Assembly Speech- East Belfast Primary School Education 1/12/08

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Mr Speaker / Deputy Speaker
• Don’t think I will say anything the Minister hasn’t heard before
• Don’t think that East Belfast problems are unique

In this debate I would like to address the following issues –
• Funding issues
• Parental involvement in education
• Primary education strategy in East Belfast.

Funding Issues
The issue of education has been dominating the headlines for months with only slow progress being made.  Primary education is the most important period of learning for a child, when many of the skills they will use in later life are developed.  However, there are very strong feelings that many children are being failed at primary level which at least in part is due to the lack of funding available for teaching activity.

Northern Ireland has one of the greatest disparities of funding between Primary education and post-primary.  The Minister for Education has promised to reduce the funding disparity between the primary and post primary levels; however, this is not seen to be the case.  For the academic year 2007/08 the disparity of funding was £1244.29 per pupil and in the academic year 2008/09 the disparity was £1258.34.  This confirms the funding disparity is increasing even though the Minister promised in this House on 20th April 2008 “I want social justice, fairness and equality for all children.”  How can this be seen as being equality for all children when those in primary education are not receiving the funding level to ensure the levels of education?  Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us to how she plans to deal with this disparity issue. 

Having recently met with the East Belfast Principals Group, the issues they raised confirmed how far they have to stretch their budget in an attempt to educate our children.  Issues were raised such as the inability of schools to afford to employ an IT technician to maintain computers; with schools sharing a technician and spreading the cost around.  In today’s society, when the ability to use a computer effectively is essential, this situation is unacceptable.

The Principals’ Group are concerned about insufficient funding being made available for special needs education.  This support is essential for children who suffer from learning difficulties, to prepare them to lead a successful life in the future.  However, in East Belfast ten primary schools have been forced to reduce their special needs budget, while two primary schools budgets remained the same and another two had no budget for special needs education at all.

I judge that educational disparity matters and I know that this Assembly wants and needs to place greater importance on the pupils who are underachieving within our education system to improve their social mobility. 
Additional money may be allocated to all or some schools under a specific initiative, such as Extended Schools Funding.  In this case the allocation of money is ring fenced and is non-transferable to other expenditures associated with the running of a school.  Therefore principals, as mangers of their schools, are not permitted the choice of funding for what they consider a priority of their setting.
Head teachers are not opposed in principle to resources for particular purposes being ring fenced but are deeply concerned when core funding is inadequate or reduced because of the sums of money allocated for specific purposes from the overall education budget.
Principals are frustrated with the distinct lack of understanding on the part of civil servants and others who contrive such schemes yet are apparently unaware of the key issues facing schools today.  More delegated funding, allocated via the Common Formula circulation, would permit principals the luxury of making professional judgements about such issues as class size and special educational needs support teaching, which will ultimately affect standards in literacy and numeracy, pupils’ self-esteem and reap benefits far beyond the enjoyment gained from attending an after school club.
As we have heard so many times in this chamber there is a lack of leadership from the Minister on this issue.  She seems to be promising one thing then delivering another.  Action is required on this issue or our children’s education at primary level will continue to suffer. 

In turning to parental involvement in education

Children spend a relatively small amount of their overall time at school; it is family background, cultural factors and material needs which have the most significant impact upon educational outcomes. Whatever the norm is in school attendance many underachieving children spend a lot less often opting out of school at an early age.

And the Westminster Government and this Assembly has progressively viewed schools as the driving force of social cohesion with teachers becoming an emergency service for the extensive problems of society.  This ‘top down’ tactic has forced schools to be held responsible for a growing variety of social activities to the wider community. 

This has diluted parental accountability and participation with the learning of their children and demotivated aspiring principals and teachers within the teaching profession. Principals and teachers who have strong leadership qualities and who can make a difference in the lives of our children.

We need policies that place HIGH value on the important roles of families and communities and give them a stake in the education of their children.  We need to lend a hand so parents can take more responsibility for their children by supporting their participation in education and allowing them to help, in partnership with the teachers, meet their children’s educational needs. 

We need to encourage a cultural change within the education system and our society to bring long-term benefits to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and indeed those who find it difficult to learn. This cannot be achieved without investment.

Teachers are not only teaching children but are also acting as surrogate parents to a minority of the children.  This results in the education of the majority of the class suffering.  It also means that teachers have no non-teaching time to sort out issues for the classroom.  This points to a need to not only make the parents more involved in the education of their children, but also a need for further investment in pastoral care in schools.  Pastoral care is an important part of the education of our children; however, primary schools in East Belfast do not have the money in their budget to afford the luxury to employ a member of staff such as a pastoral care worker.

Primary education is the foundation, the building block that future education success will be built upon.  It needs holistic funding to ensure the education standards can be met by the teachers and that parent support and involvement can be achieved both in the school and in the parental home. The children currently in primary education are being failed due to inadequate of funding package of the primary sector. 

East Belfast Primary School Strategy
The strategy for primary school education in the east of the city needs to be agreed with the Principals and implemented.
We know that pupil numbers is an important factor in the keeping open of a school. However, we do not want to see a repeat of the Mersey Street incident which saw a primary school in the heart of the constituency close as a one off decision and without an overall strategy for the constituency being in place.