HL Deb 13 February 2003 vol 644 cc31-7GC

11.41 a.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

The main purpose of this order is to bring about an enabling provision to allow the department to introduce one common funding formula for the calculation of school budgets for all schools funded under local management of schools arrangements. A word of history: this legislation was introduced as a Bill in the Assembly on 24th June 2002. The Second Stage occurred on 2nd July 2002, and indeed the Committee stage had begun and the Education Committee had begun its evidence sessions.

There are currently seven different LMS formulae in operation: one for each of the five Education and Library Boards; one for voluntary grammar schools; and one for grant maintained integrated schools. They have some common features, but there are differences in the factors and the values. That means—absurdly, Members of the Committee may think—that schools that are similar in size can receive quite different levels of resource simply because their budgets are calculated under different formulae. The make-up of the formula has not yet been agreed, but there is general agreement that a common formula should be put in place.

It had originally been the hope to implement common formula funding from 1st April 2003, but there is not sufficient time. The current arrangements will therefore continue for a further year. The benefit of that is the provision of a further timescale for the notification of school budgets, facilitating further consultation with the education sector on the construction of the formula and enabling the department to work with Education and Library Boards on the better alignment of the mechanism.

I turn, if I may, to the important provisions of the rest of the order. On a point that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, touched on yesterday, although in a different context, Articles 13 to 16 introduce a best value regime in respect of services provided by Education and Library Boards and repeals the existing tendering provisions of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.

There are a number of provisions that deal with the protection and welfare of children. Article 17, for instance, places a duty on the board of governors of all grant-aided schools—that is, schools receiving public funding—to safeguard and promote the welfare of registered pupils while in the care of the school. Article 18 places the duty on the governors to ensure that there is a child protection policy at their school rather than simply the good practice guidelines currently in place.

Article 19 places a duty on all grant-aided schools to address the problem of bullying through their discipline policies. For the first time in Northern Ireland, there is a requirement for schools to consult with pupils in the development of their anti-bullying policies. I note from our discussion yesterday in the Chamber that that will be of particular interest to some Members of the Committee.

Article 36 extends the abolition of the use of corporal punishment to independent schools—that is, schools which do not receive public funding. This change is required to ensure compliance with a judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, so that simply paying for one's child's education does not, now or in the future, give a warrant for hitting it.

I am sure that Members of the Committee will agree that these are important steps. Although the main purpose, as I have sought to indicate, is the introduction of the single common funding formula, the other matters are of importance. I beg to move.

Moved, that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

11.45 a. m.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble and learned Lord for bringing this order into Grand Committee and giving us a chance to debate it. Only this morning, I had a short conversation with Danny Kennedy, chairman of the Education Committee and someone I have known over the years in Newry. As he said to me, the devil is in the detail.

The noble and learned Lord said in his introduction that the formula, which is one of the main purposes of the order, has not yet been fully developed. I understand that. However, the Assembly, and I suspect Members of the Committee, need to beware of that as it could become contentious. According to the officials when they briefed me, it is pretty complicated. It must become transparent and be made available for consultation. The educationists must have an opportunity for input into it, for school management and so on.

It is hoped that the order will become law by April 2004, which should give adequate time. However, Mr Kennedy suggested that it would be inappropriate to go out to consultation in May and June, for the obvious reasons of exam preparations and exams and the like, and then running into the July holidays. So consultation on this particularly complicated issue would not be welcome in May, June and July. I hope that that will be noted.

Furthermore, as the matter is complicated and it is likely that the order will be passed later today, which rushes things, it is felt very important that there should be a safety net in relation to the procedures and that we should have a review procedure. I think, if I have read Hansard correctly, that the Minister in another place has agreed that there should in fact be a review procedure which kicks in after either the first year or second year, but certainly no later, to allow adjustments to be made where necessary. We hope to have a devolved Assembly operating and in a position to do that where necessary.

There are two other issues. I am delighted to see bullying dealt with in the order. It has been a terrible problem in schools, I suspect ever since schools were started. I remember it being absolutely pertinent throughout my school career and my children's careers. I am sure that we have all had the same experience. Getting pupils involved, if it is possible, is an excellent innovation, and I hope that it works. I have always been anti-corporal punishment, ever since I was in a position of authority at school, at age 17, when I did my best to stop it in my own house at Eton. So I have been anti-corporal punishment for a very long time.

The second issue is the removal of boards of governors. I understand, particularly as a result of my discussions with officials, the thinking of government on this measure. However, it is a pretty draconian measure. Although Jane Kennedy gave a pretty satisfactory answer when questioned on this matter in another place, I should like an absolute undertaking from the Government that this measure is intended to operate only in extremis.

With those few comments, I am very happy to support the order.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the chance to consider this order in Committee. However, I have serious concerns about the impact that the common funding formula will have on schools. Clearly there is a real problem of underachievement in a minority of our schools, especially among young males. Further research is required to tackle this problem, and to justify the present funding levels, before any additional allocations are considered. Certainly the current system of using the incidence of free school meals as a basis for allocating funding is entirely unsuitable. Rather, funding allocations, if they are to be truly targeted at the greatest need, should be based on objective measurements including key stage results.

Our primary schools are also facing funding problems. The current level of under-funding of the primary sector will have far-reaching effects as children move through the education system and should not be allowed to continue. We need to look again, in some detail, at the balance of funding between the primary and secondary sectors in Northern Ireland. Any planned funding increase for the integrated and Irish medium sectors should not be at the expense of other school sectors. Spending should be equitable.

Further detailed consideration of the formula is required to reflect the natural progression of teachers towards the top of the salary scale, while still leaving schools the freedom to take staffing decisions within their delegated budgets. More guidance should be made available to school governors to assist them in determining appropriate individual salary ranges for principals and vice-principals and salary levels within those structures.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has already spoken on this topic. I simply add that the formula proposes to give the department power to remove members of boards of governors in order to address school management weaknesses. Can the noble and learned Lord reassure us that this power will not be misused and would be exercised by the department only as a last resort—after all other practical alternatives have been exhausted?

There is also a need to refine the way in which money is allocated for the upkeep of buildings under the formula. The formula must reflect that old buildings are much more expensive to maintain than purpose-built newer ones.

In order to guarantee and maintain openness and transparency, the schools common formula should be reviewed annually or biannually. It is important that such a review mechanism exists in order to re-evaluate the scheme and its value for public money. We await with interest the speedy publication of the scheme and hope that the department will allow an adequate period for open, transparent and inclusive consultation. There are a number of issues under the common funding formula which need to be given particular consideration.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My intervention is in the nature of a question regarding article 22. In the absence of an Explanatory Memorandum, it was not clear what constituted "special schools". Subsequently, an Explanatory Memorandum has mysteriously arrived, and I have studied it in the short time available. However, I am still not entirely clear on precisely what constitutes a special school.

Until the mid-1980s, there was a comprehensive structure known as the special care hoards, of which there were three in Northern Ireland. The Muckamore Abbey board was responsible for special schools and for teacher training for those schools. It was responsible also for very sophisticated training in skills such as carpentry and in many other aspects of building. I had the privilege of being vice-chairman of that board, which covered County Antrim, County Down and all of Belfast. We had somewhere in the region of 9,000 patients/pupils under our care.

My only point is this. As vice-chairman of the hoard, I was personally responsible for linkage with our counterparts in Dublin. Occasionally they had spare capacity in terms of accommodation; occasionally we had something to spare. There was an informal exchange of pupils and even of teachers. The only friction between us was the hard bargaining over costs and general finance. It could be considered a worthy example of what is possible when party politics, north and south, are excluded. I should like to think that that has not been obliterated entirely by the present order.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I shall be very brief. I am following substantially in the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Glentoran and the two Members of the Committee who spoke on behalf of the Ulster Unionists.

I refer briefly to Article 22. The Select Committee in another place did a report on children with special educational needs and the development of policy in that sphere. I do not recall the particular issue covered in Article 22 as being part of our report or an issue that we considered, but I am delighted to see movement on that front. I do not need any comment on that observation.

On the larger issue, which constitutes the main thrust of the order, I should like to have a brief word about paragraph 6 in the Explanatory Memorandum, which describes the views of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee during the unfinished Committee stage, and the reaction to those views as expressed in the order. This observation is partly borne of personal experience in another and, I freely admit, unrelated condition.

The department argues that it would be impracticable to give a formal approval role to the Assembly in approving whatever arrangements are finally reached. I served for four years on the Budget Committee of the European Union—as it then was not—and on two occasions had to negotiate on behalf of the presidency with the European Parliament in terms of its work on the budget. What the European Parliament did was to take matters absolutely up to the last ecu, so that it had totally filled the amount that could be put in the budget under the rules. There were occasions when the Council of Ministers disagreed with the Parliament, for whatever reason.

The manner in which those negotiations were conducted was such that there really was no way in which the Parliament could unscramble the arrangements. It had used up every single ecu, and for understandable political reasons it had no organised priorities in terms of the items that it would have to take out if that were required. We therefore found ourselves permanently in a stalemate in the closing stages of the budget negotiations.

That case is not dissimilar to this one. The formula in this case is so complicated that, changing whatever the Northern Ireland equivalent of an ecu is, one basically has to revise the whole system. However, as that cannot be done, it is not right to give the Assembly the final say. I understand that, just as I understood the stalemate which we had with the European Parliament.

This is my question. The last few sentences of paragraph 6 state: The formula will be subject to detailed consultation and will be fully discussed with education partner bodies before implementation as will any proposed changes post operation. It is anticipated that if the Assembly returns, the Department will seek to ensure that the Assembly's views will be considered in the calculation of the Common Formula Funding Scheme". In so far as we are a pale simulacrum of the Assembly in scrutinising these orders, I should like a slightly clearer idea of how that would actually be done in terms of the Assembly being able not only to give its views, but perhaps also—although it does not have the final say—to give a verdict on the solution that the department has reached.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for those contributions. Perhaps I may deal with the questions separately. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked for the definition of "special schools". I am happy to give it. They are schools which cater solely for children with special educational needs. They are defined in legislation and are designated by the Education and Library Boards.

The noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Maginnis, both asked pointed questions about the removal of governors. I am able, and happy, to confirm that we expect the power to be used only in exceptional circumstances. If, for example, a school fails to provide an adequate education for the children and the department is of the view that the whole board of governors—either because it has done things or, more often, has failed to do things—is contributing to that failure in whole or in part, it would have to consider the matter very carefully.

To reassure both noble Lords, I believe it is helpful if I say that the order provides for regulations to prescribe the general and foreseeable circumstances in which the power may be used. Consultation on the regulations will take place with schools and school authorities. I believe that that should meet the concerns expressed by both noble Lords. It is intended that the provision will be used only in limited and extreme circumstances.

I am grateful for the courtesy shown by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in giving me notice of certain matters so that I can serve the Committee more usefully. Over the next few months, officials will hold meetings with Education and Library Boards and other representative bodies to finalise the common funding scheme. There will then be a round of consultation with schools, as required under the present legislation—the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989—and this proposed legislation. We hope to complete that as soon as practicable. Officials have taken on board that May, June and July need to be either avoided or approached with discretion.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also made the valid point that one needs to keep these schemes under continuing review. Continuing review will take place. We would expect the schemes to be refined over the next few years in the light of practical experience. I can assure your Lordships that each year any changes will be discussed fully with the representative bodies. Irish-medium schools require a different approach because significant additional costs are attached to their running.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, raised the subject, which certainly chimed with me, of why some children under-achieve. Oddly, that was a curious feature of a discussion that I had yesterday in the context of large cities in England. For example, children from different parts of the sub-continent of India can have completely different achievement patterns. Therefore, it is a difficult subject. When considering the matter of free school meals, one of the key indicators is that those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to under-achieve. They often lack the motivation to learn and have attendance and behavioural problems. Therefore, that is an indicator, although it should not be the only determinative one. These are subtle and difficult areas of research. I agree with the noble Lord that the more research carried out on the matter, the better.

I was very pleased to hear the robust views of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on corporal punishment. I was caned only once and it annoyed me even more because the caner was my father, who was the head teacher. I still believe that he was wrong.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, also made the point, which certainly chimes with my experience, that one needs to consider the age and type of the school building. We shall develop a database relating to the school's estate. When that has been developed, we shall have further consultation on the lines that he indicated. I am grateful for the very helpful observations that have been made.

On Question, Motion agreed to.