problem. Teachers will rapidly work out that even to say boo to a child will get them sued at best and prosecuted at worst. Even if they are acquitted or the civil action fails against them, there will be a mention on their file about what happened. Yobbism in this country is getting out of control, and it is not self-evident that we need to bend the knee to the ECHR without thinking that it might do harm. The ECHR protects children, but if one takes it to absurd lengths, it will undermine the very thing that we are trying to protect. I do not disagree with the Minister's suggestion, but I disagree with the way in which she approaches it.

9.25 am

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