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Education Bill: Second Stage 14/10/2014

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This is a relatively short Bill:  short but nonetheless important.  The Bill indicates that this is a good day for Northern Ireland, its education system and the pupils who ultimately benefit from it.  It has taken us a long time to get here, and it has been a difficult passage.

Even though I was not on the Education Committee for all the time during which ESA was being discussed, I could not help but be involved in ESA and the concerns that were expressed.  The Bill was controversial and was debated on a number of occasions.  It was much criticised and pored over, line by line and word by word.  There was much anxiety about the Bill, certainly on this side of the Chamber, but it was not seen as being a practical solution to where we wanted to be in education.  

We have moved on considerably.  The word “dissolution” is used in the Bill, and maybe that is for technical or legal reasons.  “Amalgamation” sounds much friendlier to me.  The Bill refers to the "dissolution" of the education and library boards and the creation, via the Education Bill, of an Education Authority.  

There are those of us who definitely welcome the board for controlled schools, which we see as a positive step in the right direction.  Over the years, the controlled sector has been treated rather shabbily, and, unlike some sectors, has not been seen as having a privileged position.  The Bill needs to bring equality into the education system, and that board needs authority and responsibility to be brought to it.  

On a number of occasions, I raised my concerns with the Minister about the two boards that impact me directly.  Mr Craig referred to the board that operates in his area, where the Belfast Education and Library Board operated for many years without any political input whatsoever.  The Minister eventually got around to addressing that issue, but it created a gap that remained for a long time, when constituents could not raise issues, and politicians and councillors could not bring issues into the heart of the debate in the Belfast Education and Library Board.  

Mr Craig referred to the fact that the South Eastern Education and Library Board was run by, I think, three very nice people.  I have no doubt that they were professional in their own way.  They were appointed by the Minister, however, and were there to do the Minister’s bidding, if I may use that expression.  They were certainly not responsible to any members of the public, the parents or the teaching staff, and access to them was very limited.  I am sure that they did their best and that their intentions were worthy, but there was no accountability from the commissioners.  

We are moving towards the Bill, but there have been indications that we are not there yet, and other things have still to be settled.  It does appear, however, that the groundwork has now been done, and the Bill will be good for education.  It will provide stability in the educational system and opportunities for parents in that it will give them access to the policymakers and decision-makers.  The Bill will help pupils, who, hopefully, will benefit from the creation of the Education Authority and the access that will become available.  Northern Ireland will have a modern, responsive structure to take education forward.  

There are direct outputs from the Bill.  I suppose that it is right to say — again, it is more pertinent in the east of the city and the East Belfast constituency — that area planning will be a significant feature.  Moving to the single body potentially allows for better area planning.  No one can argue against area planning.  It is the right thing to do, but, so often, it has let down the schools and pupils whom it is supposedly there to serve.   

If we move forward, and we will, area planning has to have a number of factors.  It has to have openness and transparency, and it must include meaningful consultation.  You know, Minister, that, often, when board representatives come to speak to a school perceived to be under threat of closure, they do not come to seek a way forward or an innovative solution, they come to say that the school is closing and that there will be a period of consultation on its closure.  More innovative thinking is needed, and there will be that opportunity as we move the Bill forward.   

It has been well rehearsed, and I want to pay tribute to you, Minister, for a decision that you took concerning east Belfast.

The parents and teachers involved in Dundonald High School were engaged in a consultation process that adopted the approach that I outlined.  It took the Minister to make a decision to keep the school open.  I believe that the closure of Dundonald High School, and the context in which it was being brought about, needed to be looked at more innovatively.  At least, the potential to keep it open needed a more innovative approach.  Not only was an approach to keep it open needed but guidelines had to be set for how it could be kept open, whereas, when the board came to consult, it really was about closure. 

I could go on about Orangefield High School, but we do not need to rehearse that because we have already been there.  The fact is that you were challenged, Minister, with a judicial review on the potential merger of Newtownbreda High School and Knockbreda High School, the approach to which was an example of the area planning system letting down the potential of the schools.   

There are other examples that we can learn from.  A decision by the previous Minister to merge Beechfield and Mersey Street primary schools brought about the creation of a new build, Victoria Park Primary School.  The plan was to build a 12-classroom school, when all the figures said that a 14-classroom school was needed.  Only after consultation with parents, teachers and the board of governors, along with political input, was it decided not to open a brand new school with 12 classrooms and two Portakabins in the playground but to build a 14-classroom primary school.  Again, area planning was letting us down, and it was letting down the pupils and teachers .  

During your time at Committee, Minister, I raised the need to manage the change.  Someone said that we should pay tribute to the Belfast Education and Library Board, the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the other boards and their staff, who, under difficult circumstances, have done a good job. I think that someone earlier referred to them "holding it together".  We need to pay tribute to those staff members.  As they move into the difficult situation of change, that change needs to be professionally managed.  It needs to be done in such a way that there is a good communication system with all those who will be impacted on by the change.  It needs to be seen that they are involved in the outcomes of the creation of the new body.  We also need to protect them, Minister.  Situations cannot be arrived at in which it is extremely disadvantageous for someone to move from an education and library board to another body.  The staff have delivered for us in the past, and they deserve our thanks for that.  

We are in a different place because of the diligent work that was carried out by the Committee over the past number of years on the ESA Bill.  That diligent work will have to be carried on as we finalise the Bill.  I pay tribute to former Committee members, and I hope that we can continue the diligence of that work in the coming days.

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