17 October 2014

Shared and Integrated Education Top of the Agenda as Committee Evidence Sessions Begin

The Committee for Education launched its new inquiry into Shared and Integrated Education in September and this week saw the beginning of evidence sessions which over the coming weeks will help to inform and shape the Committees final report. The inquiry will examine how Shared and Integrated Education is delivered across Northern Ireland and whether there is a need for a formal, statutory definition of Shared Education. Members will also explore if there should be a legal obligation for its promotion and encouragement.

First to give evidence today were Ian Williamson, Principal of Ballycastle High School and Barbara Ward, Principal of Cross and Passion College Ballycastle. Both Schools have been involved in a successful Shared Education programme and were recently selected by the Department for Education as one of three local school partnerships to take part in the new Shared Education Campuses Programme.

Opening the evidence session, Barbara outlined the schools’ vision of collaboration which she noted had resulted in a more efficient use of resources and increased educational choices for pupils. She added that it had enabled both schools to better meet the needs of pupils and to cater to all ability levels.

The opportunity to provide additional training and qualifications in practical areas, such as agriculture, hospitality and media studies has also been an important driver in securing the success of the Shared Education Programme.

Ian and Barbara underlined both schools commitment to and place in the local community and the importance of nurturing skills to meet the needs of local employers.

The Committee was keen to tease out some of the factors that make this particular Shared Educational Programme successful. For example was geographical location important, given the fact that both Ballycastle High School and Cross and Passion College are in close proximity to each other? Both principals said that this was certainly helpful in the sharing of day to day educational experiences, but they added that Shared Education will only be successful in the educational and economic sense if it meets a real need. The training and development of staff was also cited as an important factor as was securing buy in and support from pupils, teachers and the local community.

The costs of running a shared education programme and whether or not this could impact on the continuing success of the Moyle partnership or any would be shared educational programmes was also queried by the Committee. Barbara noted that costs are a factor – but that the programme had benefited from Entitlement Framework funding, which provides students access to "a broad and balanced curriculum", as well as resources to support shared education. Funding and practical support from external agencies such as PEACE 3, the Sharing Education Programme and Peace, Inclusion, Reconciliation, Citizenship and History Project (PIRCH) have also been beneficial.

The Committee was also interested in how the schools brought parents on board? Both Barbara and Ian noted that it is made clear to parents that sharing can enhance their child’s experience at school, however both children and parents must have a choice and be comfortable with the sharing proposals, the schools do not take anything for granted. Barbara added that they have continually evaluated with parents, have set up focus groups and the feedback shows that no one feels the sharing should not happen.

The need for compromise was also raised – how do the schools agree on certain administrative issues for example? It was acknowledged by both principals that compromise was an important factor in the sharing process. Things like school holidays and staff development days had to be synchronised, close coordination in terms of timetabling and curriculum planning and the sharing of facilities have all arisen as factors to be considered and agreed upon. However, Barbara and Ian added that there has never been any need or wish to compromise in terms of the quality of education provision.

The Committee was also keen to hear how the shared programme worked in terms of bridging community differences. Barbara and Ian underlined the importance of nurturing mutual respect, of helping pupils to recognise that it’s okay to express who they are without showing disrespect or threat. Ian said that it was important to underline that the schools do not try to morph their pupils into something they are not and that within this particular context the students have developed genuine friendships and relationships.

You can watch Barbara and Ian’s presentation to the Committee below and read their joint written submission to the Committee.

While Barbara and Ian provided a very practical and personal sense of how the Moyle Partnership worked, Professors Colin Knox and Vani Borooah from the University of Ulster were also before the Committee to provide the theoretical context and findings from their research into Shared and Integrated Education.

Professors Knox and Borooah opened the briefing by discussing their research into Integrated Education, which included take up of places in Integrated schools and academic performance levels across the educational spectrum at both primary and post primary level.

Their research has looked at the differences between Integrated and Shared educational programmes and they were keen to highlight that both programmes have a place in the local educational system. They acknowledged that most research evidence on the impact of integrated education has tended to focus on reconciliation and societal benefits in Northern Ireland. They stated however that their research which examined variations in popularity across schools showed very clearly that parents choose schools largely based on educational performance. Professor Borooah noted “good results is the horse and reconciliation is the cart” and “primacy must be given to good results”.

The UU research on Shared Education indicated that pupils in this environment tend to do better academically. The evidence based on four selected primary and post-primary schools involved in the Sharing Education Programme concluded that  involvement  in  the  initiative  would  increase the likelihood of: getting good GSCEs; gaining fluency in a foreign language; and going to University.

However, both professors stressed that they did not see Shared and Integrated Education initiatives as competing. Factors such as geographical proximity, levels of cross community integration and interface areas are all important factors in the workability of Shared Education Programmes. They concluded that the new Shared Education Signature Project would be very important in terms of defining and setting goals for Shared Education as a whole.    

You can watch Professor Knox and Professor Borooah’s presentation to the Committee in full below and read their briefing papers to the Committee Part 1 and Part 2.

15 October 2014

Question Time: Health, Social Services and Public Safety 14 October 2014

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr Jim Wells MLA responded to questions on budgetary pressures; cancer services; the Ulster Hospital; Integrated Care Partnerships; and Seven-day Access to GPs.

The Minister told the house that his "Department has faced considerable financial challenges in 2014-15, with £160 million of additional resources estimated to be required to balance the books."

"The situation does not get any better in 2015-16, with additional pressures in the health and social care system of over £300 million on top of those pressures carried forward from 2014-15.  Those will be dealt with through non-recurrent measures.  The largest inescapable pressure in this is additional pension costs, estimated to be in the region of £90 million."

In response to a question on local cancer services, the Minister said:
"Over the past decade, we have witnessed significant progress in cancer provision in Northern Ireland, which has led to real improvements in outcomes for patients across a wide range of cancers.  A recent Europe-wide study shows that Northern Ireland cancer survival rates for lung, breast and prostate are the best in the UK."

However, "It is predicted that, by the age of 75, one in three in Northern Ireland will have cancer."

Members were also informed that the new cancer unit at Altnagelvin hospital will treat "cancer sufferers in places such as Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim [who] will no longer be forced to go the whole way to Dublin; they can go to Altnagelvin for their treatment."

Topical questions included: Ebola; Paediatric Congenital Cardiac Services; GP Workforce; Cancelled Operations; & Organ Donation.

You can read the full transcript on our website.

Question Time: Finance and Personnel 14 October 2014

As Members will be aware, the Executive agreed the October monitoring resource allocations on 9 October.  I updated the Assembly on the outcome of this in my statement yesterday.  The June monitoring round agreed resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) reductions of £77·9 million, equating to 2·1%.  An additional 2·3% reduction was required to meet the £87 million cost of not implementing welfare reform.  This has now been agreed. 
Through negotiations with Her Majesty's Treasury, I have secured access to the reserve in 2014-15 of up to £100 million.  This has allowed the Executive to make allocations of £125 million to mitigate the worst impact of these reductions.  However, this is far from an ideal solution.  It is most unfortunate that the intransigence of some in the Executive has enforced the need to call upon the £100 million facility.  This will make the 2015-16 Budget considerably more difficult because, in addition to having to cover £114 million of welfare reform savings lost to Treasury, we will now be faced with repaying an additional £100 million.
That was the statement from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Simon Hamilton MLA after he was pressed on the ongoing budget pressures during Question time.

When asked what his Department's proposals for raising revenue under the current local fiscal arrangements are, the Minister had this to say:
In Budget 2011-15, the Executive agreed that the levels of domestic and non-domestic regional rates would be increased in line with inflation.  For next year’s budget, my Department is working on the assumption that this policy will continue and that the level of the regional rate for the 2015-16 year will increase by the rate of inflation.
The Minister also tackled questions on Welfare Reform and District Rates.

Topical questions to the Minister included: Empty Premises Relief; Financial Transactions Capital; Rates Convergence; Treasury Bailout; & County Hall, Ballymena.

You can read the full transcript on our website.

14 October 2014

Question Time: Environment 13 October 2014

The Minister of the Environment, Mark H Durkan MLA, stated that he was extremely concerned by the number of road deaths this year. He also stated that his Department continues to take a range of actions to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads.  Over 100 of the 224 action measures in the Road Safety Strategy to 2020 have been completed. He also stated that during times of recession drivers are more fuel efficient which would have seen a reduction in speeding and an overall reduction in distances travelled; hence the reasons for the fall in road casualties in the period 2009-2012.

The Minister was asked how his Department is engaging with rural communities regarding the right of non-farming rural dwellers to build and live in the countryside.

The previous Minister of the Environment again considered this issue as part of his review into the operation of PPS 21.  That review reported in July 2013.  As part of the review, he met former members of the IWG to hear, at first hand, their expert perspectives on the matter.  The advice was reiterated that the term "non-farming rural dweller" is difficult to interpret and define and should not, therefore, be used to create a special category of planning policy. 
Notwithstanding the above, Members will be aware that my Department recently consulted upon a draft strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) for Northern Ireland.  The SPPS consolidates and, where necessary, updates existing policy provisions set out within the current suite of planning policy statements, including those in PPS 21, 'Sustainable Development in the Countryside'.  As part of this process, I gave an undertaking to this Chamber that the SPPS should adequately meet the needs of current and future generations of farming and non-farming rural dwellers seeking permission to build in the countryside. 
My officials are analysing all the responses, which will be carefully considered, and a synopsis will be made available to the Environment Committee.  Once this exercise is complete, I will decide on the final policy direction in respect of non-farming rural dwellers and the SPPS overall.
During topical questions the Minster covered planning approval in the Dunfield Terrace of Derry; a Planning Application for Strandview, Portstewart; Social Housing for Enniskillen; new rates billing system under RPA; October Monitoring Round: DOE Implications.

You can read the full transcript on our website.

Question Time: Enterprise, Trade and Investment 13 October 2014

What are the prospects of further job creation through direct foreign investment in the current financial year? A question put to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster, during today’s Question Time. Mrs Foster pointed out that Invest NI support job creation in Northern Ireland through foreign investors using a schedule (often over 3-5 years, sometimes longer) that best suits the investors’ plans for development and growth. This makes it difficult for Invest NI to forecast the number of jobs that may be created in any particular year. Since the start of its current corporate plan in 2011 to the end of March 2014, 9108 jobs have been created. The last six months has been a particularly good period with 1200 new jobs created from ten inward investors including Baker McKenzie, Proofpoint and Puppet Labs. The Minister also highlighted the impact that would be created through the devolution of corporation tax on foreign investment. It would see “a large spike in the number of companies looking to come to Northern Ireland” and would be “a huge boost to the private sector.

The Minister then discussed the relaxed visa restrictions and the potential boost in tourism for Northern Ireland. A new British and Irish visa scheme was launched by the Home Office at the start of October as part of the G8 economic pact. The changes will allow Chinese and Indian tourists to enter Northern Ireland using a British or Irish visa for the first time. Tourism Ireland and Visit Britain will be working hard to promote the scheme and raise awareness of Northern Ireland as a tourist destination. To supplement the new visa regulations Mrs Foster confirmed that air connectivity to Northern Ireland is a top priority and “very much at the top of my agenda”. She has met with airport officials regarding their route development plans and took part in the recent World Routes Conference in Chicago, saying “we are trying to be innovative in our attempts to attract new routes”.

The Minister was also questioned on the prospect of the 2023 Rugby World Cup coming to Ireland and the tax incentives available to the film and TV industry in Ireland. During topical questions Mrs Foster also discussed JTI Gallaher job losses, the withdrawal of events funding and concerns around rising energy costs.

You can read the full transcript on our website.