HL Deb 10 July 1998 vol 591 cc1519-30

12.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order will introduce in Northern Ireland some provisions of the Education Act 1996, Education Act 1997 and certain elements of education policy set out in the draft Teaching and Higher Education Bill and the School Standards and Framework Bill. It will also implement certain other proposals that the Government have for education policy in the Province. The main provisions to be introduced will be in relation to discipline, assessments and pupils' performance, performance and management of schools, pre-school education, teacher-related issues, financing of schools and the development of Irish-medium education. A number of other miscellaneous provisions are also included.

The order was considered by a wide range of educational interests in Northern Ireland. All of their comments were carefully considered and, as a result, a number of minor changes have been made to the draft order. I am grateful for the interest shown by those who took the trouble to respond. I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I say a few words about the main provisions of the order.

The Department of Education carried out a comprehensive review of discipline during 1997 and found that the standard of behaviour in schools is generally good and that most schools feel that they can cope with their discipline problems, given appropriate support; and, indeed, that they wish to do so. Articles 3 to 6 will strengthen the position of schools in relation to discipline and good behaviour and will underpin the range of support initiatives in this area, which were announced as part of the Northern Ireland School Improvement Programme which the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland announced in February.

It might be helpful if I included some comments about Articles 86 and 87 at this stage, as they are linked to discipline. These articles, which parallel legislation in England and Wales, provide a legal basis for the establishment of pupil referral units which will provide short-term support in behaviour management for seriously disruptive pupils so that they can be re-integrated back into their usual school. A small number of such units already exist, and these have proved successful in modifying behaviour to enable pupils to return to their normal schools and take full advantage of the education provided for them.

Article 86 also provides the statutory basis for the development of alternative education provision for the very small number of pupils who could not be returned to a mainstream school because they exhibit deep-seated disaffection. The provision will be developed on a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency basis, drawing on the expertise in the education sector, and other agencies such as social services and the Probation Service, to develop appropriate programmes. The limited provision of this type which already exists has focused on the acquisition of basic skills and employability and, in many cases, has been successful in engaging the interest of these young people.

Articles 7 to 13 set out a range of measures related to pupil assessment and to target-setting and development planning in schools. In particular, Articles 7 to 9 provide the statutory basis for the baseline assessment of primary school pupils in their first year of compulsory education. It is intended that a single scheme for baseline assessment in Northern Ireland will be drawn up and introduced at an appropriate pace with adequate training and support for the teachers involved.

Articles 11 and 13 will provide for schools to set and publish annual targets for the performance of their pupils, within the context of development plans. The setting of targets and the drawing up of development plans provide an important context for the work done in schools, and increased stimulus for improvement. They are key components of our strategy for improvement of school performance. We intend to make target-setting a statutory requirement from the 1998–99 school year. The requirement to draw up development plans will be introduced at a later date by Appointed Day provision to allow time for the necessary training and support for schools.

The order provides a new power in circumstances where a school is judged to be failing to provide an acceptable standard of education for its pupils, and this is judged to be wholly or partly the result of actions or inactions on the part of the board of governors. Where the Education and Training Inspectorate reports that a board of governors is contributing to a school's failure, the Department of Education will be empowered to appoint additional members to the board of governors, including a chairman, to remedy the shortcomings of the board of governors.

I do not expect that this power will be used often, but where it is used there will be full consultation with the relevant interests. Governors of schools are hard-working and committed people and I wish to place on record the Government's gratitude for the work they do. But, where problems arise, I consider it vital that steps can be taken to put things right and so enable the school to provide the education to which the pupils are entitled.

Article 15 extends the duty placed on a board of governors of a school to include within their annual report the measures or revised arrangements which they have taken to safeguard pupils and staff while at school. This provision arises from one of the recommendations of the Working Group on School Security set up by the DfEE following the fatal stabbing of the London head teacher, Phillip Lawrence. I am sure your Lordships will fully support this measure, which brings the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in England and Wales and is consistent with government aims to encourage greater parental involvement and partnership in schools.

Article 16 provides for a statutory limit to be prescribed on class sizes in Key Stage 1 (Years 1–4 in Northern Ireland) in grant-aided primary schools. The intention is to limit the size of primary school infant classes to 30. This reflects the importance the Government attach to the promotion of effective learning in the early years of education and is to be introduced as quickly as possible, depending on decisions on spending levels. Schools will be required to comply with the statutory limit, subject to any exceptions approved by the education and library boards.

Part V of the order provides for a programme of expansion of pre-school education in Northern Ireland. The long-term aim is to provide a full-year pre-school education place for every child whose parents wish it. This programme will be planned at local level to meet the needs of children and their parents. Places will be secured through pre-school education development plans which will be drawn up and implemented through partnership between the education and library boards and other providers of pre-school education in the statutory, private and voluntary sectors.

Chapter I of Part V gives the Department of Education for Northern Ireland powers to determine quality standards for pre-school education and to monitor these through the Education and Training Inspectorate. Noble Lords will be glad to hear that it also removes an existing legislative bar on nursery provision in the integrated education sector.

Chapter II of Part V introduces new arrangements for the admission of children to grant-aided nursery schools and nursery classes at primary schools to ensure effective use of nursery provision and equity of access to pre-school education.

Chapter 1 of Part VI of the order provides for the establishment of the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland. The council, as in Scotland, England and Wales, will be the major body to advise the Department of Education and employing authorities in Northern Ireland on the standards of entry to the profession, the structure and content of initial teacher training courses, the career development and performance management of teachers and standards of teaching and teachers' conduct. It will have professional responsibility for registering teachers and excluding from teaching those found guilty of misconduct after due process.

I am grateful to those who took the time to respond to the draft order and the consultation paper on the establishment of the council. Both were considered by a wide range of educational interests. Their views show considerable support both for the establishment of a council, and for the proposal that it should be representative of a broad range of interests, among which members of the teaching profession should represent the single largest group.

The order provides the framework of the council and its functions. The exact detail of the council's composition, the registration requirements, and the arrangements for levying registration fees will be set out in draft regulations on which there will again be wide-ranging consultations by the department. In view of the further consultation and planning which needs to be undertaken, the Government have set a target to bring the council into operation in the year 2000.

Chapter II of Part VI of the order enables regulations to be made prescribing the eligibility conditions which must be met in order to be considered for employment as a principal of a grant-aided school, and in particular to hold a qualification approved by the department. It also provides exemption from the regulations of acting principals and those appointed to principal posts before the regulations become law. Consultations on this issue indicated strong support for the new qualification, which will be phased in from next year and which will become a compulsory requirement for headship as soon as there is a sufficient pool of qualified candidates to fill principal vacancies.

Article 43 re-enacts, with minor amendments, Articles 143 and 153 of the 1989 order, which relate to schemes for the employment of teachers by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and education and library boards respectively. The schemes will continue but they will no longer require the department's approval. It also discontinues the requirement in education law for an agreement to be entered into between a teacher and the employer on the terms and conditions of employment. These are matters which are subject to general employment legislation.

The thrust of Part VII of the order is to provide for the transfer of funding responsibility for voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated schools from the Department of Education to the education and library boards. Because of the complexities of the previous legislation governing the financing of schools, it has been necessary at the same time to consolidate the existing provisions, with minor modifications and tidying up, while incorporating the new provisions transferring the funding responsibility. May I emphasise to the House that the only fundamental change which the transfer initiates is simply a change of paymaster from DENI to the boards. The reasons for it are very straightforward.

My colleague has indicated in public on several occasions that he does not think that it is defensible, equitable or sensible to have seven different funding formulae for allocating resources to schools in Northern Ireland and has made clear that this Government's policy objective will be to secure commonality across the Province. This will ensure that schools with the same needs will have the same level of funding, regardless of the area or the schools sector in which they are located. I know that this will take time to achieve and that much consultation with all education interests will be necessary, but solid and sensible progress has already been made with the introduction of a number of changes for 1998–99 which will bring the funding formulae much closer together. Thus the proposals in this part of the order will contribute to commonality by reducing the number of funding formulae in operation from seven to five and thus promote greater equity, consistency and transparency of funding across all schools.

It has been put to my colleague with some force, during extensive consultation on the draft order, that such a transfer will somehow mean that the unique ethos and management arrangements which currently exist, particularly in the voluntary grammar school sector, will be somehow damaged or lost. This is simply not so. Voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated schools will continue to manage their own affairs without interference from boards; the draft order does not give the boards any role in the day-to-day management of these schools. Voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated schools would not, therefore, lose their identities and simply become the same as controlled schools, nor would there be any new restrictions on their present freedom as to how they use their resources.

It has also been suggested that boards will somehow spirit away funds from voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated schools for use elsewhere. Again, this is not the case. The new funding arrangements will recognise their significant financial differences in terms of VAT, rates, maintenance etc. The draft order contains safeguards to reflect this: it gives the department a clear approval role, not only in respect of all aspects of the LMS formula arrangements and how they apply to the voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated sector, but also in respect of boards' annual financial schemes. These measures should provide ample reassurance to the sectors that boards will not be able to divert funds away from these schools' budgets.

Articles 73 to 80 consolidate the existing provisions relating to the powers and duties of the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, which are currently contained in four orders in council, and expand those powers to require or empower CCEA: to publicise the arrangements for baseline assessment; to develop and publish criteria for the accreditation of relevant external qualifications and to accredit qualifications which meet the criteria; to produce guidance and teaching materials for the curriculum of pre-school-age children; and, in exercising its functions, to have regard, as far as is relevant, to the requirements of industry and commerce and of persons with special learning needs.

Article 81 consolidates existing provisions related to the approval of qualifications by the Department of Education, which are intended to ensure that the qualifications offered are acceptable and appropriate and are part of the nationally recognised framework of qualifications.

Article 82 extends the period during which pupils can avail of work experience to include all of Key Stage 4. Article 83 makes provision for institutions of further education, on behalf of schools, to provide secondary education for pupils at Key Stage 4 within arrangements made by education and library boards.

Both of these provisions are designed to allow schools more flexibility to provide a curriculum matched to the needs of the individual child. Article 83 has been amended from the original draft to make it clear that any provision made by an institution of further education is in fact on behalf of a school and that pupils remain on the school roll.

The order also introduces some technical amendments to education legislation which are designed to remove any remaining doubt about the powers of education and library boards to enter into contracts which may be appropriate under the private finance initiative. This mirrors the legislative provisions made for local authorities in Great Britain.

Article 89 lays a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education and gives powers for the funding of a promotional body or bodies. These provisions will bring Irish-medium education onto a similar footing to integrated education.

These are the main provisions of the order, which I believe will help enhance the education system in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th June be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)

12.30 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I welcome that extremely helpful and comprehensive explanation of the order. I apologise that a relatively inexpert representative is speaking from these Benches in the unavoidable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and my noble friend Lord Alderdyce, who is in Northern Ireland.

The Liberal Democrats welcome this order. We particularly welcome the stress on pre-school and primary education. It seems to us more and more to be the key to improving education throughout the United Kingdom. We are not entirely happy with the idea that one can bring school numbers down in primary schools by means of statutory legislation. One cannot entirely build bricks without straw. Clearly, there will have to be extra funding for primary schools. Looking round this Chamber I see no other university teachers present, but it should be said that some of us recognise that the shift in education spending will move away from higher education towards primary schools.

I note that Article 88 refers to the private finance initiative. My party has some hesitations about the private finance initiative. It is not an entirely cost-free element in education funding. It simply puts off spending for later years. There are large questions in regard to education as to what can most easily be funded through the PFI. Computers, information technology and other resources that have a fast depreciation rate are not easy to fund by private means.

We are very glad to see the encouraging references to integrated education. However, we regret that more is not being done. I understand that, currently, one in every 40 pupils in Northern Ireland attends an integrated school. The pressure for pupils to attend integrated schools means that demand is higher than the current provision. Clearly it is a matter of public policy to encourage that growth. I was a candidate in the North West of England, and was well aware at that time in Manchester of the resistance to integrated education from different sections of the community. Clearly, within the current circumstances in Northern Ireland, we wish by all means to encourage that.

I wish to mention one final small point. On page 100 Schedule 3 sets out criteria for the disqualification of members of the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment. I am puzzled that the disqualification criteria include not only bankruptcy but anyone who has made "an arrangement with his creditors". I have made an arrangement with my creditors for the purpose of buying a house and undertaking a mortgage. I merely question how loose the phrasing should be.

With those exceptions, on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues I welcome the order. I hope that it will contribute to a more useful and integrated education system in Northern Ireland.

12.35 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, my first observation relates to the size, as well as the nature, of the order. It demonstrates the difficulties of direct rule as practised by successive governments over the past three decades or so. It is simply not a proper parliamentary procedure to put up 116 pages for discussion in a single debate with no possibility of amendment. Whatever it is, it is not proper parliamentary procedure.

I realise that the Government have consulted widely, and I commend them on that consultation. But that is not parliamentary government, or even representative democracy. The point is particularly relevant just now. As was clear from the Minister's opening remarks, the order represents rather a motley collection of different educational matters flowing from different sources. There is no real theme to the order as a whole. Secondly, many of these matters might more satisfactorily have been left to the Assembly, which has now begun its work.

I am beginning to get the impression, given the volume of orders for both affirmative and negative procedure that are coming forward, that the Northern Ireland Office is, as it were, trying to empty its in-tray and get everything through as soon as possible before the Assembly is under way. There may be a suspicion that democracy will be slightly more difficult to manage than direct rule. I happen to think that it would be useful for the Assembly's in-tray to be full of what might be termed normal bread-and-butter legislation; it would be likely to spend less time discussing the very contentious matters which people all too easily fall into discussing in Northern Ireland politics.

I recognise that there was some momentum behind many of the proposals in the order at the time when the agreement was reached and the Assembly began to become a reality. But since then Ministers have not, as it were, backed off and said, "We shall not proceed with that for the time being". They have, instead, crammed on speed and added to this order.

It is not as if education in Northern Ireland was bad and needed urgent action in order to rescue it. On the contrary, it is recognised as good by both those who take an outside interest in it and by parents. When I was a Northern Ireland Minister and visited Army families, it was a notable feature of life in Northern Ireland that the aspect of a long tour there that was welcomed by wives and soldiers alike was that their children would be able to attend the local schools. That was very much appreciated.

The Minister explained that a considerable number of the changes are based on English educational arrangements. If English education had been recognised as better than Northern Ireland education over the past few years, that might be more acceptable. The reasons why Northern Ireland education is better go back beyond direct rule; they are older than that. It is better as a result of arrangements that were made at the time when Northern Ireland had its own assembly of a different kind, its own parliament. It set up the arrangements.

I wish to mention one or two matters of a more detailed nature arising from the order. The general teaching council is one of the items in the order which is modelled on the England and Wales legislation, which is being considered separately. I was not clear. I thought I heard the Minister say in his introduction that the general teaching council would have powers to oversee the conduct of teachers. I take it, therefore, that it would have powers to strike teachers off the register for professional misconduct. I believe that that provision is to be included in the Great Britain legislation. I could not spot it in the Northern Ireland legislation, but perhaps it is one of the powers that is left to regulation and will be brought in later—delegated legislation creating further delegated legislation.

I welcome the provisions for the testing of pupils, the publication of performance targets, and so on. As far as class sizes are concerned, it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us a little more about how class sizes of 30 and under are to be achieved in primary schools and over what time-scale. Of course, they could be achieved simply by going against parents' wishes to send their children to a particular school and forcing the children to go to another school. There is also a question of finance. Are the schools to which parents would like to send their children to be given additional classes to enable the class sizes to come down? That is obviously the most desirable way of doing it. I should be grateful for any comments the Minister can make on that point.

The Minister was able to make some reassuring points to the voluntary grammar schools on the changes to the funding formulas. I believe that that is a matter which could at this stage have been left to the Assembly and the new executive to sort out. As the Minister said, moving to what is apparently regarded as a fairer funding formula is inevitably a slow matter. It is inevitable that some schools will be disadvantaged in any change of this kind. For that reason, the matter should proceed slowly and with the maximum amount of local acceptance. I believe that, as events have turned out, this aspect of the order could have been postponed and gone into the in-tray of the new Assembly.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, I believe that I am the sole representative from Northern Ireland present in the Chamber today. I know that many of my colleagues have returned to the Province with a great deal of concern, as I shall shortly.

I totally agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, about the standards of education in Northern Ireland and about the benefits which service children enjoy at Northern Ireland schools. I was sent to a school in this country, about 30 miles from your Lordships' House, of a type of which perhaps Members on the Government Benches would not wholly approve. However, my wife and I took a conscious decision to send our own children to school in Northern Ireland. Our daughter has just finished her A-levels at a voluntary grammar school in Belfast and we have two boys currently at a separate voluntary grammar school in Belfast.

I too welcome the information which the Minister gave so clearly, as he always does, on the provision of additional funding for voluntary grammar schools and integrated schools. In particular, I am very pleased that the boards of governors and head teachers of these voluntary schools will still have the wherewithal to decide how to apply the funds they are given and that the power is not to be vested in the education and library boards. That is a welcome move. I have no problems with the order before us today.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the general support for the order. I will deal with the points which were made, not necessarily in the same order.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, commented on the length of the order and criticised the parliamentary procedure for scrutinising it. I have a lot of sympathy with that point. All being well, these are matters which will in future be dealt with by the Assembly, which will no doubt develop its own ways of scrutinising them.

The noble Lord asked why the order was not left to the Assembly and said that there was a danger that the Assembly might have an empty in-tray. I can assure the noble Lord that the Government's concern is that the Assembly's in-tray will, if anything, be far too full by the time it ceases to be in shadow mode and takes over full powers early next year, I hope. The danger is that if we load the new Assembly with too much to do, there will be an enormous burden on individual Members and on Ministers in the early days and it will take rather longer for them to get round to some of these bread-and-butter issues than would otherwise be the case.

Another consideration is that if the Government were now to leave everything to the new Assembly, there would be a policy and decision-making vacuum for the next seven or eight months. I do not believe that that would be healthy in terms of politics; it would not represent good government; and it would not be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, who surely expect government to continue and decisions to be made, particularly on a matter such as this which has been subject to such extensive consultation. I assure the noble Lord that the Assembly's in-tray will not be empty, but I do not believe that it would be proper for us to delay matters. Under that argument, there are many other matters of government policy and decision-making which would presumably also be left, and I am not sure that that would be a happy way of proceeding.

The order was initially prepared when the talks were at an early stage and there was at that point no assurance that the talks would reach the successful conclusion that occurred on Good Friday.

Some of the powers in the order are essential. Without them it will not be possible to move for the benefit of Northern Ireland schools on a range of issues which have widespread support, such as pre-school education, school improvement programmes and school development plans. As the noble Lord conceded, the order was subject to widespread consultation. We shall consult further in any instances where further enactment is needed to introduce any of its provisions. I believe that the order has such widespread support that it would be wrong for us not to proceed.

A question was asked about the general teaching council. The power of the council as to the removal of teachers from the register will be included in the regulations which will be made under the order.

I was asked how the department intended to implement the class-size policy in Northern Ireland. The scale of the matter is substantially less in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. In addition, the structural and funding arrangements for education in Northern Ireland are quite different from those which exist in England and Wales. A working group of representatives of the Department of Education, the five education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is currently developing the detailed arrangements for the implementation of the policy on a standard basis across the Province. Resources will be available to schools from the department via education and library boards, when necessary, to assist them to comply with the policy. It is expected, however, that the great majority of schools will be able to comply with the policy without additional assistance.

I was asked whether additional funds would be available to implement the new class-size policy. This policy is a key priority. Subject to the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, additional funds will be made available to support it. However, as I said, many schools should be able to meet the statutory requirement by the effective use of existing teaching resources and possibly the reorganisation of class structures.

I appreciate the positive support for integrated education from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. The Government will continue to support well-founded proposals for new integrated schools in the primary and secondary sectors. We are committed to doing that and the order extends support to integrated education in the pre-school sector.

I can assure the noble Lord therefore that we are committed to integrated education. Of course, the speed with which we can move forward depends not just on overall support—one can quote statistics of support in Northern Ireland—but also on support in specific areas so that one can establish an integrated school of an adequate size. There is a difficulty therefore in the transition process, but we are moving forward as rapidly as possible.

The noble Lord asked also about the comment in Schedule 3 in relation to creditors. These are common provisions which have been in existence since 1990. There have been no objections from any source in two public consultations and of course the power would not he exercised unreasonably. Therefore, although the noble Lord raised the matter as something which might cause concern, it is an established way of operating and no one seems to have objected to it.

As regards the public finance initiative, again raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of course that is not a panacea for all ills. However, it is a useful way of raising additional resources for education and, as such, the Government are committed to using the PFI whenever appropriate. There are specific areas of educational provision—the noble Lord mentioned computers—where the PFI approach might not work as well as in other aspects of education. But our commitment is there. We want to use the PFI as well as other means of raising the money necessary to continually improve education in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.