Official Report: Tuesday 04 November 2014
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Mitchel McLaughlin] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Ms Ruane: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Following the dreadful comments yesterday, I wonder whether the Speaker will look at Standing Order 65 in relation to Mr Gregory Campbell's comments, which were disorderly and disrespectful, and disrespectful to a Minister in the House. He also made a slur on the Irish language.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Speakers met this morning on that matter. A number of complaints were received. I was in the Chair myself, and I took exception to the comments. I asked that the relevant Standing Orders, and indeed the Speaker's advice developed over time, be considered.
I would like to return to the remarks made by Mr Gregory Campbell on 3 November. The Deputy Speakers and I have considered the Hansard report of yesterday's plenary sitting and are unanimous in our opinion that Mr Campbell's comments during Question Time to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure were well below the standards expected in the Chamber. It is well established that Members are expected to adhere to the standards of courtesy and respect in the Chamber and to avoid bringing the Assembly into disrepute. Yesterday, Mr Campbell's parody of the Irish language during Question Time to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure fell well short of those standards. The spirit of mockery was blatant and reflects badly on the House.
The Deputy Speakers and I are not prepared to allow such a breach of standards to pass without consequence. Be in no doubt: if humour was in the Member's intention, it failed miserably. Had it been a parody of any other language, there would rightly have been objections from many quarters. In practice, and in the Hansard report, his comments came across as ridiculous and clearly undermined the dignity of the House.
I regret the fact that Mr Campbell is not present. In the absence of an apology, the Deputy Speakers and I are agreed that Mr Campbell will not be called to speak in the Chamber for the rest of the day. That ends the statement. Let us move on.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we commence today's business, I wish to inform the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Alex Maskey has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the West Belfast constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from the resignation of Ms Sue Ramsey. Mr Maskey signed the Roll of Membership in my presence and that of the Clerk to the Assembly this morning — actually, it was in the presence of Mr Roy Beggs — and entered his designation. Mr Maskey has now taken his seat, and I welcome him back to the Assembly as a Member for the West Belfast constituency.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I wish to also inform the House that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the South Belfast constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from the resignation of Mr Alex Maskey. Mr Ó Muilleoir signed the Roll of Membership in the presence of Deputy Speaker Roy Beggs and the Clerk to the Assembly this morning and entered his designation. Mr Ó Muilleoir has now taken his seat. I welcome him to the Assembly and wish him every success.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I also inform the House that, following the return of Mr Alex Maskey as a Member for West Belfast, the nominating officer for Sinn Féin has informed me that Mr Maskey has been nominated as Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development. Mr Maskey has accepted the nomination. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met and therefore confirm that the appointment takes effect from 4 November 2014.
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Le do chead, a LeasCheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom ráiteas a dhéanamh ar thuarascáil an ghrúpa chomhairligh aireachta ar chun cinn oideachais iarbhunscoile lán-Ghaeilge. Déanfaidh mé cur síos ar an fhreagra s’agam, ar an tuarascáil agus ar na moltaí a théann léi. With your permission Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the report of the ministerial advisory group on advancing post-primary Irish-medium education. I will outline my response to the report and its recommendations.
Members will recall that I established an advisory group in August 2013, led by Helen Ó Murchú, on the strategic development of Irish-medium post-primary education. I asked the group to focus on the development of practical and deliverable solutions to increasing access to Irish-medium post-primary education and address the challenges facing the future development of sustainable provision.
I asked the group to advise me, too, on building capacity at post-primary level, to complement the strengths of early years and primary provision. The group consulted widely and took time to carry out detailed surveys, including questionnaires for parents at all stages of Irish-medium education, and developed approaches based on engagement with Irish-medium education community and stakeholders.
I thank Helen Ó Murchú and the other experts who comprised the group for their work and for producing a very comprehensive and detailed report. The group included Paul O'Doherty, of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS); Paul McAlister, of the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI); and Micheál Ó Duibh, of Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta. I extend my thanks also to everyone who engaged with the group for their contributions.
My vision for education is:
"to ensure that every learner achieves his or her full potential at each stage of development".
A healthy, vibrant Irish-medium education sector is an integral part of my overall vision. In adopting an approach called immersion education, Irish-medium schools seek to deliver a full academic programme through the second language.
The approach provides clear advantages to the learner, including opportunities for bilingualism and bi-literacy; the ability to learn a third or fourth language more easily; more creative thinking and greater sensitivity to communication; raised self-esteem; more secure identity, and broader exposure to, and appreciation of, difference. The proven benefits of Irish-medium education are linked closely to my overall vision for education.
I turn now to why I asked the group to focus on post-primary provision. Irish-medium education continues to expand successfully at preschool and primary levels, with almost 3,600 children attending Irish-medium primary schools and units. Yet, there has been a gap in the strategic development of post-primary provision. In the last school census, that provision consisted of one stand-alone school in Belfast and three units in English-medium schools where the curriculum is delivered all or partially through Irish. There are a total of 830 Irish-medium post-primary pupils. These numbers fall well below the level of actual and potential demand. It is likely, too, that the growth in Irish-medium preschool and primary sectors will lead to a demand for additional post-primary places in the future.
I now need to ensure that the conditions are created that will allow more children the opportunity through Irish-medium post-primary education to be confident, capable, successful and bilingual young adults. In doing so, I commend the work and progress made to date by the existing providers. It has been challenging to establish sustainable provision at post-primary level, and I asked the group for practical solutions. I also asked that it pay due attention to the relevant departmental policies and statutory duties. In line with that, it focused on models of best practice, levels of demand and models for delivery in the short, medium and long term. It also considered optimal geographical locations, implications for financing and the common funding scheme.
Today, I accept the report and am satisfied that it can form the basis of a framework for the delivery of quality Irish-medium post-primary provision that is viable and sustainable. The report contains 33 recommendations, most of which I either accept or accept in principle. I reserve my position on the implementation of a number of them pending further work and clarification where they have been superseded. The recommendations allow for systematic approaches to delivering sustainable post-primary provision. Importantly, though, we need to consider the import of some in more detail, which will not slow the overall implementation.
Tugann ráiteas an lae inniu deis domh a leagan amach as an seasamh atá agam ar na moltaí seo, agus beidh mé ag foilsiú freagra ar gach moladh. Today's statement provides an opportunity for me to set out my position on these recommendations. I am publishing a response to each individual recommendation.
I will now turn to the specific recommendations. Generally, post-primary education is a complex area, and even more so in developing a sector. The report details its recommendations in three key areas: a strategic approach to planning, a pathway for development at post-primary level and constructive solutions to factors that have hindered development. In addressing planning, the report identifies the required elements of a strategic approach for Irish-medium education. It includes 10 recommendations, which include mechanisms for measuring demand; planning authority responsibilities; my Department’s vision; the principles, models, support systems and roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders; and criteria for development proposals and protocols.
Fáiltím roimh an fhócas ar réitigh phraiticiúla inseachadta sa téarma ghearr, sa mheán-téarma agus sa téarma fhada. I welcome the focus on practical and deliverable solutions in the short, medium and long term. I endorse in particular the strategic approach taken to area-based planning for the sector. I support more coherent approaches to deal with current and projected level of demand for Irish-medium post-primary education. The work of the group in relation to the further development of criteria for development proposals and protocols for schools and units can usefully inform the wider area planning process.
There are 11 recommendations to help frame a viable pathway to a sustainable school. The report proposes optimal geographical locations of present and proposed post-primary provision, taking account of the distribution of Irish-medium preschool and primary provision, which, again, it stresses can feed into the wider area planning process. Additional recommendations relate to models and levels of immersion and intake rates, and some relate to named geographical areas.
The report also highlights the importance of support at all the various planning stages, particularly in advance of the first pupil intake. As Minister, I cannot comment on specific areas and potential development proposals. Let me say, however, that collaborative working in the Irish-medium sector, focused on the provision of quality education for all pupils, must form the cornerstone of progress and development.
Is maith liom gur cuireadh bealach ar fáil thart ar roinnt de na ceisteanna a bhí mar chonstaicí ar fhorbairt an oideachais iarbhunscoile trí mheán na Gaeilge ar an léibheal áitiúil agus réigiúnach.
I commend the fact that a pathway has been provided around some of the issues that have hampered the development of this sector at both local and regional level. The report makes 12 recommendations to remove barriers to progress. These relate to teacher supply in the short term and medium to long term; continuing professional development; North/South cooperation; the use of ICT; and current and future funding approaches. The report recommends incentives as a key driver for the development of most of the areas that I have outlined.
I accept the expert advice of the advisory group that I need to create increased access for pupils in the short to medium term as well as planning for the long term. The group recommends a developmental model of provision that moves in the direction of full immersion and stand-alone Irish-medium schools, but the report recognises also that, for some areas, the best means of achieving that goal is to build incrementally. This means establishing units attached to existing schools in the first instance and providing opportunities for more pupils to access their post-primary education through Irish. I am satisfied, though, that the framework and mechanisms will exist more than ever before to facilitate development towards a successful development proposal for a school outside of Belfast. Of course, such a development proposal must meet robust criteria on future demand and sustainability.
The advisory group has articulated practical steps to move towards stand-alone schools over time. I accept the direction of travel that it proposes. This builds a clear pathway incrementally from smaller units housed in high-quality existing schools towards stand-alone provision. The group has balanced this with the need to ensure that the quality of teaching, learning and pupil attainment are not put at risk during this important stage of education. It proposes an incentivised model of moving from different levels of immersion and size in Irish-medium units towards a school. I assure those who would like to move more quickly that my goal includes the development of additional stand-alone schools. I am confident that the report outlines ways in which post-primary education can be developed strategically and working towards additional schools.
I have listened to parents and stakeholders first-hand, and I have considered the report. I believe that the best way of responding to the educational needs of the children and to the commitment of their parents is by focusing on the practical and deliverable solutions outlined in the report. Those solutions take careful account of the need to sustain high-level pupil achievement while capacity is being developed across the sector.
I endorse the report’s vision and its alignment to my broader vision for education. I am optimistic that there will be immediate benefits and tangible progress for the sector. I am satisfied with the clear and constructive articulation of the models and support systems that I can put in place to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education in line with my statutory duty and as a valuable part of the education system. In line with the recommendations, my Department will facilitate a separate voluntary coalition of Irish-medium post-primary providers along the lines of the current area learning communities. I also point to the recent review of the common funding scheme, which has helped to address any historical underfunding of the Irish-medium post-primary sector. Its funding needs are being much more fully addressed through the average weighted pupil unit uplift in the common funding formula.
In the short and medium term, the report stresses the importance of engagement with the Irish-medium sector. I accept the recommendation to develop a top-down and bottom-up implementation structure. I accept the common-sense approach of developing supporting communication strategies to ensure parental confidence and improve enrolment trends via higher transfer rates.
Tá dualgas reachtúil ar an Roinn s’agam leis an Ghaeloideachas a spreagadh agus a éascadh, agus tá sin le feiceáil san fhís atá agam don oideachas. Go deimhin, is cuid lárnach den fhís sin é. The statutory duty of my Department to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education is reflected in, and is an integral part of, my vision for education. I understand, respect and applaud the commitment of parents, children and the wider Irish-language community to Irish-medium schools. I accept the advisory group’s vision of Irish-medium education and welcome its endorsement of and alignment to my broader vision for education. It will help the ongoing development of Irish-medium education as a valuable part of the overall education system.
Is é an toradh air sin go bhfuil an bonn ann anois le bealach praiticiúil le soláthar iarbhunscoile inmharthana ard-chaighdeáin a chruthú a chuirfeas leis na sochair shuntasacha oideachais atá le fáil cheana féin ó oideachas trí mheán na Gaeilge. The result is that there is now the basis of a practical pathway to creating high-quality sustainable post-primary provision that enhances the significant education benefits that are already provided through Irish-medium education.
Miss M McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): Obviously, this is the first that Members have seen of this report and its recommendations. The Committee will obviously want to take some time to study it.
I suppose that what really surprised me about this is the context within which we are currently working. First, according to the recently published primary-school area plans, there are in the region of 500 vacant Irish-medium education (IME) school places in Belfast alone. That roughly equates to around one third of the total IME primary-school provision in the Belfast Board area.
Secondly, the Department also recently advised the Committee that the permanent secretary initiated the ministerial-direction mechanism as a consequence of concerns in respect of additional funding for transportation for an Irish-medium post-primary school.
Thirdly, I understand that, according to the fourth monitoring report of the assessment of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, although the overall initial teacher-education intake has been reduced by 32% since 2005-06, intake for the IME sector has increased by 109% since 2007-08. That is despite there being only one outstanding permanent teaching post to be filled in the whole of the IME sector in November 2013. Therefore, that is 46 IME teacher-training places and almost no posts available in the Irish-medium sector.
My question is why? Why, given the current budgetary constraints, will the Minister waste yet more money and time on providing school places that are not used and training teachers that are not required for the Irish-medium sector? Would he not be better redirecting what limited resources there are to the existing education system?
Mr O'Dowd: First and foremost, Irish-medium education is part of our existing education system and will continue to be part of it as we move forward. It is not one or the other.
I assume that the figures that the Member quotes refer to primary-school places. The fact remains that in Belfast, there is only one stand-alone post-primary Irish-medium provider. This is despite the fact that there is significant growth in both nursery and primary-school Irish-medium provision. We also have to look beyond Belfast. This is the focus of this report. While I welcome the work that has been carried out and the determination of the board of governors, staff, parents and pupils of Coláiste Feirste to develop and build their school over many, many years, we need to look beyond Belfast. The primary objective of my bringing forward the Irish-medium post-primary review was to see how we could develop sustainable post-primary provision outside Belfast. I believe that the report allows us to do that.
The report also reflects on teacher training. We will have discussions with Minister Farry in that regard. There is clearly still a deficit in the number of qualified teachers that are available to the Irish-medium sector, particularly in the post-primary sector, to carry forward this programme. The report covers all of those elements.
The Chairperson of the Committee refers to the fact that quite obviously the Committee will want time to study the report. My officials and I will be available to engage with the Committee on this matter. There is a statutory duty on my Department to develop Irish-medium education. To do that, we have to move forward with post-primary provision. I believe that this report gives us a firm basis on which to do so.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-Leas Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas seo. Does the Minister believe that the Irish-medium sector will continue to grow and flourish across all communities despite the bigotry and racism of some people towards the Irish language and those who use it?
Mr O'Dowd: There has clearly been resistance from some quarters in this Chamber and elsewhere to the growth of the Irish-medium sector. At times, it was institutionalised discrimination. That has now been removed, both through legislation and the practices and policies of previous Education Ministers and me. It has to be obvious now to everyone that Irish-medium education is here to stay. It is not an add-on to education, to my Department or to our broader society: it is an integral part of our education system. We should be proud of that, and we should recognise the benefits that it will have for our children, our society and our economy. It is quite interesting, given the events of the last 24 hours in the Chamber, to look at the benefits of immersion and Irish-medium education. I read them out during my statement. They include more creative thinking and greater sensitivity to communication, and broader exposure to, and appreciation of, difference. Many people in the Chamber could learn from that.
Mr Rogers: Thanks to the Minister for his statement. Minister, you talked about the strategic approach to area-based planning. That, no doubt, will be a major challenge for us as we move ahead. Do you agree with me that the vision for Irish-medium education, particularly post-primary education, would more easily be achieved by having a legislated seat on the Education Authority for the Irish-medium sector?
Mr O'Dowd: I would welcome an agreement among the parties in relation to seats on the Education Authority, including one for the Irish-medium sector. However, nobody should be under any allusions: whether or not there is a seat for the Irish-medium sector, or the integrated sector, on the new authority, the duty placed on my Department by legislation will apply to that authority as well. There is no doubt about that. I understand that discussions are going on between particular parties in relation to a possible amendment or amendments, but I would welcome a resolution to that matter. The potential and momentum that we have behind the new Education Authority may be diminished if we start excluding people from it.
Mr Kinahan: Minister, I thank you for the report. Like many, I was embarrassed by what happened on 'The Nolan Show' this morning, but I also found the comments referring to bigotry and racism unhelpful. We need to find a way to stop politicising the Irish language.
I note the report, but what really comes to mind is the question about the cost of the strategy. The strategy is very comprehensive, but there are no actions. How does he see the cost coming in? When you look at that cost, where does it fit in to preparing pupils for jobs when we need more money for STEM and getting pupils to their jobs, or on learning Mandarin and other languages? How does he see that fitting in with the priorities? What is the cost of the strategy?
Mr O'Dowd: I am not sure that "strategy" is exactly the right term. What we have is a plan for the way forward as to how we provide and meet the demand for post-primary Irish-medium education. The report and its terms of reference refer to the constrained financial times in which we are all working. Everyone recognises that, but it is not a reason to do nothing. We have to act. There is clearly a demand for post-primary provision in the Irish-medium sector. I acknowledge the constrained financial times that I am working in, but that is not a reason to do nothing. We have to move forward in a planned way, and the report allows us to do that.
In regards to how it fits in with our broader strategy in relation to STEM and the economy, let me again refer to the benefits of immersion in bilingualism. One is the ability to learn a third or fourth language more easily; that is a recognised fact. Another is raised self-esteem. Which employer does not want to employ a young person or adult with raised self-esteem? Another benefit is the broader exposure to, and appreciation of, difference. That is a great characteristic in anyone.
The benefits to the economy have been referred to in a number of reports, particularly in relation to the Gaeltacht Quarter being developed in west Belfast. There are economic benefits to the Irish language as well; it can and does bring economic rewards to our society. We need to build on that.
Mr Lunn: For those of us who do not have a natural affinity for the Irish language but who totally respect the right of parents to have their children educated in that particular medium, this is a very welcome report. It sets out the way forward, I think, if it is feasible and affordable.
It says to me that roughly 2,800 pupils are denied the opportunity to move into secondary level Irish-medium education and, in the terms used in the report, to achieve their full potential by becoming fluent in two languages and perhaps more. Does that not point to the fact that the needs model that the Department uses is in need of amendment once again, because, as Judge Treacy identified, it needs to take into account the anticipated demand for secondary places in the Irish-medium and integrated sectors?
Mr O'Dowd: You and I are going to have a debate again on the interpretation of Judge Treacy's ruling on the integrated sector and the needs model.
I am satisfied that both the judgement and my Department's working of the needs model are lawful, practical and allow for the identification of the growth in the Irish-medium sector and the integrated sector. If you follow the argument through, you see that the needs model has identified that there is a need for further provision of post-primary Irish-medium education across the North. This report outlines the practical steps for developing sustainable post-primary provision. So, I do not think that it is a case of one or the other.
When I first launched this report, you asked whether I would consider producing a similar report into the integrated sector. I think that the time is now right to produce a similar report into the integrated sector, and I will take that forward in the time ahead.
Mr Craig: Minister, like others in this room, we are concerned about the cost of rolling out this strategy. Have you any idea of what the cost will be?
Is there any commitment from the Minister to put a working group together on different languages, such as Cobalt, Java and Linux etc, which are programming languages? I listened to representatives of concerned industries this morning talk about that issue, and there will be 22,000 job opportunities in that sector over the next three years, yet there is no strategy whatsoever in education to deal with that.
Mr O'Dowd: When I am asked for my genuine point of view on costs, I fully accept that we have to take them into consideration. Again, I ask Members to look at my terms of reference. Throughout the report, there is reference to the fact that we are working in constrained financial times and that we have to take those matters into account as we plan forward.
This report lays the foundations for development proposals to come forward, and it is a worthy reference document for anyone who is preparing a development proposal for the provision of additional Irish-medium education. Through the development proposal process, we will interrogate very closely financial costs, sustainability, enrolment trends and all the things that would happen on any other occasion. So, we are not ignoring that, but, as I emphasised to other people, it is not a case of doing nothing because we are in constrained financial times. We are going to act on this; we have to develop the provision, and we will.
The Member referred to computer coding as languages. There is a STEM strategy on that. That STEM strategy is well promoted, both in my Department and Minister Farry's Department, and it is central in the Programme for Government. I have had detailed engagements with various sectors, including the ICT sector, on how we improve knowledge, both in primary and post-primary schools, of computer science and computer coding etc. So, it is not a case of one or the other. We are conducting a wide range of strategies through the Department of Education and other Departments, and those strategies will include post-primary Irish-medium provision.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to follow up on comments that have been made, and I offer my congratulations to those who have worked on this very comprehensive report. Will the Minister confirm whether the report now paves the way for stand-alone Irish-medium post-primary schools? Indeed, is there now the potential to bring together various Celtic nations for the promotion of education in their native language?
Mr O'Dowd: The answer to both questions is yes. Let me give you more detail. The report will allow for the provision of stand-alone Irish-medium units. In recent years, a number of well-intentioned development proposals have come forward from highly motivated people in the Irish-medium sector. However, when those proposals were scrutinised against all the policies in my Department for sustainability of numbers, educational outcomes for young people and finance, they did not stack up. I encourage anyone who is bringing forward a development proposal to refer to this document and ensure that the points raised in it are covered. It most certainly allows for the provision of stand-alone schools as we move forward. That is a goal that we wish to reach.
The report refers to the experience of the Celtic nations in the provision of immersion education, and that is one of its recommendations. Interestingly, it refers to using the office of the British-Irish Council to organise conferences on sharing experiences of immersion in native languages. That is a very interesting and worthwhile recommendation, and perhaps it might remove the political fixation that some people may have about the Irish language and open it up to a broader audience.
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his statement. I refer to the part of the statement dealing with a strategic approach to planning. He will be aware of the work being done by the Committee on area-based planning and that, in the past, area-based planning has let down schools, pupils and parents. The Minister said:
"I endorse in particular the strategic approach taken to area-based planning".
What he did not indicate was that it will be a holistic approach to area-based planning. He will be aware that Professor Knox, when giving evidence to the Committee, described area-based planning, as it stands, as nothing more than a "cut-and-paste exercise".
Mr O'Dowd: The Member states that area planning has let down parents and pupils. I argue that the absence of area planning has let down parents and pupils over many, many years. It appears that there are some in the Chamber who want an area-planning process that does not involve decisions. Let us have a mechanism whereby everybody sits around a table and maps out what they would like an area to look like, but, for heaven's sake, do not make a decision, because, if you make a decision, you have to stand over it and work out its implications. That is where some Members have their head in relation to area planning.
Over the last number of days, I have listened to talk of budgets. I heard many commentators in the Chamber tell me that I have to restructure education and that there will have to be more school closures and a greater number of schools amalgamating. How does the Member propose that I do that if not through the area-planning process? How does the Member suggest that we move forward to meet the very tight budget that I have if not through an area-planning process that makes decisions? That is what has let down communities, parents and pupils for many, many years. We had a process in place that did not make decisions. As a Minister, I am prepared to make decisions, even if they are unpopular and difficult at times. If, after looking at all the evidence and information, I can stand over it, I will make the decision to close a school, amalgamate a school or keep a school open. I will make those decisions.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas sin. Tá a fhios ag an Aire go bhfuil suim mhór agam san ábhar seo agus nach bhfuil sé ábalta rud ar bith a rá faoin fhorbairt áitiúil.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I know that he cannot comment on individual development proposals, but he will know of my interest in Irish language development and Irish language education in rural County Derry and that there have been quite advanced development proposals in that field. Can he give any indication of when those development proposals might come forward and be delivered on?
Mr O'Dowd: The Member is correct when he states that I cannot comment on an individual development proposal when we are in the process of making a decision on it. A development proposal was published on 24 June by the Western Board on the provision of a post-primary Irish-medium school in the Dungiven area. It is now with my departmental officials, who are sifting through the evidence gathered as part of that development proposal process. They will make a report to me in due course. I hope to be in a position to make a decision as quickly as possible. There are a number of complex and detailed development proposals in my Department that require significant work to be carried out to bring them to a conclusion. However, I can assure the Member that I will make a decision on the matter as quickly as possible.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. Gabhaim buíochas fosta le Helen Ó Murchú agus a comhghleachaithe a d’ullmhaigh an tuairisc. Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire faoi alt 4.3.4 de fhreagra na Roinne ar an tuairisc. Sé sin faoin chur chuige maoinithe, go háirithe na nithe a eascraíonn as breithiúnas an Bhreithimh Uí Threasaigh agus an neamhfhorbairt agus an neamh-mhaoiniú a luaitear i dtuairisc Salisbury. Sé an cheist atá agam: cad é go díreach atá a dhéanamh ag an Aire le riar ar na heasnaimh sin?
I thank the Minister for his statement. I also thank Helen Ó Murchú and her colleagues, who prepared the report. My question to the Minister is around the Department's response to paragraph 4.3.4 of the report, which deals with funding issues and other issues, such as those arising from the Treacy judgement and the underdevelopment and underfunding of Irish-medium education, as mentioned in the Salisbury report. What exactly is the Minister doing to respond to those issues?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist. I acknowledge the Member's acknowledgement of the work of Helen Ó Murchú. I wish to, once again, place on the record my thanks and gratitude to them all for the work that they carried out. I have dealt with the funding of the Irish-medium sector as part of the common funding formula. Funding to the Irish-medium sector, particularly post-primary provision, has increased significantly, rising from somewhere in the region of £28 extra per pupil to somewhere in the region of £400 per pupil additional. Therefore, I think that I have dealt with that matter quite robustly. There are other issues in the report to do with funding mechanisms, and progression of funding mechanisms, that require more detailed scrutiny and examination. As I said, that will not stymie the recommendations of the report moving forward. I will deal with them in due course.
Mrs Overend: I welcome the opportunity to question the Education Minister on the report, although the time that we had before coming to the House this morning was not really enough to digest it in full. I, like others, would like to hear some costings of the proposals. Can the Minister outline something basic? What is the funding per pupil that will be provided at an Irish language post-primary school compared with what is provided to children at other schools? If this is their native language, the amount should be the same and the education outcomes should be comparable.
Mr O'Dowd: Each development proposal will carry its own financial cost and will be scrutinised individually. No school will be able to open or progress without going through the normal procedure of a development proposal. All those issues and questions around cost etc will be dealt with.
The cost per pupil at a post-primary Irish-medium school is based on the needs and requirements of each individual pupil, but the element in relation to the common funding formula that refers to provision for Irish medium means that each child will receive an additional £400. That was set out in the common funding formula, which was debated at length in the Chamber and elsewhere over a very long period, and is public knowledge since I made my decision on the common funding formula back in, I think, January 2014.
Mr McCausland: The document that was produced — the report itself and then the response from the Minister and the Department — is primarily about language. I notice that the document also refers to culture, and I was interested in the use of the word "identity" and in the use of the word "racism" by Pat Sheehan. It is clear that Sinn Féin sees this as a linguistic, cultural and ethnic issue. That is interesting because the Minister then referred to a political fixation with the Irish language. If that is the case and there is a fixation about the Irish language, many would hold the view that Sinn Féin has contributed to that fixation. Thirty years ago, they set out their position on the Irish language in an official Sinn Féin publication, in which they said that every word spoken in Irish was another bullet in the freedom struggle. Does the Minister agree with that statement?
Mr O'Dowd: I am here to be questioned on the Irish-medium post-primary education report. I will answer questions on that.
There has been a political fixation in the opposition to and discrimination against the Irish language. That is fact. You cannot then turn around and challenge those who opposed the inbuilt discrimination in Government against Irish-medium education and accuse them of politicising the language.
Let me put this on the record for you, and you can question me on this one: the Irish language does not belong to Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the DUP, the UUP, the Green Party, UKIP, independents, anyone else I have left out in the Chamber or any other political movement or party out there. The Member opposite is quite interested in his history, or his version of history. I am sure that he is aware that, if it was not for Presbyterians in Belfast, there would be no Irish language in Belfast.
Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for what I think is a genuine attempt to develop the Irish-medium sector outside Belfast. I welcome that approach.
I know that the Minister cannot deal with individual proposals, but I want to test it a bit. One of the recommendations is about opportunities in Derry city and, particularly, in initiating a process of consultation around the present host options. Will the Minister outline proposals, how that could be advanced or state what his advice is?
Mr O'Dowd: The Member will be aware that there have been several attempts to establish Irish-medium post-primary provision in Derry city. Unfortunately, they have not been successful, despite the best efforts of many Irish language activists, teachers, parents and, indeed, the pupils involved. They faced significant challenges and were not able to succeed. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to bring forward the report. I wanted to ensure that any future proposal would have a stable platform and would learn from the mistakes and opportunities of the past.
I encourage anyone in Derry city who is interested in bringing forward a proposal to study the document very carefully and bring forward a development proposal based on the recommendations in the report. It will then go through the normal development proposal process, and we will decide whether it is sustainable.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire, agus cuirim fáilte fosta roimh a ráiteas ar maidin. Mar is eol don Aire, tá tacaíocht mhór ag an Ghaeilge i mBéal Feirste thiar, áit a bhfuil meas agus luach uirthi fosta. Mar sin de, an dtiocfadh liom iarraidh ar an Aire an gcreideann sé go mbeidh rath ann mar thoradh ar an athbhreitheamh seo? As the Minister knows, there is huge support in west Belfast for the Irish language. There is also huge respect and value placed on it. Therefore, does the Minister believe that there will be continued success in Gaeloideachas in west Belfast as a result of the review?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a ceist. I believe that, without doubt. I place on record my appreciation and acknowledgement of the many, many years of hard work of the Irish language community in west Belfast to establish a post-primary school, Coláiste Feirste, in the first instance, and the work and commitment that has been shown over many, many years to keep that school moving forward and to have a successful stand-alone school, despite all the barriers that it faced. In the early stages, many of those barriers were placed in front of them by government and others, but they have moved forward and established themselves as a leading, full-immersion Irish-medium school. They deserve credit for that.
I have no doubt that there will be further growth in west Belfast, and indeed across Belfast, in the Irish language. It has been attractive to many communities down through the years, and, as I said to another Member, without the involvement of the Presbyterian Church, a number of centuries ago, there would be no Irish language movement in Belfast. The history of it needs to be understood by all.
The main focus of this report was to develop a successful Irish-medium post-provision outside Belfast, but its recommendations are relevant to Belfast city and the further development and success of Irish-medium provision in west Belfast and, indeed, across the city of Belfast.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Childcare Payments Bill and that its operation be made an excepted matter under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I am delighted to address the House on what is a very important issue for working parents in Northern Ireland. The First Minister and deputy First Minister laid a legislative consent memorandum before the Assembly on 23 June, which sought the support for a legislative consent motion to extend the provisions of the Westminster Childcare Payments Bill to Northern Ireland and to make the operation of the legislation an excepted matter. The legislative consent motion was formally referred to the OFMDFM Committee for consideration and to enable it to make a report to the Assembly. The Committee's report was published on 1 October. I welcome the Committee's decision to support the legislative consent motion. However, the Committee included a specific recommendation in its report, and I want to return to that shortly.
The Childcare Payments Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 5 June 2014. The Bill completed its Committee Stage last week and will now return to the Floor of the Commons for its Report Stage. It is worth reminding Members that the deadline for securing Assembly approval to the legislative consent motion is the last day for the tabling of amendments for Report Stage in the Commons. Report Stage is expected to take place shortly.
Many parents, today, want or indeed need to work. However, finding reliable, quality, affordable childcare is a major concern for working families. I am fully aware of the pressures that there are on family budgets and of the demands that make it hard for parents to decide whether to stay at home or go to work. That decision is very much a personal one, but parents should not be deterred from returning to work by the high cost of childcare.
Members will be aware that the current Programme for Government commits the Executive to publish and implement a childcare strategy to provide integrated and affordable childcare. In September 2013, we launched the first phase of the Bright Start childcare strategy. That phase sets out the strategic direction for the strategy, along with 15 key first actions, some of which are aimed at improving the availability of childcare and building up capacity in the childcare market.
It is worth saying that, in March, we launched a school-age childcare grant scheme to increase the supply of childcare places. The first call for applications resulted in 50 successful applications, representing funding of £1·9 million over a three-year period. That will create 326 new childcare places and sustain around 1,160 existing places. In addition, there are a number of projects being supported under the strategic investment fund, which will increase childcare capacity across the investment zones.
With regard to the affordability of childcare, we said in the Bright Start strategic framework that we would keep a watching brief on the coalition Government's plans to introduce a new tax-free childcare scheme targeted at working families. The Childcare Payments Bill provides the statutory basis for the introduction of tax-free childcare. It will be a new targeted system of support to help working families with the cost of registered childcare and will particularly help parents who wish to take up paid work or increase their working hours.
In essence, tax-free childcare will offer working families 20% support towards their childcare costs. That is the equivalent of basic rate tax relief. Support will be available to children under the age of 12, whose childcare costs are often the highest. Parents of children with disabilities will continue to be eligible for tax-free childcare until their child is 17 years old, in recognition of the fact that childcare costs for that group can remain high in later years.
To be eligible for tax-free childcare, both parents, or a lone parent, must be in paid work, employed or self-employed, and both must meet a minimum income level. It is worth emphasising that working families on lower incomes already receive more generous support towards their childcare costs through the childcare element of working tax credit. As household income increases, support from tax credits is gradually tapered away, meaning that parents could be better off claiming tax-free childcare. However, they cannot claim both.
So, how will tax-free childcare work? Central to the delivery of the new scheme will be childcare accounts. It is a bit like a bank account, but government will top up any money that parents put into that account. Eligible parents will be able to open a childcare account online, pay money towards their childcare costs into that account and have payments automatically topped up by government. Government top-up payments will be at a rate of £2·00 for every £8·00 that the family pays in, subject to a maximum of £2,000 government support per child per year. So, to be clear, that means that the actual amount of the government top-up payment that parents will receive is entirely dependent on how much money they pay into that account.
Parents will then allocate that money to the childcare provider or providers of their choice, with the account provider making the payment direct to the childcare provider.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
It is worth emphasising that multiple people or parties will be able to pay into those childcare accounts. That will enable all parents to make contributions, as well as giving other family members, or parents' employers, the opportunity to contribute. Parents will be able to withdraw money from their childcare account should they wish to do so, with their contributions returned to them and the Government's top-ups returned to Government.
Tax-free childcare will operate through quarterly entitlement periods. That means that parents will not be required to report changes to their personal circumstances in real time. Once eligible, parents will be entitled to support for three months regardless of any changes in personal circumstances that they may experience. Parents will be required to reconfirm eligibility at the end of the three-month entitlement period.
As I mentioned earlier, childcare accounts will be central to the delivery of the new scheme. Her Majesty's Treasury has appointed National Savings and Investments, an executive agency of Her Majesty's Treasury, as the scheme's account provider. Having a single provider will mean that parents will not need to choose between, negotiate with or pay fees to account providers. Instead, they will engage with government as a single point of contact to register for tax-free childcare, make payments into their account and arrange payments to their childcare providers. Subject to the Childcare Payments Bill receiving Royal Assent, the new tax-free childcare scheme is expected to become available from autumn 2015.
Members may wish to note that there has been a legal challenge from some current childcare voucher providers concerning the decision to appoint National Savings and Investments as the account provider for tax-free childcare. I understand that the coalition Government are still working to their original timetable, but clearly implementation is subject to legal proceedings and the timetable that that dictates.
When tax-free childcare is introduced, the current employer-supported childcare scheme will be closed to new entrants. The coalition Government announced their decision to remove the tax exemption and national insurance contributions disregard associated with employer-supported childcare in the Budget of 2013. As the current scheme is funded through tax and national insurance contribution reliefs, the scheme, therefore, is an excepted matter. As a consequence, the Assembly has no authority over the coalition Government's decision to phase out the scheme. However, I wish to make it clear that those parents who are already in employer-supported childcare will be able to stay in the scheme for as long as they remain with the same employer and the employer continues to offer the scheme. It is expected that employers intend to carry on offering childcare vouchers to existing staff once the exemption is closed to new claims.
It is important that parents make good choices about the right childcare funding for them. Alongside wider guidance and information, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will provide an easy-to-use online tool for parents choosing between different Government schemes. Parents will be able to enter details about their personal circumstances and quickly see what support they may be entitled to and how much they can get. Members will wish to note that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has already published the first tranche of draft guidance for using the tax-free childcare scheme, well ahead of its introduction. The introduction of tax-free childcare will extend financial support to working parents on a fairer, more equal basis than the current employer-supported childcare scheme. The new scheme, like the current scheme, will be fully funded by the Treasury. Those who favour the current arrangements should bear in mind that access to that scheme is totally reliant upon employers participating.
It is estimated that around 11,000 parents in Northern Ireland are in receipt of childcare vouchers. In contrast, tax-free childcare will be available to all working families, provided, of course, that they meet the eligibility criteria, and not just to those whose employers participate in the employer-supported childcare scheme. It will also be open to parents who are self-employed. That means that self-employed parents and those working for employers who did not offer the employer-supported childcare will have access to childcare support for the first time. As such, tax-free childcare will be open to more families than the current scheme is. There are, for example, 116,000 self-employed people in Northern Ireland, which is 5,000 more than in 2011. That is a significant and growing section of our workforce. The self-employed were ineligible under the employer-supported childcare scheme but are eligible under tax-free childcare.
I said that I would return to the recommendation in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister's report of 1 October. For the benefit of Members who may not have seen the report, the Committee strongly recommends that OFMDFM seek to identify the categories of people who may be disadvantaged under the new tax-free childcare scheme and, where appropriate, ensure that their needs are addressed in the wider childcare strategy. Some families will receive less support in the new scheme than in employer-supported childcare, specifically because the new scheme is more fairly targeted. However, as I indicated, those families will not lose out, because they will be able to continue in their existing scheme. Parents who currently benefit under employer-supported childcare and who prefer to remain in that scheme can continue to do so after the introduction of tax-free childcare. The new tax-free childcare scheme will offer support based on the number of children as opposed to the number of qualifying parents. So, it will be much fairer than employer-supported childcare, in which lone parents can receive half the level of support of couples.
The current system will be closed to new entrants only. Therefore, any potential disadvantage will arise only after the introduction of tax-free childcare, when some parents may compare the two schemes and find that employer-supported childcare would have offered a higher level of support had it still been available to them. Employers For Childcare has called on OFMDFM to develop a separate funding scheme for employees whose employers participate in the employer-supported childcare scheme and who will not be able to access the scheme after it is closed to new entrants.
We wish to avoid creating a complex and unfair two-tiered system, with those who would have qualified for employer-supported childcare receiving a different level of support. Nevertheless, in recognition of the Committee's recommendation, OFMDFM will seek to estimate the numbers likely to be affected and the scale of the disadvantage. Any findings will inform the ongoing development of the Bright Start childcare strategy. Work to develop the full, final Bright Start childcare strategy is under way. Officials are engaging with the main childcare stakeholders to develop a consultation document that includes firm policy proposals for childcare.
It is intended to launch consultation on the childcare strategy by the end of 2014, with the aim of developing a draft final strategy for publication in 2015. I appreciate that the Assembly would normally look at legislation and legislative competence in that area. However, I hope that Members agree that we are right to go ahead with this legislative consent motion on this occasion. If we agree the legislative consent motion, working parents will be able to claim support from government with their childcare costs in the same way as those who live in England, Scotland and Wales. I therefore commend the motion to the House.
Mr Nesbitt (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): I will inform the House of the consideration which the Committee has given to the provisions of this legislative consent motion. We have considered it in some detail during this session.
I am pleased to see that both junior Ministers are contributing to the debate, and, while the Committee was undoubtedly frustrated and disappointed that it was not informed during the consultation and policy development stage of the proposals, I want to place on record the Committee’s thanks both to officials who made themselves available over a number of weeks and to the junior Ministers, not least for the informal meeting that they agreed to, at short notice, with members of the Committee to discuss a number of issues and concerns as we felt we were coming up to the wire on our decision.
Junior Minister Bell has outlined the purpose of the legislative consent motion and the effect of the legislation, so I do not intend to go over that ground. However, I want give Members who were not in Committee a flavour of the issues that members considered in their scrutiny of the legislation and the background to the Committee’s decision to support the legislative consent motion (LCM). I state at the outset that the decision was not taken lightly by the Committee. The Committee recognised that a number of parents, such as the self-employed, who are currently not eligible for any childcare support from government, will benefit from the new scheme. However, members were also concerned that there may be parents who now find that they will be worse off under the new arrangements, not least because it only benefits parents with children up to the age of 12.
The Committee first received notice from OFMDFM about the Childcare Payments Bill and the subsequent need for a legislative consent motion on 25 June. It was only during the following briefing with officials on 2 July that members learned that HM Treasury had conducted a consultation on the policy proposals in the autumn of 2013, and that OFMDFM had coordinated a response to that consultation on behalf of other Departments. The Department also wrote to local stakeholders and asked them to respond directly to the Treasury’s consultation; however, the Committee was not notified at that time.
Undoubtedly the Committee’s opportunity to consider and scrutinise the provisions of the Childcare Payments Bill would have been enhanced had it been informed about the proposed policy changes at that stage. As Chair of the Committee, I put on record that this, unfortunately, is not the first time that the Committee has been ignored. It is not the first time that the Committee has been overlooked and not the first time that the Committee has not been given its place. I believe that statutory Committees are a critical element in the design of the devolved institutions, which were, after all, endorsed by the people in referendum in 1998.
On 25 June, the Committee agreed to a request from Employers For Childcare to brief members on the Bill and the potential implications for working parents in Northern Ireland. During that briefing, on 2 July, its representatives raised a number of concerns, including: the potential impact for parents employed through zero-hours contracts; the potential impact for families where one parent becomes unemployed during an eligible period; concerns about those in full-time training; the impact of welfare reform changes; and concerns that a "qualifying child" will be a child under the age of 12, when currently provision is made for children significantly older.
Following the evidence sessions, the Committee agreed to forward the Employers For Childcare paper to the Committee for Employment and Learning for its information. In September, the Committee received a response from the Department for Employment and Learning, indicating that the proposed approach would complement its existing provision, which offers financial assistance towards the cost of childcare incurred by certain eligible participants while on one its programmes.
Over the summer months the Committee also received a response from OFMDFM in relation to the issues raised by Employers For Childcare, and in early September the Department provided its response to the Treasury consultation and a list of stakeholders that it had notified of the consultation. That correspondence is available, along with other information and correspondence considered during the Committee’s deliberations, on the Committee’s web pages on the Assembly's website.
During a briefing on 17 September members questioned officials about how the needs of those parents who may be disadvantaged under the new scheme could be addressed. Officials advised that options in that regard would be considered in the development of the Department’s full childcare strategy, as Minister Bell informed us.
The Committee then agreed to seek an urgent meeting with Ministers regarding members’ ongoing concerns about the impact of the Childcare Payments Bill, and also to find out whether any further thinking had been given to additional protections that may be put in place in a wider childcare strategy for those who may be disadvantaged by the new scheme. That meeting took place on Monday 29 September, when a delegation from the Committee met junior Minister Bell and junior Minister McCann. Again, I place on record my thanks on behalf of the Committee to the junior Ministers for making themselves available at short notice. I think that it is a sign to those both inside and outside this place of how seriously we take matters relating to the support of families.
During the meeting the junior Ministers confirmed that it was unfortunately not possible at that time to quantify how many will benefit from or be disadvantaged by the new scheme. However, it was highlighted by the junior Ministers that all entrants to the new scheme will be on an equal footing with regard to tax relief for childcare, whereas one of the groups that are better off in the current scheme is those in the higher tax bracket. The junior Ministers also advised that figures regarding the number of parents with children aged 12 to 16 who are receiving childcare vouchers through the current scheme are not available. There was, however, an acceptance that that age group will need to be specifically considered in the wider childcare strategy.
On Wednesday 1 October the Committee considered further correspondence from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the CBI, having previously also considered correspondence from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Again, had the Committee been made aware of the policy proposals at an earlier stage, engagement with a wider range of stakeholders could have taken place.
In reaching its final decision on the LCM, the Committee recognised that, should the provisions in the Childcare Payments Bill not be extended to Northern Ireland, families will lose out on support with childcare costs when the current scheme closes to new entrants. In addition, a number of parents who had been excluded from previous schemes, such as the self-employed, will now be able to take advantage of relief for childcare costs.
The Committee therefore agreed at its meeting on 1 October to support the legislative consent motion to extend the provisions of the Childcare Payments Bill to Northern Ireland. However, in so doing the Committee strongly recommends that the Department undertake a scoping exercise to identify the categories of people who will be disadvantaged under the new scheme and, where appropriate, ensure that their needs are addressed in the wider childcare strategy.
On that point, I pause to acknowledge junior Minister Bell and his words towards the end of his speech when he recognised the potential disadvantage for new entrants who will not be able to access the current voucher scheme when it closes in the autumn of next year as scheduled. I accept and acknowledge Minister Bell's commitment to a scoping exercise in the broader childcare strategy.
The Committee is due to receive a briefing from officials on the final childcare strategy at its meeting tomorrow, and that is an area that Members will undoubtedly follow up on during the evidence session. However, notwithstanding that, I invite junior Minister McCann in her closing remarks to outline whether there are any further plans that she can detail, such as how the scoping exercise will be undertaken in practice.
At this point, I would like to make some remarks as a Member of the Assembly.
Mention has been made of Employers For Childcare, which is a very vigorous member of the third sector, a sector that has so much to offer our economy. The group vigorously campaigned for a dual approach, and now that we hear that such an approach will not go forward unless the scoping exercise recommends it, the emphasis has been switched to an awareness campaign to increase the uptake by families that are entitled to financial assistance with childcare costs.
The group conducted a survey, to which 4,500 parents responded. Of those, 63% said that they struggled at some point during 2013 to meet childcare costs; 46% reduced their working hours or left work altogether as a direct result of the cost of childcare; and 49% were unsure whether they were claiming all the financial support that they were entitled to. That is the basis on which the group called for an awareness campaign. It points out how successful the Social Security Agency's Make the Call campaign has been in raising awareness of entitlement to pension credit and to attendance allowance. Again, I invite the junior Minister, in her response, to give us her thoughts on that.
The Federation of Small Businesses briefed the Committee and was quite clear in saying that, in Northern Ireland, employers will lose employer National Insurance contribution savings in the region of £4 million per annum as a result of the salary sacrifice aspect of the childcare voucher scheme coming to an end. That is significant money for our many micro, small and medium enterprises. If we are to give proper meaning to our assertion that the economy is front and centre of all that we do, we must do more than simply note that £4 million figure. I will listen with interest to what the junior Minister proposes to do about it.
Finally, I return to the lack of consultation with the Committee. Were it a one-off, we could maybe move on. However, it comes in an environment and a context of papers repeatedly being delivered late to the Committee and of late-notice cancellation of briefings. I know that there are a number of reasons for that. Some are political and down to the joint nature of the office, and some are probably administrative. However, it seems to me, at this stage, that it happens so frequently and consistently that it is hard to dismiss the fact that an element of what is going on is a disrespect being shown by some in the Department towards the Committee.
That is baffling to me for two reasons. First, seven of the 11 MLAs on the Statutory Committee are from parties who provide Ministers in the Department, and, as we know, the Ministers are the Department. Secondly, it baffles me because the Committee has a good track record of assisting the Department. As one example, I will mention our work in scrutinising the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Bill. It was our amendments, which the junior Ministers acknowledged at the time, that helped to improve the setting up of the historical institutional abuse inquiry. So, the Committee is there to complete its statutory duties and to help through its scrutiny, not necessarily simply to criticise.
I shall leave it at that point, having made it clear that the Committee supports the LCM and, as I said, looks forward to the response from junior Minister McCann.
Mr Moutray: A considerable amount has already been said on this issue in the context of the debate of just a few weeks ago. I do not intend to go into all those details again; rather, I will touch on a few for the purposes of addressing the motion.
The childcare voucher scheme was extremely complicated and suffered from low uptake in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Organisations such as Employers For Childcare played a constructive and positive role in ensuring that parents could navigate this complex system. However, it remained challenging, and the uptake was too low. It needed to be reformed. I therefore welcome the moves towards this new scheme, which aims to widen the scope of who can qualify and to simplify access for parents. In addition, it will not be dependent on employers offering it and will be targeted towards those lower-income working families who most need financial support for childcare.
Our analysis at this stage is that the new scheme has significant potential to enhance and support affordable childcare. Importantly, the scheme is being funded centrally from London and will add no additional Budget pressure on Northern Ireland while bringing new financial support for many families. There are things that my colleagues and I would like to see changed. I would like the support in the new scheme to extend to young people aged up to 16 rather than to 12, as currently proposed. In addition, I want to ensure that protection is offered, in so far as is possible and reasonable, to any parents who may be in the group who will not benefit as much from the new scheme when compared with the voucher scheme. We will examine those issues closely as the scheme continues to be rolled out. At this point, we support the motion.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am not a member of the Committee of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but I wish to say a few words on the subject, because, certainly in my experience, affordable childcare is absolutely essential, and, unfortunately, it has not been so affordable here in recent times. When I worked in the voluntary sector, we carried out a survey in the Newry area and found that we had one of the worst childcare facilities in western Europe. For a population of 90,000, there were around five registered childminders. The difficulty is that, for people on working tax credits to avail themselves of the childcare element, unless their child is being looked after by a registered childminder, they do not get it. That has caused trouble.
The legislative consent motion will increase the number of people who will be eligible for the childcare scheme. Previously, as I said, affordable childcare has not been easily or readily available. It appears that the new scheme will increase the numbers who are eligible, but there may still be gaps that need to be filled. The new tax-free childcare scheme will help to provide financial support for working families, which is to be welcomed, and, as far as I am aware from what has been said, it will also include self-employed people.
I understand that departmental officials have been asked to sit down and fully discuss issues that groups may want to raise, particularly Employers For Childcare, which has raised concerns. I have met the group on a number of occasions, and, as Mr Moutray said, it has played a very constructive role in providing childcare when it was most needed. In that sense, its concerns need to be addressed, because people who make use of the voucher scheme will continue, as far as I know, with that, but I do not think that new people can be introduced.
The Bright Start scheme was launched by OFMDFM in September 2013, and it fits in with the Programme for Government targets. In my experience, however, a large number of families use informal childcare, whether that is offered by aunts, uncles, mothers, sisters or whomever, which has been an issue, as it means that they cannot access the childcare element of working tax credits. Presumably, the scheme will address that at some stage, although it is my understanding — I can be corrected if I am wrong — that children will still have to be looked after in crèches or the like. Crèches are extremely expensive. When we were conducting research, we found that there were a huge number of crèches in our area but that they were extremely expensive. People simply could not afford them, because they would be working simply to pay their childcare costs. That is an issue.
I welcome the legislative consent motion to introduce the scheme, but I think that there are gaps, particularly, as was mentioned, with the age factor. Children up to the age of 12 only are included, and that will have to be addressed as other schemes cater for children up to and beyond the age of 14. As I said, I am not a member of the Committee, but I think that affordable childcare in the North is such as essential item that anything that focuses on it is to be welcomed.
Mr Attwood: Thank you for calling me a second time.
I agree with the Chair of the Committee's comments in acknowledging the contribution, input, efforts, campaign and lobbying of relevant organisations in the third sector.
Given that the Committee had been initially unsighted in relation to what was being proposed and, as a consequence, the limitations of what it could do, it was the efforts of external organisations such as Employers For Childcare, the FSB, Early Years and the family of childcare organisations that brought into sharp relief the opportunities of the new proposals as well as the deficits in the new legislation coming from Westminster. Indeed, my observation of what those organisations did on the legislative consent motion and the issues around it is that it was a case study of how a group of external organisations could powerfully influence the view of government and a Committee. The Committee Chair referred, for example, to the fact that there had been an informal gathering of representatives of the Committee and the junior Ministers and officials on the matter. That seemed to me to be a model of good practice in a situation in which we have difficulties getting Ministers to come to Committees, as the Chair indicated. Here was a model of better practice when it came to how a Committee interrogates a matter of public policy in an effort to get it right. All of that happened because of the work of the external organisations, which brought real evidence and clinical analysis to the issue of the childcare payments legislation.
In one way, I have to declare an interest: I am a parent of young children aged five and eight years. Although my wife and I are both in work, with good salaries, I have some sense of parents' struggles in accessing affordable childcare and the multiple complications that arise from that.
I repeat what the Chair said: there was a survey of nearly 20% — a 20% response rate — of those in Northern Ireland who were claiming any form of financial support for the cost of childcare. Where have you ever come across a survey on any public policy issue to which 20% of the affected constituency took time to respond? A consequence of that is that the response must be as valid and compelling as any response to a public attitudes survey, if you like, on any issue. As the Chair indicated, of the 4,500 people who responded, 63% struggled at some point in 2013 to meet their childcare costs; 46% reduced their working hours or even left work because of struggles with childcare costs; and nearly 50% were unsure whether they were claiming all that they were entitled to under the available childcare proposals. If that is the experience of so many of those who are trying to access childcare support and given that those real and daily struggles continue, we have to make sure that, in taking forward the consent motion, all bases are covered when it comes to ensuring that all available childcare options remain available in future.
Questions arise from that that the junior Minister may want to address in his reply. First, he indicated that the final childcare strategy would be published in 2015. Given that he also said that a scoping exercise was to be undertaken for parents who may be disadvantaged by the ending of the voucher scheme in autumn 2015, can he confirm where precisely that scoping exercise is, who is conducting it and who is being consulted on the scoping of the scale of the individuals who may be disadvantaged by the ending of the voucher scheme? If, tomorrow, we are to get a briefing from officials about what the childcare strategy proposals might be and given that the Minister has indicated that the childcare strategy in its final form will be published in 2015 — he might want to confirm when that is anticipated — it seems to be a very urgent piece of work for the scoping exercise to be conducted and concluded in good time so that, if a range of people is disadvantaged by the closure of the scheme next autumn and if it is deemed to be appropriate, provision is made for them in the childcare strategy due to be published in 2015. Who is being consulted? What timeline will the scoping exercise conclude within? Will all that converge, if necessary, with the publication of the final childcare strategy?
Given that we are running out of time and that the voucher scheme concludes in the autumn of 2015, it seems that, in addition to the scoping exercise — the evidence from the external sector that I referred to says unambiguously that a number of people will be disadvantaged by the closure of the voucher scheme in the autumn of 2015 — good practice and good government require an exercise to be undertaken to determine, in the event that people are disadvantaged by the closure of the scheme, what a bespoke voucher scheme might look like as part of an overall childcare strategy. We could end up with a situation being accepted and agreed where a range of people are disadvantaged — I think that that will be the outcome of the scoping exercise — without there being a bespoke scheme on the books to be deployed by the end of next year, when the current scheme closes to new entrants. My second question to the junior Minister is this: is it not a wise course of action that, as part of the scoping exercise, you have a parallel process about a bespoke voucher scheme for people otherwise disadvantaged by the closure of the voucher scheme in 2015? Some indications are that it might be as few as 1,000 families. I am not going to second-guess the scoping exercise, but, if it is that number, is it beyond our capacity to come up with a bespoke scheme? In doing so, we could make a judgement about whether that is the right place to invest childcare moneys compared with the other recommendations that might come forward as part of the overall childcare strategy.
The third question is this: as part of that, have there been further consultations with Treasury, HMRC or any other relevant authority to determine whether, if we came up with a bespoke scheme for people disadvantaged by the closure of the voucher scheme in 2015, it would have the Treasury, HMRC or other approvals necessary to ensure that a bespoke scheme could be delivered? The third sector says that some authorities in London are indicating privately that, if it is the wish of the Northern Ireland Executive to take forward a bespoke voucher scheme for families disadvantaged by the closure of the scheme in the autumn of 2015, that is in order. Have there been conversations with the relevant authorities in Britain to get headline approval for a bespoke scheme in the event that that happens?
The third issue is that there are unspent moneys in the childcare strategy. There will be difficult choices to be made on the right investment on the far side of the conclusion of the childcare strategy. However, even indicatively, is a budget line being provided for what might or might not be required for a bespoke voucher scheme in the event of that being the direction that the Executive and Assembly choose?
The Minister indicated that the money that might be available per child per year was up to £2,000. Is it not the case, Minister, that the average that might be available per child per year is £600? Treasury might want to present the figure of £2,000 per child per year for headline grabbing, but, if I recall correctly, the reality is that, when it works itself through, the figure will be £600 per child per year.
I conclude by recognising that the legislative consent motion creates greater opportunities for a larger number of people to access childcare support. That is recognised, and therefore it is not appropriate to divide the House on the matter. However, as the Ministers know, I and other members of the Committee have been quite persistent in trying to tie down who will lose out on the far side of the new arrangements and to see if we can create mechanisms to accommodate those who will lose out in the new order of things. As we take forward a childcare strategy, we have to cover all bases. This debate is about how best we can cover that particular base.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to speak on childcare and, in particular, on the legislative consent motion on the Childcare Payments Bill, as a member of the Alliance Party and the OFMDFM Committee.
Access to quality, affordable childcare is one of the biggest issues facing families in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely vital to the development of our children; it is vital to adults gaining and sustaining employment; and it is vital to our economy. It is also vital to the rate of child poverty. We heard yesterday that the IFS estimates that as many as one in three children could be in relative poverty by 2020, which is a warning that we should heed carefully in the Assembly. I hope that the investment in childcare payments will be of considerable benefit to many families in Northern Ireland. I and the Alliance Party welcome any investment in childcare and support that will go towards working families across Northern Ireland who struggle to access and afford childcare for their kids. Investment in early years is absolutely vital, and it is vital that we provide the opportunities that all our children deserve.
I welcome the financial support that this scheme will make available. However, the maximum of £2,000 per year per child is a drop in the ocean of the average annual childcare cost, which is estimated in the Employers For Childcare's 'Childcare Cost Survey 2013' to be in the region of £8,000 per child per year. We have a long way to go before we meet the challenge of providing affordable and accessible childcare for our families in Northern Ireland.
Members have gone through the details of the Childcare Payments Bill, but I want to look at them. It creates a new scheme to provide financial support with the cost of childcare for working families. Through the new scheme, the Government will provide £2 for every £8 that a person pays for childcare. That support will be capped at an annual maximum of £2,000 per child. There are no restrictions on the number of children for whom parents can claim support, and the Government intend to introduce the scheme, managed by HMRC, throughout the UK.
We can hope that that will be administered well and successfully and will not cause additional work for OFMDFM, which may be a good thing for us.
It is also a welcome extra investment in childcare support. Parents will apply to HMRC to open an online childcare account, into which they will pay the money, and government will make top-up payments. Parents will be able to allocate the money to a qualifying childcare provider of their choice after they have satisfied the eligibility requirements. Examples of such requirements are that parents must be over 16, be responsible for the child, be in the UK and be in qualifying paid work. It appears that a certain minimum of around eight hours' work at the national minimum wage is likely to be set. Parents will not be able to exceed an income limit of £150,000 per annum and must not be claiming universal credit. The scheme will apply to children under 12, and, in the case of a child with a disability, under 17. Parents must reconfirm their eligibility every three months.
Although there is much to welcome in the scheme, particularly its application to those who are self-employed, there are concerns; perhaps most particularly with the fact that it will close the existing childcare voucher scheme to new entrants. Those who are in the childcare voucher scheme currently can remain in it. It is important that we look at what the childcare voucher scheme is and does. It is a salary-sacrifice scheme, with savings for parents and employers. It allows parents to save, on average, £77 a month and employers to save on National Insurance contributions.
As has been mentioned, there are real concerns about the lack of consultation on this process. Through its work on the third sector, in particular with Employers For Childcare, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was able to identify in more detail the concerns that exist in relation to the proposal. The suggestions were that there are two main groups of people whose circumstances will not be improved by the introduction of the Childcare Payments Bill. The first group comprises those who will be worse off under the new scheme than they would have been under the childcare voucher scheme, and the second comprises those who are not eligible for the new scheme and who will not, therefore, be able to progress to employment.
Perhaps I can give an example of the real terms of the situation. Take the Smith family, for example. Mr and Mrs Smith are in full-time employment on a basic rate of tax. They have one child, with their childcare costs at around £450 a month. Under the childcare voucher scheme, Mr and Mrs Smith will each sacrifice £225 a month, which represents a saving of £72 in tax. Over the course of the year, the Smith family will save around £1,728 under the childcare voucher scheme. Under the new childcare payments scheme, Mr and Mrs Smith would pay £360 into an account, with the remaining £90 being supplemented by government. Over the course of the year, using the new scheme, the Smith family would, therefore, save around £1,080. Therefore, they would be around £648 a year worse off under the new scheme. Hopefully, this example puts into some perspective the impact that the new scheme would have on some families in Northern Ireland.
There are also, obviously, concerns in relation to employers. The closure of the childcare voucher scheme to new entrants will, potentially, increase the pay bills of family friendly employers that have supported their staff over many years by providing the childcare voucher scheme. That would be an additional cost at what is an already difficult time for many employers in Northern Ireland. Many of our business organisations, such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI, have done important work, and they are calling on OFMDFM to make sure that there are additional supports for the businesses and employees that will find themselves worse off as a result of the Childcare Payments Bill in Northern Ireland. It has been mentioned that the childcare voucher scheme has brought savings in the region of £4 million per annum for many of our businesses in Northern Ireland.
What can we do going forward? I welcome the commitment from OFMDFM to conduct a scoping exercise on this issue. The consultation to date has been wholly inadequate, and, unfortunately, I believe that it displays an example of the contempt with which OFMDFM treats the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at times, and indeed the distance that the Department has to go on the development of childcare policy. Concerns have already been expressed today that we have seen around £9 million of a £12 million childcare budget for 2011-15 underspent by the Department.
People have mentioned the Employers For Childcare cost survey that was completed by 4,500 parents in Northern Ireland. It shows the pressure that families in our community are under in relation to this issue. The Bright Start actions have been heralded as a new beginning and a childcare strategy. It has a long way to go, but it does set out some key principles, two of which are informed parental choice and affordability.
We have heard calls for a public awareness campaign around the existing childcare voucher scheme to inform parents of the financial assistance that is available to them now and that would draw down funds from the UK Treasury rather than from the Northern Ireland block grant. This is a public awareness campaign that MLAs and organisations like Employers For Childcare have been calling for for years. Indeed, it is an indictment of OFMDFM that such an awareness campaign has not been rolled out to date. The choice is clear: either the Department can sit on its hands for the next year or it can initiate a far-reaching public awareness campaign in relation to the childcare voucher scheme so that parents can avail themselves of that scheme now and then make an informed choice as to whether the childcare voucher scheme or the new childcare scheme being proposed works better for them. That would be in line with the principles that have been set out by the Bright Start programme. It would bring savings for families now. It would also bring savings for businesses over the next period.
I, in addition to other MLAs, recognise the work of Employers For Childcare. It is one of the finest social enterprises that we have in Northern Ireland. Frankly, it has stepped in and done the work that OFMDFM and other Departments have failed to do. It has conducted an annual cost of childcare survey to set out what is facing our families in Northern Ireland in reality. It has raised awareness of the childcare voucher scheme and assisted families and employers to administer that scheme, bringing savings across the board for our families and businesses in Northern Ireland. That work needs to be recognised. We need to do much more than just refer to the childcare voucher scheme as inefficient when people in Northern Ireland have been doing their utmost to make it as accessible to families here as possible. I hope that OFMDFM will take heed of the Assembly on that and assist those people in raising awareness of that in the short term.
I would also like to recognise the Early Years organisation in Northern Ireland, which has created an application for choosing childcare and early education that is available to families across Northern Ireland. I welcome the commitment of OFMDFM to conduct the scoping exercise. We will hopefully hear more about that at the Committee tomorrow. I believe that there is much more work to be done in conjunction with the community and voluntary sector, families and the Committee if we are going to see the scale of assistance that families and businesses in Northern Ireland deserve and to ensure that families have access to childcare for the development of our children and young people and our economy.
Mr Spratt: I welcome the consent motion in front of the House. At the very outset, there are a couple of things that need clarification. All of a sudden, the term "scoping exercise" has been used by Mr Attwood, Mr Lyttle and perhaps even the Chair. I have spoken to colleagues, and I do not think that I heard the phrase "scoping exercise" at any point. The junior Minister can clarify the exact words in his concluding remarks, but I think that he said that the Department would seek to estimate the number disadvantaged by the voucher scheme. That is certainly what officials consistently said to the Committee during its deliberations on the matter. It is an important matter, and I think that all Committee members were pretty much in agreement on many of the issues and on some of the issues raised by outside organisations.
Mr Attwood declared his childcare arrangements. I have five grandchildren in four families and know very well the difficulties with childcare arrangements, so I declare an interest as well. I also know how grandparents try to help out, and we certainly try to do that as a family. Self-employment features in one of the four families, and it has been very difficult for self-employed people over the past number of years as they have not been able to get into the childcare scheme. Today was the first time that I heard that 116,000 self-employed people will now be eligible for the scheme. Given that they all have accountants or tax advisers who do their books at the end of the financial year, I assume that there will be a much greater take-up of what is now available through the HMRC scheme. That is very important because, over the past number of years and particularly with the way that the economy has been throughout the United Kingdom, many in the Province, who were perhaps previously employed in the construction industry, have had to become self-employed. I know that, from their point of view, the extension of the scheme is very welcome, and, given their importance, I consistently raised that point in the Committee. Let us face it: the voucher scheme will continue if employers who have had it in place want to retain it.
The Department has already committed to undertake an exercise to see how those who are disadvantaged can be supported in some way within future childcare strategy arrangements. All the Committee members welcome that. Given that there were 11,000 people in the voucher scheme and that the new scheme will be opened up to 116,000 self-employed people, I suspect that, if we were to be back in this place discussing the matter in a couple of years' time, we would find that many more had made themselves eligible for what is a very important scheme, particularly for young families. In most cases, both parents now have to go out to work and, in many cases, they find childcare arrangements very expensive.
Overall, the scheme should be welcomed. I welcome the fact that officials said that they will go back to the Department on specific matters and that the junior Ministers have said that they will examine areas in which people may be disadvantaged in the future. However, let us get this scoping exercise out of our heads. It is not what was promised, and it is wrong of the Deputy Chair and Mr Attwood to put unuttered words into mouths. I make that point on the basis that the junior Ministers and OFMDFM have been misrepresented.
I will not take up the Chair's usual rant about OFMDFM.
However, well on you — you got it in again.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion. It is important to note that the North could be left without any government-subsidised childcare if the Bill before Westminster does not go ahead here. OFMDFM has received the proposals to extend the provisions of the Westminster Childcare Payments Bill to the North of Ireland by means of a legislative consent motion. If enacted, the Bill will provide the statutory basis for the introduction of a new tax-free childcare scheme to provide financial support to help working families with childcare costs.
The new scheme will replace the existing employer-supported childcare scheme that provides financial support to parents. As childcare is a devolved matter, there is a fear that if the Bill is not extended to the North, we will be left with no scheme to subsidise childcare, as the previous scheme is being phased out. The new scheme, which is aimed at giving relief straight to parents as opposed to employers, would allow child carers, whose employers do not currently participate in the scheme, to apply. A number of concerns were raised regarding the LCM, by Employers for Childcare, for example. The Committee has raised those concerns with officials and will continue to ensure that working families have maximum access to financial support for childcare.
The affordability of childcare is one of the main obstacles to getting people back to work, so it is important that we maintain supported childcare schemes in order to encourage people back into employment. I am aware of a family who pay almost £700 a month in childcare costs. They receive approximately £100 a month in childcare working tax credits, but they cannot avail themselves of a childcare voucher scheme. It is my understanding that it is one or the other. More needs to be done to promote the use of childcare vouchers, as figures show that less than 2% of people apply for them.
The cost of childcare has increased dramatically over the past few years and is seen as a stumbling block for many mothers returning to the work market, as, after paying for childcare, it may not be economically viable to remain in work. Many families do not realise that there is help with childcare. That is not being utilised to the full extent, as recent figures show. Many families with children need to return to work, so, if we are to encourage mothers and fathers back into employment, it is essential that we cater for them by having proper, affordable childcare in place.
In a childcare cost survey that was carried out in 2013, it was estimated that the average cost of childcare here in the North was £158 a week and that childcare costs were taking up to half the average household net income. School-age childcare services cost, on average, £118 a week during term time and £120 a week during summer holidays.
The Programme for Government commits the Executive to publishing and implementing a childcare strategy with key actions to provide integrated and affordable childcare. The first phase of the Executive's childcare strategy, Bright Start, was launched in September 2013. Bright Start aims to create, by 2020, a joined-up, sustainable childcare service supporting developmental needs and positive change for children. The Bright Start childcare strategy works in parallel with a Programme for Government target to grow the economy and tackle disadvantage.
The consultation on the childcare strategy began in December 2012 and ended in March 2013. Submissions to the consultation on the childcare strategy raised a number of concerns regarding provision, for example. It was stated that there are too few childcare places, especially for school-age children in the age range of four to 14. Affordability was also raised. The cost of childcare often outweighs the financial benefits of working. Childcare provision in rural areas was also identified as a particular problem. Childcare for children with a disability was also raised, as was the difficulty experienced where current provision fails to meet their needs.
Research also indicated that there is a significant reliance on informal childcare provided by other family members. As a mother and someone who lives in a rural area, I can relate to that, as there is little or no affordable childcare in rural areas.
Finally, we need childcare services that are affordable and sustainable. Without that incentive, it will be difficult to make work pay. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. When the House returns, the first item of business will be Question Time.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.35 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —
Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): As the Assembly is aware, I bid in June monitoring for nearly £50 million for inescapable pressures and received £5 million. The bulk of those pressures relate to services such as special education and schools maintenance, which are provided to schools by the education and library boards (ELBs). I did not receive any allocations from the October monitoring round. Hence, I have to manage those pressures internally. I am on record stating that the ELBs are currently operating at the extremities of corporate risk, which is why the establishment of the new Education Authority next year is vital.
All five education and library boards have submitted their 2014-15 initial resource allocation plans, and the Department has approved them all. I believe that the five ELBs have the required level of resources to fulfil their remit during 2014-15. However, as I already stated, we face significant internal pressures, and it will be very challenging to deliver a balanced education budget for this financial year. Nevertheless, that is my aim, and I believe that, to date, I have demonstrated a clear commitment to prudent budget management while maximising the use of the finite resources available to me.
Mrs Overend: The five education and library boards have been effectively run down for months, if not years. Will the Minister confirm whether any of the five education and library boards are projecting a financial deficit for the 2014-15 financial year? Will the new single Education Authority be saddled with historical debt at its inception?
Mr O'Dowd: As I said, my Department has accepted and agreed the boards' current spending plans. We would not have accepted and agreed any plans that would have seen a significant overspend or planned overspend by any of the boards. However, we are significantly into this financial year, and unforeseen pressures may bear down on the boards, or other pressures may come to light in the boards, particularly for special educational needs, which place greater pressure on their budget management. I will work with the boards to the best of my ability and financial resources to ensure that, where real pressures are identified, we can support them. However, I am not aware of any board that will overspend at this stage.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he please outline what steps have been taken to ensure smooth transition from five education and library boards to one authority by April 2015?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta. A business plan has been submitted on the workings and transition between the five education and library boards and the new authority. Obviously, that will depend on the final outcomes and workings of the Education Bill and the final shape, size and roles of the authority. I have urged Members to keep their amendments few and far between, as we are working on a compromise Bill. It is vital that the principles of the Bill are not detracted from if we are to seek agreement on the way forward. However, we are progressing with the transition from the five boards to the new authority. I do not expect the authority to inherit any major or significant deficits from the five education and library boards.
We have been preparing for the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) over the last number of years. The boards have, at times, been running heroically with the number of staff that they have to deliver their services. Staff reductions have been in place in preparation for a single authority, which was ESA, but we are now moving to the Education Authority. So, significant preparation has already taken place to allow us to move forward towards the single authority.
Mr Rogers: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Minister, in the first year of operation of the new Education Authority, it is important that it works effectively. What budget has been set aside for the establishment and operation of the new Education Authority in its first year?
Mr O'Dowd: As the Member will be aware, the Executive agreed their draft Budget only last week, and it was presented to the Assembly on Monday. I will be working with my officials over the coming days and weeks to prepare a budget for the Education Department for 2015-16. As part of that budget, obviously how we fund the Education Authority moving forward will be a significant factor.
While welcoming the fact that education received significant protection in the 2015-16 Budget, we have to deal with a significant reduction in resources of somewhere in the region of £94 million, and that will have an impact on my planning for the Education Authority.
Mr O'Dowd: Information provided by the General Teaching Council shows that, from 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014, there were 598 local graduates, 466 of whom are registered with the council. A total of 417 of those registered have not found a permanent teaching post here. However, 106 of those teachers have found significant temporary work of one term or more. Forty-nine of those registered have permanent teaching posts. However, figures from the council show that, at January 2014, 67% of registered teachers who graduated here in 2009 had secured employment of a permanent or a significant temporary nature.
I recognise that this is a very difficult time for teachers, particularly for those who are newly qualified. The education budget continues to face significant pressures, and that has necessitated cost-based redundancies in teaching staff over the past four years across our schools. As that continues, I suspect that it will impact on the teaching workforce in our schools. I will, however, continue to push the education budget at the Executive table.
Mrs Hale: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. Will he explain why he is capping pupil numbers in areas that are showing a large population growth? Is that not exacerbating the problem for newly qualified teachers who are trying to find employment opportunities?
Mr O'Dowd: No, because I will be taking all pupils from one area and concentrating them in another area, which means that it is the same number of pupils who require the same number of teachers. In fact, if you were to concentrate all the pupils in one school, you might require even fewer teachers. In fairness to the Member, I know what she is hinting at, but this is not the answer to that question.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire an mbeadh sé sásta scéim fostaíochta chéad-bhliana do mhúinteoirí nua-cháilithe a thabhairt isteach anseo, fé mar atá acu in Albain? Is the Minister prepared to consider an employment scheme for first-year newly qualified teachers such as the one in Scotland?
Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta. I thank the Member for his question. We considered the scheme that was outlined in Scotland, and, if we were to have followed through with that, quite significant costs would have fallen on my Department and the Executive. We simply do not have the resources to bring that to fruition. We brought in a similar scheme, but it does not involve the scale of numbers that perhaps everyone in the House would like. Under the Delivering Social Change programme, we brought newly qualified teachers into the workforce for numeracy and literacy projects in our schools, and those are paying great dividends to pupils and to those newly qualified teachers. However, the scale of cost involved in the Scottish scheme was unachievable, given the current budgets and block grant delivered to us by the Westminster Government.
Mr O'Dowd: My mission statement for all post-primary schools is already clear and is set out in my Department's school improvement policy, Every School a Good School. The Member needs to be aware that all post-primary schools are required to deliver the same revised curriculum. The Member also needs to be aware that the legislative definition of a grammar school has no relationship with the curriculum or even with so-called academic selection.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his answer and for making me aware of certain things that, I can assure him, I am aware of. In light of his answer, will he agree — I will press him — to develop a technically based vocational curriculum in our secondary schools that is dovetailed into post-16 vocational education and apprenticeships?
Mr O'Dowd: The Member's original question and his supplementary question come from a flawed position whereby he believes that, in some way, grammar schools teach a different curriculum to non-grammar schools. All our schools now have to match up to the entitlement framework. They have to offer a wide breadth of subjects for young people to study, and those cover the wide areas commonly referred to as "academic" and "vocational". So, what the Member urges me to do is already in place, and for all post-primary schools, regardless of the nameplate on the front gate.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline how non-grammar post-primary schools have performed in recent years?
Mr O'Dowd: In the 2013 year, 39·2% of school-leavers in the non-grammar sector achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, including English and maths, compared with 94·8% of those leaving grammar schools. In 2013, 15·5% of school-leavers in the non-grammar sector achieved three or more A levels at grades A* to C or equivalent, compared with 65·1% of leavers in the grammar sector. International evidence and our own analysis point to the fact that concentrating deprivation in particular schools compounds the negative impact that deprivation has on pupil outcomes. In our post-primary sector, that concentration of deprivation is most evident in non-selective schools, and we are aware of the particular challenges facing those schools.
However, it is also worth noting that achievement in our non-grammar sector, and I use the term advisedly, continues to grow, despite the challenges placed on it by the system being largely weighted against pupils by the continued use of alleged academic selection.
Mr O'Dowd: I recognise the importance of continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and school principals in raising standards and improving educational outcomes for our young people. CPD is mostly delivered by the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service (CASS) and the Regional Training Unit (RTU), which my Department funds.
In each education and library board area, CASS provides advisory and support services to schools. Therefore, it is the main provider of in-service training. To identify training needs, CASS carries out an annual training needs audit of schools, from which it prepares a scheme of support. It is therefore a matter for schools to prioritise the training that they require. The professional development requirements of individual teachers can be established by school leaders through the annual performance review and staff development scheme. CPD for school leaders is provided by the RTU. It includes leadership and management support for emergent and aspirant leaders, as well as serving principals. The RTU provides a range of programmes, based on good practice and research.
In addition, the Department also directly funds other educational partners to provide CPD in specific areas, including special educational needs, STEM subjects and Irish-medium education. Officials are working on a strategy for teacher education and are engaging with key stakeholders to get a consensus on the way forward. That will result in a new strategy for teacher professional development, to be launched next year.
Mr Swann: I thank the Minister very much. I am sure that he is aware that, in the joint DE/DEL review of teacher training, the international panel member, Professor Gordon Kirk, said that there was a:
"discontinuity between initial teacher education and continuing professional development."
"There is a need for a huge investment".
The Minister has just said that he is bringing forward a strategy. Has he any funding to put behind it so that there is a common approach by the Department, rather than leaving the CPD of individual teachers up to individual boards of governors or principals?
Mr O'Dowd: I am personally delighted that so many Members are concentrating on the financial needs of my Department as we start an eight-week consultation on the draft Budget. I have no doubt that Members who rise to speak today will fully support me when I lobby my Executive colleagues for more money for the education budget, as they no doubt know I shall.
I do not have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We have been facing significant challenges with the education budget over the last three years, and, as a result of policies from elsewhere — I refer to Westminster — we face significant further pressures on our education budget. However, we are going to develop the strategy. I will engage with my officials over the coming weeks on how we will fund the various programmes of work that exist in my Department and what other programmes of work we can invest in.
I assure the Member that I will have close regard to the fact that we are developing a new teacher development programme, which will require funding.
Mr McCausland: We are all very clear on the role of teachers and principals within the education system, and it is important that they have professional development. School governors also have a very important role to play in the running of a school, setting the ethos, monitoring the work of the school and so on. Is the Minister satisfied with the current level of training provided to governors and will he ensure that there will be a review of that to make sure that it is adequate for the needs of governors? I speak as a former governor.
Mr O'Dowd: The Member is absolutely right. Boards of governors play a key role in any school and are key not only to the professional development of teachers but to the development of pupils through educational achievement. Over the last number of years, I have set aside half a million pounds for training for boards of governors. It is in place. I accept that, as with many other factors, it could do with more money, but we are now moving forward with a training programme for boards of governors, which will take time to bed in. Once it has ran for a number of years, I think that we should review it as we move forward, but I think we have made a good start to it.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he provide some details on the strategy for the teacher development programme?
Mr O'Dowd: As I said, my officials are engaging with stakeholders and others in relation to how we bring that teacher development programme forward. Obviously, lessons will be learned from CASS, the regional training unit and professionals themselves as to how we ensure that continuous professional development is built upon and that the training and development needs of our teacher workforce are brought to the fore.
Mr McCarthy: How will the Minister seek to reduce teachers' workloads sufficiently to ensure that professional development is genuinely accessible?
Mr O'Dowd: I have no wish to add further burden to teachers in their delivery of education in our schools, but any parent here will be aware that there are teacher training days when pupils are not at school and the teachers are away at training courses. So, we do provide time off from teaching for teachers to go into training practices, which alleviates some of the pressure from the work commitments of teachers.
Mr O'Dowd: I recognise the importance of access to support for speech, language and communication therapy for children in preschool and primary school who require it as part of their special educational needs provision. Responsibility for arranging therapy, of whatever nature, when that forms part of the SEN provision in a child's statement, falls to the education and library boards, whereas prime responsibility for providing the therapy rests with the Health and Social Care Board and trusts, as the employers of therapists.
The Public Health Agency is conducting a review of the current level of allied health professional services and support, including speech and language therapy for children with statements of SEN. My Department and the ELBs are engaging with the PHA in that process. The ultimate aim of their review is to agree a proposed regional model to best meet the needs of those children. Early intervention is particularly important and, since 2001, ELBs have received over £14 million — almost £1·7 million of which was in 2014-15 — in additional funding for early intervention at Key Stage 1 for speech, language and communication needs.
I recently announced additional funding of £200,000 for eligible voluntary private school settings to help them identify and address underdeveloped social, emotional, communication and language skills. Speech, language and communication support is also a core element of each of the 39 Sure Start projects, with the Department investing approximately £1·1 million per annum in that specific provision. In addition, the recently completed three-year pilot in DE-funded early years settings included speech and language therapists working as advisers in some pilot settings across the ELBs.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer and the review. If ever there was a key building block in education, it is bound to be speech and language. Given that up to 30% of preschool children present themselves with language acquisition problems, is any immediate remedial action being taken by the Department in conjunction with health to address that ever-increasing problem?
Mr O'Dowd: As the Member stated, I have given him a quite detailed answer on the services and support available from my Department and others in relation to speech and language therapy. We have carried out a quite extensive pilot scheme in preschool providers, and that work is being analysed to find out which points worked, what others need to be developed and whether the overall approach is the way forward for our education system. I have provided further funding to allow those schemes to continue into the start of the next financial year, while we analyse the work that has been conducted. We await the outcome of that report. I will work on its action points and match them against whatever funding I have available at the time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, I am picking up background noise. I do not know whether it is from inside or outside the Chamber. Will everyone ensure that mobile phones etc are turned off? OK, back to Question Time.
Mr O'Dowd: The independent panel conducting the review of school transport presented its report to me at the end of August. I am taking time to consider the report and its recommendations before deciding on the way forward. The report will be published in due course.
Miss M McIlveen: In light of the concerns being expressed within area learning communities about the cost of transporting pupils between schools in support of the entitlement framework, is the Minister considering extending the use of bus passes around the concept of being able to use them during the school day?
Mr O'Dowd: That element and many others of school transport provision have been analysed by the authors of the report, and I am taking them all into consideration. Obviously, all these factors have cost consequences, and they will have to be decided on as part of my deliberations around the report. Any changes to school transport that I propose as a result of the report will also have to go out to consultation, for the public and others to have their say before any final decisions are made.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. The Minister has outlined that there will be some form of public consultation. Can he perhaps give some insight as to what sort of consultation he would like to see happening on this issue?
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his question. I am studying the report, which is quite detailed and contains recommendations. I have to decide whether we put the full report out to consultation. I am going to publish the full report, but will we put elements of the recommendations that I believe are workable and feasible going into the future out to full consultation, or put the full report out to consultation and await the views of the public and others in regard to that matter? Those considerations form part of my deliberations.
It is worth noting that school transport costs approximately £75 million a year. A significant proportion of that is in relation to special educational needs. I am not suggesting that I want in any way to tamper with or touch special educational needs transport, but quite a significant amount of money is spent on our transport system. We, as a society, are going to face difficult questions in the months and years ahead about how we spend our reducing public resources on public services. I have no doubt that, if and when I go out to public consultation, there will be quite a healthy debate, at times, around the way forward for school transport.
Mr Kinahan: When looking at those transport costs, is the study looking at children who travel maybe 15 or 20 miles so that they can do A levels somewhere else? I know that many in Antrim have to travel a long distance because there is not post-16 provision.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his question. The report is quite comprehensive. In fairness to its authors, they have been diligent in their work and spoke to many stakeholders in the transport system, especially young people. I have been impressed by their engagement with young people in relation to the report's findings and observations. All those factors are being taken into account and will, no doubt, be raised many times during the consultation period.
Mrs D Kelly: The Minister has already referred to two key points, one being the budgetary complications, but there are proposals for closure of some rural schools, as well as the proposed closure of Drumcree College in his constituency, which will inevitably lead to increased transport costs. How does the Minister propose to deal with that in the management of his budget? Will he take into consideration a cost-benefit analysis with CCMS and others as part of the business case for retaining some of our local schools?
Mr O'Dowd: All such factors will be taken into account when making a decision about any school, whether it is in my constituency or not. To the best of my knowledge, no development proposal has yet been published for Drumcree College. If one is published, there will be a two-month public consultation process during which the Member and others can provide the Department with any information they believe to be relevant to the decision-making process.
Mr O'Dowd: The performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) produced a report in two stages. The first stage was a scoping study examining a number of areas with potential for realising efficiencies. The second stage involved a detailed examination of two selected areas, namely home-to-school transport and school catering services. There is a link between some of the potential efficiencies identified in these reports and the reporting of savings achieved in my Department’s published savings delivery plan. This will include areas such as professional support for schools, administration and management costs in the Department’s arm’s-length bodies, and procurement.
The recommendations made by PEDU in respect of home-to-school transport and school catering services were initially used to develop a series of actions. Many of these were referenced to the planned establishment of the Education and Skills Authority, with efficiencies to be realised through the redesign of services. Now that the Executive have agreed that legislation should be brought forward to create a single body to replace the existing five education and library boards, the new Education Authority will be able to take on board the PEDU reports and decide what, if any, action it wishes to take with regard to the recommendations made.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. PEDU also highlighted potential efficiency savings in administration, pointing out that CCMS had seen a 51·7% increase in its staff, with costs rising from £1·7 million in the financial year 2002-03 to £2·9 million in 2009-2010. Has the Minister been able to rein in these costs over the past three years?
Mr O'Dowd: That is a reflection of the growing responsibility of CCMS. It is also worth noting that, had we achieved ESA, that would also have taken into account the running costs of CCMS and many other bodies. We can pick out individual sections of reports that suit our arguments at the time, but if we do not follow through on the decision-making process — ie, taking the hard decisions on restructuring — then there is no point in wishing for savings. Savings can and should be achieved through the new Education Authority. We are very close to agreement on the new Education Authority, which, in my opinion, can deliver savings that can also be delivered to front line services.
The two PEDU reports I put on hold concentrated on school meals, which is affecting the lives, work and opportunities of some of the most low-paid workers in our education system, and on school transport. I have dealt with school transport through the transport review, and I am bringing the matter further. I was of the view that, while there was political deadlock over ESA, affecting the lives of the lowest paid in our education system did not make sense to me.
Mr O'Dowd: In preparation for ESA, significant progress was made in planning the delivery of services on a consistent regional basis. That work will now support the creation of the Education Authority and included the development of common procedures and policies for a single organisation. A significant part of the money spent on ESA will therefore support the delivery of the Education Authority and allow it to move forward more rapidly once established. However, it is not possible to quantify the proportion of moneys that will be able to be utilised by the Education Authority.
T1. Mr Milne asked the Minister of Education whether the recent actions by a UUP councillor in Antrim to exclude him from a school prize-giving evening are the actions of a fit-for-purpose governor of an integrated school. (AQT 1681/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: First, I want to put on record that, in my opinion, the actions of the individual in no way reflect upon Parkhall Integrated College. I have had the privilege of meeting members of the school's board of governors and an all-party delegation of political representatives from the town who were seeking a new build for the college. I found them to be courteous, respectful and seeking to live up to the principles of integrated education.
I do not find the actions of the individual to be in accordance with the principles or ethos of integrated education. In my humble opinion, he is not fit to be a governor of an integrated college.
Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas don Aire go dtí seo. In light of the Minister's answer, what training or support is available to boards of governors so that their actions can have a positive influence on school communities?
Mr O'Dowd: In my response to Mr McCausland, I think, during listed questions, I referred to the fact that my Department has set aside £500,000 a year to facilitate training for boards of governors in their roles and responsibilities in managing schools. We are beginning, I believe, to see positive results from that investment. I am not sure whether, if I had endless money, it would make any difference to the attitude of the individual involved — we can only hope.
T2. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Education whether he acknowledges that there is a gap in integrated education provision for children aged between three and 11 in the greater Ards area. (AQT 1682/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: If there is such a gap, what is required is a development proposal put forward by the relevant sponsoring body to the relevant education board or, in future, the authority. We will then decide through the normal processes that apply to development proposals — analysing the available evidence and listening to interested parties in the area — whether there is a gap in integrated education.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that the transformation of, say, Loughries Primary School outside Newtownards would extend integrated provision and therefore accommodate parental choice in the greater Newtownards area?
Mr O'Dowd: I think that the Member knows fine well that I cannot express an opinion on a development proposal that has not yet been published or which may be published in the future. If the Member believes that, it is up to him to convince the relevant authorities to put forward a development proposal. I will take on board all evidence presented to me during that development proposal process before I come to an opinion on it.
T4. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Education whether he believes that we have enough flexibility in our education system to meet the needs of a 21st century economy, given that he will be aware that, in order to meet the needs of a modern economy and our responsibilities around parental choice, it is argued that education and the economy need to be flexible and responsive, with schools providing education to meet the needs of the economy. (AQT 1684/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: I believe that we have the flexibility. We need to ensure that we get the best from that flexibility and that there is greater coordination between business and schools in the future. I regularly engage with the business sector, as it does with me. In fairness to that sector, it is very proactive in this matter and in how it relates to the role of education under my remit to the economy and the needs of businesses. That engagement is ongoing. I encourage businesses to get involved with local schools and schools to become involved with local businesses.
Minister Farry and I have launched a review of the Careers Service. Part of its role must be to look at the relationship between schools and businesses in their communities; the understanding of teachers, parents and pupils of the needs of the economy as we move forward; and the range of new careers that has developed over the last 10 years and careers that will develop in the next 10 years. The Careers Service must do that to ensure that the educational pathways chosen by young people allow them to be flexible and adaptable to the new economy, which is developing all the time.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He will know that, in the draft Budget, he is scheduled to lose a significant proportion of money. Does he have any ideological opposition to English-style academies in Northern Ireland? In addition to his earlier reply, they could receive support financially or in kind from personal donors or corporate sponsors. Does he have any objection to that?
Mr O'Dowd: My ideological opposition is not based on the fact that they are English. Let us start there, OK? My ideological opposition to them is the fact that they are a further level of exclusive schools rather than inclusive schools. We have enough schools that exclude pupils in this society without creating another brand to exclude young people. Our curriculum allows all our schools to engage and be proactive with the business sector and the economy, so let us develop that instead of going into academies, as have been provided in parts of England. They have had very mixed reports on their performance.
T6. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Education for an update on the Holywood school project, involving Holywood Nursery School, Priory College and Holywood Primary School, with which he is very familiar, and to give an indication as to when there might be a new build for at least one of the schools. (AQT 1686/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: I am aware of the case; the Member has raised it with me repeatedly. A number of things have to take place before we move towards the start of construction or the announcement of construction in relation to the Holywood schools. There has to be a realisation that Priory College is a sustainable school. That box is now ticked; it is accepted. I have always said that it is not a case of whether it needs a new build; it does.
The next phase is that I have to identify the money to build new schools. I have used the limited resources available to me thus far. I am facing a £50 million cut to my capital budget next year. I accept that there are very tight constraints on all Departments, but I will be concentrating on that with the Finance Minister in the weeks ahead to see whether there is any flexibility around the capital budget to allow me to invest in more schools. When I finalise my capital budget, I will make a further announcement about a new school build programme in the future. It will not be until that stage that I will be able to decide whether all three schools or one in Holywood will be on that list.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his comments. He has partially answered this, but does he recognise the real need for capital investment in the town of Holywood? We have three schools, all of which are over 50 years of age and are in poor condition. We urgently need capital investment.
Mr O'Dowd: I do recognise the need for capital investment in the Holywood area. As I said, the first part of that process was identifying and agreeing that Priory College was a sustainable school. It is, and we need to provide it with new accommodation. That has a ripple effect on the other schools. I do not wish to sound repetitive, and I do not raise the issue just for the sake of raising it, but my capital budget next year faces a significant challenge. I am going to engage with the Finance Minister in relation to that matter to see what options we have to increase that capital budget, or whether there are other funding mechanisms that we can use in relation to the schools estate. Once I know the final outcome of those discussions, I will then make a decision on what, if any, new schools I can build in the foreseeable future that I have not already announced.
T8. Mr Girvan asked the Minister of Education for a progress report on the rebuild programme at the Parkhall school. (AQT 1688/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: I do not have the full details in front of me, but it is progressing. There has been engagement between the relevant authorities and my Department in relation to moving to the various stages of design etc around the school. I will provide the Member with a full written answer as regards that matter to give him an update as to where the building programme for Parkhall rests.
Mr Girvan: The reason I am bringing the issue forward is that there is concern about some of the moneys for the project and ensuring that they have been ring-fenced. There is concern that, under the current pressures, it might disappear into the black hole that seems to exist in the Department of Education.
Mr O'Dowd: I will ignore that last remark.
As I said, we are in constrained financial times, and why we are in this position was well rehearsed in the House yesterday. I have to make decisions in the weeks ahead about my capital budget and my resource budget. I am of the view that I have eight weeks to negotiate with and harry the Finance Minister and other Ministers, and I intend to use that time very usefully. So, no final decisions have been made about anything yet.
Parkhall is working its way through the process towards the commencement of a new build, and I will give the Member a written update on that.
T10. Mr Brady asked the Minister of Education for an update on the proposed new build for St Joseph’s High School, Crossmaglen. (AQT 1690/11-15)
Mr O'Dowd: St Joseph's, Crossmaglen, is in the very early stages of the new build programme. I announced the new