Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Public Accounts Committee, meeting on Wednesday, 11 November 2015
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Ms M Boyle (Chairperson)
Mr John Dallat (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr P Flanagan
Ms C Hanna
Mr Edwin Poots
Mr Jim Wells
Witnesses:Mr Gregory Butler, Department of Education
Ms Jacqui Durkin, Department of Education
Mrs Lorraine Finlay, Department of Education
Mr Paul Sweeney, Department of Education
Ms Alison Caldwell, Department of Finance
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office
NIAO Report: 'Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools': DE, NIAO and DFP
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Today, we have with us Mr Paul Sweeney, accounting officer for the Department of Education; Ms Jacqui Durkin, director of area planning in the Department of Education; Mrs Lorraine Finlay, head of area planning in the Department of Education; and Mr Gregory Butler, the Education Authority's regional managing director for the southern and south eastern regions. Members, you will find the biographies of all the witnesses at page 14 of your packs. I also welcome Ms Caldwell, the Treasury Officer of Accounts. Thank you for joining us; you are very welcome. Thanks and welcome to the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) and his team who are also present.
Members, I will open with questions to Mr Paul Sweeney. Mr Sweeney, according to the Audit Office report, delivering sustainable schools here is very difficult to achieve. While some progress has been made, there are 71,000 surplus places across the board, representing 20% of capacity. That is double what is recommended in the Bain review. By way of measuring progress, the Department's sustainable schools policy contains six criteria for considering the long-term viability of a school. They are in paragraph 1.14 of the report. Have you given further consideration to how the qualitative criteria around strong leadership, accessibility and strong links with the community can be effectively used in considering a school's sustainability?
Mr Paul Sweeney (Department of Education): Good afternoon, Chair. It is interesting, Chair, that you focus on those three of the six criteria. In some respects, the first three criteria lend themselves to a quantitative assessment, whereas the other three are qualitative in nature. I will take them in that order and give you an idea of some of the characteristics that we look at when assessing a school against a particular criterion.
I will take the strong leadership by the board of governors and the principal, first. In recent years, we have asked the inspectorate to look specifically at the role of the board of governors. That is something that had not been included in the inspection process. That has been a significant and recent development. In the area of strong leadership, there will be such indicators as the level of staff absence in the school, for example. What is the level of pupil absence? What is the level of suspensions? What is the level of pupil expulsions? Each school should have a school development plan in place, indicating what is happening in the school for, at least, the next three years. There should be a very strong focus on the role of the board of governors and on leadership. That is the first of the three criteria. Chair, would you like me to go through the other two to give you an indication of the factors that we look for?
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Yes, that might be helpful for members of the public who are listening in, but I would appreciate you being brief.
Mr Sweeney: There are a number of hard measurements on accessibility. We do not expect a primary-school child to travel more than 30 minutes, one way, towards his or her school, or a post-primary child to travel for 45 minutes. That is a hard indicator. What is the distance to another potential suitable school? What cooperation is there between schools that might lend itself towards amalgamation?
On the strong links with the community criterion, the inspectorate will look at the level of parental involvement that is in the school. How many local kids go to the local school? That is always a good indicator, and it can be an important measurement. What contribution is the school making to the community? Is the school open after hours? Can sports and cultural societies have access?
Those are some of the core indicators that we would look at if we were measuring those three criteria.
Mr Sweeney: Importantly, when we do the annual area profiles, we major on the first three of the six criteria. We major on all six criteria, to a great extent, if a development proposal is coming forward. So, if a development proposal comes forward that proposes an amalgamation or a school closure, and that would be a very important statutory process, the six criteria would be applied. The submission that would go to the Minister would be comprehensive in covering all six criteria.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): I have another question before I let the Deputy Chairperson in. Are you confident that the quantitative criteria that you use currently to make area-planning decisions — quality of education, enrolment and finances — mean that the right decisions are made about the sustainability of schools? Are there any other criteria that you are looking to explore or develop in that area?
Mr Sweeney: My view is that the first three criteria give a strong indication of what we would describe as the state of any given school. More particularly, it would indicate whether a school was under stress. We would not do it in a mechanistic way. So, if a school was under stress in one criterion, we would not say, "Red light". We would look at all the criteria. We would major on those three criteria, and that gives a good indication of where a school is at in any given time. However, circumstances change, and every school should be looked at in its own context.
Mr Dallat: Mr Sweeney, you mentioned in your explanation variance in the levels of staff absence and suspensions. Were you talking about pupil suspensions or staff suspensions?
Mr Sweeney: I was talking primarily about pupil suspensions and expulsions as being one indicator. I was talking about the absences of both pupils and staff. If a school has high levels of absence among staff and/or pupils, that can be an indication of a whole range of factors and issues, but it can be an indication of stress.
Mr Dallat: I asked about staff suspensions because, presumably, that might be included in absences. I am looking at figures here from 2011 to date. The Department paid out £4,218,412·22 for teachers suspended. Of the 106 of them, only six were sacked. There must be something badly wrong: either you cannot sack teachers or teachers are being suspended when they should not be. Which is it and how much is that £4·2 million influencing what is happening?
Mr Sweeney: I am just stating the obvious here in saying that the Department does not employ teachers; respective employing authorities employ the teachers. That sum of money being used in covering precautionary suspensions —
Mr Dallat: By the way, those figures do not cover substitute teachers. So, the £4 million could, in fact, be doubled.
Mr Sweeney: The pattern in those figures, which were provided in relation to Mr Dallat's Assembly question for written answer, is that the overwhelming majority of teachers on precautionary suspensions are reinstated; a very small number resign; and a tiny fraction have their contract terminated. That has been the trend in suspensions over the last several years.
At the minute, the Department is looking at the very significant sums of money that are being deployed for teachers under precautionary suspensions. We are looking at ways in which we can work with the employers to see whether mechanisms can be put in place that could accelerate conciliation processes or investigations into complaints etc, because, like Mr Dallat, one could not be content with those sums of money being deployed in that manner.
Mr Dallat: Thanks very much for your honest answer. I am not suggesting that not all your answers are honest.
You also mentioned staff absences. Let us forget about the 100 or so sat at home, when there is no good reason for sacking them. Staff absence is a problem. Has the Department looked into why there might be low staff morale; why so many teachers are off with anxiety and depression; and why so many of them are burned out long before retirement?
Mr Sweeney: Yes. This is a perennial issue. Again, we work very closely with the employing authorities to see what more could be done to reduce staff absence.
I keep that as a topic at each of the governance and accountability review meetings that I have with the former education and library boards and with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). We work with the teachers' negotiating committee to look at things such as the well-being of teachers, but it is in the public domain that the teaching profession feels that it is under some considerable stress, and people are making a direct correlation between that and the increase in staff absence. As I say, we are seeking to work with the employing authority to see if there are any additional steps that can be taken to arrest that and to improve upon it.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Mr Flanagan is looking in.
You speak, Mr Sweeney, about the well-being of teachers. What exactly does the Department provide for the well-being of teachers?
Mr Sweeney: Gregory might want to come in. The primary responsibility lies with the employing authorities, be that the Education Authority, CCMS, the voluntary grammars or the grant-maintained integrated sector. They have the primary responsibility for the well-being of their teaching and non-teaching employees.
Mr Gregory Butler (Department of Education): It depends on what the absence is for. We have an independent counselling service that the teachers can be referred to and a welfare officer who helps to identify stress areas for the teachers. That officer may look at measures that the school or the authority can put in place to address those concerns. Each case is looked at in its own set of circumstances, but the board of governors and the Education Authority have a series of measures to go through when people are off on long-term sick. First of all, there is an interview to identify the reasons, and a support structure is then put in place. If it is a mental health issue, we will point them in one direction. If it is within the control of the authority, we will see whether we can address those measures. There is a series of measures that take place when a person is off, and there is a sort of escalation process depending on the period of time that they are off.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Can I ask about well-being in the classroom? I appreciate that, whilst teachers are off sick, a large number of teachers turn up every day and are under stress in the classroom for lots of reasons. Is any specific assistance given to teachers in that setting?
Mr Butler: The normal process in a school is that the principal is responsible for the welfare of the staff and it is only up to the board if it is an issue that it can address. It is expected that the principal and board of governors are looking at what measures they can put in place to address particular issues. It may be that a teacher needs support with discipline or with curricular areas, and that will be identified by the principal with the senior management. At the classroom level, it is normally for the school principal or board of governors to assess it.
Mr Flanagan: Paul, you said that you do not expect students to travel for more than 45 minutes to access a post-primary school. Is that an absolute rule or something that the Department merely tries to adhere to?
Mr Sweeney: It is something that we seek to adhere to. I could not sit here today and say definitively that, of the 140,000 pupils who go to post-primary schools, nobody is travelling for more than 45 minutes. We consider a journey of 45 minutes one way to be reasonable. We think that anything in excess of that verges on unreasonable, and, where it happens, as it does, you want to see what mitigating steps you can take.
Mr Flanagan: So, you would not envisage closing the only post-primary school that serves an area and that stops people having to travel an hour to get there and an hour to get back.
Mr Sweeney: No, it is not as definitive as that, but it is a factor that one considers if there are a range of other factors that are leading towards the case for considering school closure.
Mr Flanagan: In the annex at the back of the sustainable schools policy, which I think we will come to later, the language on the travel time to school is very vague. Under the six criteria in the policy document, it is very clear that it is all about sustainability, links to the community and accessibility. Then, when you get into the appendices and annexes at the back, it stipulates that students should not be asked to travel for more than 45 minutes. How come that is not a rule that the managing authorities and the Department adhere to?
Mr Sweeney: It is more guidance than a rule. For the most part, I would say that the overwhelming majority of the post-primary pupils — those 140,000-odd — would be captured within the 45-minutes indicator. In some instances, because of parental preference, parents may take a conscious decision, for whatever reason, that they would be prepared for a child to travel further. I know that you would not expect me to name names, but I know of some pupils who make what I consider to be quite onerous journeys.
Mr Flanagan: I did it myself, Paul. I travelled for an hour to get to school and an hour back. The scenario that I am talking about is where there is one school that serves the entire community. If that school were to be closed, people would have to travel an hour to school and hour back. Without getting into the specifics of a constituency-based issue, it is to do with the criteria around accessing a school. I just wanted to follow up on that as it was something that you raised earlier.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Mr Sweeney, do you concur with the Bain review conclusion that surplus capacity in schools should not exceed 10% of school places? That is in paragraph 2.15 of the Audit Office's report.
Mr Sweeney: The short answer is broadly yes. As I understand it, Sir George used that indicator, that 10% indicator, from a piece of work that was undertaken in England and Wales. The one thing that I would say is that the community in Northern Ireland is very diverse. We have a pluralist provision of schools, and that is the way that our community wishes it to be, whether it is selective or non-selective, controlled, maintained, Irish medium, integrated, co-educational, boys only or girls only.
Broadly speaking, that is a figure that one should aspire to. Some allowance should be made for the rather diverse nature of our community, but I would be reluctant to put a figure on it and say that you should add, say, another 5% tolerance. The report recognises that we are a very diverse community and that reflects itself.
Mr Sweeney: We have reduced the number of surplus places since 2008-09, which was, if you like, the high-water mark. We have reduced those numbers by about 14%. At times, progress has been frustratingly slow, and there is scope to do more, but I am pleased that there is greater momentum behind that now.
When the Minister launched the area-planning process in 2011, he talked about 85,000 surplus places at that time, which could roughly equate to about 150 schools. Nobody can be comfortable with the level of surplus places that we have. There are a number of reasons why we have those levels of surplus places, some historical and some that reflect the diversity of our community; but, together, we need to bear down on those numbers and reduce them. There are very significant opportunity costs in having that level of surplus capacity.
Mr Sweeney: When I talked about 14%, I was looking at the reduction in the number of surplus places between 2008-09 and 2014-15. There has been a reduction of 11,836, which is about a 14% reduction since 2008-09. I am not saying that I am elated and complacent as a result of that, but I am trying to indicate that progress is being made. At times, it can be frustratingly slow, and I think that there is considerable scope for further improvement.
Mr Dallat: Talking of schools that are underperforming, there are five schools with fewer than 50 pupils. There is a variation in the cost per pupil. The top figure is £6,957 and the best performing is £2,825, which is a difference of over £3,000. Will you tell me whether there are exceptional circumstances in which those schools with very low numbers of pupils continue to exist?
I am not taking a view one way or the other. I just want to know whether there are exceptional circumstances and what those are.
Mr Sweeney: My colleague Jacqui Durkin may wish to elaborate, but I imagine that, this afternoon, we will focus on the small school support factor. The report draws out that we are spending about £37 million a year as a premium to support small schools. There is a big argumentation around that.
As to exceptional circumstances, for me, one of the most compelling reasons might be the demographics of a community, particularly if you play in the issue of community balance. Let us say that you had a small, rural, isolated community. If members are not offended, I will use terms such as "Protestant" and "Catholic". If you had an isolated Protestant/Catholic community that felt that it was vulnerable, given its environment, demographics and the need for the school to be at the heart of the community, surely any policy should be flexible enough to recognise that there is an absolute, exceptional, compelling case for keeping a school such as that going in those circumstances. That would be one exceptional circumstance. There is also a requirement on all Departments to rural-proof what we do: to recognise the rural nature of Northern Ireland and give a premium towards that. It is about trying to balance that with the issue of value for money.
Mr Dallat: Paul, you have made a very good argument in favour of small schools, and I will not argue with that.
Figure 3 on page 19 of the report shows that there have been increased enrolments. Paragraphs 2.14 and 2.19 highlight that, in 2014-15, 2,222 pupils were admitted to primary and post-primary schools above approved enrolment numbers. I suggest that that kind of practice might well be militating against those schools that find that they are under threat of closure.
Mr Sweeney: Perhaps Jacqui or Lorraine might want to take that question.
Ms Jacqui Durkin (Department of Education): If there is an issue of access to particular schools, schools can apply for a temporary variation to their approved enrolment number, and there may be exceptional circumstances for which a temporary variation would be granted. Those figures reflect schools that have applied for and received temporary variations.
Mr Dallat: I am asking that question because I know of a real-life case, where a pupil who lived across the road from the school was not allowed to attend because the quota had been reached. I would be particularly interested in a breakdown of that 2,222 pupils and how on earth they managed to do that.
Ms J Durkin: There would be circumstances in which pupils or their parents had a preference for them to attend a particular school, but there may be health and safety grounds for why additional pupils could not be accommodated at that school. The school may not have had the physical capacity to take additional pupils at that time.
Mr Dallat: I would be interested in seeing a breakdown of that.
Ms J Durkin: We can provide that, Chair.
Mr Dallat: Particularly between grammar schools and secondary schools. I know of secondary schools that could do with extra pupil numbers that are not allowed them. It is just a blanket no; that is it. It intrigues me as to where on earth that huge number of pupils came from.
How can you justify that when the purpose of the area-planning process is to reduce the surplus places that Mr Sweeney has just talked about? At the same time as there are empty chairs, a huge number of pupils are being admitted to schools over the quota. How can you justify that?
Ms J Durkin: It may be that there is not suitable provision at the same phase or same type of school in an area. It depends on where the surplus places are and where particular children are seeking admission to a particular school. It may not coincide or may be outside their reasonable travelling distance area. If there was an application for a temporary variation to admit additional pupils, one of the issues that would be looked at would be surplus places in a similar type of school within a reasonable travelling distance.
Mr Dallat: Would you say, Jacqui, that your Department has proper control over this area of pupil management?
Ms J Durkin: There is a process in place for applying for temporary variations, and there are officials engaged in investigating those applications, the circumstances around them, and the justification for them where they are granted.
Mr Dallat: Who is monitoring that, and why do we not have a better picture of why it has happened here today? We are just looking at the management of schools and how it impacts on the finances. We are all very conscious that there are children in schools now who previously got additional support for literacy and numeracy, breakfast clubs and all sorts of things. That is all gone, and we have 2,222 surplus pupils in some schools, while other schools are sitting with empty desks.
Ms J Durkin: There may be a particular reason, particularly if a child —
Mr Dallat: Jacqui, sorry, I do not want to cut across you, but the word "may" does not tell me anything. What are the reasons?
Ms J Durkin: Part of the reason could be that a child has a statement of educational needs and they are treated as supernumerary within a particular school. So, their statement may say that that is the best school for them to attend, and they would therefore be admitted to that school, even though there were surplus places at another nearby school.
Ms J Durkin: It means that they are not counted within the approved enrolment number for admissions.
Mr Clarke: If they are not counted, how do you have an excess of numbers?
Ms J Durkin: They are counted, in that we know where every individual child with special educational needs attends school, but, to ensure that they can get a place in a school that it is recommended they attend, it does not displace other pupils who apply to attend that school under the approved enrolment number.
Mr Clarke: Sorry — if you do not mind, Deputy Chair —
Mr Clarke: We will use a number for the purposes of illustration. If an enrolment figure is 200, and there are 200 kids enrolled in that school, some of whom will be children with special needs, but a variation is applied for —
Ms J Durkin: A variation could be applied for, but there could also be a child who has a statement that says that that school is the best school for them —
Mr Clarke: Let us not discriminate against those with disabilities. Let us look at where a variation is applied for for other reasons, whether they are social or otherwise, or mistakes have been made because the school did not admit them when they met the criteria, and it failed to apply its own criteria. We will get back to that number that has been allocated to the school, some of which is made up of people with statements, and a variation is applied for and is added to, but then that cannot be the reason that you have just given, Jacqui, because those who have the statements are not actually counted.
Ms J Durkin: There is an approved enrolment number for every individual school.
Mr Clarke: Does that include those with statements?
Mr Dallat: To move on, we will maybe just return to the report, because that is what we are dealing with. One of the themes arising from the school focus groups — appendix 3, paragraphs 17 and 20, on page 52, if you would like to refer to it — was, as I have already suggested, that many principals felt that their schools were left to wither on the vine in the area-planning process. It was felt that allowing certain schools to exceed approved enrolments did not help their cause and did not assist in the effective area-planning process. I certainly want to know your views on that, because I suggest to you that there are good schools that are threatened with closure because you did not control your own business and allowed that huge number of surplus pupils to appear in some schools. I will reserve judgement on that until we see what the schools are and what category they are in, but you must have some very definite views on that, Jacqui, since you are answering the questions.
Ms J Durkin: There will be schools that are popular and will fill to their approved enrolment number, but there can also be good reasons why temporary variations are applied for and granted. We can certainly provide a breakdown to the Committee.
Mrs Lorraine Finlay (Department of Education): Temporary variations are quite often applied for in one particular sector of schools, and that is the integrated sector, where there may not be the spread of places across the North to meet parental demand. If a temporary variation is applied for in an integrated school where there is no other provision, that would be granted, because the children would otherwise be expected to travel a very long distance to access a school elsewhere. In developing sectors, that can lead to temporary variations being applied for and granted.
Mr Dallat: Chairperson, I think the best plan is to get a breakdown of that so that we can make a balanced judgement on why it is happening. On the surface of it, I agree with those principals who feel that their schools are being left to wither on the vine because of what is happening. It is not happening in one or two places; it is happening all over the place.
Ms Hanna: I will stay with surpluses. Mr Dallat highlighted a lot of the issues with them, and we have the beginnings of your views on them. Can you outline what you are doing to tackle the surplus, which, as paragraph 2.30 of the report shows, is still 20% of school capacity and double the Bain report recommendations. Will you outline what you are doing to reduce surplus places?
Mr Sweeney: Yes, and I will keep my comments as brief as I can. Bain is a very impressive piece of work; of that there is no doubt. It came out towards the end of 2006, and we had the restoration of devolution in 2007. A big issue at the heart of this was the proposed establishment of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), because it was always presumed that that new body would amalgamate all the existing bodies and have a statutory responsibility for the rationalisation of schools. So, in a way, there was a hiatus. People were waiting for the establishment of the ESA, given that, originally, it was to be established in 2009. In 2011, the Minister took the view that there were, obviously, political difficulties with the proposed ESA. The boards, through no fault of their own, were winding down; their capacity was depleted. However, we needed to get more urgency into tackling schools surplus. In 2011, the Minister made a statement to the Assembly to say, "Listen, we're going to apply much more momentum towards this".
I spoke earlier about the 14% reduction in surplus places — nearly 8,000 places have been removed from the primary sector. A good indicator of progress is this: ultimately, if a school is to close, it has to be underpinned by a statutory process known as the development proposal. A development proposal has to be published in the local papers and has to be subject to a minimum of two months' consultation. Following that, the key decision-maker is the Minister of Education at that time. Prior to 2011, there were, on average, 10 or 11 development proposals each year. Over the last four years, we have been up to about 40, and, in the year that is in it, about 50 development proposals have been processed by the Department.
Therefore despite the fact that the report acknowledges that this is an extremely difficult area — I am not making excuses — I believe that, from 2011 onwards, the Department has made considerable progress, despite the difficult environment and the hiatus with the ESA, etc. As I said earlier, there is still considerable room for improvement. So, I assure members that, over the last five years, in particular, progress has been made. At times, it is frustratingly slow, but there is evidence of progress being made.
Ms Hanna: I think that some of the statistics contradict that.
Mr Clarke: Maybe this is the statistic that you are talking about. I do not want to steal it from you, but —
Mr Clarke: You talked about 2011, Paul, but the figure for surplus places went up from 17,700 to 21,000. So, that contradicts what you have just said.
Mr Sweeney: If I have referred to figure 4, I was looking at the high watermark of 83,000 in 2008-09.
Mr Clarke: I am looking at the post-primary sector, where surpluses have increased.
Mr Sweeney: Sorry, you are talking about the post-primary sector. The bulk of the reduction has been in the primary sector.
Mr Clarke: So, you have failed in the post-primary schools; is that what you are saying?
Mr Sweeney: "Failure" is a very emotive word. Good progress has been made. There is considerable scope for further improvement, but there is a range of factors at play in the post-primary sector. Gregory will comment on that.
Mr Clarke: Sorry, before Gregory comes in. I know that you like to swing on words, Paul, and you talk about words being emotive and about high watermarks, but the post-primary sector has hit its high watermark. So, all the work that you are applauding yourself for doing from 2011 has failed, because, from 2005 to 2015, you have gone from 18,000 to 21,000 in the post-primary sector. That is a failure.
Mr Sweeney: On the face of it, if you take a simplistic view, that is so. However, Gregory will shortly come up with a number of factors. For example, the population of the post-primary sector has dropped by 10,000 in that period. No one has had any control over that; it is a demographic driver. That factor is writ large into this. Gregory is in a much stronger position to elaborate.
Mr Butler: The lowest point for births in Northern Ireland was between 2000 and 2002. There were 21,385 births in 2002; that was the low point. Eleven years on, that rolled through to the post-primary sector in 2011. That is a low point in numbers of pupils starting the post-primary sector.
The figure for births in 2014 is 24,394. So over that period there were roughly 3,000 births going up each year. You had the reverse as you worked your way down to 2002, and that decrease has worked through to the primary sector. It is one of the reasons why we have seen the primary sector coming back, as numbers in it have started to come back since about 2008 or 2009. In 2016 and 2017, we will start to see post-primary sector numbers recovering. So, as Paul says, there has been a decrease of roughly 2,500 per year during that period.
The big difficulty is for the grammar sector. The grammar sector is largely holding its capacity, so the schools taking a hit are the non-selective schools. They are taking a double or treble hit; when the numbers go down, that is where you take the double or treble hit. So it is actually a net part, if you are looking at the decrease in terms of the number of available pupils, as opposed to the numbers of pupils who were actually in the schools. That is why you are seeing such a sharp difference between primary and post-primary.
Mr Clarke: What you are saying — if you do not mind me speaking, Claire — is that you have not gone any way to address this. The balance in the primary sector has come about because of the birth rate; it has nothing to do with the work that you have done.
Mr Butler: The primary sector has been 50:50 between the growth in births and the decrease in the number of schools. In the post-primary sector, you have had the decrease in the number of schools offsetting the decrease in population.
Ms Hanna: Yes, I think that parents understand that there are trends and fluctuations in births and so on. However, can you comment on how area planning should have had more of an impact, and why it appears specifically to have failed?
Mr Butler: I would not accept that it has "failed". Look at the primary-school population. Paul described the situation when you bring forward a development proposal. Most members will be aware that, when a development proposal comes forward in an area, there is usually a fair degree of anxiety and opposition. Quite often, the first people that I receive letters from are people asking questions such as those I have received from around the table, asking why we are closing particular buildings. There is a process.
I agree with Paul: there is a process of closures and amalgamations. It is similar in the post-primary sector, and that can have a major impact, particularly in a small rural area. One of the reasons has been that we just did not get as much traction in the early years because communities had not realised that the need for those schools no longer existed. In recent years, in the post-primary sector, you will have seen a number of very high-profile post-primary schools close or amalgamate. That is where we started to get the traction going. There is now an expectation or understanding amongst parents that certain schools are no longer viable. We have, at long last, started to move towards that. It took time to get started because there was a lot of local community opposition, and there still is.
When you are looking at a rural area, in particular, the closure of the school may mean the community moving out and, particularly where there is an angle of that, as Paul said, in terms of the type of community. Quite often, where you would normally think that closure could take six months or a year, you are talking about two to three years to move a closure. So, in the early days, a lot of traction was required to convince communities that these schools were no longer viable. That is where you have seen the rise in the number of development proposals in recent times. Yes, in the early days, a lot of time was spent convincing, but now we find that there is a lot more traction and a lot more, for want of a better term, big hits, in terms of taking out the large players, like the post-primary schools, and amalgamating them.
Ms Hanna: You touched on primary-school places; I think that the figure of 8,000 was specified. Can you recap specifically on primary-school surpluses?
Mr Butler: Primary-school surpluses dropped by 17,000 from 2009 to 2014. That is probably split 50:50 between what were [Inaudible.]
and what is the actual closure part. If you look particularly at the rural boards, you will see a number of small primary schools with large surpluses. Often, when we look at what we were talking about before, which was the distance to travel and whether they are isolated, you will see that that is where the majority of the places in the primary sector are: in schools with an enrolment of below 75. Most surpluses do not occur in bigger schools; they are in very small schools in rural areas. Some may be in areas where there is not a school of that nature.
Ms Hanna: Paragraph 2.18 states that special needs places are not included in the statistical calculations. Can you explain why? That paragraph also shows that, where a school is oversubscribed, those are not construed as a negative surplus. Can you explain the rationale for that?
Mr Butler: That is the Department's decision, not mine.
Mr Sweeney: It is the issue of supernumeracy.
Ms J Durkin: Children with special educational needs are not included in surplus places. As I said earlier, they are not included in the approved enrolment numbers because they may have a statement or may have a special educational need that specifies that that school is the best school for them to attend. That should also mean that other children would not be displaced or prevented from obtaining a place as well. So, they are not counted in the numbers, but we know the numbers of children with special educational needs in those schools.
As to the surplus place number, they could be subtracted from the figure of 71,540. One recommendation in the report refers to how we demonstrate clearly how children with special educational needs are counted in the enrolment numbers of each school and globally across all schools in Northern Ireland.
Mr Clarke: I am not convinced by that, Jacqui. I do not know about any of the other members who have experience of people with statements. I can understand schools being named if a child going to a special school has a moderate or severe learning difficulty, but I am not entirely convinced that that is the case if they go into mainstream schools. If they have a statement, it is always the school that is named in the statement.
Ms J Durkin: No; not always.
Mr Clarke: I see that Lorraine is nodding in disagreement with me and now disagreeing with you. What is the Department's position on that?
Mrs Finlay: A child's statement will include the school best placed to meet that child's needs. If parents wish a child to go to a particular school, it will definitely be named in the statement.
Mr Clarke: Yes, but the Department is very protective of the fact that, when a child has special needs, it tries to push them towards a particular school. It is merely down to distance more than anything else, particularly when it is a special school and you live in a rural area, but when it is a mainstream school, I still cannot get my head around why that child cannot be counted in the statistics. A statement does not include in all cases in mainstream schools a proviso that it has to be that school on the statement.
Mrs Finlay: They are not counted in the numbers for admissions, but they are counted as part of the system. As Jacqui rightly said, we know where all these children are. If they are in a school where they are surplus to the approved enrolment number, we still know where they all are.
Mr Clarke: They are not counted as part of the surplus, then?
Mrs Finlay: No, because the figure in that table is simply the approved enrolment number minus the actual enrolment figure. There is a number of caveats below that.
Mr Clarke: So, one of the caveats is that you take out people with special needs.
Mr Clarke: So that is not portraying an accurate figure, particularly in mainstream schools. I can understand that in a special school, because the statement specifically says that they have to go to that school, but, when they are in the mainstream, it does not.
Mrs Finlay: There is a legislative base that says that children with statements are supernumerary, and they are not counted for admissions purposes in a school's admissions number.
Mr Clarke: That is not a very satisfactory answer as to why there is skew in that figure. We should be looking at it more.
Mr Butler: There are a couple of points about mainstream schools. If pupils have a statement at stage 3 or above, the school is named on the statement if it is a mainstream school. A number of mainstream schools have special units attached to them, so you are talking about mainstream schools where the pupils are in the mainstream school and others are in a special unit in the school. So, you have a range of special needs; there will be people at stage 1 and stage 2 who do not have a named school, but once the authority is maintaining the statement, from the top of stage 3 up to stage 5 the school is named.
Mr Clarke: So, is a child with a stage 1 or stage 2 statement counted or not?
Mr Butler: Stage 1 and stage 2 statements are —
Mr Butler: No, they are part of the school's normal population.
Mr Butler: The statement in their particular case —
Mr Clarke: And are they counted? Sorry, I am trying to establish whether they are counted.
Mrs Finlay: The statementing process runs from one to five: five is the stage at which a child gets a statement. Lots of children are enrolled in mainstream schools who may be at stages 1, 2, 3 or 4 and require additional help, but they are not statemented and are counted as being part of the enrolment of the school.
Mr Beggs: Following on from that, would it not be useful to have the numbers who are statemented and not counted at each school? Why do you not put out the total number of children who are attending a particular school? Why do you not include that data? Surely that would be useful if you were going to use area planning properly?
Mrs Finlay: We use it in area planning; the issue is how the table is presented. The caveats are in the text.
Mr Beggs: Is that information available to others who were consulted during the area planning?
Mr Beggs: Looking at how the change in how surplus places has been calculated, and the exclusion of some statemented pupils from the calculations, do you acknowledge that the surplus place calculations are inaccurate?
Ms J Durkin: No, we do not accept that they are inaccurate. The methodology used to calculate surplus places is, as Lorraine said, the approved enrolment number minus the actual enrolment number. The methodology for primary schools changed in 2008-09 to bring it in line with how surplus post-primary enrolment places were calculated. The numbers that we have at the minute are based on the methodology of approved enrolment numbers minus actual enrolment numbers.
Mr Beggs: But you acknowledged earlier that some people are not being counted.
Mrs Finlay: They are not counted in the admissions number for particular reasons that my colleague mentioned. What is important is that we have accepted the recommendation in the report that says that there needs to be greater transparency, and it would be helpful to have greater transparency on how the admissions number is presented and how enrolments of all types are presented in any school.
Mr Beggs: You indicated that they are not counted in the admission numbers. If you have extra pupils attending a school, are they being counted in the calculation of the number of surplus placements at that school?
Mrs Finlay: All the pupils at a school, if they are counted in the enrolment number, will count towards the calculation of whether there is a surplus place, because they will be deducted from the approved enrolment number. The children who are not included are those who have special educational needs.
Mr Beggs: That is my very point: they are not being included. Why do you not include them?
Mrs Finlay: If they have a statement or an indication that there is a particular school that they should attend, it ensures that they get a place at that school and do not have to displace other pupils who are included in the admissions criteria to get a place at the school.
Mr Beggs: I appreciate that, but do you not agree that, in area planning, there is still a need for a place for children in that area?
Mrs Finlay: In area planning, when any development proposal comes forward, the number of pupils at the school in their totality, whether they have special educational needs or not, would be presented as part of the development proposals. That information would be considered as part of that process.
Mr Beggs: Would it not be better if there was better transparency, particularly on the issue that, when pupils are allocated to already oversubscribed schools, they do not seem to be counted?
Mrs Finlay: There is a difference between what is available in the system as a whole and what is available in an actual school for the admission of children. The figures represent the sum of all the admissions places. If a school has 1,000 pupils and has 1,005 children, it has no unfilled places because you could not admit any more children. So an unfilled admission place is slightly different from a surplus place.
Mr Beggs: Do you accept that the method that you are using means that it is easy for there to be confusion?
Mrs Finlay: We have accepted the recommendation and are looking at it.
Mr Beggs: I turn to the example of Dunmurry Primary School that is set out in paragraph 2.27 of the report. It is case study 2. It illustrates the point that calculations of approved enrolments and, consequentially, surplus places can be inaccurate and, indeed, wildly inaccurate. In this case, some 262 pupils were approved for enrolment at the school, but, when the principal pursued the issue with the then South Eastern Education and Library Board, it seems to have been accepted that, with further investment and with a small additional spend, the school would be the right size for 210. If 210 is the correct size for that school, that is a 20% error in the calculation of the appropriate number of pupils who can attend the school. Would you accept that that is a wildly inaccurate enrolment figure for that school?
Mr Sweeney: It may be helpful if Gregory comments on that specifically, because it is on his patch. However, I will make a general comment on special educational needs that might be helpful for members. We will get to Dunmurry in a minute. I should say that this is not an exact science. Of the 71,000 pupils, approximately 10,900 have statements.
Mr Beggs: Sorry, can we go back to my question? My question is about a school having a theoretical enrolment figure of 262, but, when it is investigated, it is agreed that, with further investment, it might actually be able to take 210. I am asking you this, Mr Sweeney: do you accept that a 20% variation can be described as wildly inaccurate?
Mr Sweeney: I was going to answer your question, Mr Beggs, with respect.
Mr Sweeney: I was providing the context. Members are genuinely interested in the SEN issue, and I was illustrating that about 11,000 pupils being statemented and 54,000 at stages 1 to 4. I thought that it would be helpful to explain that.
Dunmurry is classic example of where this not an exact science, because when you apply the school handbook and the specifications for the school, the school is, on the face of it, capable of housing 262 pupils. Gregory can go into this in more detail, and we can answer your question to the nth degree. The case study illustrates that, if you go into a school on any given day, you will find that it does not have 262 places. It will have [Inaudible.]
classrooms specifically in the school, and some of the spare places will have been given over to staff-rooms, parental involvement rooms or are used for pastoral purposes. The beauty of case study 2 is that it confirms that, although we are trying to get precision on, in this case, the figure of 71,000, it is not an exact science. I invite Gregory —
Mr Beggs: My question to you is this: is a 20% error an illustration that you are basing area planning on inaccurate figures?
Mr Sweeney: No, we are not generally applying that 20% across the board, but, in this case, it illustrates how complex it can be to get a definitive figure for surplus places.
Mr Beggs: Was there any problem in defining the 210?
Mr Sweeney: Gregory, do you want to answer that?
Mr Butler: Two exercises were done: that is the important part. We were asked to look at the spaces that the school had in relation to a minor works application. The difference is between when schools were built and when the handbook came into play. If a school was built in the early 1960s, for example, there would not have been resource areas and so on. In the 1960s, computers were not available, and you did not have those sorts of requirements. They came in at a later stage, and the handbook changed. The handbook states that you require so many resource rooms. Schools utilise those correctly for resource areas.
With area planning, the global figure for actual surplus places is, to a certain extent, a side issue, simply because you are looking at individual schools with their surpluses. You focus on an individual school. In this case, the school did not have a requirement for any additional places. It was operating at the level that it had, so we were not required to look at it. If it had been operating at a level for 262, we would have been bringing forward a development proposal to bring the number down. In recent times, we did that in Bangor, where we identified a major issue in Kilcooley, not only because a lot of the school was being utilised by other groupings, which was appropriate, but because the areas were being used for different things.
One of the report's recommendations, which the Department and the authority have accepted, is that there is a need for a greater fix between the physical capacity as it is used and the Department's figures. We looked at the report and at references to the use of the Manhattan system to do that. There is a need to progress towards a more accurate picture of how individual schools, particularly those that were built some time ago, fit in with the new arrangements. That is a classic case of that happening.
Mr Beggs: How has the review progressed? When will we have an accurate assessment of actual numbers under modern standards? It is only by using that information that you can plan.
Mr Butler: The Department commissioned the education and library boards, as they were, and now the EA to visit every school and bring it up to date by recording and measuring school capacity. We have been doing a four- or five-year exercise; it is a rolling programme. That is starting to inform decisions better. Information not only about what a school has but about how it is being utilised is being recorded in the Manhattan system, and that is starting to inform departmental decisions.
Mr Beggs: Do you accept that that is a fundamental part of an area planning process: accurate information?
Mr Butler: When you look at individual schools, you will see that there is accurate information. I think that that is the point that a number of members are making. Area planning operates at an area level, but it also concentrates on all the parts that make up a particular area. When you look at an area, you look at the actual figures for an individual school. You look at what a school like Dunmurry actually shows. Despite the Department having a figure, you look at what is there.
Mr Clarke: I still do not get your explanation. I am not disagreeing with Roy and his calculation, but Roy gave you a calculation based on minor works, and the report states that you came into the school applying your handbook. Is the figure not still 171 before the minor works — a 50% increase?
Mr Butler: No. The actual school enrolment was 171. We are saying that, if you took account of the new handbook and applied it to the building, with a few changes, it could have a capacity of 210.
Mr Butler: No, the enrolment number from the Department was 262, but upgraded information, as it comes forward, enables that to be changed.
Mr Beggs: Is the enrolment number now 210, or will it be after that minor improvement? Is the current enrolment number less than 210?
Mr Butler: We have to bring a development proposal forward in order to change the enrolment number.
Mr Beggs: Even if it is staring you in the face, and there are no consequences.
Mr Butler: There are consequences, because, if you are saying that, around the area, there are 262 places available and adjusting it to 210, other schools would feel the impact of that. That is where area planning comes in. That has a potential knock-on effect on other schools in the area, because that would create 52 additional places.
Mr Beggs: In this case, only 171 pupils are attending, so there would not be consequences.
Mr Butler: Sorry, the consequence would be that other schools may be looking for capacity. The fact that that school has spare places at the minute —
Mr Clarke: No. The issue here, Gregory, is — sorry, I am only catching it now — when you are counting your surplus places, you are counting 52 more places than there actually are surplus, because the surplus should be the difference between 171 and 210, but your exercise with the area plan has counted between 171 and 262. So the figure that gets you to your 70,000-odd surplus places has not been calculated correctly in the first place, because it is based on outdated school data.
Mr Sweeney: It is an example whereby I am saying that it is not —
Mr Clarke: So that is one example. How many other examples are there? You have the figure of 77,000, Paul.
Mr Clarke: How many of those schools have you appraised to find out the exact enrolment number? Gregory gave a very detailed and useful explanation of how that has been arrived at, but it is telling us that, in that case, your enrolment figure is exaggerated for each of those schools. How many other schools exaggerate it, and how over-inflated is the figure of 77,000?
Mr Sweeney: It is not over-inflated; it is the gap. Take Dunmurry Primary School as an example: it has approved 262, but its actual enrolment in 2014-15 was 171.
Mr Clarke: For this exercise, you are counting between 262 and 171 as surplus places. However, the school capacity is only 210, so you will always be counting 52 more places in that school as part of your 77,000 surplus.
Mr Sweeney: Hopefully, this will be clear in my own mind. The 71,000 is a gap between approved and enrolment numbers; that is how we get to 71,000. The capacity issue is, if you like, an additional factor.
Mr Clarke: No issue there. My issue, Paul — I do not know whether you are getting it — is that your approved figure, if they have not all been appraised using the standards that Gregory spoke about, is over-inflated by a high percentage. It is clear that this school, after the principal approached you and brought you in to inspect, reduced his enrolment by 52 places. How many other schools in the estate have not had this done, with figures still being based on an old, outdated methodology? That means that your surplus is not at 77,000; it could be considerably less.
Mr Sweeney: Yes. That is the heart of the matter.
Mr Clarke: No, the heart, for me, is that the Minister is out beating his chest about area planning and reducing the size of our school estate, which I do not think any of us would be against if it were based on accurate statistics. However, according to the report, using Dunmurry as a good example, the statistics are wrong, and the 77,000 surplus places that the Minister beats his chest about might be considerably fewer. It could be 20% to 30% less.
Mr Sweeney: There is no lack of clarity on the statistics in terms of the gap between approved places and enrolments. The issue is where there can be spare capacity in schools. Gregory touched on what is called the Manhattan system, whereby there is an ongoing cycle, looking at the state and survey of a school, that can theoretically identify where there could be spare capacity, relative to the handbook. However, in reality, the figure of 71,000 is the difference between approved places and actual enrolments, and that is the precision that we bring to bear in the area-based planning process. Dunmurry indicates that, although in theory —
Mr Clarke: It indicates that your methodology is wrong because your number of approved places is over-inflated, if you take Dunmurry as an example.
Mr Sweeney: No. Bear with me, because I know that this can be frustrating. Presumably, the Dunmurry school is saying to the auditors that, in theory, it has capacity for 262; it has an enrolment of 171, but, in reality, it is saying that it could not take 262 now, because it has adapted theoretically surplus places for different uses. There are three factors: the approved figure; the enrolment figure; and the actual capacity that can be assessed only on a school-by-school basis. In some instances, you can go into a school in which, theoretically, there is capacity, but, in reality, you might find that the school classrooms or store rooms have been adapted.
Mr Clarke: I am not sure, Paul, that you get where I am coming from. There is the actual enrolment figure, and there is the actual enrolment in the school. So there is an enrolment figure and the figure that you apply to the school. Whatever that difference is indicates the surplus.
Mr Clarke: You are saying, however, that Dunmurry can accommodate 262. You are taking the 262, subtracting 171 and saying that the rest are surplus places, when that is not the case. The number of surplus places is 210 minus 171.
Mr Sweeney: I do not know whether any of my colleagues want to —
Mr Beggs: When will the survey be completed so that you know the number of surplus places based on modern standards, allowing for some use of rooms such as libraries as classrooms? When will there be a modern standard covering every school so that accurate figures can be fed into the area plan?
Ms J Durkin: The school handbook for new schools will calculate the capacity and the admissions number in the capacity of a building and the number of children that a school can take.
Mr Beggs: Sorry, that is for new schools, but my question is about existing schools. When will there be a survey of existing schools to find out what the real capacity will be if they are brought up to modern standards? Without that, you may be withholding approval for new developments because you think that there is lots of spare capacity when there is actually none or very little. When will the review be completed? Gregory, you talked about the review: when is it coming?
Mr Sweeney: Jacqui was going to finish her point.
Ms J Durkin: On the review of accommodation, as Gregory said, the school estate is reviewed for capacity and suitability to deliver the curriculum. So, with the curriculum changes, and since a lot of schools are still being used and adapted for use to deliver the curriculum, that work has been a rolling programme and is captured in the Manhattan system that was referred to earlier.
Ms J Durkin: The rolling programme of reviewing the estate happens every five years. I am not sure whether Gregory could say when this review started.
Mr Butler: The current cycle started about four years ago.
Mr Butler: It is a five-year cycle.
Mr Beggs: So, within a year, you will be able to tell us the modern standards for every school —
Mr Butler: It is a rolling cycle.
Mr Beggs: Are you adjusting theoretical enrolment numbers based on modern standards as part of that process so that, should there be a need, you can calculate the vacancy number under modern standards and not under historical standards, some of which go back decades?
Ms J Durkin: The key thing is the ability of a school, with the facilities and accommodation that it has, to deliver the curriculum and make sure that it meets curriculum requirements.
Mr Beggs: Surely, under area planning, it is not just about individual schools; it is about the wider area and our overall capacity. You could be shutting down schools in some areas where you might need capacity.
Ms J Durkin: Within each development proposal that comes forward, whether it is to increase admissions or close a school, evidence would be provided to say what the impact on other schools in the area could be. Of course, other schools —
Mr Clarke: Sorry, that could be based on outdated information. If you have not done an assessment of the schools, you may be assuming that they have a higher enrolment capacity than they actually have, as highlighted by the Dunmurry case.
Ms J Durkin: In addition to information on the Manhattan system about schools and their facilities, if principals have concerns about accommodation and their ability to deliver the curriculum, they would raise them with the managing authority in the first place. One report recommendation points exactly to that and to a review of the suitability of the accommodation and how the Manhattan system can be used to assess whether the approved enrolment figures for those schools is accurate and how adjustments that need to be made, if any, would be taken forward.
That work is being taken forward. I cannot say when it will be completed, but colleagues in the estates division are looking at that and at how the information that we have in the Manhattan system can be used to assist with that work.
Mr Beggs: When I worked in the private sector, until subcontractors were able to give you a date when they expected something to be supplied or completed, you could not count on anything at all, because they had not yet put it into their programme of works. What is your estimate for the work being completed? Do you have one, or are you talking vaguely? Will this be completed by a certain date?
Ms J Durkin: I do not have a completion date, but I can say that that project is being instigated and will be scoped to identify exactly what needs to be done, how many schools need to be reviewed and how that work would be carried out.
Mr Beggs: Is that one year, five years or on the never-never, depending on future decisions?
Ms Durkin: I cannot comment on the timescale until colleagues have advised on the scope of the work that is required. What I would say is that there is already a starting point and information in the Manhattan system about existing schools.
Mr Clarke: Do you mind if I come in? Gregory, I want to take you back to the four-year work that is run on a five-year cycle. What does that entail?
Mr Butler: The education and library boards and now the Education Authority visit every school.
Mr Butler: They look at suitability. They measure all rooms and map out what they are used for.
Mr Clarke: Right, and some of that work that we are talking about has started.
Mr Butler: The background information is there.
Mr Clarke: Approximately how old is Dunmurry Primary School?
Mr Butler: It was probably built in the early 1960s.
Mr Clarke: Right. Would it have been visited before the report was commissioned?
Mr Butler: I could not say that about an individual school at this stage.
Mr Clarke: Will you find out and let us know?
If it is a five-year cycle, you have one more year to complete. Are you familiar with any of those, Gregory —
Mr Butler: The purpose of that —
Mr Clarke: Let me finish my question first. In your response to Roy, you said that you had four years done and one more year to go. During those four years, how many other schools have you found to be calculated to be too high for enrolment capacity?
Mr Butler: We do not calculate capacity. Our task is to map individual schools, to look at their suitability for delivering the curriculum and whether there are any gaps in their suitability for delivering the curriculum. That was produced by the education and library boards to inform our minor works situation. It was designed for our use. It looked at the space that was required to deliver the curriculum. That was its basis.
Mr Beggs: On the basis of that mapping, is it possible to do a desktop study and adjust it to what would be a more realistic enrolment figure for many of those schools?
Mr Butler: It would be possible.
Mr Beggs: That would be a useful starting point. At least area planning for enrolment would be more informed.
Mr Sweeney: Enrolments as opposed to approved places.
Mr Sweeney: Are you talking about enrolments specifically? There is that juxtaposition between approved places and actual enrolments. You would need to look at both.
Mr Beggs: You may, but at least you would have an accurate figure using the area plan as the basis of the need for new-build schools in an area or, indeed, a more accurate level of overcapacity. If you used the desktop information that you already have, do you accept that that would be possible? Why do you not do that? Why did you not use that information?
Mr Sweeney: We do. If you take the Manhattan system, for example, we would know at any given time. The maintenance backlog in schools is something like £283 million. That is the level of precision that we have that has come from surveying specific schools.
I do not want to give members the impression that this is some kind of passive exercise. There is a great deal of proactivity, with the Education Authority looking at the individual capacity and survey of each school. The work on Manhattan will be completed next year. There are eight recommendations in the report, which we have had for some time. We have accepted the recommendations in their entirety and set up seven working groups to look at all eight recommendations.
I think that what Jacqui was saying — we can keep members posted on it — is that we are not in a position to give a specific answer to your question on timescales. We are in a position in which we are scoping the exercise. In the very near future, we will have a discipline around the timescales within which that exercise can be completed. Rather than get into conjecture on that this afternoon, I would rather wait until the exercise is completed. It will be completed in the very near future, and we can then give a very precise time frame.
Mr Clarke: If you accept the recommendations, you accept that the methodology that you have used has been flawed, and the Minister's announcements on surplus places are flawed.
Mr Sweeney: No, not flawed.
Mr Sweeney: It is not flawed —
Mr Sweeney: I have said that it is not an exact science.
Mr Clarke: It is balanced more towards making a big headline for the Minister rather than the actual facts.
Mr Sweeney: No. Well, the Minister can speak for himself.
Mr Clarke: It is balanced for you, as the permanent secretary, to make big headline-grabbing announcements about how difficult it is for you, your tight budgets and the 70,000-odd surplus places. However, the case is that you do not really know how many surplus places you have, because you have not done the calculation correctly.
Mr Sweeney: I will speak for myself, if I may.
Mr Sweeney: That is not your role; you do not get to speak for me.
Mr Wells: Madam Chair, it is very important that we do not leave Mr Sweeney on his tod. We have to be very careful; we are giving him too rough a ride.
Mr Sweeney: I do not know whether I can respond to the Sweeney Todd remark — boom boom. Let us park that just for the moment. As accounting officer, I am very clear in taking forward the area-based planning process that we are informing any decisions that we make with the best possible data that is available to us at any given time. Such are the statutory processes that underpin the development proposal process that we cannot possibly undertake a statutory development process without putting as much data as we can in the public domain so that it can then be challenged over an eight-week consultation process whereby schools that think that they might be adversely affected can challenge that. I do not want to give the impression this afternoon that we are dealing with flawed data. We are dealing with the best possible data that is available to us at any given time, acknowledging the fact that it is not a complete and exact science.
Mr Sweeney: It is a lack of overall exact precision as opposed to flaws or inaccuracies in any given school context. Be assured that, if we are bringing forward a development proposal process, we will make available for that decision-making process all the current data, and it can be out there and challenged by all schools or stakeholders that feel that they might be adversely affected.
Mr Clarke: We could summarise this by saying that the data that they have is based on the days, about 50 years ago, when we had blackboards and chalk and classrooms with an open fire in the back of the room. It is not 21st-century data.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): I believe that there are inaccuracies. That is my word. You can see why, as a result of that, some schools say that the development proposals are flawed. I am aware of schools that would ask for some development proposals to be nullified. Is that a fair comment, Mr Sweeney?
Mr Sweeney: Some schools might react to a proposed closure in different ways, but let us take a situation in which a school is opposed to closure. A school can test that during the development proposal process, and, as you know, there have been some high-profile judicial reviews. From the Department's point of view, we will make available, in a very open and transparent way at any given time, the data that is available to us in the public consultation process over a minimum of eight weeks. It is then up to schools or other stakeholders to challenge that.
Mr Butler: From the managing authority point of view, at the development proposal stage, we consult with boards of governors, parents and staff. If, during that time, they raise a query about their admission numbers being set too high, we will look at that in relation to carrying out a review. When it comes to an individual development proposal, the facts will reflect the actual position in the school at that time.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): On openness and transparency — those are the words that were used — some parents, boards of governors and teaching staff will say that the consultation process was inaccurate because there was no clear communication, openness and transparency. I am not reflecting on any individual school, but I am sure that members around this table, from time to time in their areas, hear that the consultation process was not transparent. That is something for another meeting.
Mr Flanagan: Sorry, Roy, can I just come in on the back of that very quickly? You said that you set up seven working groups because of the eight recommendations in the report. Did you do anything about a lack of accurate information before the report was given to you, or was it a new dawning for you that there was a problem?
Mr Sweeney: I will come back to the point. On the area-based planning process, we have been acting on the data that has been available to us, and we have had the benefit of the report. We have the recommendations, and there are areas for improvement. As I said, we have seven working groups in the Department. I see it as a way in which we can perfect the system. I do not recognise words like "deficiencies" or "flaws". We have a solid basis for taking forward area-based planning. At times, it has been frustrating, and there is scope for greater improvement. The report and its recommendations, with which we wholeheartedly agree, will help us to be even better and to perfect the process.
Mr Sweeney: I think that I did answer the question.
Mr Flanagan: No, the question was this: did you know that there was a problem with the accuracy of information before the Audit Office gave you this report?
Mr Sweeney: We knew that it was not an exact science, but we knew that we were using the best possible data that was available to us.
Mr Flanagan: You did not, however, go looking for better or accurate data; you just accepted what was given to you as being accurate.
Ms J Durkin: The approved enrolment numbers are as in departmental records, and they are accurate. The actual enrolment numbers are the numbers that are calculated and available, and they are accurate. The issue is whether there is a concern that the approved enrolment number is the actual number that it should be and the process of how those concerns can be raised.
Mr Flanagan: I am amazed that nobody in the Department or the managing authorities realised that these figures were away off to the left. I knew it. I have seen a list of the maximum enrolment figures of all the schools in Fermanagh, and not too many of them are anywhere near right. There are schools that cannot take more than 200 pupils but have a maximum enrolment of 360. Anybody looking at it who does not know anything about education knows it. I cannot understand how officials in the Department or the managing authorities never identified this as a problem, particularly when you were engaging in such an extensive area-planning process and using the 85,000 surplus places as the rationale for the process.
Ms J Durkin: The approved enrolment numbers are checked out with schools annually. The schools are asked to confirm that their approved enrolment number is as it should be.
Mr Flanagan: That is based on historical information. It is not based on square footage, the number of teachers or the number of pupils who can be fed in the canteen at lunchtime.
Ms J Durkin: If there are any concerns about a school being unable to provide the accommodation to deliver the curriculum, as it is required to do, those would be raised through the managing authorities and then, obviously, with the planning authorities.
Mr Flanagan: What is sent to a school to confirm its maximum enrolment? Is it a letter saying, "We have this figure for your maximum enrolment: is this the case?" or do you say that you have based the figure on x, y and z? Is the school given guidance on how it can clarify a more accurate figure?
Ms J Durkin: No. As far as I understand, the school would be advised of its approved enrolment number as is in its admissions criteria and admissions booklet.
Mr Flanagan: So a school is not asked; it is told what it is.
Ms J Durkin: A school is asked whether it has any concerns or requests for a change and is signposted to officials to provide advice. A school can raise that any time with its managing authority.
Mr Flanagan: Can you provide us with a sample letter that is sent to a school so that we can see what it looks like? It would be useful to look at that to see how this works mechanically.
Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a governor of Glynn Primary School, which is a small rural primary school. I think that its enrolment is around 105, but that is what it has been since I was there as a pupil. Am I right in saying that the number sits there, irrespective of any changes, even half-century changes? Does it sit at that number irrespective of changed standards?
Mr Butler: A school can request —
Mr Beggs: I am sorry; if nothing happens and the school does not request anything, does the enrolment sit at that number from 50 years ago at the standards of 50 years ago? Are there many schools sitting at standards that were set 50 or more years ago?
Mrs Finlay: In terms of the —
Mr Beggs: I am sorry; that was a question. Is that a yes or a no: if there is no engagement, and there has been no proactive action by the Department to review the numbers and standards that may have been set 50 years ago?
Mrs Finlay: If a development proposal has not been approved by the Minister or additional accommodation provided to that school, the enrolment number is likely to have stayed the same.
Mr Beggs: Thank you. That is useful.
I will go on to a different issue. Paragraph 3.33 of the report states that the Department contends that it would not be beneficial or practical to calculate the cost of surplus school places. Given the conversation that we have just had, I can understand why the Department, given inaccurate figures for surplus places, might think that it is not beneficial or practical to put a cost on surplus places.
However, do you not agree with the Audit Office's assertion that the actual cost of surplus places is a key bit of information to determine the long-term sustainability of schools?
Mr Sweeney: Yes, and Dunmurry is a case in point. In theory, they have a greater capacity, but you still have to run the school. You still have to have the full complement of staff etc. Certainly, when we look at the surplus school places, both primary and post-primary, if we use the Welsh model — in the report it says that they estimate that a primary surplus place can be £260 and a post-primary can be £510 — and you extrapolate those figures, we are talking about potentially very significant sums of money. It is my point that it is not just as simplistic as that. The Dunmurry case is a case in point, where it is not as if you can necessarily just save money. If you bring forward school rationalisation such as an amalgamation, in the short term that can actually end up costing you more money. Although it is tempting to take a per-surplus-place figure and extrapolate it upwards — and one can do that — it is just not as straightforward as that. What the Department is trying to do strategically is reduce surplus places as and when we can through the area-based planning process, underpinned by development proposals.
Mr Beggs: Do you not agree that, if there were accurate figures and you could stand over an accurate cost of a surplus school place, that might be a constructive driver for change, because people could accept that money could be diverted more constructively in education?
Mr Sweeney: I would ideally want to get towards that figure of a tolerance of about 10%, and one would ideally want to drive down the number of surplus places. I think that, through time, further progress will be made there. As a result of that, we will have a more efficient schools estate. Of that there is no doubt.
Mr Beggs: Is the Department attempting to identify any potential savings and educational benefits by addressing surplus school places?
Mr Sweeney: Yes, through the area-based planning process.
Mr Beggs: Have you quantified what the savings or educational benefits might be through the area planning process?
Mr Sweeney: No, we have not put a figure on it in the way that, for example, the inspectorate in Wales has sought to do.
Mr Sweeney: No, because I do not think it is as simplistic as that. We have set a whole range of educational standards. We are challenging schools to deliver the curriculum and achieve school improvement processes. In some instances, some schools, through no fault of the leadership in the school, do not have the critical mass to deliver the quality of education in the curriculum. They are too small, or are perhaps in the wrong place. We think that the area-based planning process, underpinned by the statutory development process, is the way forward in further rationalising the schools estate.
Mr Beggs: I will move on to the ETI chief inspector's report and paragraph 2.8 in the Audit Office report. Whilst there has been "improvement in the overall quality" of some school provision, there still remains much to be done. You can see from paragraph 2.11 of the report that the ETI found that some:
"37 per cent of the post-primary schools inspected which were evaluated as less than ‘good’"
Indeed, it is prioritised that 15% of schools inspected had inadequate achievement and standards. Indeed:
"60 per cent of pupils from non-Grammar schools are not achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C".
How far does the Department consider that it is succeeding, in light of those findings?
Mr Sweeney: As you know, I reported to the Committee two years ago specifically on school improvement, literacy and numeracy. Within the Department, what we have seen from the evidence is that there has been a steady, albeit modest, improvement in terms of indicators such as five good GCSEs, including English and maths. We have some considerable way to go. The area that concerns me most is the cohort of children who are entitled to free school meals. If we just use that indicator of achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, we know that the difference is that the cohort of children who achieve at that level, which is just over 34%, is half of the cohort of children who are not entitled to free school meals. My answer to your question is that modest, steady progress has been made over the years. In my view, there is an impressive range of policies and programmes in place, but the target that we have set for that particular cohort of free school meals is to achieve 49%. At the moment, it is 34%. My own view is that an education system that has got an ambitious target of 49%, which is less than half of the children who are on free school meals, achieving five good GCSEs still has a long way to go to even meet that very specific target that the Department has set. That trail of educational underachievement remains, albeit that modest progress has been made over the years.
Mr Beggs: One of the issues that are highlighted in paragraph 2.11 is the importance of leadership. Can you outline what actions have been taken to improve leadership where necessary?
Mr Sweeney: Yes. That was one of the recommendations of the literacy and numeracy programme. A key role in leadership in schools would be the professional development of teachers. You have got teachers coming out of initial teacher training. They are going to be in the profession for 30 or 40 years. What is really critical is ongoing professional development. Within that, there will be a big cohort around leadership — developing succession planning and leadership within schools. A big role is played, at the post-primary level, for example, in the area learning communities, where you can get schools helping each other in developing school leadership. We have seen some examples of where schools have sufficient critical mass — large post-primary schools, typically over 800 or 900 pupils — to become almost learning schools, where they can develop leadership qualities. We have got the regional training unit that develops headship. Those are some of the programmes that have been put in place in developing leadership.
I must share with members this afternoon the worrying trend in recent years whereby fewer and fewer people are prepared to put themselves forward for school leadership. You are getting a trend now where people come to be heads of departments. They are people with capability, capacity and talent. I am just making the point: they are not coming through in sufficient numbers. We need to look at school leadership and the ways in which we reward school leadership, particularly in the most difficult and challenging schools, to see what more we can do there because, as I say, there is more than anecdotal evidence coming through that, for whatever reason, it seems to be less attractive for people to progress from head-of-department level to vice-principal and principal level. There is a huge issue around leadership.
Mr Beggs: Is too much bureaucracy and paperwork required for teachers moving into leadership? Do they feel that they are becoming administrators rather than leading and teaching in their schools?
Mr Sweeney: This cuts to the very heart of what we are talking about this afternoon, which is the area-based planning process. I come back to the point about critical mass, again focused on post-primary schools. If you have a very small post-primary school and you do not have the critical mass that, for example, enables you to employ, say, a bursar or someone who can look after a great deal of the, if I can use the generic term, administrative functions, then the principal, who professionally wants to be majoring on teaching and learning, will spend too much of his or her time on the administrative side, because the school does not have the sufficiency of scale to employ the additional administrative staff that may be required. This cuts to the very core: no matter how hard the senior leadership team in that school will try, they have not got the sufficiency of scale in that school because they are a small, struggling post-primary school. I believe that there is a very compelling case to ask whether there is critical mass. Some educationalists would say that, at post-primary, it is in and around 800 or 900 pupils, much in excess of Bain, where you can free up the leadership to focus on the professionalism around teaching and learning and you can put in place a cohort of staff to look after the administrative duties. If you are a small school and you have not got that scale, perhaps what you see there is that people spend an imbalanced amount of time on the bureaucracy and administration, which nevertheless is central to accountability.
Mr Beggs: There is sometimes bean-counting involved, but no real useful data. Sometimes there can be over-administration. Have you looked at how you can lessen some of the administrative burden?
Mr Sweeney: Do you have any specific examples where you believe that schools are being needlessly asked to account for themselves, because —
Mr Beggs: I am a member of a Sure Start, and I pick up information. The amount of data that is being recorded is incredible, and very little useful feedback comes back. I am thinking in those terms. Is that happening in the schools sector?
Mr Sweeney: We have reviewed Sure Start, and I will make a copy of that report available to you, but the bureaucracy around administration is, I think, true of all public bodies that are accountable. There is an element of accountability there, and governance, that is required. Certainly, no Department wants to preside over needless bean-counting, but I am taking the view that I am not aware of any obvious areas where there are administrative burdens that do not need to be in place. If I was made aware of that, I would be more than happy to look at it.
Mr Dallat: One of the first inquiries that the Public Accounts Committee did all those years ago — 16 years or whatever it was — was on literacy and numeracy. The reasons that I have heard for children not achieving are well documented at this stage. Given that there is somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million people between the ages of 16 and 64 who cannot read basic instructions on a medicine bottle, why are we not screaming from the rafters about this, particularly in an economy now where you will not get a job unless you have got basic skills in English and mathematics?
Mr Sweeney: To be fair to the Programme for Government, which will shortly be replaced by a new Programme for Government, we have put raising school standards and the criticality of educating our workforce at the heart of it. It is just over two years since I reported to this Committee on literacy and numeracy. A whole raft of recommendations came out of that report, and we have taken each of those recommendations and actioned them. We report on a regular basis on progress being made. I could go into some detail, but, just to give you a flavour, I will mention the signature project that the Department was able to put in place, where we were able to deliberately employ 270 additional teachers and focus them in primary and post-primary schools to give those young people who were at risk of underachieving a boost. That is a very good example of a signature project that can make a real difference. The Department has taken and put in place a range of steps since I last reported on literacy and numeracy.
My overall assessment is that modest progress has been made. I do not know what it would require to make an absolute step change in tackling that trail of underachievement that bedevils our community. I think that schools have an important role to play and I think that politicians and Departments have an important role to play. Note that I used the plural "Departments" there, not just the Department of Education. However, at the heart of it are community and parental expectations. Those are central to this as well.
Mr Dallat: I would not in the least underestimate what has been done, but there are probably in the region of 2,000 16-year-olds still leaving school at 16 who cannot read or write. Now, I am a school governor, and I know that the school that I govern was actually your top secondary school in one year, and the neighbouring one was in another year. I am not bothered about those schools; I know what they are doing, but it is not happening in other schools. In fact, 60% of non-grammar schools are not performing. All sorts of schemes have been introduced to massage figures — leaving out English and maths, which are absolutely key subjects. I wonder what the true figure is of children achieving five A to C grades, including English and mathematics.
Mr Sweeney: You know that NISRA publishes those figures annually. The last figures for 2013-14 were published in May this year. There is no massaging of those figures; they are evidence-based figures.
Mr Dallat: I was not suggesting that the Department was massaging the figures; I was suggesting that some schools might well be doing it.
Mr Sweeney: If there were evidence of that —
Mr Dallat: I am not here for a row with you; I am here because I was a teacher for 30 years and I know that children should not be slipping through the net. It is wrong. In the past, too many of them found their way into paramilitaries and organisations like that, which gave them some kind of self-esteem for the first time in their lives, albeit for all the wrong reasons. A society has to be stable to be economically successful. Even though I might have had a good education, I suffer as well when other children do not. You mentioned parents. Is enough being done to make sure that everybody who can change this is doing their bit? We had homework clubs and things like that, which were very effective, but the money is not there for them any more. We had Sure Start, which Roy referred to. Where is all that support now for children on free school meals?
Mr Sweeney: As you said, an impressive range of programmes are in place now, at least for early years, which all the evidence reveals is really important. In order to give reasons to be cheerful this afternoon, I do not think that anybody would disagree about the scale and significance of the challenge. I said that modest progress has been made. For example, in the figures that were released in May this year around the core indicator of five good GCSEs, including English and maths, the non-grammar sector has increased by a factor of 2·6%. Overall, the improvement was just over 1%. I am trying to not in any way be flippant about this. We are taking some comfort from the fact that the sector that is under the most stress has indicated a not insignificant improvement this year. The numbers of young people leaving with absolutely no GCSEs over the last five years have decreased from about 2% to about 1%. There is no reason to be complacent; significant numbers are still leaving without a passport into the labour force. However, as a result of the policies and programmes that have been put in place, we are seeing progress being made. It is longitudinal and sometimes generational, but the important thing is that the trajectory is going in the right direction. We have put in place a suite of policies and programmes, augmented by the community campaigns that we have put in place. The Minister launched the Valuing Education programme, which sought to target niches about parents reading to their children and parents working with teenagers so that we could value education.
There is a much greater political awareness around the societal significance of all this. A new all-party group has been established to look at education underachievement. There is much to be done. This might sound self-serving, but I like to think that the new Programme for Government will have a very big premium around education standards and tackling that trail of underachievement.
Mr Dallat: Finally, there was a crisis report this week on prisons; 80% of the inmates cannot read or write. That, surely, is another cost of failures in the education system. I have been to prison, not as an inmate but to visit people. It astounds me that somebody who has gone to school for 12 years or whatever leaves school without being able to read or write, spends some time as a guest of Her Majesty and goes on to university and does a degree. That tells me that, despite everything that you have told me, all of which I take on board and acknowledge, there is still a crisis in the system. I know you describe these as "modest improvements", and I am sure that that is absolutely accurate, but are modest improvements good enough for the terrible problem that we have, given that our neighbours in the Scandinavian countries have solved this problem years ago?
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): If you allow me, Mr Sweeney: the Deputy Chairperson will appreciate that, as Mr Sweeney said — I am in no way stepping in to answer the question — there are wider societal issues that he alluded to, and trans-generational issues.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): I think that there is a realisation now, because of the work that is going on in the Department with early interventions and so on in our schools. It will be another few years before we see the realisation or outcomes of that. Hopefully, we are not going to have the same report that we had this week out of the prisons in 10 years' time. And that is —
Mr Dallat: I agree with you, Chairperson. I do not wish to talk over you, but as an old codger who sat here 16 years ago and discussed the same problem, do you understand my frustration?
Mr Dallat: Sixteen years ago, there were children born who are now leaving school unable to read or write.
Mr Flanagan: This is turning into a meeting of the Education Committee, it seems; many a Wednesday morning I spent in here with you at that. I certainly do not want to go back to that stage of my life. I want to deal with the actual area planning process that the Minister put in place in September 2012. It was 2012, was it not? At paragraph 3.2 of the Audit Office's report, it is stated that:
"We believe that the Department’s approach to Area Planning and delivering sustainable schools could have been better."
"Not all stakeholders were clear on their role and responsibilities in delivering a sustainable schools network."
How do you respond to that, and what are the reasons for those comments?
Mr Sweeney: Obviously, the Audit Office was basing its comments on that sample of principals that it spoke to. The Audit Office said that it did not claim that that was, necessarily, a representative sample. From my point of view, in area-based planning, you can never communicate enough. Queen's University and the University of Ulster did a critique of the area-based planning process, and they were highly critical of it. However, the one area that they give credit for was the fact that a whole range of data was put out, for the first time, that people could use for a basis for informed discussion.
I think that there has been an impressive array of engagement, particularly between the education and library boards, CCMS and their respective schools, on area-based planning. Am I saying that there could be better communication? Am I saying that it could have been better coordinated, or put in a more strategic framework? By all means, and particularly those schools that feel that they are the victim of area-based planning. You pick up these terms: "zombie schools", "ghost schools" or schools that feel that they are under a stay of execution. When I speak to that type of school, the things that they criticise most about the process is that they still feel that they are being kept in the dark. However much I might feel that the boards or CCMS are seeking to keep the schools informed, I do not think, particularly in those schools that feel most vulnerable and at risk, you can communicate enough. I think that the report is being fair when it says that communication "could have been better."
Mr Flanagan: Communication is a separate problem, and I will come on to that. You have also referenced data, and I will come on to that separately as well. However, the report says that:
"The Integrated and Irish-medium sectors feel excluded from the process and the Voluntary Grammar sector does not fully
engage with the process."
How can you have a proper area planning process when not all the sectors are involved and some of them feel excluded?
Mr Sweeney: I will invite Jacqui to comment on it. The image that I want to give you is that, in 2011, the Minister said we were not waiting for ESA to emerge for that new statutory area-based planning process to be ascribed to that new body — which, of course, in the fullness of time, never happened. The Minister said that we had to move on area-based planning.
In a very short period, we upped our game and made a step change in how we would deliver area-based planning. It certainly was not perfect, and, over the first two years of dramatically changing the way in which we approach area planning, we have learned a great deal. We have taken on board criticisms from people who said that they were not sufficiently involved.
I admit that we went for a big blast approach. We were trying to make a step change in how we would do it. We listened to people who felt that they were being excluded, and, over a number of years, we have improved the processes, and the structures that we have in place now are a lot more inclusive. Maybe Jacqui could go into a wee bit more detail.
Ms J Durkin: There are governance structures at strategic, area and local area planning group levels. At the local level, the voluntary grammar, integrated and Irish-medium sectors are represented, as well as the statutory planning authorities. Those are really key groups in discussing area solutions and seeking to find innovative and creative solutions, rather than working in a silo mentality for a particular sector.
There are five of those groups, and they are critical in applying the area planning process and informing annual action plans for area planning and new area plans that will, hopefully, come forward next year. We certainly see those as critical to the inclusion of all sectors plus further education in a particular area. That facilitates meaningful discussions about area plans and the stressors that schools are exhibiting, and it is critical in trying to find potential solutions for provision.
Mr Flanagan: Is there any realisation in the Department that some of the groups that you listed may not be the solution to the problem that you face? They might be the barrier and the ones stopping the Department engaging directly with communities to find out what people want from the delivery of education in their area. Those organisations, as representative bodies, are often engaged in protectionism.
Ms J Durkin: The Minister and the Department are committed to the inclusion within those groups of all key stakeholders. Obviously, those groups and those stakeholder groups need to engage with the schools in their particular sector to make them aware that there is a local area planning group and to make sure that their voice and concerns are heard. There is certainly a mechanism to do it, but I cannot comment on how effective that was at particular and individual sectoral levels. There is certainly a mechanism for schools in a particular area to present their views.
As I said earlier, the development proposal process is transparent. It is open to consultation and objection, as well as to views on support, and it certainly generates a lot of activity in terms of consultee responses to individual proposals.
Mr Flanagan: Paragraph 3.6 states that the area planning working group reviewed the area planning process in April 2013. It found fundamental processes such as the structure and format of area plans, proper oversight, governance and engagement had not been embedded. You tell me now, more or less with hindsight, that you can see that there were problems. Should those not have been identified at the start?
Mr Sweeney: I will comment because I was centrally involved in that. The context was one in which people were waiting for ESA, and the boards and CCMS were in the process of being dissolved.
Let us be honest: at the heart of this are turkeys voting for Christmas. A school will never put its hand up and say that it thinks that it is a candidate for closure. Likewise, without in any way being disrespectful to the boards or CCMS, it was very hard for those organisations, which were in the process of winding down and whose resources had been very seriously depleted, to muster the enthusiasm to engage with the momentum that the Department required in area-based planning.
It was very frustrating and difficult at the start. The Department had to get into the driver's seat and say, "Look, we are doing this." We were not going to hold out until we had perfected it to the nth degree, and there is no doubt that, in those early years, we learned a great deal. We issued guidance at the start, and, through time, we have perfected that. Without embarrassing any particular specified sector or organisation, there were varying degrees of enthusiasm in how some people embraced area-based planning at the start.
From the Department's point of view, we were going for a step change. We were determined to drive it and to require others to get on board. Although it was far from perfect, we have learned a great deal over the last number of years. We have improved our guidance and brought more people into the governance arrangements.
Mr Flanagan: Three years on, you have learned a great deal, but is this where you thought that you would be in three years?
Mr Sweeney: I spoke earlier about the number of development proposals coming forward. This year, there have been over 50. In the five-year period before the current five-year period, we were hitting about 10 or 12 per annum. We now hit close on 50 per annum. That is the evidence that we are getting traction on this.
Mr Flanagan: That is not necessarily a good thing. You do not measure the success of the area-planning process by the number of schools that you close or amalgamate.
Mr Sweeney: No, but the development proposal is the statutory process that underpins this. Yes, rationalising the school estate is at the heart of this. Therefore, the development proposal is the statutory process for doing that. It is one important indicator —
Mr Flanagan: For me, the barometer by which you are measuring progress indicates the same fundamental problem as there was with the area-planning process, in that all of your measurements are quantifiable as opposed to qualitative. You are looking at a number of development proposals, but you are not looking at the key fundamental point. One of the key fundamental points of area-based planning was to help schools that wanted to come together to do so. You are telling me that there were 50 development proposals in the past year, without telling me how many of them allowed for the joint management of schools or brought two schools from different sectors together, so it means nothing to me. It is just a number.
Mr Sweeney: We can drop down to whatever level of detail of the development proposal process that you want. I do not have it at my fingertips.
Mr Flanagan: You are measuring it by the number of development proposals, not outcomes. That is the problem with the system of governance that we have here.
Mr Sweeney: I am trying to indicate that there has been a step change. Look at the manner in which we introduced area-based planning in 2011. The point that I am trying to get across is that there has been considerable progress. One barometer of momentum is the number of development proposals that have come forward in recent years, compared with the period prior to 2011.
The key measurement at the heart of this, and the reason why we are doing it, is to ensure that every pupil gets a high-quality educational experience. Try as they might, a range of small schools, particularly in the post-primary sector, are struggling to get the critical mass that would enable them to deliver the core curriculum and the entitlement framework. Ultimately, we are saying, "Look, that's what's driving this." Yes, costs are behind it, and the capital needed to bring forward the rationalisation of the school estate is even more constrained than it has ever been. There is no hidden hit list of schools at the heart of this. At its heart are these questions: how can we drive up standards; and how can we ensure that every child gets the richest possible educational experience? We believe that a certain critical mass is required in the primary and post-primary sectors.
Mr Flanagan: Paul, I accept the rationale behind area-based planning, but we are looking at an historical process, and I do not think that it is being done properly. Paragraph 3.9 informs us that area planning:
"was not always a key item for discussion at departmental board level."
Mr Sweeney: I can explain that because I chair the departmental board, which is made up of the senior staff in the Department and two non-executive directors. To be fair to the auditors, they went through the minutes of the departmental board and looked for evidence of where area-based planning, for example, was specified. I hold the senior team to account through the corporate and business planning process. Area-based planning is an important part of the business planning process, and the departmental board holds itself to account across the business plan. I do not believe that insufficient mention of area-based planning on the departmental board agenda or minutes indicates that the Department is not taking this seriously. I am saying, unashamedly, to members, as the administrative head of the Department, that area-based planning has been at the very heart of what the Department has been engaged in over the last number of years. We have put very significant resources into it, and so have the former boards, the Education Authority and bodies such as CCMS.
Mr Butler: When I was chief executive of the south eastern region, area planning featured in every governance and accountability review (GAR) meeting that we had with the Department, as it did when we were progressing particular schools. It is also important that we set this in context. You mentioned shared management. We looked at where Northern Ireland was in that regard, and it was very clear that a number of schools did not see outside themselves.
Over the past 10 years, the entitlement framework has broken down those barriers, and we have schools working together, in collaboration. Historically, pupils did not have this chance to meet. We are starting from a base that is —
Mr Flanagan: Gregory, I hear what you are saying, but the shared education programme in Fermanagh has been hugely successful. There were schools in Fermanagh that wanted to work together, but, due to the mentality of the Western Education and Library Board and CCMS, they could not. I hear what you are saying about your area, but, I know that, in Fermanagh, there was a different scenario in which schools wanted to work together but barriers within the managing authorities would not let them. That is why I am talking about protectionism.
Mr Butler: All I can say is that, with the entitlement framework, the number of schools that work together right across the patch has grown dramatically over the years, particularly at A level, where subjects have been shared. Look right across the North, including the west, and there are examples of where various schools — Limavady was one of the first areas — have cooperated to ensure that pupils got the best, irrespective of whether they were in the Catholic sector, the controlled sector or the grammar sector.
There are good examples right across the board. There is that culture, but that does not evolve overnight. For a lot of areas, that has been a very difficult part. In some areas under my previous board, such as in south Armagh, there were serious difficulties because of historical issues. The schools in those areas have embraced those ideas, but, from a personal point of view, that has been at a very big cost. We have to start on the basis of where schools and communities are at.
Mr Flanagan: Gregory, schools are sometimes ahead of the managing authorities.
Mr Butler: I do not disagree. I think that part of what we have learned over the years is that we have to evolve, because part of being a managing authority, in the broader sense, is that you cater for the totality. The exceptions sometimes cause you difficulties. We have had to learn over the past number of years how to change so that we are more reactive. I openly say that about my two previous boards, but I say it about other bodies as well.
Mr Flanagan: Paul, you mentioned the communications strategy, and paragraph 3.15 states that there was no communications strategy for the area planning process and that managing authorities and other stakeholders have adopted different processes for communicating with schools. You have accepted that that is a problem. How will you, as a Department, now rectify it?
Mr Sweeney: We accept that more could have been done, but, even if you just take the evidence in the report — I will quote a figure that may be quoted — you will find that there were approximately 43,000 responses to the post-primary area-based planning process. In the primary sector, there were a lot less; it was less than 10,000. It is not as though there has not been communication. I think that the Department, the boards and CCMS in particular have communicated with their respective sectors.
You can never communicate enough. I mentioned that the University of Ulster and Queen's University complimented us on the range of data that we put out there. Clearly, the auditors, when they spoke to that sample of principals, heard loud and clear that the principals felt that the communication was poor and that a range of schools have been kept in the dark. We have to do more. A documented communications strategy, if you like, was never compiled. That is something that we can look at.
Mr Flanagan: You had 43,000 respondents. I would love to see how many of them were ignored, because I think that the vast majority of people who responded opposed the proposals that were put forward by the managing authorities. The terms of reference for the area planning process are mentioned at paragraph 3.3. There were six of them, I think, and one of them is exploring opportunities for cross-border planning. Were all the terms of reference complied with, and how was compliance with them measured by the Department?
Mr Sweeney: I do not know whether colleagues want to comment, but we required the bodies that were participating in the area-based planning process to adhere to the framework.
Mr Flanagan: Maybe Gregory can give us a specific example of how his area engaged with exploring opportunities for cross-border planning.
Mr Butler: The South Eastern Board does not do a lot of cross-border planning, because we do not have a border.
Mr Butler: I will go back to the Southern Board area; I am just talking about my present area. We worked with a range of people, maybe more at the upper end, to see where there were possibilities, and we did some cross-border work. We worked with different authorities in the South, particularly the vocational education committees (VECs), as did the west in Sligo and Monaghan, etc. We did a range of cross-border projects. There are specific problems when you come to linking the schools because of the difference in the ages of people who go to school plus the curriculum part. So, there were opportunities to explore cross-border work, and a range of work was done, particularly with the VECs, which were the authorities that were largely delivering on that part.
However, they were more at a project-type base. It was about developing understanding. The structural part was more difficult, largely because of the differences between where the education processes are in the South and the North and the qualification, etc. I know that the Western Board explored that area in recent times, but, structurally, it was very difficult. At local level, a lot of projects were about developing cross-border understanding. The major thrust along the border areas on that was about cross-border understanding. The structural part has come more recently, but it is not as easy. As I said, where people have certain requirements with working towards their Leaving Certificate, that is different from gap years, etc. The lining up of the systems nearly requires something at a much higher level than the managing authorities.
Mr Flanagan: Take the example of Newtownhamilton High School, I think it is, where people from the South are transferring to for a year out, and of places like Newtownbutler and Belleek, where people want the opportunity to go to a post-primary school in Clones or Ballyshannon instead of having to go to Enniskillen. Did that feature in the area planning process at all?
Mr Butler: We would have facilitated that. Newtownhamilton is a very good example; it is one of the schools that I referred to in relation to the partnership. One of the best presentations I ever heard was from Newtownhamilton on how it met the sustainable schools. I have always defended it being retained as a small school, largely because of its geographical location. Part of the way that we assisted it with that was that we were facilitating it in drawing pupils from the South, but that was on the understanding that they would meet our curriculum because we could not deliver the Southern curriculum.
Mr Sweeney: If this is helpful for members, where North/South cooperation on schooling is concerned, broadly speaking, the numbers are about 400 pupils coming from the South and about 200 pupils from the North. Under the auspices of the NSMC in education sectoral format, the Department, along with its counterpart in Dublin, commissioned a North/South survey of schools. We looked at the parameters of 6 miles on either side of the border in primary provision and 12 miles in post-primary provision. We sought views on the scope for greater North/South cooperation on that. There may be particular schools — Phil will be very much aware of one particular school in Fermanagh — where there is scope for looking at even further enhanced North/South cooperation. The Department and its counterpart in Dublin are more than prepared to look at those local arrangements.
Mr Flanagan: Three of the six measures for deciding a sustainable school are quantifiable, and three are qualitative. Why did the area planning process focus on the three that could very easily be looked at with numbers and financial figures?
Mr Sweeney: Maybe I am talking too much; maybe Lorraine, who was very much at the heart of it, could say something.
Mrs Finlay: When the Minister commissioned the area planning process, he commissioned at the same time a viability audit. In taking that work forward, we sought to bring together information that was already available. That led us to the sustainable schools policy and the three criteria that are very measurable: quality; finance; and enrolment. That information was put forward to initiate debate in communities where schools maybe were not as familiar with what was going on in their whole area. The viability audit, which has now transformed and has become the annual area profile, was the Minister saying that everyone needs to know what is going on in their area. They need to know what the state of play is amongst schools. They need to know what stress there is in the system. While it was much maligned, as it says in the report, it has become a very useful tool, and people are now more willing to engage because they have more information.
Mr Flanagan: Have you made any efforts on a totality basis to look at the other three measurements, such as links to the community and the types of measurements that you cannot simply put a figure on but that are a fundamental purpose of small rural schools in particular?
Mrs Finlay: The information that was in the viability audit and now in the annual area profiles is really just a trigger for discussion. If you are looking at any specific school, we look at all the criteria. If any changes are to be made to a school, we go through the six criteria and take into account all the unique circumstances, particularly in a rural setting.
Mr Flanagan: It might be a bit late at that stage, because the initial process has, effectively, established a hit list of schools that the Department may seek to close in future. The knock-on consequence of that is that parents will say, "I am not sending my child to that school if it is going to close". Then you will have even further reduced enrolments in a school, and the Department, CCMS or the Education Authority will look at a school and say, "This school has a declining enrolment. We should close it. The other three criteria do not even count, because the enrolments are that low".
Mrs Finlay: The thing about the sustainable schools policy is that it is not just about school closures; it was designed as a framework for school managing authorities to review their schools but also for schools to review themselves. It should not come as a surprise to a school that it is not sustainable. All the criteria and the indicators are there —
Mr Flanagan: Not financially sustainable. That is different to sustainable.
Mrs Finlay: Sustainable under any of the criteria.
Mr Flanagan: Are you telling me that a school is unsustainable if it does not meet one of the —
Mrs Finlay: No, I did not say that. What I am saying is that all the criteria can be applied differently. They may have different importance in every school's unique circumstance. A school that has 700 or 800 pupils is not going to be challenged on its enrolment; therefore, that criterion is not —
Mr Flanagan: Why do we have such a subjective sustainable schools policy?
Mrs Finlay: The sustainable schools policy was designed to allow for unique and individual school circumstances. It would be very easy for us to set out a list of criteria that schools meet or not. The flexibility in the school was inbuilt in the sustainable schools policy to allow for the very situation that you are discussing, which is —
Mr Flanagan: I contend that it allows the Department to do whatever it wants whenever it wants, as opposed to meeting the needs of children in school communities. You have a rule there that says that you must have an enrolment of 500 pupils to be a sustainable 11-to-16 school. That is a rule; that is exactly what you need. However, it is advisable that children should not have to travel more than 45 minutes. Why is that not a rule as well with the same weight as the enrolment figure of 500 pupils in a school?
Mrs Finlay: That is because every school has its own unique set of circumstances. To apply it mechanistically and rigidly would mean that more schools would be disadvantaged than advantaged.
Mr Flanagan: I do not see how giving the length of time that children have to travel to a school the same weight in the six criteria as the number of children in a school is treating schools badly. It would be more of a protection for schools that feel under threat from closure if they are told that there has to be a post-primary school within 45 minutes for those children.
Mrs Finlay: The thing is that we are not looking at it from a school perspective; we are looking at it from the child's perspective. You have to put the pupil first.
Mr Flanagan: But the answer that you gave me was that it was to protect schools.
Mrs Finlay: You have to put the pupil first in this. You are looking at quality education for pupils and at the distance for pupils. The criteria are not designed to keep schools opened; they are designed to make sure that children are getting a worthwhile educational experience and that they are not having to travel unreasonable distances.
Mr Flanagan: Some of us might contend that they are there to keep schools closed, but that is a different point.
I want to move on to paragraph 3.5. The last two bullet points on page 31 of the report state that planning was:
"essentially segregated by the two largest sectors — Maintained and Controlled"
"little evidence of sharing information across sectors."
Is that something that you accept?
Ms J Durkin: That was a view that was expressed by some of the stakeholders —
Ms J Durkin: We accepted that that is how they felt about it, and that is how they reported it to the Audit Office team —
"little evidence of sharing information across sectors"?
I hear what you are saying — that it is a perception — but that is the kind of apology that people give when they say, "I am sorry if you were offended". They are saying, "I am not sorry that I offended you, but I am sorry if you were offended". People are saying that there was little evidence. Do you accept that there was little evidence?
Ms J Durkin: The information on annual area profiles is published and available to everyone. It is available to all sectors and to parents, the public and anyone who has an interest in it. All the area planning guidance and development proposal guidance, again, is available to everyone and can be accessed on the departmental website.
In terms of information —
Ms J Durkin: The Department provided the Education Authority with information to inform the publication of —
Mr Flanagan: Why did you not just publish it yourselves? The whole point of the process was to try to get the education and library boards and the other sectors to engage, but now you are telling me that it was just to provide information to everybody. I do not understand why the Department did not just do that itself, instead of spending all this money, as you told me you have spent, on area planning.
Ms J Durkin: The annual area profile information that is published by the Education Authority and available to all on its website is based on information from the Department. It is the responsibility of the Education Authority to develop and publish the area plan, informed by the views of all the stakeholders and certainly being mindful of the statutory obligations to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium and integrated education.
The statutory process and planning provision rests with the statutory planning authorities, EA and CCMS, but the intention always was and is that the other stakeholders are involved in and inform that process. There is absolute transparency about the information that is out there; it is available to all. The development proposal, mission and advice to the Minister on which he bases his decision are open and available to all.
Mr Flanagan: You are talking about transparency and the information that is available to everybody, but should, for example, the information published by the Western Education and Library Board have been shared with CCMS, the Irish-medium sector and the integrated sector before it was published? Then they could all have looked at it at the same time, as opposed to it just being published and you saying, "You can look at it the same as any other citizen".
Ms J Durkin: The draft area plan would have been subject to consultation prior to publication and would have been made available through the local planning groups.
Mr Flanagan: But it was not done in a joint fashion. It was done in a way that said, "This is what we're publishing. What do you think?"
Ms J Durkin: I suggest that it was up to the stakeholder groups to make their views known at that stage. Obviously, as part of the consultation process, which, as we heard, was wide-ranging —
Mr Flanagan: It is a bit late for somebody to make their views known if CCMS published a plan and said, "This is what we're doing", and the library board published a plan saying, "This is what we're doing". The whole point of the exercise was to bring the two of them together.
Ms J Durkin: Certainly, with the new, revised governance structures that have been put in place and are being implemented, as mentioned, the intention is that there is full and meaningful discussion at a local level with all the sectors involved to make sure that annual action plans and area plans are informed by the views of each sector and that there is an opportunity to discuss those. Not everyone will agree with everything, but the intention is that there is an area plan that reflects the need for provision in a particular area.
Mr Flanagan: The examples that I have in Fermanagh are of schools that engage in the shared education programme with the Fermanagh Trust. Those schools tell me that, unless they had put in a serious battle with the library board and CCMS, their proposals for sharing would not have been included. So, there are some proposals for sharing in Fermanagh, largely due to the efforts of the school communities themselves, and despite the best efforts of the library board and CCMS. Can you tell me what the Department has done or is doing to monitor the progress that the Education Authority has made or is making with regard to proposals or plans of that nature? From what I am hearing at schools, it is very little. Is there any light that the Department can shed on what the Education Authority is doing?
Mr Sweeney: The important overarching framework is the Shared Education Bill that the Department is bringing forward at the moment. That will place a duty on the Education Authority and CCMS to encourage and facilitate shared education.
Mr Flanagan: No; I think you might be wrong there, Paul. I think it is a power to do it, not a duty to do it.
Mr Sweeney: The strong intent is to facilitate and encourage wherever we can —
Mr Sweeney: There will certainly be a duty — a power — on the Education Authority, the Youth Council, CCMS and others to make their best endeavours to encourage and facilitate shared education. That was the intent of the Assembly in establishing the Education Authority, and we are giving legislative effect to that now.
Mr Flanagan: So is the shared Education Bill how you propose to try to get the managing authorities and the Education Authority a wee bit more on board in that regard?
Mr Butler: Jacqui mentioned the new framework part. I think that is the difference. We are now moving from five education boards, which were independent bodies that had their own representation, to a single body. The single body has been in place only since April, so, obviously, we have to put the information, etc, on it. The structures put in place by the Department are facilitating and encouraging the groups to work together at local and area planning level, so there has been greater engagement with the authorities right across the regions since the formation of those new structures, because all the parties are at the table at the area planning steering group, the area planning working groups and the local groups. Particularly in the local groups, that is a major, important part. I am actually quite happy that Fermanagh Trust is bringing forward proposals to challenge. At the local level, people developing models is what we should be encouraging.
Over the years, the best community development has come from communities, not from government.
Mr Flanagan: The people that we cannot get around the table are the statutory bodies.
Mr Butler: I think that that is changing.
Mr Sweeney: We will have to look at that. Certainly, over and above the statutory framework that we are working on, we have put the shared education fund in place along with Atlantic Philanthropies, which is about £25 million. Again, that is significant. There is also a presumption that there will be an element on shared education in Peace IV, so, I think that there is a real step change, both at a legislative and programme and funding level, in encouraging and facilitating shared education.
If there is a criticism that there is insufficient engagement by bodies such as the Education Authority, CCMS and others and you are picking that up on the ground, then it is important that we hear that and we take that on board.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Sorry, Mr Flanagan; I am going to have to bring Mr Wells in now, and I will allow you to finish your questioning at the end.
Mr Wells: I suppose that things have been warmed up for the tough questioning. Can I ask a straight question? You used St Killian's as an example: I know St Killian's very well for a totally different reason. I notice that the approved places limit is 800 but there are actually 846 enrolled. Is there any particular reason why you have exceeded your enrolment by such a significant number?
Mr Butler: I declare an interest at this stage, Chair, in that I am a former pupil.
Mr Wells: Quite a few famous people have come from the old Garron Tower.
Mrs Finlay: I do not know all the reasons definitely, but I suspect that it could be linked to the sixth form. There are increasing numbers of young people staying on at sixth form. We could provide you with the facts, but I suspect that it is linked with the sixth form.
Mr Wells: I just thought it odd that you used it as an example when it broke your own rules by easily exceeding the number, and, presumably, taking pupils from somewhere else like Ballycastle or Ballymena, to increase the numbers.
Mrs Finlay: I do not have the details, so I —
Mr Wells: There is something very interesting in figure 7. The thing that hit me in these figures is that you have got School G, with 135 pupils costing £3,306 per pupil. That is very favourable compared to some of the other schools, such as School B, which has 353 pupils and is costing more; it costs £3,414. That indicates to me that, if a school is run effectively, then size does not matter. Is there any particular reason why one school, which is almost double the size of the other, does not perform so well as the smaller one?
Mrs Finlay: I do not think that you can take the figures and divide them by the number of pupils, because there is the age-weighted pupil unit that every school gets for every pupil, and then there are additional funds for targeting social need and free school meals etc. It is hard without knowing exactly which school it is and what additional funding it is getting to determine whether it is being well run or is more efficient. You cannot just take that at face value.
Mr Wells: Yet, you use that figure to indicate that the bigger the school, the more cost-effective the education, although so many other factors come into play.
Mrs Finlay: Those are Audit Office figures; we did not —
Mr Wells: Yes, but, does that not show you that an effectively run school can come in at a very reasonable budget per pupil? Looking at some of the figures quoted here by the Audit Office, you can see that, first, a school of 55 costs £4,000 per pupil. That is not hugely more than a school of 416; it is not a vast amount of money.
Mrs Finlay: Without knowing the background to these schools, it is difficult to say whether it is because it is efficiently run or because it is getting additional funds for a particular reason.
Mr Wells: The small schools support fund and the primaries' principal release fund comes to quite a large amount of money; roughly £36 million. Do you think that that is an effective mechanism? Is it delivering value for money?
Mr Sweeney: We consulted widely on the common funding formula. There were over 15,000 responses to that. As a result of that process, the Minister concluded that he would not visit the small schools support factor at the moment but would keep it under review.
To go back to where we began this afternoon; it is about taking each school and judging it on its own circumstances. With the rural nature of Northern Ireland, if you have small numbers of pupils and small schools, invariably, the costs and overheads are significant. It is a premium, and there is community appetite for keeping small schools open. You have to weigh up the value for money and financial attributes of that, and the non-financials such as community confidence, the role that the school plays etc. We are keeping the common funding formula support for schools under review. The Minister has indicated that he is not minded to revisit the small schools support factor at this time, but, in his statement, he said that it was something that one should not presume would be in place for ever and a day, and that it would be reviewed. At the moment, we have a working group in the Department looking at our financial support for schools, which includes the small schools support factor.
Mr Wells: I appreciate your earlier comments about the importance of schools to beleaguered minority communities. I will be the first to say that the loss of Castlewellan secondary school was disastrous for the Protestant minority in that area. Inevitably, people vote with their feet and move out if there is no education available at secondary level. I am glad you said that because, inevitably, that argument will be made on both sides of the community, and I am glad you have quoted from it.
You mentioned area planning at great length, and we are all very aware of it. Does the small schools funding scheme sit uneasily with area planning?
Mr Sweeney: At one level I could, intellectually and logically, answer that question by saying yes. If there was a situation whereby Mr Spock was coming down and was planning to provide an education system in Northern Ireland — and was prepared to set aside a whole range of community factors in the diverse and pluralist nature of our community — then, by all means, he could organise the schools estate differently.
However, you have to factor in all those community and societal issues and the premium that a community is prepared to place on rurality and on the critical role that small schools play. As I said earlier, it is the role of any given Department to respond to the financial and the non-financial considerations.
Mr Wells: Is there any evidence that small schools produce poorer educational attainment outcomes?
Mr Sweeney: The short answer is no. You cannot equate the smallness of a school with poor educational outcomes. We can see a variety of outcomes regardless of the scale of schools. We have seen small schools producing terrific educational outcomes. Some of that might be purely because the classes are so small and because of the attention that teachers can give on a per pupil basis.
Mr Wells: So, if we accept that — and I have lots of evidence of it in my constituency — and we accept that schools can come in at a budget that is not significantly higher than the very large schools, then some of this drive towards rationalisation does not seem to make an awful lot of sense.
Mr Sweeney: Again, it depends. The curriculum and the entitlement framework develop, and we spoke about this earlier, at post-primary level, where we are trying to ensure that each post-primary school, particularly at GCSE level and beyond, is able to deliver the full raft of the curriculum through the entitlement framework. A range of schools is clearly struggling to do that because they do not have sufficient scale, and this needs to be looked at, particularly at sixth-form level.
Likewise, if there is a situation where there are two small schools from a similar denomination, if I can use that term, and a degree of proximity, then there will be a case for rationalisation. A discussion can be had about the school considering amalgamation so that, as a result, it is able to provide an even richer educational experience and deliver the curriculum more fully.
These are the sorts of discussions that we believe the area-based planning process has sought to initiate.
Mr Wells: The next time I am back at St Killian's, I will look for the plaque on the wall saying: "Greg Butler was educated here." It is bound to be there somewhere. Again, this is an example of what was a comparatively small grammar school in its time, in a very poor rural area. I was taught in a very small rural school and then moved up to a much bigger one. However, big is not beautiful in this situation. The other issue is this: are you taking into account, when you make an assessment, amalgamate and close schools, whether the figures include the extra transport costs? Is it the whole picture, or is it just the price of educating a child in that particular building?
Ms J Durkin: In amalgamations, there would be a range of inputs to the proposal across directorates, and transport would be one aspect. While an estimation could be made, you would not know the exact costs for sure until it was implemented. It is an issue that is reviewed and looked at as part of the amalgamation proposal. The amalgamation guidance, published earlier this year, looks at a number of features and issues that need to be estimated when a proposal for amalgamation comes forward.
Mr Flanagan: I have a tiny point to ask about Jim's question. We were talking about the potential transport implications of amalgamating schools. Has the Department tried to assess the savings that could be made by harmonising school holidays? I look around Fermanagh, and see that schools are taking different periods off for Halloween, St Patrick's Day and other bank holidays and church holidays — which nobody really complies with any more anyway, because all church holidays have now moved to Sundays. Has the Department come up with a figure for how much could be saved through the following: reduced wastage of fuel; savings on paying drivers; and not having to have school canteens open when a school is closed in order to move dinners to a smaller school that does not have a canteen but is open? Have you figures for that?
Mr Sweeney: My short answer is no. The explanation is that a great deal of autonomy is ascribed to schools under local management of schools (LMS) so that boards of governors can make that type of decision. Just to give you a highlight figure, 'The Independent Review of Home to School Transport', said that, theoretically, in a dictatorship, where every pupil is required to go to the nearest school regardless of choice, you could reduce a cohort of about 90,000 pupils who are travelling under subsidised school transport by 14,000 pupils, if you brought about the situation where by requirement was that everybody had to go to their nearest school, regardless of character, etc.
Mr Flanagan: You would save 14,000 pupil journeys by doing that?
Mr Sweeney: Yes, 14,000 out of 90,000 pupil journeys; that is what the independent review concluded. We have not done the sort of exercise you spoke of because it would be against the grain of giving autonomy to the board of governors to run their schools.
Mr Flanagan: This is similar to the benefits you described of the area planning process and the viability audit, where you put information out there. If you were to do a piece of work and highlight that £x could be saved by harmonising school holidays, you would not be forcing that on schools. You would be saying that, if in this area, you harmonised all your school holidays, this is how much we could save and redirect into other education service provision.
Mr Sweeney: You have to take these ideas on board. However, my gut reaction — and others please comment — is that it can be quite expensive to undertake a piece of research at that level, which might be at a cost that is disproportionate to what it might yield. I think the likelihood is that schools would be riled by it because it runs against that grain of autonomy at board of governors level. We require schools to open a minimum of x days per annum. What a board of governors decides reflects the character of that school and respects local traditions. That decision is delegated to the board of governors. Yes, in theory, we could do the exercise. I think it would be costly and might not yield a proportionate benefit, but I think that it would —
Mr Flanagan: I tell you, Paul, that you genuinely have no idea how bad things are in rural communities. School buses are travelling with three people on them because two out of the three schools in the area are closed. This means that, where a bus might do, say, one out of the five days in the week of Halloween, it is out every single day to meet the needs of one of the three schools.
Mr Sweeney: When you put it like that, it is very frustrating and I do not want to see wastage. However, one needs to respect the fact that it is a central tenet that a great deal of autonomy is ascribed to schools.
Mr Flanagan: You do not need to dictate to them. You merely need to say that this is how much could be saved if they did this; so, would they consider doing it?
Mr Sweeney: Certainly. Rather than do a complete regional study, what if one did a very local study just to see what the potential savings would be. You could then perhaps extrapolate that on a regional basis.
Mr Sweeney: That is something that we would want to consider.
Mr Sweeney: Well, I am saying —
Mr Sweeney: You can see that I am trying to kind of —
Mr Butler: The Western Board does not exist.
Mr Beggs: On capital funding for small schools, particularly where there is agreement to amalgamate them, and bearing in mind that they frequently operate with poor accommodation but, perhaps, excellent teaching — and in my experience, the primary school that I went to had not changed since the turn of the century until a recent upgrade — my question is this: where small schools agree to amalgamate, how is that prioritised as regards capital funding? I will use the example of Islandmagee, where three schools agreed to amalgamate. The site was actually bought in 2006-07, but there is still no capital funding to build the school. I understand that 120 or 126 pupils are expected for enrolment next September. If we look at the birth rates, we will see that they have increased in every one of the last four years, but there is still no capital funding to encourage amalgamation.
Mr Sweeney: I cannot comment on capital, but if two schools were amalgamating then, obviously, that would be subject to a development proposal, because it would potentially have a significant impact on an area. Assuming that the development proposal went ahead, that there was broad community support for it, and that the Minister of Education signed off on it, you would then come to the extent to which the capital programme in the Department was completely aligned to area-based planning. We have sought to align it as closely as we possibly can.
As regards making decisions around where capital investment might go, a whole range of criteria is brought to bear. One of the factors is the extent to which this would help towards the rationalisation of the schools estate. That is only one of a number of factors. The point I am trying to make, and I am maybe labouring it here, is that you would make the development proposal, amalgamation would then be approved, but that that would not guarantee, as of right, a new capital investment. It would certainly be factored into the decision-making process as to where scarce capital resources would go. An element of premium would be placed on the amalgamation, other factors would be considered, and, when you run that through the process, if the school comes out the other end, it would then be prioritised. As regards whether there would be sufficient end capital to make the scheme go ahead, you can see that, very often, to pull all this off in a coordinated manner is like a Rubik's cube.
Mr Beggs: Can you see that where there is need, where there is old, outdated accommodation —
Mr Sweeney: Yes; absolutely.
Mr Beggs: — where it actually fits in with the area plan and where there is agreement to amalgamate, there is huge frustration when money is being found for new secondary schools for 14 pupils and yet money is not being found for those agreed amalgamations of small schools.
Mr Sweeney: It can be frustrating. One of the authorities that we work with — maybe I will not name it — to its own corporate risk, has said that one of the impediments to area-based planning is aligning its processes to the capital programme and having sufficient funds in the capital programme to accelerate area-based planning. So, yes, I know only too well how frustrating this can be.
Mr Beggs: — why many like me think that no priority is being given to capital funding even though it seems to buy into the area plan and indeed need?
Mr Sweeney: I can see how it is frustrating. I am assuring you this afternoon that the area-based planning process is aligned to the capital programme, but if you are amalgamated or closed, that does not give you, as of right, automatic access to new-build capital.
Mr Beggs: I look forward to seeing it being aligned.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): I support Mr Beggs on this because primary schools are amalgamating in my area. Schools have been named here already. I am talking about St Joseph's, St Patrick's and Loughash primary schools. Going back to the consultation process; individuals believed that it was not open and transparent, and they now believe that the development proposals coming forward should be nullified.
In the same respect, if three schools are amalgamating on a particular site, individuals might believe that there is no capacity or area to amalgamate the schools on that site and that it merits a capital new build. In trying to restore faith in that process, and other processes like it, how will the Department and the board address issues around amalgamation where a proposal is that it goes on one site or the other while others believe that that is not suitable? This is the impact on the ground, and this is what we are being told by those at the front line. How will that be addressed? How do you restore schools' faith in the process?
Mr Butler: When you are talking about a development proposal and amalgamation, you have to be as honest as you can about the end result. Seven years ago, prior to the major financial downturn, there was an expectancy that, if you were doing an amalgamation, you got rid of a school. The message we have been giving out very clearly over the past couple of years is that that is not guaranteed, and we have been saying, "You have to look at how you would deliver it". We did an amalgamation last year, along the carriageway, and we did not promise a new school. We even said that we would have to operate on split sites during the initial period. We were very honest about that.
When a development proposal is coming forward, the managing authorities have to be very honest about where the school will be. It is one of the things that, with a case for change, the Department has now introduced. It requires the Department to state the capital requirements of the build. That information should be made very clear to people when you are discussing the amalgamation. There is a need for very clear honesty about whether it is possible, whether it requires adjustment to the site through minor works or whether it is possible with a split site. That should be part of the information shared at the time of the DP.
Mr Butler: That is why I am saying that it should be upfront. In the one from last year that I talked about, we were very clear that it was not dependent on a new build. That may occur in years to come, but we said, at the time of the proposal, that we could not even guarantee that it would operate on a single site. We managed that, in the end, but the guarantee was that we would work towards it operating on a single site but not necessarily with a new build. That is the honesty that has to come when you bring forward a proposal.
Mr Poots: I am a tad confused today; some people might say that is nothing unusual. Was it not about 10 years ago that we were talking about 50,000 empty school places? Am I wrong about that? Was that not commonly reported?
Mr Sweeney: Yes, the core figure in the report specifies it.
Mr Sweeney: We have the exact figure there. Page 20 of the report sets out that, in 2005-06, the figure was 53,000. Today, it is 71,000.
Mr Poots: So we have taken 14,000 desks out of the system.
Mr Sweeney: With respect, we covered this in some detail earlier in the session.
Mr Poots: Are fewer children attending school now than 10 years ago? In most of my area, certainly in the primary sector, there have been increases year on year, and an awful lot of those schools are at capacity.
Mr Sweeney: We could recap on the demographic trends regionally, but there is no doubt that, in parts of Northern Ireland — and I would venture that your constituency is a case in point — there have been big peaks of population.
Mr Butler: In Lisburn, there were 1,450 births in 2000. In 2010, there were 1,759. Lisburn has had an increase over that period of about 14·9%. In other areas, such as Limavady, there has been a decrease. There are areas where there has been a change in population. In Dungannon, there was a 43% increase. Some of that is tied to the newcomers, but there have been different pockets. When I moved from the Southern Board to the South Eastern Board, I found that there was a very different pattern in that, in some areas, there had been a major increase in the school population while, in other areas, there had been a decrease. So, there has been a mixed picture across Northern Ireland.
Since 2004, we have seen an increase in the primary sector but a decrease in the post-primary level. You will be aware of that in Lisburn, where two schools, particularly over the past period, had a major decrease; but that will come back over the next period. So, there is a different pattern, according to where you are in Northern Ireland. It is fluctuation. Ards, for example, had a 21.41% change over that time, but Belfast had a 15% change. Obviously, the numbers are different there. Since 2000, the population has increased, and, since 2004, the school population at primary level has increased, but you are not back to levels.
I will go back to 1963, because it is the year I was born. In 1963, there was a birth rate of 34,000 a year. We then went into a dip, which then broke down to 21,000 a year. That was year on year, so you were talking about a major change in the school population. In recent years, there have been increases in the primary sector in some pockets like Fermanagh, for example, where there is a differing version. Ballymoney is very interesting. Coleraine has decreased, but Ballymoney has increased, largely due to the university. There are patterns that were very different. In the southern region, you will find that there is growth as you move out from the major population along the carriageway, because of the motorway and road network system. There are increases in Dungannon, Craigavon and Dromore because of the dual part of the new dual carriageway. Armagh, however, has one of the least population changes. So, there is a very sporadic picture across Northern Ireland, but the overall trend has been growth at the primary sector and decrease at post-primary level, but that will come back every seven years.
Mr Poots: In forward planning, you are starting to see that feed into the —
Mr Butler: Yes, we project that into what we are looking at. We covered this earlier, but the difficulty in the post-primary sector is that, because grammar schools are holding on to pupils, the big pressure points become the non-selective schools. They get to the stage where they are not sustainable regarding curriculum delivery, prior to the new numbers coming forward. So, you will have that period of seven years where you have that major issue, and you cannot say to those pupils, "Because you happened in that dip, you are not going to get that quality of education.". We have to manage during those dips. These dips are normal, but the 2000 dip was a double-dip. You had the normal dip, but women were putting off having children until later, because the economics were better at that stage. So, there was a five-year delay. That is why there were major increases, five years later. This is a trend. We have looked back at the trend in data since 1950, and we are saying what will happen in the next seven years. There is a particular problem in managing that at post-primary level, because the schools are getting to such a level that they cannot deliver the quality of education that they should. We cannot stand over that in relation to making a provision, because quality education must be the main driving point.
Mr Poots: The extent of the surplus places seems to be greater outside the Belfast board area. Is that a rural-related issue?
Mr Butler: The biggest part is in the primary sector. A lot of that is due to the geography of the area, but it is also due to the politics of Northern Ireland, the location of schools and the intermix between certain areas. You may have a particular population surrounded by other populations, where you are retaining pockets. The issue of surplus places is biggest in the primary sector, and a very large proportion of that is in rural areas.
Mr Poots: Have you investigated the reasons for the variations.
Mr Butler: I have just given you some of the parts. We know the reasons for the variations. I will give you an example. Years ago, we were going to close a small school in a town where the population was 3:1. One community said, "We want to retain that school.". That school has now worked towards a shared education campus. We facilitated that as part of the process. That is an example of where the community said, "We want this community to be a mixed community. We are retaining the other school. We are not closing it". So, there are examples of where we have looked at areas and there have been different reasons for retaining a school.
Mr Dallat: That is one issue I totally support, because I believe firmly that we are a much enriched nation when we have two communities and are not pushed into orange and green on the map.
Mr Butler: That is why I am saying that there is a multiplicity of factors. I coordinate the viability audit and the area profiles, so I see every school in Northern Ireland and where the particular parts are. One of the interesting things that we did over the past few years is that we geo-mapped every pupil at school. We can see where a school is catering for a community and where it is drawing pupils from outside, so we can say, "That's not a community school." A big factor that Paul mentioned is about whether the local community supports a school. If you find a school that is sitting somewhere and all the pupils are coming from everywhere around it —
Mr Dallat: An awful polarisation of the population occurred in the 1970s. I take it that there is nothing like that now.
Mr Butler: There is some change, but there are still a lot of areas where the polarisation —
Mr Butler: There have also been major changes in terms of population shifts in certain areas. You have areas in which there have been dramatic changes, but certain pockets have not changed from the 1970s and are still there. We find a number of areas where populations are changing; there are particular areas where there are more mixed marriages, but you have a range of things, with newcomers changing the picture dramatically. We have an evolving picture, but we still have a lot of pockets across Northern Ireland where we have situations that, unfortunately, are not unlike the 1970s.
Mr Butler: I would be being less than honest if I did not say that that was the case.
Mr Poots: I am hugely sympathetic to the problems around empty desks. It is not purely a bean-counting exercise; there are far too many complexities. For a start, we have many different systems of education, and there are so many government bodies —
Mr Butler: Without naming schools, I will give an example in your constituency. There are a couple of schools that, had we just applied the area-planning criteria, we would have closed down. We looked at those and felt that those communities deserved a particular school, so we have looked at measures that could facilitate those schools being retained in those communities, even though there was pressure in other areas in that particular city. That is an example of where the application of area planning is not just an exercise where you look at the figures and apply it. We looked at the totality of the area and said, "This area requires a social mix." It is one faith background, but it was important that that social mix was there to stop what was identified earlier in the schools in those particular areas dropping down. We put in a series of measures to support those schools. In terms of growing again, there were a mixture of some capital measures and some support mechanisms, but that meant that the overall balance was retained. We have found that those numbers have grown in that particular location. That is because the population in that particular area merited that. We knew that there was a population to merit it, so we did it as a complete area-planning issue. We did a similar exercise in Bangor, which we referred to earlier; we looked at Bangor in totality to address the problem of oversubscribed and undersubscribed schools. While there may not be big scores in area planning, a lot of individual stories at local level have proved that the concept works.
Mr Clarke: The geographical information that you have proves another thing, which is that some parents and children drive past schools. They do that because they know that the schools are not up to standard, but the Education Authority or the boards have done nothing to change those schools to make them more sustainable for parents by dealing with the problems such as a lack of good teaching standards. I would even go so far as to say that, in some cases in my constituency, the heads of the schools are not up to the standard, but they have pussyfooted around them rather than getting rid of them.
Mr Butler: The permanent secretary will probably comment on what the Department and the inspectorate have done over the past few years in terms of moving the process on. There are a variety of reasons why parents drive past schools. Some are very practical points, such as where they work —
Mr Clarke: Some of them are because of the outcomes of the schools.
Mr Butler: Some are also very much about what their childcare arrangements are. I accept that there are cases where it is because of the quality of education in a school, but I would not say that that is the only reason why people drive past.
Mr Clarke: Sorry to cut across Edwin on this, but it is an awful indictment that, sometimes, parents are castigated for driving past a school or not going to the closest school. They may be doing it for the very best reasons; they want the best for their child. If the Education Authority or the boards grabbed the nettle and dealt with the core problem, which is the teaching standards in the schools, some of those parents would not have to drive past schools; they could go to their local school.
Mr Butler: That problem has been addressed more and more over the past four or five years, particularly working with the inspectorate and the whole process of formal intervention. There is a process starting. It may not be as universal as we would like, but it has definitely had a lot of traction over the last five years.
Mr Poots: I welcome Mr Clarke's intervention. It was not pre-planned either. I am aware of a school where the parents drive north, south, east and west to schools that are full around that area. The school numbers in the area are only sustained by the fact that the schools around it cannot take any more children because they are full, otherwise that school would be heading towards closure. When a proportion of the board of governors wanted to move against the headmaster, they did not get any support from the old education board. In fact, a few yes-men were appointed to the board of governors by the education board. So, instead of dealing with the failures of that school, which were generally about the leadership of it, the education board actually enhanced the position of the individual and ensured that failure continues in that particular facility. That community is deserving of a good quality school, and the people of it should not have to go elsewhere to seek quality education. I am sure that that is not an isolated case.
Mr Poots: I expect that it is happening in constituencies across Northern Ireland. Thankfully, not many, but there are cases. When are we going to stand up, deal with those failing school principals and ensure that those communities are properly served?
Mr Sweeney: Earlier, we commented on what progress has been made since I last reported to the Committee two years ago on those specific issues. The particular issue that Mr Poots talked about is shameful and could not be in any way tolerated, but what I sought to convey to the Committee this afternoon is that there is a whole range of interventions. Rather than go through the whole list, let us talk about this. We think it is really important that boards of governors are properly trained for their function, so, as a result of the evidence session that I presented to the Committee two years ago, we have taken a number of steps. Within a year of that session, we provided a whole range of benchmarking data to all of the boards of governors in primary and post-primary schools so that, at a glance, they could plot where they were in terms of their community profile and educational outcomes.
We have also put in place a major programme for training boards of governors. To my mind, the core function of the board of governors is not to go native with underperforming leaders. The role of the board of governors, on behalf of every pupil in the school, is to exercise an intelligent, well-informed challenge function so that that school can perform as well as it possibly can. We have taken steps. Does that mean that every school is a good school? That is the core policy of the Department: Every School a Good School. The inspectorate evidence proves that we have some way to go yet. As a result of the role of the district inspectors and a risk-based approach to the inspection process, ultimately schools can go into formal intervention. You will know that a number of schools have been placed into formal intervention where the evidence was produced that they were underperforming. The good news is that about 80% of those schools come out the other end much enhanced. Sadly, there is a residual number of schools that will need even further support.
At the heart of this is leadership. Where you get good leadership and a good board of governors exercising a good challenge function in a school that is rooted in the community, great results can be achieved. Where those three elements do not align, you can get a school that can teeter on being dysfunctional.
Mr Poots: Yes, but where there is bad leadership, can we actually get action to root it out?
Mr Clarke: On the back of that, and even taking into account what you are saying, Paul, the inspectorate does do a good job; however, some of us know where there are bad schools. They get told when the inspectorate is coming, they get their best clothes on and get the school nicely dressed up for the inspectorate so that they can get a glowing report. What is wrong with the inspectors going into schools without telling them that they are coming and actually giving them a proper inspection and testing them on the day, as opposed to them putting their best performance on?
Mr Sweeney: There is a case for unannounced inspections. It does not happen to a great extent in Northern Ireland.
Mr Sweeney: It can happen in particular circumstances.
I do not want to go too far but, if we felt that there was a compelling case for an immediate unannounced inspection, there is provision for that to happen. Ofsted in England has moved towards unannounced inspections.
I have heard of the sort of scenario that you are speaking about, where a school is given prior knowledge of exactly when an inspection may take place, and people then prepare for the inspection. That is not what the inspection process is meant to be about. Again, you might think that this is self-serving, but I would like to think that there is an element of sophistication within the staff of the inspectorate so that they can see beyond that and can tell when a school rushes something just for the inspection process. I do not want to be complacent, but I believe that there is a level of sophistication and knowledge in the inspectorate and that they can see beyond that.
Mr Clarke: I am not taking away from that, but I think that more random inspections will catch some of the standards out, as opposed to people being able to prepare so that they can put themselves in a different light.
Mr Poots: Is it not patently obvious to the naked eye that, where you have schools that are fully subscribed in a particular area and you have one school that is well undersubscribed, and many children in the other three or four schools come from the area where the school is undersubscribed, there is something wrong? You do not need a school inspection to tell you that there is something wrong, because the community has decided that something is wrong and has decided that it is worth its while to put up with the hassle of travelling elsewhere. Parents in that community take their children out of their local community to be educated elsewhere because they do not have confidence in that local school. We need to be in a position where we can act and support boards of governors in that instance.
Just to wind things up, because members will be getting tired, what is your future proposed strategy for treating small schools in the context of area planning? Obviously, Bain gave a number of 105 for primary schools, for example. How many schools across Northern Ireland will continue to fall short of that for good reason?
Mr Sweeney: Yes, Bain came up with those indicative minima. Those were meant to be thresholds, not a rule as such. I volunteered my own view earlier that, at post-primary level, I think that those minimum numbers are far too small. I would speculate on 800 or 900 for post-primary. Specifically on small schools, which you asked about, we did that major independent review of the common funding formula. The Minister published that in October 2014. He said that he was not minded, at that stage, to revisit the small schools support factor but that he would keep it under review. That remains the case.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Over the past 12 months, have there been many unannounced school inspections in the primary and post-primary sector?
Mr Sweeney: Chair, I do not know the answer to that. I can get you a very short answer to that about whether there have been and, if so, how many. That can be easily answered but I do not know that answer.
Mr Clarke: Could you forward that to us? That would be useful.
Mr Dallat: Look, it is a lot more complex than just simply introducing unannounced inspections. Probably the best inspections are done among teachers in schools, where they agree to go into other classrooms and where they can pass on experience and give support to teachers who may need it, rather than use the stick all the time.
It is fairly obvious where the problems are when exam results are published. If a school is on top of things, that can be addressed almost immediately. I do not have to go on, but I have seen good examples where, by agreement, two or three teachers will go into a classroom. They are not there to write a damning report; they are there to help. If that teacher is genuine and sincere about improving performance, the other teachers welcome that. I am speaking about one of your top schools. It is not the case that some big bad inspector comes in.
I also know that there are area inspectors who call regularly at schools, talk to principals and are pretty well informed about what is going on there. I do not think that the element of surprise is entirely the answer, but it is not an easy job being a teacher; it is damn tough.
Mr Clarke: Is that why you went into politics, John?
Mr Dallat: No, I miss it. Announcing that there will be an inspection in eight weeks is about the cruellest thing that you could do to any teacher, because they spend eight weeks agonising and role-playing and doing all sorts of things, and then it is over in a couple of hours. I said earlier that there are serious problems out there, and they need to be addressed. The Department needs the support to do it, and so do the Minister and the principals of the schools. There are still a lot of genuine people in the education system, and I just worry that, in future, those people may not be prepared to subject themselves to what is a pretty tough way of life. It does not finish at 3.30 pm; you take it home with you and you live it, and you worry about exam results and all that.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): OK. Just to wrap up, we discussed earlier the scoping exercise around the enrolment and approved figures. Can we get a timeline for that scoping exercise? That would be very helpful.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Finally, paragraph 2.10 states that our education system has unacceptable variations and persistent shortcomings that need to be urgently addressed. Taking that into account, if the provision and outcomes are to improve here from average to world-class, in the most recent programme for international student assessment (PISA) of 2012, performance here was distinctly average. What measures is the Department taking to ensure that our education system here can compete on a global scale?
Mr Sweeney: We participate very actively in those international benchmarking exercises. You spoke mainly of the post-primary sector. If you will indulge me for a moment, at the primary level, Northern Ireland is well up there. We are in the top five or six of the OECD countries that are assessed. I am reluctant to use the term "world-class", but we are well up there in the primary sector, so there is much to be proud of in our primary sector when it is internationally benchmarked against other countries.
There is no doubt that, at post-primary level, there is a different story. As you said, we are average. We are average because the trajectory of a number of emerging countries has been most impressive but, at the heart of this, we have some schools that are clearly producing world-class results in Northern Ireland. However, it is this big trail of underachievement that, to use the term, brings us down from teetering on being world-class to being average. That is where I believe we need to bring even greater focus.
In recent years, the Minister has been able to put a dedicated £90 million of resources, which is 8% of the total aggregated schools budget, specifically into tackling disadvantage. I spoke earlier about a whole range of other projects, including the signature project, where we had 270 recently qualified teachers targeted in primary and secondary schools. Regrettably, that programme had to come to an end.
We will continue to participate in international benchmarking exercises because it creates a real discipline. We will not be complacent about the fact that our primary sector is performing rather well, and we will be challenged by the fact that that trail of underachievement is pulling Northern Ireland down to average rather than well above average. It requires all the best endeavours of the Department and the various authorities that we work with, as well as taking a multisectoral approach and other Departments being involved. This is a societal challenge. What we know is that, in recent years, when we have talked more and targeted and focused and brought more resources to bear in tackling underachievement, particularly around that cohort of young people who are entitled to free school meals, when you bring that focus to bear, things start to happen.
I am impressed that modest improvement has been made, but the real challenge for our community is to give that a further boost. School leadership, close connections with the community, high-performing and demanding boards of governors are at the heart of it. At one level, some might say that those are the core characteristics that we need to bring about. In some schools, it is there in bucketloads. In the schools that Mr Poots and others spoke about, where it is not evident, that is where we need to exercise greater challenge.
The Chairperson (Ms Boyle): Members, if there are no final questions, I will conclude. This has been a very useful session; it has been very helpful. Education is an investment in our children's future, and it is important that we do our children justice in providing the best education that we can from preschool onwards. I urge all of you to take stock of today's discussion and that lessons are learned on the sustainability of schools. You outlined, Mr Sweeney, that there was important work still to be done, and I wish you all well in doing that. Thank you for attending today. I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General and his team, Ms Caldwell and Hansard for attending today's session.