Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Peter Weir (Chairperson)
Mrs S Overend (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr J Craig
Mr C Hazzard
Mr D Kennedy
Mr N McCausland
Ms M McLaughlin
Mr Robin Newton
Mr S Rogers


Witnesses:

Mr Lauri McCusker, Fermanagh Trust
Ms Catherine Ward, Fermanagh Trust



Shared Education Bill: Rural Centre for Shared Education

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I welcome Mr Lauri McCusker, the director of the Fermanagh Trust, and Ms Catherine Ward, the shared education programme adviser. Perhaps you were here earlier when we mentioned the number of evidence sessions today, but you are the fourth of five sessions, and we are trying to treat everyone equitably. I appreciate that you have direct expertise in this field, but we are trying to limit each session to 40 minutes so that everybody gets an equal share of time. I invite you to make a short presentation, after which we will open the session up for questions.

Mr Lauri McCusker (Fermanagh Trust): Thank you very much for the opportunity to come to the Committee today. I will start off by saying that we very much welcome the Shared Education Bill and the leadership that the Committee for Education and the Assembly, under the guidance of the Department of Education, have given on shared education since the Programme for Government was released with its commitment to shared education. The journey that has been taken is evidenced by the adoption of the ministerial advisory group report and the Sharing Works policy.

The Rural Centre for Shared Education was established by the Fermanagh Trust. It represents our commitment to shared education from the work that we have carried out over the last nine years. Our evidence draws on that experience and what we believe is this very important legislation. The trust was actively involved in working initially with 50 schools and over 5,000 pupils in County Fermanagh, right across the spectrum and the county. It has been helpful to work with schools and school communities outside Fermanagh. Our submission draws on that experience.

We firmly believe that the Bill needs to be strengthened to ensure that there is an effective legislative framework in place in order for shared education to flourish in line with the wishes of school communities. We want to make seven key points on the Bill.

First, we believe that the purpose of shared education should be included in the Bill. There should be a clause that sets out the three key purposes of shared education as outlined in the 'Sharing Works' document: societal benefits, educational improvements and more effective and efficient use of resources. We acknowledge that the Sharing Works policy sets this out, but we believe that, as policies change over time, it is important that the purpose of shared education be included in the Bill.

Secondly, we very much encourage the replacement of the word "power" with "duty". We have heard from a number of contributors over the last two weeks, and there seems to be a common theme among them that that is important. We believe this because it is recommended that a duty is placed on the Department of Education (DE) and its arm's-length bodies rather than a power. We believe that the word "power" is much weaker than "duty" and is insufficient in the context of shared education. Exercising a:

"Power to encourage and facilitate shared education"

would be optional on the part of the Department of Education and education bodies and may never be invoked, whereas a duty places an onus on those organisations to encourage and facilitate shared education. We note that DE's reason for opting for power rather than duty is that it did not want school communities to feel that shared education was being imposed on them. However, our understanding of the legislation is that a duty would be placed on DE and its arm's-length bodies, not schools or school communities. There is a significant difference.

Thirdly, we note that the first recommendation of the ministerial advisory group states that a statutory duty should be placed on the Department of Education. In line with that, we recommend that the word "power" be replaced with "duty" and that the word "may" in clause 2(1) needs to be replaced with "shall".

Fourthly, we very strongly recommend that the word "promote" be included in the Bill. That would provide consistency in the duties between the Education Authority (EA) and DE and its arm's-length bodies and with the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 and the Bill. Interestingly, that concurs with the first recommendation in the Committee's July 2015 report on shared and integrated education. As outlined to the Committee on 4 November, DE's reason for omitting the word "promote" is that it did not want to create a hierarchy between shared and integrated education. It is very important to highlight the fact that shared education is not a sector. Encouraging school collaboration on a cross-sectoral basis involves all sectors, including the integrated sector. Some would argue — we have heard this in discussions in Committee — that integrated education may be further along the continuum than shared education, so the omission of the word "promote" from the legislation could be detrimental to integrated education in the longer term.

If we are determined as a society to build new models and ways of working towards a shared future, the inclusion of the word "promote" is critical. It is essential that we promote. Imagine a business starting a new initiative and not promoting it. Some examples of places where promotion has yielded better outcomes include the area planning process, which we have seen significantly recently, the shared education campuses programme, the guidance on jointly managed schools and the Delivering Social Change programme. Promotion is critical.

Ms Catherine Ward (Fermanagh Trust): I have three recommendations to add. In a statement to the Assembly on advancing shared education, the Minister of Education said that sharing needs to be in the DNA of our education system. We fully agree with that. To achieve that, all educational policies need to be screened. That has been mentioned in two strategic documents: the ministerial advisory group report on advancing shared education and Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC). Both recommend screening or proofing to ensure that sharing is supported.

As Lauri said, the first recommendation in the ministerial advisory group report is to place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate shared education. The recommendation also states that that:

"should include reviewing all existing and proposed policies within education, and providing advice as required to ensure that all activities seek to encourage and facilitate shared education where appropriate."

Many previously developed education policies and their outworkings do not readily support the current process of shared education. Some examples are the school transport system; school cost centres, which do not facilitate schools developing a joint budget for expenditure on shared education; employing a shared teacher across sectors in primary schools, which is challenging; and the area planning process. Those are just a few areas that have not caught up with shared education and need to be amended to support sharing fully. T:BUC makes a number of commitments to develop shared services, one of which is:

"All future policy and/or spending commitments should also be screened to determine whether they promote sharing, further entrench division or are essentially neutral."

In line with T:BUC and the ministerial advisory group report, we recommend that the Shared Education Bill include a duty to screen all existing and proposed policies in education to determine whether they encourage and facilitate sharing. We raised that in the consultation process on the draft Bill, but the response from DE was that it was not appropriate to include that duty in legislation. There is, however, a very similar type of duty in the Rural Needs Bill to ensure that all policies, strategies and plans consider rural needs. Why can a similar clause not be included in the Shared Education Bill?

Our next recommendation is to do with "reasonable numbers". The Committee has had some discussion on what represents reasonable numbers of Protestant and Catholic pupils. We want to share some of our experience of that, particularly in primary schools. We have had small primary schools that serve a minority community partnered with larger neighbouring schools from a different sector, and enormous benefits have been gained. In those situations, we have seen less isolation and greater integration of the minority community. Concerns are sometimes expressed that the minority community is outnumbered and does not have an equal say in the partnership, but we have had the opposite experience. Partnerships have to address the needs of both schools, and, in practice, smaller schools generally gain more benefits from the partnership than larger ones.

If a school is partnered with a school far away, just to meet a reasonable numbers criterion, the local impact of shared education in the community is lost. We urge caution at being over-prescriptive with numbers and recommend that sharing reflect the local context in which the schools operate.

The previous presentation referred to negative experiences, where a minority number of pupils engaged with a larger sector. I think that it depends on good practice, and we can give you an example of post-primary schools in Enniskillen in which a small number of pupils from a maintained school attended a controlled school to access some subjects. Controlled school pupils were at the door to welcome the maintained school pupils and to accompany them to their class, and a buddy system was put in place to ensure that those pupils did not feel out of place. It is to do with pragmatism, good practice and practicalities.

Our final recommendation is to do with monitoring and reporting. We understand and fully accept that the shared education policy will provide the operational context for the Bill and note that key action 8 relates only to monitoring and evaluation of shared education in schools and not to how DE and its arm's-length bodies are performing in relation to their responsibilities in the Bill. We recommend, therefore, that a clause on monitoring and reporting to this effect be included in the Bill. We recommend that the Department of Education compile information on how it and the educational bodies exercise their responsibilities on shared education and report it to the Assembly annually.

To conclude, we believe that the Shared Education Bill presents an important opportunity to create a better education system for our children and young people and a more shared society for the future. We urge Members to be ambitious and forward-thinking in finalising this legislation.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Lauri and Catherine, thank you.

I will ask two quick questions. I take on board what you said about the difference between power and duty; we have faced that issue before. I want to tease out one aspect. Previous witnesses made a distinction between a very clear-cut case, which they believed to be a duty on the Department — I will leave aside other issues that flowed from that — whereby they felt that it was necessary to place a duty rather than a power, but they were either sceptical of or less positive on the need for a duty to be placed on arm's-length bodies. In your case, you have not drawn that same distinction for arm's-length bodies, whose number could expand. Will you comment on that?

Mr McCusker: If the duty is on the Department of Education, does that not also imply a duty on the arm's-length bodies? The Department is responsible for implementation and oversight of the organisations that have to deliver on the ground. The arm's-length bodies must be included in such a duty. The Department sets policy, but implementation of that policy requires the involvement of the arm's-length bodies.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Mind you, there is a specific duty on the EA as well. I am trying to tease out where you are on the issue, because most of the other arm's-length bodies would not necessarily have a duty placed on them in other aspects. One of the gaps at the moment seems to be that there is a distinct difference between the way in which the Department treats itself in this case and in other situations.

Mr McCusker: Yes, and there is also the position of transferors and so on. Are they an arm's-length body? We are not legal experts. We urge that everything is done, as far as possible, in all organisations to encourage, facilitate and promote.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): A number of members want to come in on this, but I have a very quick second question on reasonable numbers. I take on board what you said about flexibility. An argument was made last week about reasonable numbers being slightly inflexible — for example, very small schools. Numbers, by their definition, are different from proportions. Should there be flexibility about reasonable numbers or proportions? In theory, you could have two very large schools in which there are very small numbers of the minority community, but, because the schools are so large, their combined total of minority communities takes them above a particular threshold. On the other hand, you could have two very small schools, but, because their combined numbers are so low, their pure numbers could be fewer than the example of the large school. Should there be more flexibility about proportions as well as numbers?

Ms Ward: We did not want to be specific about proportions, numbers or figures.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I understand that, but —

Ms Ward: The main point that we are trying to make is about erring on the side of caution and not excluding any good, genuine sharing. If only one or two pupils take A-level German in another school and have a good experience, there might be five pupils the next year and 10 the following year. The full picture of what is going on between the two schools and in that partnership needs to be looked at.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I ask members to keep their questions brief, because we want to be fair to everyone.

Mr Hazzard: Thank you for the presentation and for everything that we have had from you previously on the issue. There is a perception — it is put out in the media and in other quarters — that shared education is a dirty deal or a halfway house compromise between parties that cannot agree that integrated education is the best way forward and that shared education is not an end in itself but a route to a final destination. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr McCusker: Is shared education a dirty deal? Who knows where we will be in 20 or 50 years' time? For us, shared education is about possibilities, potential and different conversations. The CCMS was here this morning talking about joint schools. Was there the potential for that 10 years ago? Was that being discussed? It is being discussed now. It is about creating different conversations and possibilities. Take the area planning process, for instance. Rather than looking at area planning within sectors, this is looking at area planning as areas and communities. That is what shared education should be about. Commentators and others are critical of shared education, and I do not think that they understand what it is. We invited a number of those commentators to rural communities to see shared education in action, but none of them has followed up on the invitation. It is a journey and is part of a process. It is not about saying to schools in different sectors that their sector is not valuable — of course it is valuable.

Mrs Overend: It is good to see you here; thanks for coming. Your submission has some interesting thoughts for us, especially the idea of comparing shared education with rural proofing, and stating that, similar to all decisions being rural proofed, decisions should also be proofed for shared education. You went back to the ministerial advisory group's definition, which states:

"All future education policy and/or spending commitments should also be screened to determine whether they promote sharing, further entrench division or are essentially neutral".

Do you think that the EA should set targets? How do you see that happening? How should it be further promoted by the EA?

Ms Ward: There should be "share proofing". If all future policy and spending commitments are share proofed, that would be a good way to monitor. Could the outcome have been a shared solution? If not, why not? A rationale should be given for why it was not possible. You spoke about targets; instead of targets, that type of share proofing, combined with the Bill's monitoring and reporting, would go a long way.

Mrs Overend: How do you see that monitoring and reporting happening?

Ms Ward: That is also in the Rural Needs Bill; the Department of Agriculture has to collate information from all Departments to see how they meet rural needs and take them into consideration. I envisage the Department of Education collecting that information from the Department and its arm's-length bodies to show how it exercised its functions and responsibilities in the Bill, and then to compile a report to present to the Assembly. That is how I see monitoring working. The current policy looks at monitoring and evaluation of schools but not the bodies that are mentioned in the Bill.

Mr Newton: It is very nice to see you, Mr McCusker and Ms Ward, and to have practitioners of shared education as witnesses.

The Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) were here this morning giving evidence. The Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission believe that religious belief ought not to be part of the definition of shared education. NICCY wanted all section 75 categories written into the definition, which obviously includes religious belief. Generally, the Committee is struggling with the definition of shared education. What are your thoughts on the definition of shared education for the purposes of the Bill?

Mr McCusker: From experience, our definition of shared education is two or more schools from different sectors and, if possible, two or more neighbouring schools, working together. We are not experts on section 75, but that is our definition of shared education. If we had gone down the section 75 road in 2008 and 2009 and asked schools in particular villages how they would show their partnership with another school or schools to meet section 75 criteria, we would not have achieved what we have achieved. For us, the definition is quite straightforward: two or more schools from different sectors working together.

Mr Kennedy: Welcome, and thanks for being here. Presumably, educational policies are screened with rigour, particularly on whether they promote sharing, focus on further entrenched division or are essentially neutral. Surely the emphasis should be on screening to ensure that sharing is being properly promoted. How do you ensure that schools are sharing for sharing's sake rather than sharing for money?

Ms Ward: With the amount of work involved, no school would do it for the money. From talking to principals and teachers, we know that a huge amount of work is involved in planning, preparing and carrying out shared education. I do not envisage very many schools doing it for money. The reward in financial gain would not pay teachers to do it, so they really are doing it for the other benefits.

Mr McCusker: With screening, if school transport or school holidays were reviewed, for example, two neighbouring schools that close on different days — maybe 10 or 12 days in a year — cannot share on those days.

With certain policies and procedures that have been put in place, whether from the top down or in some cases by the school, people need to think about the implications for shared education, for us or for the community at large. We would not take such a judgement call if a new policy is neutral to shared education, but, wherever policies are being introduced, we should encourage them to benefit shared education if we are really committed to a shared education system.

Mr Kennedy: What is almost implied is amalgamation, or better coordination, in transport, days of opening and all that. Is that what you are saying?

Mr McCusker: Yes. We see things on the ground that do not facilitate shared education and are the result of government policies or practice or the practice of the boards and now the Education Authority and that if tweaked or changed as policies are developed and introduced could facilitate much more and greater sharing.

Mr Rogers: Lauri and Catherine, you are very welcome. This goes back to the numbers game. Say you have two small schools from different sectors, which are sharing and working very well. For example, they might have a total enrolment of 60 to 70 children. Do you believe that the sharing, maintenance of a rural school and better use of resources should overrule the number of 105?

Mr McCusker: We are firm believers that local communities should be facilitated to have challenging conversations. I live very close to the border, and I am fascinated by what happens in Northern Ireland in schools and their sustainability. Those conversations do not take place in Leitrim. They do not say, "Sorry, you have 60 pupils; your school is not sustainable". In shared education, it is important that, with two or more schools, the parents and boards of governors in that school community should have conversations together about its future, not in parallel worlds. That is, unfortunately, what has been happening. Hopefully, with the Shared Education Bill etc, the area planning process and the role of the different sectors will facilitate those conversations, rather than splendid isolation.

Ms Ward: You raised a very important point. Through some of the shared models, two small schools that are sharing can meet the sustainable schools criteria. They have access to four teachers. Both might have only three teachers, but they now have access to six through sharing. They can decomposite their classes so that they do not have more than three classes in one classroom. Through a shared model, they actually can meet the sustainable schools criteria.

Mr Rogers: Lauri, are you also saying that, in Leitrim, they do not seem to need to have this conversation about having 50 or 60 children in a school but in the North they do? Has that a negative impact on cross-border sharing as well?

Mr McCusker: No. It is fascinating. We know of maintained schools on the Fermanagh side partnering with national schools on the southern side. Again, where that made sense, it happened, and it did so very well. There was never anything negative towards that whatever. It always seems to work very positively.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Lauri and Catherine, this has been an extremely useful session. Thank you for your evidence. We will move fairly swiftly towards conclusions on these issues, but your information has been very useful today.

Ms Ward: Thank you.

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