Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Education, meeting on Wednesday, 2 December 2015

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


Dr Peter Hamill, Transferor Representatives' Council
Rev Dr Colin McClure, Transferor Representatives' Council
Mr Gavin Norris, Transferor Representatives' Council

Shared Education Bill: Transferor Representatives' Council

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I welcome Dr Peter Hamill, who is the secretary to the Church of Ireland board of education in Northern Ireland, Gavin Norris and the Reverend Colin McClure. They are representing the Transferor Representatives' Council (TRC).

I thank the witnesses for being here today. This is the fifth of five presentations, but you should not feel that there was any ranking order. We said to each of the groups that, because we tried to accommodate five, the Committee agreed to limit each of the evidence sessions to around 40 minutes maximum so that we would be able to give everyone the same amount of time. I ask you to bear that in mind. If you want to start off with a presentation, we will open the meeting up for questions afterwards.

Rev Dr Colin McClure (Transferor Representatives' Council): Thank you for your invitation and, indeed, your welcome this morning. Getting straight into it, let me say that we welcome the initiative from the Department and the Minister. We also acknowledge the interest from and the support of the Committee. We thank you for your willingness to listen to voices from the controlled sector. To refresh your memory of who we are and where we are from, we represent the three main Protestant denominations: the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Methodist Church. Each of our Churches has a board or a committee of education, and we work together as three Churches on the Transferor Representatives' Council.

I do not want to go into the big details, because you will be well aware of it, but originally the three Churches that I named were school owners. Again as you know, most of our schools were transferred to state control at various stages during the 20th century. In return for that, transferors were given legal rights of representation for local schools. That worked out in several ways, including on the education and library boards formally, and there are now transferor representatives on the new Education Authority.

It is important to say that the Churches have been strongly in favour of shared education as a concept. We have not come new to this game; that has been our position for a number of years. It has been received by the Churches with much enthusiasm. If you look back at the records of debates in our major decision-making bodies in the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Ireland, you will find that, over the past four or five years, very directly each of our Churches has passed resolutions of strong support for the concept.

We believe that, in shared education, there is the potential for much good. There are benefits through reconciliation and community cohesion that can come about through contact and the process of sharing in an educational enterprise. An educational outcome is achievable when schools work together. As Churches, we have been keen to see shared education developed, and we welcomed the introduction of the Shared Education Bill.

I will hand over to my colleague Peter, who will say a little bit more about the Bill. Hopefully, that will be of assistance to you in your considerations. I will hand over to Peter, first, and then to Gavin.

Dr Peter Hamill (Transferor Representatives' Council): Thank you, Colin. I will start by looking at the details of the Bill from TRC's point of view. We have strongly advocated the need for a definition of shared education, and we welcome the move towards defining it. However, we have some concerns about the definition that the Department has proposed. We would be more comfortable with the definition of shared education proposed by the ministerial advisory group that reported in 2013. I do not wish to into the exact details of that, because they have been included in our written submission. The reason for that is the Department's inclusion of the definition of the term "socio-economic deprivation".

To be very clear from the start, the Churches are fully supportive of that and believe that a lot of work has to be done to counter and deal with economic and social disadvantage in education. The importance of that work means that it should have a particular focus. We also believe that huge work needs to be done on shared education by bringing together schools from different sectors and communities to share real educational experiences.

We feel that the potential of shared education is very effective, but our concern is with mixing two areas in one definition. There are examples in previous legislation where that has been an issue and the focus on one policy has been lost. We are concerned that the same could happen here.

I will pass over to Gavin to go through the detail of that and our second key point on clause 2.

Mr Gavin Norris (Transferor Representatives' Council): Thanks, Peter. Chair, it is good to be here.

Clauses 1(2)(a) and clause 1(2)(b) make a requirement that sharing provides for:

"education together of ... those of ... religious belief ... and those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not".

It is safe to say that most schools will have pupils from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. However, those proportions may vary substantially.

Unlike clause 1(2)(a), clause 1(2)(b) does not provide any indication at all of the numbers or proportion required from each group, and it is also unclear how socio-economic deprivation is to be measured for the purposes of the Bill. Our concern is that there may be communities where the proposal for sharing does not meet the definition because the schools' socio-economic profiles are, for example, largely similar. Again, it is important to stress our belief that much work needs to be done to address socio-economic disadvantage. However, if that element is to stay in the Bill, we would like assurances that it will not hinder projects that would otherwise bring people from different community backgrounds together.

On clause 2, we note the lack of reference to sectoral support bodies in education. As you are aware, we have been involved in getting the controlled sector support council up and running, and within its very agreed remit is the promotion of sharing between the different sectors. That means that the body is there not just to advocate for its own sector but is a leader for that sector in sharing with other sectors. Yet, the clause, which indicates who will be involved in encouraging and facilitating shared education, totally misses the role of sectoral bodies.

The controlled sector body will have a key role in promoting good practice in sharing and working with other sectoral bodies to help to negotiate local situations and a coming together with other sectoral bodies to advocate how sharing can be maximised in local situations. We want the role of sectoral bodies, which we feel is absent, to be written in very clearly. We suggest that is done either by including the bodies in clause 2(2) or by inserting a separate subsection. It may simply have been an oversight, but we fear that the sectoral bodies may have been forgotten in that regard.

Rev Dr McClure: OK. Again, Chair, thank you for the invitation to speak to the Committee. I hope that you have got a flavour of our main concerns.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): That has been very useful. I want to make a couple of points and then ask you one question.

We have had a similar response from the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) on that. On that basis, probably the route that you would suggest would essentially be a mention in the legislation of NICIE and the controlled sectoral support body as one of the arm's-length bodies. On the socio-economic point and without getting into the rights or wrongs of it, its definition will be one of the issues that we will probe with the Department next week.

I want to clarify one issue that arises from your evidence and your point that the controlled sectoral support body should be included, along with others, in the Bill. We have had conflicting evidence on the terms "power" or "duty". What I mean by that is that a number of groups have been very clear-cut in saying that there should be a direct duty on the Department in clause 2. That seems to have come from a number of groups. I would not necessarily say that there has been a consensus, but any groups that have made reference to it talked about a duty, rather than a power. There is a divergence in that and in how it relates to you where, taking the very specific example of the controlled sectoral support body, if a duty is placed on the Department — there is a clearly a particular reference in clause 3 to the Education Authority — should a duty also extend to the arm's-length bodies or sectoral bodies, such as the controlled sectoral support body, or should that simply be a power at that level? I would like your views on that.

Rev Dr McClure: Do you want anyone in particular to respond?

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I appreciate that you may be going through things that are not scoped out.

Rev Dr McClure: It is certainly an issue that we are aware of, and clarification would be important, but I do not think there was anything in particular in that that we have given in-depth thought to. Again, clarification is always helpful all round. I think that you will have heard from our response our concern is about being in a position where we can play our part meaningfully to make something work. We are committed to the object and to realising it.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I am judging it through potential amendments. It may be that we cannot pre-judge any views that any parties or the Committee may take on it, and you might take a view that what is there is perfectly satisfactory. It seems to me that, if duty is brought in, it can be done in one of two ways. It is either a question of a duty that is put in the Bill and that follows through to everybody, or, alternatively, we differentiate between the duty of the Department and a potential power for the arm's-length bodies. Maybe you are not taking an absolutely definitive position on that, but your main aim is to have inclusion.

Mr Norris: Absolutely.

Mr Hazzard: Thanks for coming along. I am aware from the papers that you said previously that a fully integrated system would be ideal but is not achievable. Many people believe that sectoral bodies and representatives such as you are one of the barriers to a fully integrated system and that the shared education model, which you are big advocates of, is just a halfway house. I said before to Lauri McCusker that it is a dirty deal. We cannot get compromise or agreement on a fully integrated system, so this is what they are going for. What are your thoughts on that?

Rev Dr McClure: Some of my colleagues will want to say something, but, clearly, our line is that one size does not fit all. There are good models, and we want to capitalise, as it were, on what we have and allow the exploration of the sharing from within the various sectors.

Let me state again that the Churches are committed to shared education, but we do not want to be so prescriptive that it strangles the young shoots, as it were. Clearly, we all come from different contexts and can see where some places will work at a different pace, but we want to encourage it.

The bottom line is that one size does not fit all. I think that would be a fair representation of where we are coming from.

Mr Norris: It is important to say that, as Churches, we clearly affirm integrated with a capital "I" as one form of sharing. We see a menu of options that are available to take sharing forward, and we think that shared education as a whole is going to be for the good of society. As Colin said, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Mr Craig: Thanks for attending. I get the idea and understand that you are concerned about the inclusion of the socio-economic aspect. What I want to understand is why you would be so concerned about that. There is a thought in my head that most of the sharing that is required will be in rural areas. A lot of the smaller schools are predominantly around the border areas in Northern Ireland. If we are going to get a shared future for them, that is where shared education will be necessary. Some of them — in fact, a lot of them — do not fall under what would be normally defined as deprived areas. Would that be a concern for you? Would you be concerned that they would somehow miss that trigger because they are in rural areas, as opposed to deprived areas?

Dr Hamill: I agree. I think that that is where our concern is. It is that, as you say, somebody would get missed because their socio-economic profiles would be very similar, whether that is rural, urban or wherever, so there would not be that opportunity for shared education because they had not ticked the socio-economic box. That is where our concern lies. It is not about trying to narrow it; it is about ensuring that nobody gets excluded.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): So that there is not an artificial barrier, if you like.

Dr Hamill: Yes; exactly.

Rev Dr McClure: Correct. That is precisely the point.

Mr Craig: Thanks for that; it is helpful. As a Committee, we will have to look at that.

I am going to bring this point up, because you are the right people to discuss it with. When it comes to shared education and sharing across the controlled and maintained sectors, to me, there is always an artificial barrier there, which is the Catholic certificate. It is not right for me to ignore that issue. Is that an issue that you working on with the maintained sector to find a practical way around it so that it does not become a barrier to shared education?

Rev Dr McClure: It would be fair to say that there have been ongoing discussions on that and other matters. We work very closely with the Catholic trustees. If those issues need to be ironed out, as it were, I am pretty sure that there is a willingness amongst us all to engage with that. There may be some folk here who are more aware of the practicalities of it at the moment, but there is certainly a willingness to deal with that. We recognise the issues that that gives rise to.

Mr Craig: Would you be keen to move to the sort of compromise that there is in England on that? I think there are specific teachers in maintained schools who have that qualification just so that they can carry out the work they are allocated to, as opposed to everyone needing it.

Dr Hamill: As Colin said, it is not an issue that we have discussed particularly, so it would be unfair to give an answer on that.

Mr Kennedy: You are very welcome. I am interested in teasing that out a little bit more on your commitment to share between and within sectors. Clearly, there is a sharing emphasis there as well. Do you have any thoughts on both those areas? Most people see the big challenge between sectors, but there are also, if I may say, pressures of sharing in the controlled sector.

Rev Dr McClure: Yes, indeed there are. Again, we all work from our particular contexts. In the particular context that I come from, in my town, immediately the whole thing about sharing will involve a voluntary grammar school and a controlled secondary school. There are levels at which it operates. Is that what you are thinking of?

Rev Dr McClure: Clearly, from where we come as transferors, our focus is on the maintained and controlled sectors, but we are aware that shared education has a much wider reach. Again, we are committed to the process, and we see the practical advantages right across the board.

Mr Newton: Thank you for coming. I want to come back to socio-economic deprivation. I had identified that I wanted to ask a question before Mr Norris spoke. Am I right in thinking that your position is not against the issue but is really that, if it is written into the Bill, it may be an impediment to sharing?

Dr Hamill: That is it exactly.

Mr Norris: I do not think that we would want anybody to go away with any misconceptions or idea that we have any problem with dealing with socio-economic disadvantage. We have said very clearly that we recognise it as an issue and that it needs a particular focus. Our concern, again, is just that, in areas where there may not be great socio-economic divides, there may be a possibility that, under the definition, certain projects could be hindered that would otherwise be very worthwhile in bringing people from different —

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): I suppose a lot of this will also come down to the definition. We need a level of assurance on that. We could have two schools that, by definition, are in neither an affluent nor a socially deprived area, but the mix of pupils in each school may, I suspect, cross socio-economic boundaries. I take on board what you said about ensuring that we do not create in the legislation something that acts as a barrier to that cooperation. We need to give a bit of thought to achieving those objectives.

Rev Dr McClure: Backing up what Gavin said, I assure you that, currently, a lot of the energy in our Churches' education committees is focused on social deprivation. That is a big thing for us at the moment.

The Chairperson (Mr Weir): Thank you very much for your evidence. This will move reasonably quickly onwards. We are taking evidence from the Department next week on this. Your evidence has been very valuable to us.

Rev Dr McClure: Thank you.

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