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15 Feb 2006 : Column 463WH—continued

Education (Northern Ireland)

11.00 am

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): It is unusual for me to be on the Front Bench and it is worth having a debate just to be here.

The Minister is used to occasions such as this. I think that this is the third time this week that she has been in such a room to discuss Northern Ireland, as she has already spoken about rates and selling the family silver. She is here now to discuss education, and I look forward to hearing her response.

Recent Government figures have indicated that more than 100,000 youngsters live in relative poverty in Northern Ireland. Many of them are concentrated in particular areas, some of which are relatively affluent but have estates in the middle with a high concentration of families living in poverty and deprivation. That impacts on educational achievement.

The debate on those issues has sometimes been mixed up with other big education controversies in Northern Ireland. For example, there has been an attempt to link educational under-achievement and disadvantage with the selection system, although I want to stay away from that issue this morning, because it is a red herring and it does not answer the problem; I see the Minister smiling, however, because she has sometimes tried to link the two.

I do not believe that the solution is simply to throw money at the problem, although resources are required. The important question is how to lift people's aspirations. In many deprived areas education is not seen as it used to be: as a way out of poverty and a way of improving opportunities in life. How do we give people the inspiration and aspiration to look to education as a way out of their current economic situation?

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I sit on the same Select Committee as my hon. Friend—the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs—and I know how passionate he is about this issue and how important it is to him in his constituency. Does he agree that education is the cornerstone of a civilised society and that we must inspire children to take the highest level of academic and vocational qualifications so that they can succeed in this uncertain world? As I have found in my constituency, education must remain the ladder out of deprivation.

Sammy Wilson : Absolutely. The problem is not unique to Northern Ireland. Many of the lessons that we have learned in Northern Ireland can be transported to other parts of the United Kingdom. Equally, some best practices need to be transported to Northern Ireland. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

It is clear that there are problems, because there has been no lack of initiatives in Northern Ireland. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there are currently 58 or 59 initiatives to deal with failing schools, raise standards, improve attendance and so on. Sometimes, all that happens is that jobs are created for those who administer the initiatives and a paper nightmare is created for principals who must find out
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about initiatives and how to apply for them, and then fill in the forms. Education and library boards provide some help, but resources are dispersed. The resources themselves are often time-limited and are stopped just when they begin to bite. Even worse, sometimes when the results begin to come through the schools no longer qualify. They may benefit from an innovative scheme, but the money may then dry up.

I want to look at two initiatives that illustrate some of the best practices and some of the problems. First, the school support programme amounted to £50,000 a school. Clear targets were set and one school decided that it wanted to spend the money on tackling the problem of school attendance. The money provided a home-school liaison officer who targeted families whose children had a poor attendance record. The liaison officer obtained parental involvement, which was important—sometimes, that meant putting parents on accredited courses to learn how to help youngsters with reading, homework, counting and so on—and brought in other statutory agencies. Sometimes it was a case of ensuring that youngsters came to school having had breakfast, and also came there clean. Money can be poured into breakfast clubs in schools so that youngsters at least start the day with some food in their stomachs, so that they can concentrate for the rest of the day.

The effect of that initiative was that the school moved from the bottom 5 per cent. at key stage 2 into the top 5 per cent. over two years. However, once it had moved up, the money was no longer available and the good work was lost. That is a problem with many initiatives. It might be better to have fewer initiatives, but to have more money going directly to schools while allowing them to decide how to use it in the long term.

It is important to get parents involved. Some community groups and initiatives have been helpful, such as the "Parents and kids together" initiative in the Sunnylands area of Carrickfergus in my constituency, but its funding is under threat. It identified a problem regarding the need for pre-school work and after-school clubs, but it did not allow parents simply to dump their youngsters at the community centre to be looked after. It demanded parental involvement. Sometimes that parental involvement was no more than an information evening about what services and courses might be available. Sometimes men were required to look after the youngsters playing football and fathers were asked to come down to help out with that. When I made a visit, I saw that many of the parents who had come along reluctantly at the start had seen the value for their youngsters, had become enthusiastic supporters and had begun to volunteer for more and more activities. Sometimes the scheme gave leadership to youngsters, such as when menfolk took them out for games. Sometimes it gave parents inspiration to find other ways of helping their youngsters. Many of them moved on to accredited courses and some then went on to other educational courses to improve their opportunities in life. Such initiatives require funding, but they can involve people who might not previously have been involved in their youngsters' education.

Some initiatives have not worked and lessons can be learned from them. One is the group 1 schools initiative, under which some schools received £200,000 over five years. Some received £1 million over that period. I
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visited some of those schools with the Assembly Education Committee. There has been a lot of good work and a lot of effort, but much of it has dissipated, perhaps because there was not enough direction. There were no boundaries for success, and although the core purpose was to raise standards, there seems to have been little monitoring. I understand that the schools involved deal with difficult youngsters, but so did many schools that received money from the school support programme, and we have not seen the same return.

One problem is that it was left to individual principals to come up with ideas. If we are to stick with initiatives, perhaps there should be sharing of best practice or even an initiatives forum so that people can find out what has happened and what has been good in other schools.

Another thing that we need to consider is the attitudes of the schools themselves. I want to be careful about what I say. Many teachers who teach in difficult areas have a difficult task. Perhaps it is because of that that they can become burnt out and cynical more quickly. I have visited many schools and seen the kind of inspirational teaching that is done. Nevertheless, in many cases, it is a fact that teachers who have been teaching difficult youngsters in difficult schools for a long time sometimes lose their initial enthusiasm. The schools themselves tend to be faced with declining numbers and therefore budgetary problems. They have all kinds of resource problems. Perhaps the new, enthusiastic teachers are the first to be made redundant in many such cases, thereby leaving a gap in those schools.

There is a role for the inspectorate, which I sometimes think is a bit cowardly. Inspectors may come in and say that such and such a teacher is having problems or that a class was not well taught, but leave it up to the school and the principal to decide what should happen. It is rare that an inspector will put his name to a report stating that a teacher needs to be moved on or needs retraining—the decision is usually left up to the school. Inspectors need to take a more proactive approach if they think that failure may be partly the result of the need for some staffing changes.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very difficult for schools to get a bad teacher or head teacher moved on? One of the difficulties is how they do that but keep within the law.

Sammy Wilson : I thank my hon. Friend. That is exactly the point that I am making. Often, the inspector will not back up such a move, and the board of governors or the principal is left with a difficult decision. If the inspector will not back them up, what will happen if the case goes to a tribunal?

I know of schools with a high number of youngsters from disadvantaged areas and that had a bad reputation five or six years ago. With leadership, they were turned around in a short period. The quality of leadership is important, and perhaps we should target schools in the most difficult areas and even give incentives to put in the best teachers and principals to turn them around. That issue must be addressed. The role of the board of
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governors should also be considered. Sometimes there is an issue as to whether dynamic leadership by the board of governors could turn schools around.

The problem cannot be dealt with simply by throwing a whole lot of money at it. It is not even an issue for the schools alone. As I have said before in the wider education debate about the post-primary controversy in Northern Ireland and the transfer procedure, society's views must change. We must value not just academic education in Northern Ireland—or, indeed, anywhere else—but practical and vocational skills. Many youngsters do not have great academic aspirations—even their parents may not have such aspirations for them—but do not think of education in terms other than of good exam results, GCSEs, A-levels or university.

I welcome the changes in the curriculum, which will give schools much more flexibility on courses than was available under the set curriculum of the past. Attitudes to the whole spectrum of educational opportunity must change so that parents and youngsters from backgrounds where university is not viewed as the route to take nevertheless realise that education can also mean training for a vocational job, whether as a bricklayer, plumber or whatever else; that such education is valuable to them; and that they should use the opportunities provided by schools to achieve skills. That means that there must be intervention from an early age.

There are opportunities. The Minister has spoken in the House on several occasions about rationalisation in Northern Ireland and the number of surplus places. I accept that there is a problem, and I do not believe that we should spend money on empty school places. I criticise myself and political colleagues right across the board. In the light of constituency pressures, we sometimes feel under pressure to defend a school that has gone down in numbers and does not offer good educational opportunities for youngsters.

There are innovative ways to use such schools, however. Rationalisation offers an opportunity to turn them into child centres rather than simply schools. Other services could use the vacant premises; health services could be offered, for example. Youngsters could go for health checks and problems could be identified at an early age. A school could become a community focus so that parents would value the place, even if they did not much value education. It would be a place providing other activities for them and their youngsters, and attitudes could be changed in that way. I beg the Minister to consider some of those points, and I hope that I have given her enough time to reply.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith) : I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate and on choosing what is perhaps one of the most topical issues in Northern Ireland at present. It is certainly one of the most important if we are to consider what happens in Northern Ireland in the future. I enjoy my discussions on education with the hon. Gentleman, and I believe that we are as one on many issues. We have similar outlooks on what we seek to achieve for the education system in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight areas of educational disadvantage. Kids have one chance in school. We fail them if we do not give them the
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opportunity to make the best life chance that they possibly can through the education system, and we should take that on board in everything that we do to improve education.

This debate is not just about fairness for the individual, but about the future needs of our economy. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted academic and vocational education. Unless we offer a twin-track approach providing every child with the opportunity for academic and vocational education, we will not meet the needs of 21st century Northern Ireland. We will not produce the people whom we need as plumbers, doctors, parents and so on, and we will not address the need to ensure that people have the required skills and abilities.

The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the problem—we have to acknowledge it before we can do anything about it—of far too many young people leaving our schools without achieving their full potential. Across Northern Ireland as a whole, 6 per cent. of them leave school with no GCSEs. In the most deprived areas, about which I know he is concerned, that proportion rises to 14 per cent. One quarter of 14-year-olds fall short of the expected standard in literacy and numeracy. In some schools in the most deprived areas, which he and I have visited, the figure is closer to three quarters, and more than 20 per cent. of adults have low literacy and numeracy.

Those figures surprise some people. When we debate post-primary education and the removal of academic selection, we often hear about Northern Ireland having had the best results in the whole UK—no one can touch Northern Ireland's exam results. That is true at one level, but those figures and that success mask deep-seated problems that we have a duty to address. I fully take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments that just removing academic selection would not achieve the outcomes that we want, but I point out that it is part of a package to improve life opportunities for every child that includes changing the curriculum across Northern Ireland and giving support to schools that need it. Those things together can make a difference. I always think that there is only one opportunity in life and politics to make a difference, and we should take it. We are addressing the problem for the benefit of not only children, but the Northern Ireland economy as a whole.

We need to avoid the easy option that some people take of blaming the parents, school or teachers. We are talking about deep-seated issues, and we have to consider the answers to them in the round. We need to consider all the factors that influence educational attainment, and the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that that is not a job for education alone. I often discuss with my officials and with politicians in Northern Ireland the fact that if we try to deal with disadvantage in education and lack of achievement through the education system alone, we will not succeed; we have to consider the matter holistically, and involve the health service and housing bodies. The Department for Social Development will look into those problems as well. Together, we can tackle the issues.

Parental support for the school is key; the hon. Gentleman highlighted the differences that it can make. We have found in disadvantaged areas as well as others that parents and young people recognise the value of
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education. We need to find ways of channelling that recognition and giving parents support so that they can help their youngsters in school.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of initiatives. It is fair to say that the Department has not sat on its hands ignoring the problem; there have been a number of initiatives to achieve what is needed. He mentioned that there were 58 or 59 programmes, but the number is irrelevant. I met a group of primary and secondary school principals who were talking about the number of initiatives that came through to schools. I asked, "If you could get rid of some of these, which would you choose?" They said, "Well, none, because they are all valuable." Although there are initiatives and they are valued, we have to streamline them and make it easier for schools to be involved in them—and, where there are problems, we have to take them on board and address them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the school support programme, which normally gives a school three years of intensive professional help and support. Some 193 schools are or have been involved, and 26 are currently on the programme, which is worth £9.4 million. It is time-limited, and not open-ended. The idea behind the programme is that schools get the support that they need and move forward. There should then be a review on removing that support, because the school should have achieved its objectives through the programme. However, I take on board what he said, and I will come back to it.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the group 1 initiative, which provides £200,000 a year for schools in severe difficulties. He was concerned about the lack of monitoring and the role of the inspectorate. The action planning, monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic parts of the process, but I share some of his concerns. I will take on board some of his comments about the education and training inspectorate. Since I became Minister with responsibility for education, I have had regular meetings with the ETI, and I am impressed by its knowledge, commitment and drive for the education system. Perhaps we should incorporate it more in policy making and take on board its comments when we look to move forward on those issues.

The Government and the inspectorate have no interest in supporting those who are not going to be good teachers. If teachers are having the difficulties and problems that the hon. Gentleman mentions—if they are getting worn out, tired and put under tremendous pressure—they should get all the support that we can give them; but if teachers are really not able to teach, and teaching is not the profession that best suits them, then we should support them in looking into alternative professions. I share some of his concerns about the group 1 programme. There will be a review of the school improvements programme as a whole, and I give him an assurance that it will deal with the issues that he highlighted. Unless we review it and look into how we can do things better in future, we will not address the problems that he and I want to address. I shall announce the details of that review shortly.

The literacy and numeracy strategies have been very successful. We can see how results have improved in Northern Ireland schools and how, at the lower levels, where there is disadvantage and underachievement, those strategies are making a difference; I am pleased
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with how they are working. The reading recovery programme has also been very successful. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the dissemination of good practice, and some £15 million is being put into that. There may be better ways to share good practice, as the inspectorate highlighted.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Minister will be aware of concerns in the primary and secondary sectors about the implementation of the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 and the costs associated with it. Will the Department support schools in implementing the requirements of SENDO and in making adaptations to accommodate children who wish to move into mainstream education?

Angela E. Smith : We always recognised that there would be costs in implementing SENDO. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether I can give a commitment that every school will have everything that it needs, I should say that that would be quite difficult, but certainly money has been allocated for that. Schools to which I have spoken have been very supportive of inclusion where it is appropriate for the individual child, the school and other children in the school. I have met representatives from a number of mainstream schools that have included children with disabilities, and they have reported that where inclusion suits the pupil, it has been a success. We keep that issue under review to give support to the schools.

I should also highlight the "Entitled 2 Succeed" programme, which looks into the curriculum, as well as collaboration and transfer between schools. That has the potential—largely through the curriculum—to address the points made by the hon. Member for East Antrim about ensuring academic and vocational support for every young person who wants it.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of leadership in schools. It is important that there be effective, high-quality leaders in schools. In a number of schools that I visited, I could see where that made a difference. If a head teacher inspires the staff and pupils, one can see a school lift off, and it is not just the results that change, but the behaviour and aspiration of pupils. We are keen to pursue that. There are some good examples of regional training units and children's and students' services, but we want to do more in working with heads to improve capacity. The head teacher from my old school, in my constituency, was in Northern Ireland recently, talking with people involved in the education services, and one thing that I have found useful is heads giving support to other heads. Heads who have that inspirational leadership really want to pass it on to other heads. That is another area that we have to develop further.
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The message that I want to give today is that the Government are very much attuned to wanting to give support to all pupils in Northern Ireland, so that we not only maintain our high levels of academic excellence, but ensure that young people who are currently underperforming in the education system have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Part of the answer is ensuring that the finance and support are in place, but we are spending the money that we have far too thinly across Northern Ireland's schools. I am very concerned whenever I speak to head teachers who have to give up being a full-time head to go into the classroom and teach full-time because of funding in the school. That is not because there is a lack of funding; the amount of funding going to schools is constantly increasing, but we are spending it across too many schools.

The hon. Gentleman asked about rationalisation. I have spoken to the boards about that. Under the capital programme that I shall announce shortly, we will see whether there are opportunities to rationalise schools, and to support merging, amalgamations and closures where appropriate. If we do not take that on board and make sure that we have a schools estate that is fit for purpose, we will have too many schools that are not sustainable. That will put unacceptable pressure on schools that have to finance their work while money is being drained by too many schools across the board. I assure him that we will take that on board.

I fully endorse the hon. Gentleman's point about schools being hubs in their communities. We already have breakfast clubs and activities to promote good health for young people; there is no doubt that children who eat better and who have good health learn better. There are also links to parents through Sure Start family learning programmes. There is support for study through homework clubs, too, where children have the opportunity to work with other children and get support enabling them to undertake the work that they have been given. There is clear evidence that that helps their studies to improve. There are also much closer links between education, health and social services, because we are bringing those together; we are taking a holistic approach to the young person. The children and young person's funding package, which the state announced in the budget process, is designed to tackle those issues to improve the life chances of young people. Further details will be announced shortly.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject. I hope that I have addressed some of his concerns, and I look forward to discussing the issues further with him and seeing what more we can do to ensure that every single young person reaches their full potential and gets the life chances that they deserve.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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