Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Education, meeting on Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Peter Weir (Chairperson)
Mrs S Overend (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr D Kennedy
Mr Trevor Lunn
Mr N McCausland
Ms M McLaughlin
Mr Robin Newton
Mr S Rogers


Mr Sam Fitzsimmons, Integrated Education Fund
Mrs Tina Merron, Integrated Education Fund
Ms Bernie Kells, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education
Ms Lorna McAlpine, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education

Shared Education Bill: Integrated Education Fund and Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I welcome Tina Merron, the chief executive of the Integrated Education Fund; Sam Fitzsimmons, communications director of the Integrated Education Fund; Bernie Kells, a senior development officer at the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE); and Lorna McAlpine, also a senior development officer at NICIE. I will hand over to you to make a short presentation, and we will then open up the meeting to questions from Committee members.

Ms Bernie Kells (Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education): Thank you, Chair and Committee members. I want to do two things: first, I want to assure the Committee of our commitment to the Bill and our expertise in commenting on it, and, secondly, I will summarise why we believe that the Bill as it stands needs amended if it is to be consistent with the Department of Education's policy definition of shared education. In the document, shared education is described as a continuum, with integrated education (IE) at the "upper end of that continuum". In fact, the document refers to integrated education as the "optimum" form of sharing. We therefore believe that it is essential that integrated education be written into the legislation, and my colleagues will present on the detail.

For a moment, I will speak on behalf of the integrated movement. We are here today to speak with one voice. We welcome anything, including shared education, that brings young people together to learn with, from and about one another. That is the mission of integrated education, and we have long experience of and expertise in doing it. Integrated education has been actively involved in supporting and managing shared education projects, and my colleague will give further detail. Central to the Bill, however, is the idea that, through sharing, schools will proceed to becoming fully integrated. DE envisages that shared education can be a stepping stone to schools becoming fully integrated It is therefore essential that, if the Bill, which is the outworking of the Department's policy, is to have the best chance of working, schools be supported to move along the continuum, as the policy requires.

I now hand over to Lorna, who will make some comments on the detail of the clauses.

Ms Lorna McAlpine (Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education): Thank you very much for the invitation. I begin by apologising. I have a dose of the cold, and my voice has been badly affected.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): It is a by-product of this time of year.

Ms McAlpine: Exactly.

I am delighted to be here to speak to the Committee about the clauses.

We think that the Bill would benefit from some amendments. In particular, we would welcome an amendment to clause 1 to make clear the linkage between shared and integrated education as stated very clearly in the shared education policy that Bernie quoted. Not including a reference to integrated education seems like an omission. It calls for clarity, because, from the public's point of view and for everyone's perception, there needs to be some clarity on the linkage between the two. As it stands, IE is not included in the clause. That could be detrimental to the development of integrated education, as the Education Authority (EA) has the duty to:

"encourage, facilitate and promote shared education",

yet there is no mention of integrated education. It is in article 64 of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, as we know, but some linkage needs to be made here.

Clause 2 deals with the power to encourage and facilitate shared education. It may be worth saying that I have worked in integrated education for a long time. We had integrating education projects in 2005 and 2007, and my colleagues from the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) will tell you that they have been involved in the Promoting a Culture of Trust (PACT) programme for about 15 years. We then had the Primary Integrating/Enriching Education (PIEE) project, which was run by the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB). A colleague of ours, Roisin Marshall, was loaned out from NICIE to run that project. She is coming back as our new chief executive in the new year. We have a long history in this. More recently, Bernie led a very successful project to support shared education called "Sharing Classrooms/Deepening Learning", which was an International Fund for Ireland (IFI) project.

We have shown a commitment over many years to the role of IE within the shared education policy. We are just surprised that NICIE has not been included in the list of bodies to encourage and facilitate shared education. We have many schools already involved in shared education projects, so I think that our not being included is an oversight. We were created a non-departmental public body (NDPB) in 2011. The Youth Council, which you heard from earlier, is on the list of NDPBs, so we do not see any reason why NICIE, as an NDPB, and maybe others involved such as Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) could not be listed to help the growth of shared education. That inclusion would, we think, be helpful in implementing the shared education policy, which refers to:

"opportunities for sharing the good practice that has been developed within the integrated sector"

and the provision of:

"collaborative opportunities that can equally benefit pupils attending integrated schools."

We are trying to say that it is important to make that linkage again and to make sure that we can offer certain support for schools, as we have already done through the various projects, to make the whole experience for young people better in the shared environment. It would also be helpful for the Department of Education and NICIE in discharging their obligations under the Programme for Government for shared education.

There is an anomaly with planning, because, at the moment, no one has the right to plan for integrated education. That planning role could be given to the EA or, more properly maybe, to NICIE. That would clarify matters. It would also be an assurance for us to know that DE is fully committed to the 1989 Order, article 64 of which contains the duty to:

"encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education".

We are pleased that an agreement on the review of integrated education came from this Committee. We would welcome the chance to input to the terms of reference, because there is an issue about the linkages and the joined-up nature of what we offer to the public and to young people in particular as experiences in shared or integrated settings. As you can see, we are committed to the whole sharing thing and have been involved in it for a long time.

Thank you very much. I hand over to Sam, who will outline some of the economic issues.

Mr Sam Fitzsimmons (Integrated Education Fund): I wish to touch briefly on the potential impact of the Bill. The Minister has committed to mainstream funding in the longer term, using the experience gained during this initial implementation period. Investment to date has been around £25 million over four years. That is estimated to reach around 10% to 15% of pupils. Of that £25 million, £15 million will be spent on teacher cover and renting premises, with a further £5 million on transport and buses.

The Department's explanatory and financial memorandum that accompanies the Bill addresses the financial effects. It acknowledged:

"there may be additional financial implications to schools working in partnership particularly in relation to transport and substitute teacher costs."

Therefore, at the end of this shared education signature project, we would call for an audit of the financial impact of mainstreaming shared education. That should be carried out by, for example, the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). It could include the number of children involved in shared education and an evaluation of the educational outcomes.

I will pass over to my colleague Tina Merron, who will expand a little on vision and structural change.

Mrs Tina Merron (Integrated Education Fund): The Bill is an opportunity to provide a vision for education for the next five years. It could lay a pathway that brings structural change that could lead to a more cohesive education system. It could provide an opportunity to progress and deal with some of the problems that have been identified in area planning by this very Education Committee. The Bill should also be considered in the light of the recommendations of the NIAO report on the sustainability of schools, which is currently with the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that it is likely to publish a report in January or February, so that should be taken into consideration.

It is ambitious, but shared education could help with the problem of the lack of consultation in area planning by providing an opportunity for more discussion with parents and more consultation with the full community in an area to find out what parents want and what is needed. That would give communities the confidence that their voice will be heard and that they are part of the future planning. They, in turn, could help with the creative solutions required for their area. Those solutions, through shared education, could, in turn, help reduce surplus places.

From our experience of community engagement over a number of years, we know that schools want to move along the continuum, but there is no authority or support body to help them on that journey. Parents want their voice heard. Independent community audits are a proven mechanism for achieving that. The wider school community also needs to know that parents have the same vision as it. The Bill does not address that issue. It makes minor adjustments, but it does not provide a vision for the future. There is no evidence of structural change. However, if that is what we have at this stage, at least it is a start. It is not just about what parents want: there is enough evidence that a younger generation is demanding more and has a greater vision than the current education stakeholders. Has anyone actually brought all the pupils of Lisanelly together and asked them what they really want? Have they been brought together and asked, "Do you want a joint sixth form or a single sixth form?"? Those are the questions that the pupils should be asked.

On behalf of the integrated movement, I will leave you with three possible amendments to the Bill. We think that shared education is a step in the right direction, but the Bill is not ambitious enough. First, there needs to be an authority or structure built into the Bill to help schools move along the continuum and to provide links to integrated education. Secondly, all nine non-departmental public bodies should be given the power to support shared education projects. Thirdly, the Education Authority must consult the full community, possibly through independent community audits. That must be central to area planning, as creative solutions can help with duplication. We must stop assuming that what we have is what parents and young people want.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): That will be very useful. Thank you for your evidence.

Perhaps you can get the specifics of those amendments to the Committee Clerk. I appreciate that you have given a direct submission, but you mentioned, for instance, clause 1 and the legislative definition therein. You suggested that there needs to be a direct reference to integrated education, but it is not clear what your specific amendment would be. If you have specific amendments, they would be helpful.

There may be an opportunity to do this at Consideration Stage, but it struck me that certain things may lead directly to an amendment. The Committee will also produce a report on the Bill. Some of the monitoring arrangements may be stuff that will not necessarily be in legislation but should be put in place. Therefore, there may be issues around what we recommend on that broader level.

I want to clarify a couple of things on NDPBs. You stated that the list of bodies should reference NICIE. Presumably, that means that all the education sectors should be mentioned, including, for instance, the new controlled sector one. I have not seen your full list in that regard, but that is what I take from your position.

Another issue to touch on is the definition of "shared education" and "integrated education". Integrated education is focused particularly on one limb of the Bill and relates to the relationship between the two main communities. However, the Bill also goes on to completely different ground and deals with the socio-economic side. Do you accept that, while there is a continuum, there are slight differences between shared and integrated education?

Ms Kells: Yes, absolutely. Shared education is a continuum, in the sense of schools with different religious backgrounds and socio-economic groups and, indeed, other groups that are not referenced in the Bill but are in the policy sharing together. Integrated education, consciously on a daily basis, brings those groups together, which is why it is referred to in the policy as the optimum form of sharing. From that point of view, it is absolutely important that there be strong, clear linkages, both in the definition in the Bill and in its outworkings, between shared and integrated education. Integrated education is quality, sustained sharing on a daily basis. It is what the Department itself envisages happening as schools become more and more involved in sharing. Indeed, it envisages some schools progressing right to the end of the continuum. That is why we think it important that the Bill reflect that intention.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I understand that. Clearly, one limb of the test is that some schools fulfil that, as do other schools in other sectors. Although integrated education will bring together people from different backgrounds, it is not specifically focused on bringing in those who have socio-economic deprivation and those who do not.

Ms Kells: Integrated schools absolutely do that.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): It is not part of their aims and objectives.

Ms McAlpine: It is part of the statement of principles that we talk about in being inclusive regarding all socio-economic issues. It is right in there. It is part of our thing about equity and diversity.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Obviously, the thrust of the Bill is not really meant to be about within schools; it is between schools.

Ms McAlpine: Yes, but it is about what you are going to share. Are you going to share a site, a building, some curriculum, a field or, in our case, are you sharing an ethos within one building? The definitions are very similar. In the definition of "integrated" in the 1989 Order, there is an "s" missing: one article states "school", while another states "schools". That definition is very close. It is trying to say that there are linkages. It is maybe also trying to avoid confusion in people's minds and to give us our place, in the sense that we have something to offer here. We are keen to offer it and have shown that we have offered it before. We would be happy to help again to develop and work with teachers, as Bernie has done, to make this a better experience for young people.

Mr Lunn: Thanks for your presentation. I do not need convincing about your arguments, as you probably realise. I let other people ask the questions. Talk to me about the definition of shared education, which is between:

"those of different religious belief, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children".

Do you see that as being satisfactory, or would you like to see it extended?

Ms Kells: I go back to the point that I made in response to the first question, Trevor: it does not reflect the diversity of all the groups that we have in society. Therefore, I do not think it is satisfactory. I understand that there is an attempt in the policy to name the groups, but, in the context of improving the Bill, strengthening the Bill and really giving a commitment that it could make a societal step forward by recognising and in visibly stating that those other groups are members of our society, the Bill does not go far enough in that respect.

Mr Lunn: Does it need to mention others? Is it as simple as that? Effectively, the Bill defines the circumstances in which two schools can cooperate, and it is entirely related to Protestant and Roman Catholic children. I can foresee a situation in which that ratio might not be correct, as some schools have maybe 30% of others.

Ms Kells: You are absolutely correct. The Bill, if it is about shared education, needs to reflect the actual increasing diversity of young people and their backgrounds, beliefs, values and orientations. If the Shared Education Bill is for a shared future and a shared society, it needs to reflect that.

Mr Rogers: You are very welcome.

Bernie, I am reflecting on a few words that you said at the beginning:

"through sharing, schools will proceed to becoming fully integrated."

The Bill, as you see it, is the stepping stones towards shared education, but those stepping stones are not there for getting to the ultimate aim of integrated education. Other people mentioned the continuum. Do you believe that there needs to be a system by which we incentivise the idea of sharing so that people will work towards being fully integrated? For example, can children who share 25% of their curriculum time as opposed to those who share 100% be incentivised? Would that be of any benefit? Do you see an opportunity? The other question that I had in my mind is this: does the Bill, in committing to shared education, lead down the road towards integrated education?

Ms Kells: I will take each point separately. You are right: underpinning the Bill is the shared education framework, which is essentially a continuum that charts schools at various stages of their journey. The more they share, the more they move up the continuum. The Department itself states that it envisages these being stepping stones. It is an incremental journey to get a more integrated system of education, and more schools may decide to take the final stage to becoming formally recognised as "integrated". That is the underpinning of the policy behind the Bill.

Your second question was on whether schools should be incentivised to share. The simple answer to that is that they are already being incentivised to the tune of £25 million. In response, I ask what will happen when the money is not there to incentivise them. We need a progressive mechanism whereby, if schools have shared at one stage, it is not enough then to walk away and say, "We will do it while there is money there". For what we are trying to do as a society, if schools make the commitment to share, they need to be supported to continue to share along that pathway.

Mrs Merron: I have been out to schools that want to continue and want that support to continue. Once you start involving them, parents want to see what the end journey will be. They need somebody to take them on that journey. It will be a journey that will take a couple of years, but there is not the support out there currently.

Mr Rogers: Particularly in rural areas, it is difficult to get to the integrated stage at which pupils are all in one classroom. Do you see IT as being a useful vehicle for sharing the curriculum experiences to get there?

Ms Kells: It is certainly part of it. Just as you and I are sitting face-to-face speaking to each other, Seán, there is nothing like doing that on a daily basis and on a personal basis. IT can certainly enable, but it should certainly not replace or be there instead of.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): There is, sometimes, a temptation to communicate with other members via IT or whatever, but I would miss all my colleagues around the table. I would miss that face-to-face experience. [Laughter.]

Mrs Overend: I will not comment on that. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): No. I am glad that you are not kicking the ball into an open goal.

Mr Kennedy: Lie in a darkened room and think about that.

Mrs Overend: Thank you very much for coming in today. How do you feel that the success of shared education could be monitored, valued and, ultimately, measured? Should that become part of the Bill?

Ms Kells: We are aware that the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has developed a detailed and coherent framework with indicators of how shared education is impacting on management and structures within the school and, more important from our point of view, how it is impacting on and improving the educational achievement of the children and young people and the promotion of understanding, mutual respect and trust. There is also an attempt built into that to measure attitudinal change. Above everything else, this is a societal opportunity to bring all these things together, and the ETI framework takes care of that. It is also, however, contingent on the fact that, at the end of each year, when schools are inspected and monitored, they will have to demonstrate that they have made sufficient progress on the indicators. Our experience with schools to date tells us that, like any process, it is extremely onerous, but the monitoring and evaluation are very important.

I have many years of experience of this work, and I would say that it is really important that we do not simply say that everything is taken care of because we have an instrument. We need to pay close attention, all the time, to how much it changes and improves life experiences and the understanding between children, young people, parents and the wider community. Those are the really important things, and they are the things that are hard to measure. I reiterate the point that that is why integrated education, with its 30 years of experience, has a massive contribution to make, and that is why it should be connected in the Bill.

Mrs Overend: Let me get this right: you say that the ETI has the ability to do this, but has it the ability to do it across schools? It is bound to be more able to do that within one school but —

Ms Kells: Schools that apply for the funding to take part in shared education make their bid in the context of the ETI instrument — that is in place.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Are you happy enough with the mechanism? Leaving aside whatever tweaks might be needed, is ETI really the appropriate body to monitor?

Ms Kells: It absolutely needs to be monitored and evaluated, of course, and lessons must be learned from it.

Mrs Merron: Sandra, it is not just the individual projects but the overall contribution of shared education that need to be evaluated before more money is put into the mainstream for it. As my colleague said earlier, we must make sure that it is working, that sufficient numbers are going through it and that everybody is happy. A body such as the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) should look into it when it is completed in 2018.

Mr Fitzsimmons: The Department's business case acknowledged the challenges in recording precise numbers of pupils. That would impose significant bureaucracy on schools and be subject to risk through either under- or over-recording the number of pupils involved in the programme. That is an underlying issue that the Department has already acknowledged. How you could roll that out if you were mainstreaming it and how you monitor and evaluate the outcomes for individual pupils may be a big challenge for the Department.

Ms Kells: Further to that, it has to be about more than numbers and hours of curriculum lessons taught. It absolutely has to be about more than that because there has been initiative after initiative here. Once they finish, their impact on changing our system is questionable. We face the same challenge of 92% of our children going to — for want of a better phrase — religiously segregated schools, and that is despite the millions and millions of pounds that have been put into various initiatives. We are saying that this is an opportunity, but let us learn from all of the previous initiatives. This one has to do better.

Mrs Overend: Do you have an opinion on the idea that breaking down the barriers must start with the employment of teachers and that the fact that teachers need an RE certificate to teach in certain primary schools is one such barrier? Does that need to be dealt with?

Mr Fitzsimmons: Sandra, your question very much reflects the need for the structural reform that we talk about. How we move away from the segregated nature of our teacher training colleges is one area that certainly needs further exploration. We do not have an answer to that, but we see it as one of the components that need to be addressed in any reform of our education system.

Ms McAlpine: I will add a wee bit to that. At the moment, teaching has, shall we say, a derogation in fair employment legislation, in that it does not apply to either promotion or recruitment. We looked at that some years ago and asked whether it could it be changed and applied only at primary level, because that is when the sacrament preparation is done. We supported the removal of the derogation from secondary level, at which there is no need to have it. That is just sitting there, waiting to be enacted. It would have made life a bit easier for teachers, given the situation in which schools are closing or moving and so on, and it would have connected the systems a bit better.

What we are really talking about is that our system supports segregation within teaching, which is an employment segregation that is not required now. Yes, there is probably a need to be able to recruit someone with a certificate to teach Catholic RE in the primary sector, but it is not at all necessary in post-primary because sacramental preparation is done at P4 and P7, beyond which there is really no such need. There are ways other than separating employment to protect ethos. People can be asked whether they have a commitment to a particular ethos, which is probably a simpler way of doing it and a more straightforward employment matter than having it in law.

Mr Kennedy: Welcome, and thank you very much for your presentation. Surely you must have a lurking concern that the Shared Education Bill will ultimately frustrate your ambitions for integrated education. It is all right to talk about a continuum, but the harsh facts are that the existing power blocks in education are reasonably content with the situation. They can cooperate and share facilities or services at some level and be financially rewarded for that. There is no real compulsion to travel towards your solution, which is integrated education. Is there a danger that, by cooperating with the Bill, you guys will ultimately run out of road?

Ms Kells: Would you like me to respond to that? We are pragmatists, and we understand the attention and support that have been given to shared education. We are also pragmatists in the sense that we realise that shared education is not a new concept. It has been reimagined and rebranded, and it is something that integrated education has been doing for a long time. That is the first point. On the second point, Danny, I agree with you that some sort of mechanism and incentive must be built into the Bill to ensure that schools that enjoy the benefits and incentives of sharing do not simply stop when the money goes. That is why we are asking for an amendment not only to specifically recognise NICIE's role, along with the other NDPBs mentioned, but to give clarity and parity to planning for integrated education in the way that the Bill and its policy give power to the EA to plan and promote shared education. It is an unequal playing field at the moment.

Mr Kennedy: You are looking for a little more carrot but a lot more stick.

Ms Kells: Exactly. Thank you for putting it like that.

Mrs Merron: The IEF has been funding integrated education and shared education for 15 years, so it has a lot of experience. In fact, we stopped only this year. We have always been supportive and thought that it was very important because, when we started, very few schools were doing this work. We always thought it important that children got the opportunity to sit side by side, even if it was for a short time.

It is important that, when we look to the future, we ask parents what they want. You talk about schools and institutions, but are we asking parents what they want? That is probably what is missing. Everybody assumes that the education system that we have is what parents want, but do they ask them? Do they ask young people what they want? Especially in rural areas, where people are very pragmatic, a lot of parents would be very happy for schools to come together so that one school survived in their community and would not mind which school. We have done a lot of community engagement work in rural areas, and parents are very pragmatic. I say to you that we should ask parents what they want.

Ms McAlpine: I want to add a wee bit to that. I have been around integration for a long time too — about 18 years or so — since the days when we were able to open grant-maintained integrated schools and so on. The road to integration per se is quite a difficult one. It is a road that is led, by and large, by parents putting themselves on the line to do a lot of hard work. Sharing, as it stands, is institutional. Parents have a big role to play in the development of grant-maintained integrated schools or transformations, and schools take on some of that role.

I suppose that what we are saying is that our growth has slowed, maybe because of other things happening in schools and education generally, but our polls show that there is still a demand for integrated education. It may be worth pointing out that transforming a school to integrated status is almost cost-neutral: the Department of Education and the IEF each give a bit of money to train the teachers, governors and so on to deal with a more diverse population. I go back to Sandra's point about teacher training: teachers are not trained to operate in a more diverse society. We have to put that training in. Those are roadblocks in transformation, which is actually a very difficult process. An issue with Catholic schools transforming is that it transfers ownership to the controlled sector.

I hope that the review that the Committee has asked for will look at the whole issue of transformation, at the growth of the integrated sector and how it is promoted and so forth. As it stands, it is a tricky road. As has been pointed out, there is incentivisation to share, but what happens when that money runs out? The cost-neutral aspects of transformation need to be understood, but so do the difficulties that lie in the way for schools and parents who go down that road. The difficulties need to be acknowledged and changes made. The legislation needs to be changed.

Mr Kennedy: Very quickly, from another side of the argument, where do you think that the Shared Education Bill fits? How does it fit with a school that might be described as naturally integrated, although it falls, at present, within the controlled sector?

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Or the maintained sector.

Mr Kennedy: Or the maintained sector, yes.

Ms Kells: Where does it fit? I have a particular interest in schools that refer to themselves as "mixed" or "naturally integrated". We know from looking at the data that there are a lot of them in the system. Interestingly, although the children themselves may come from mixed and diverse backgrounds, the ethos of the school is reflective of the ownership of the school. Therefore, if we go back to the idea of the continuum and schools being supported to progress along it, as is the vision, schools that are naturally mixed and naturally diverse can gain in confidence in being more open and more visibly celebrating, naming and formally acknowledging their mixed and diverse status. We have a particular interest in that; in fact, we have been piloting a small project called Positive Partnerships for Integration in which we work with schools that may have an interest in celebrating their diversity while not being able to transform for all the reasons that you talked about, such as the power blocks. From that point of view, the Bill could give confidence, and it could give a voice to parents and students, enabling them to say, "We want our school to reflect our ethos. We want it to be formally named to reflect the natural mixing and natural integration".

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Thank you very much for your evidence. Tina, you made specific references and gave a very detailed submission. If there are any specific amendments that you want to suggest beyond that, will you get them to the Clerk as soon as possible? As you can appreciate, there is a tight time frame for the Bill. We need any additional information as soon as possible because we will be considering it relatively soon. Thank you very much for your time today.

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