Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 28 November 2000 (continued)

Mr Poots:

I support the motion. It is a matter that particularly affects my area, Lagan Valley, as it is concentrated in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area. There are a number of anomalies in the system, and these have been accepted by the boards.

I would like to home in on the fact that staff signed contracts to do these jobs. They agreed to the terms before they took up the jobs. Let me state the position these people were in before they took up their contracts. Some were employed before schools had their own budgets and had been employed for many years. They were forced to accept these contracts or go on the dole. Others were unemployed and were told that if did not apply for a certain number of jobs they would lose their jobseeker's allowance. Many workers were forced to take jobs and accept the contracts on offer.

We have a Minister of Education and a Minister of Health who claim to be socialists. Yesterday there was a confession that nurses were not being paid what they were entitled to. Previously we had a debate on biomedical research personnel not being paid what they are entitled to. Today we have term-time workers in schools not being paid what they are entitled to. These people want an imperialist Ireland rather that a socialist Ireland, and Sinn Féin Ministers' policies are more akin to those of Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher than to Trotsky's and the people who envisaged equality for all, the old Communists.

We had pathetic nonsense from the Sinn Féin/IRA representative who asked if we wanted to take books from children to employ these people. Of course we do not. What we need represents less than 1% of the budget, yet the Minister can pile money into Irish-language education and open schools for 12 children, when there is virtually no demand for those schools, and use education money to take the First Minister to court. We have the ridiculous situation in which Sinn Féin has raised $4 million in the USA over the past three to four years but is not prepared to use that money for its court case. Instead it is to use money from the education budget - [Interruption].

I do not care if Sinn Féin/IRA take the First Minister to court. It is not my concern. However, the fact that it is using money from the education budget is wrong.

It is wrong to employ people and not pay them adequately. One of my constituents, a laboratory technician, went into school during the summer to ensure that the tools were in good order and that the classroom was ready for the children coming back in September. He no longer does this because he is not being paid for it.

Take classroom assistants. Do we not recognise the worth of classroom assistants? If staff are demoralised they do not give as much as they could to the children. If you pay staff well, you respect them and their worth and you get the best out of them. Classroom assistants love their jobs. They enjoy working with children, and they do not want to give up their jobs just because they are driven to look for other sources of employment by the attitude of the Education Department. The Minister has had substantial time to do something about this and thus far he has chosen to do nothing. Some people say that this is not the right time for the motion. When will it be the right time? When is the Minister going to deliver? When will people be adequately paid for the work they do?

Many staff are not eligible for training. A Member mentioned earlier that some staff involved in computer work are not eligible for training. This issue must be addressed so that our children are served well. Our children are a tremendous resource, and the Education Minister does not appear to recognise their needs or the importance of the people who educate them to the highest standard.

5.30 pm

He seems to think that it is more important to take money out of the education budget to fight court cases. I think that that is very sad. I support the motion.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar na n-oibrithe uilig inár scoileanna, agus go háirithe i bhfabhar na ndaoine sin nach bhfaigheann tuarastal i rith na laethanta saoire. Tá an t-ábhar seo faoi chaibidil faoi láthair agus guím rath agus bláth orthu sin uilig atá ag obair le réiteach a bhaint amach.

I want to speak in favour of improved salary arrangements for term-time employees. The question of how they should be paid is a long-standing and vexing issue. Who could argue for one minute that classroom assistants, secretaries and laboratory technicians do not play a crucial and indispensable role in the education system? It has already been said that secretaries in particular play a central role in supporting principals in every aspect of school administration, consistently going beyond the call of duty on a daily and weekly basis. Both Ms Monica McWilliams and Mr Ken Robinson detailed the social skills that secretaries use on a regular basis.

The irony and the anomaly is that because of current arrangements for term-time workers, many school secretaries are forced to resign on financial grounds. Any school that has lost the services of a secretary between the end of June and the beginning of September knows how costly it is. Administration lacks continuity, staff morale is low and the general smooth running of the school is inconvenienced.

The primary 1 initiative, which began in 1995, provided all primary 1 classes with classroom assistants. That was an excellent, if overdue, initiative that benefited the delivery of education. It would be inconceivable to reflect on the situation prior to that for many of our teachers.

Other Members have highlighted relevant factors such as the equality dimension, social justice, treating workers properly, the fact that 98% - what a huge statistic - of employees affected are women, the question of entitlement to pensions, the anomalies and disparities between the five education and library boards, which are the employing authorities, and the financial hardships imposed on the workers affected, especially during the Christmas and summer periods.

In the earlier debate about gambling on Sundays, Sammy Wilson asked people to focus on the merit and substance of the issue and not to engage in Minister-bashing. I will leave that as it is, but suffice to say that Sammy is deploying double standards. Part of his motivation here is simple Minister-bashing. There is no doubt about that. Delicate negotiations are ongoing at present and Sammy should know that - [Interruption].

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr McElduff, please do not refer to Members by their first names.

Mr McElduff:


Mr Wilson should know that. He would have a better understanding of the issue if he had bothered to remain in the Education Committee meeting on 16 November to hear a confidential briefing from some of the people involved in those negotiations. Mr Wilson has acknowledged that he initially submitted the motion 10 or 12 weeks ago. At the most recent Committee meeting, he invited other Committee members to intervene and stage-manage mutually acceptable amendments.

My closing remarks are in the context of the ongoing negotiations. I hope to see a speedy and fair resolution that will ensure that all term-time employees are treated properly and with respect. Therefore I support the negotiations. All Ministers should play their part when the time is right - sooner rather than later. I envisage a favourable response that will improve terms and conditions for hard-pressed term-time employees. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Beggs:

I wish to concentrate on the changing circumstances that have caused the financial losses experienced by term-time workers. Her Majesty's Government have changed the benefits system, removing the school holiday benefit entitlement for term-time workers. Most of those people - caretakers, cooks, secretaries, classroom assistants, playground supervisors and patrolmen and women - signed their contracts in the knowledge that they were entitled to benefits during the school holidays. However, the Labour Government changed the criteria that had allowed workers to receive social security benefits during school holidays, giving them the money to feed their families and pay their bills. That will influence their decision on whether to take up a job. The Government changed the financial situation.

Most term-time workers are not highly paid. We must place a high value on their role in schools and reward them accordingly. They carry out an essential role in looking after our children and providing other support services in schools. The current situation is unjust. We cannot afford to lose such people's experience, guidance and knowledge. If we do not address the situation, many term-time workers will, undoubtedly, seek other employment.

It is within the Assembly's power to put right the wrong that the Government have done. The Assembly should rectify the inequality by agreeing additional payments to replace the money that these workers would have received previously. We must give proper value and respect to education workers.

Mr Shannon:

This is an excellent proposal, and it comes at an opportune time. Today we have the chance to address the crucial issue of conditions for term-time staff. The issue has been discussed in all the council chambers, and the unions have lobbied hard and heavy on it. We all know the background. The 1,500 term-time staff contribute so much to the working of schools and to the teaching of our pupils. Term-time staff do their jobs as well as teachers who receive better pay. We should acknowledge the commitment of term-time staff.

The Education Committee has backed the request. The matter now rests with the Minister. Will he make the move? Will he put his money - taxpayers' money - where his mouth is? Will he ensure that term-time staff receive equal pay?

The education boards have not escaped their responsibilities. They tried to get out of their moral and statutory obligation. That attitude is unacceptable. No school, large or small, can survive without term-time staff. They are an integral and important part of a school. It is crucial that their case be answered, for it is a justifiable case. The education boards have labour of the highest quality at the lowest price - good workers on the cheap. The education boards should respond to the requests made by term-time staff and ensure that their wages are upgraded and that they receive the equal pay they deserve.

Each holiday, term-time staff have to sign on. This year has been particularly difficult for them. Paperwork is off-putting for anyone, but it has been especially difficult this year. We should reflect on that; if they are not paid adequate wages, they will have to go through those problems again.

Sinn Féin Members have said that the Minister - their Minister - is paying off teachers and other staff. That clearly illustrates the fact that he is not in control either of his manifesto or of the manifesto for the education system that we would like to see delivered. We must retain teachers and make sure that the system gives adequate education to our children. The Education Minister is completely out of touch with the ordinary people of the Province, in his community and in ours; the Province is united on that. Together with the education and library boards, he has shown scant regard for term-time staff. I suggest that board members and the Minister go to schools and acquaint themselves with the work and the commitment of term-time staff.

Some Members have suggested that the motion is untimely - it is both timely and appropriate. It is right that the matter should be discussed here. It is nonsensical to say otherwise, and it does not reflect popular opinion. Staff have discussed the possibility of industrial action to address the issue. They have refrained from such action, although they have every justification for considering it.

Term-time staff carry out excellent clerical and teaching work in schools. Without their help, schools could not function properly. In my constituency, there are some 200 term-time staff. They are all committed to their job and to their vocation. If they were to withdraw their labour, the education system would fall apart. That could happen in many schools, but the staff do not want that; they want to negotiate.

We have all seen the paper on the issues that should be negotiated. It reflects badly on management that they were not prepared to pay a retainer and refused to negotiate. The term-time staff and the unions are still willing to consider an accommodation that will ensure that pupils receive their education. I understand that education and library board management has thrown out the unions' proposals. They are unable to negotiate correctly and honestly with the union staff, and that is an unpalatable and unsavoury reflection on them.

The education and library boards and the Minister must react positively to our proposal. The term-time staff deserve equality. They have earned their parity and should not be treated as second-class teachers or staff. The boards have quality labour at a low price, and they must acknowledge that fact.

Mr Ervine:

The people who rely most on our help have been identified by Members from all parts of the House. Given the cultural and economic background from which the Minister emanates, those people might, perhaps, have hoped that there would be new opportunities for them. The Minister was someone who came from where they came from themselves, and he might understand their plight. I do not want to accuse the Minister wrongly - he is well able to defend himself - but it seems to me that in some cases we have a comedy show playing all day and every day in our Departments - 'Yes, Minister'. For us, however, it is not a comedy. This Minister and others find it difficult to cope with the attitudes of departmental "experts".

5.45 pm

The Minister must address this issue; it is an issue of inequality at a time when we are demanding equality. It is affecting those people who receive a paltry return, but it must also affect the morale of those they work with and move among. It is bound to affect the morale of the schools where we invest so much in the hope that our children will benefit.

I conclude by saying to the Minister that he must - not that he could, would, should or might, but that he must - address issues such as these. They run to the very core of an Assembly, because the economic circumstances of the day are fundamentally more important than many of the issues which we have the luxury of haggling about. Although he has around him experts who will all advise otherwise, it must be at the very core of what the Minister really believes. However, despite having been vested with the authority to make the decision, he is rolling over and listening to the experts rather than listening to what would have been his own advice just a short time ago.

I support the motion.

The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion. I wish to make my position clear. As Minister of Education, I have encouraged those involved in the negotiations to reach a fair and acceptable resolution. It would be helpful if the Assembly were to adopt a similar approach. I have repeatedly said that I am sympathetic to the position of term-time staff.

Equality and social justice are concepts in which we in the Department of Education believe passionately. The present payment arrangement, under which some term-time staff receive no payment during the summer months, is less than satisfactory. I have also said, and I say it again now, that the only way to have the matter resolved is through proper and meaningful negotiations, and there is an established negotiation forum for that purpose.

If the matter were simple it would have been resolved a long time ago. The reality is much more complex. For a start, the problem is not of the Education Department's making. There have been no changes to the contracts of the term-time staff, but what has changed is that they are now ineligible for certain social security benefits during the summer vacation. This has come about through changes in social security benefit regulations and is, therefore, a problem which the Education Department has inherited.

The second point I want to make is that the education and library boards are engaged in a wide-reaching process of reviewing the terms and conditions of staff in what is known as single-table bargaining. The purpose of that is to remove the outmoded distinction between the so-called white-collar and blue-collar workers, to evaluate and set a fair rate for the job and to achieve a greater harmonisation of terms and conditions of employment.

Ms McWilliams asked a very pertinent question: why is there variation across the boards? I have also been asking this question. I know that people were employed at different times and under different schemes: one example is the initiative to put a classroom assistant in every primary 1 class, which my Department introduced some years ago. That does not explain the variations. I share the view expressed during this debate that the position needs to be rationalised. The need for such harmonisation is all too apparent when we look at just one of the groups of term-time workers, the classroom assistants. There are considerable variations - between boards and even within the same board - in the contracts under which they are engaged and the number of weeks per year for which they are employed. That is unsatisfactory, and I have encouraged the employing authorities to find some means to rationalise the position as soon as possible.

I do not intend to suggest or dictate how the present difficulty should be resolved. There is a negotiating mechanism for doing this, and those negotiations are ongoing. For this reason, I believe that the terms of this motion are inappropriate. However, I readily support the proposition - and I believe that the Education Committee would support it - that we need an innovative and flexible approach by all parties to the negotiations, namely management and unions.

I have said nothing so far about money. That is because the first priority is to get a settlement which is fair and reasonable in all circumstances. However, whatever settlement is reached will have financial implications, so I would like to speak briefly about this. The second part of this motion calls for funds to be made available from the education budget. I readily accept this. Whatever settlement is reached will have to be paid for from the education budget. The employing authorities realise that, and that is why everyone involved should act responsibly because the outcome could have significant implications for the resources available for other parts of the education service.

Assembly Members will also wish to bear in mind that, as part of the process of setting a fair rate of pay, formal job evaluations are being undertaken, not just for these term-time workers but for other groups of staff employed by the education and library boards. The outcome of the job evaluations will be backdated, and that will again be a cost that has to be met within the overall funds available for education.

Some attention has been paid to the extra money which the Executive Committee have recommended should go into the education programme next year, especially the extra £20 million which is to go to schools. The Executive Committee made that allocation as a first step towards easing the current pressures on school budgets. My officials will shortly be discussing with the Education Committee exactly how that money should be distributed among schools. It is schools' money, and the objective is to ensure that every penny of it goes into the hands of schools as an addition to their local management of schools allocations.

It is not, unfortunately, free money that can be used for other purposes. Where will the money come from? At this point it is impossible to say, because we do not yet know what the costs will be, and in what financial year or years they will fall. We will not know that until a settlement is reached, but we can be sure of one thing - the education budget is already inadequate to meet the many pressures which we face.

We have to leave it to the negotiating parties to find an agreed outcome. They, in turn, have to take full account of the financial implications of any settlement. When the sums are known, we will consider, in conjunction with the education and library boards, how best the cost can be borne in order to minimise the impact on key services.

Sammy Wilson mentioned the figure of £2 million as the possible cost. That would relate to a particular outcome, namely retainer fees based at certain rates. The fact is that we do not know the cost, and we will not know until there is an agreed outcome. However, we recognise and accept that individual schools may need help to meet whatever costs there are. This will have to come from elsewhere in the education budget. We cannot say from where yet, but I can assure the Assembly that we will seek to help individual schools in order to minimise any disruption to children's education.

I welcome the Assembly's interest in this important matter. I share its wish to see the present difficulties resolved as soon as humanly possible, and I call on both sides to the negotiations to show flexibility in this important matter.

I know that since this motion was tabled, the members of the Education Committee have probed this complex issue further. As Mr Danny Kennedy has explained, they now understand more fully the views of both sides on what would, or would not, be a suitable and workable outcome. In the light of that, Members of the House will need to consider very carefully whether this motion will help or hinder. We are all clear that we should not do anything at this very important juncture to make the process of negotiations more difficult than they already are. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr S Wilson:

The House has been almost unanimous on this issue, with the only dissenting voices coming from IRA/Sinn Féin. I will deal with some of the points raised. First, the Chairman of the Education Committee had hoped to put forward an amendment, and even though it is not on the Order Paper, it has been referred to by Members, specifically those from Sinn Féin.

When the Education Committee discussed this, it was clear that Sinn Féin was opposed even to the amendment - I would be happy for the Chairperson to confirm this. I believe the exact wording of the amendment was that we would seek a "flexible and equitable" arrangement. The part of the amendment which Sinn Féin and the Minister of Education objected to was the fact that any arrangements put in place to deal with the financial hardship of term-time-only workers would have to funded by the Department of Education. That was the bugbear in it, so it is not factually correct to say that the amendment would have been more appropriate as a cover for them today.

Secondly, reference was made to a presentation delivered to the Education Committee. The record will show that I was there, and that I put questions to those who made the presentation. Thirdly, I asked for clarification of the Minister's stance on this matter. Although he started by saying that he wished to make his position clear, I am still no clearer on whether the Minister will give the education and library boards funding for any new arrangements. He talked about looking for innovative and flexible approaches, and then added that the methods of funding will be considered with the education and library boards and the joint negotiating committee. The motion does not state that, and the joint negotiating committee made this quite clear to us. Unless there is a commitment to providing extra money for the boards to distribute to school budgets, it will be impossible to reach any agreement, because some schools have up to 25 term-time-only workers. If the financial burden of any negotiated settlement were placed upon such schools, it would be impossible for them to maintain the number of term-time workers or the level of services they provide.

A clear position has been presented to the Assembly. In spite of what we were told in the Committee, which is not for public consumption, the only matter on the table today is the request by term-time workers for a retainer fee. The approximate cost of the 50% retainer fee is £2 million, and this motion indicates that we support that claim by the unions and wish it to be financed. That is a clear-cut decision for the Assembly, and I ask the Assembly to make it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly supports the call for retainer payment to be made for term-time-only workers and commends the proposal of the Education Committee for the provision of funds from the education budget to pay the salary cost incurred.

Motion made

That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Mr Deputy Speaker]


Special Education Needs (Ballymena)


6.00 pm

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I appreciate the House's taking the time to consider the special education needs in part of my constituency, Ballymena. Members across the House have indicated their support, and indeed Members of other parties from North Antrim have also expressed their support. Some have commitments elsewhere, and I appreciate that also.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

When the Minister of Education was appointed, he made great play of the fact that he was going to give what he described as "special emphasis for special needs in education." The Minister's talk has been cheap in debates on the matter, since his words have not been matched by special funding for special needs schools. Although he may be regarded as a hotshot - or a first shot - elsewhere, he has certainly missed the mark on this issue.

The Minister is good at sounding off and condemning attacks on certain schools, including schools in my constituency. Condemnation is right and proper. Although he has previously attempted to point the finger at me on this issue, he has been unable to because, unlike him, I condemn all attacks. I am not selective in condemning attacks in my community. It is unfortunate that his condemnation appears to lead to reprisals, such as in Ballyronan last night after certain comments he made at the weekend.

Instead of focusing on those narrow issues, the Minister should focus on genuine investment to meet the educational needs of young people, and he should focus on the special needs of pupils in my constituency. As I have already said, he promised to give special emphasis to this, but we have yet to see it.

My constituents have given me several case studies to do with special needs provision in my constituency. Those case studies amount to nothing less than a catalogue of shame for the Minister of Education. It is shameful because he has failed to invest proportionately in the Northern Board and in the special education needs in that area. His party is fond of using the word "discrimination" in the Chamber and elsewhere. It drips off its members' lips every day. If we removed that word from the English language - we would not have to take it out of the Irish language because the Minister does not speak Irish and neither do his Colleagues - the Members opposite would have no words left.

The Minister exercises a policy which, in financial terms, deliberately discriminates against the Northern Board area, and, therefore, deliberately discriminates against special needs education there. This in turn has an adverse impact on special needs education in Ballymena.

If the Minister were to put less energy into meaningless and selective statements about North Antrim schools and more energy into combating the special education deficit of children in need, the situation would be better. As we have heard in previous debates, the Minister is prepared to commit millions of pounds of resources to other education sectors. If those same resources were applied to special needs education, a lot of problems would be answered, not questioned.

It is clear from what I have said previously in the House, and from the line that my party has taken, that we have absolutely no confidence in this Minister. Thousands of schoolchildren in North Antrim have demonstrated publicly that they have no confidence in his ability to meet the educational needs - particularly the special educational needs - of young people in Ballymena.

The one area where we see deprivation associated with his active discrimination is in the Ballymena special education sector. Here, the most vulnerable in society have been virtually set upon by the inaction of the Minister, who exemplifies a policy of "no action" to those young people. During the summer and at the beginning of this year's autumn term, I carried out a study of special educational needs in my constituency and the facilities and funding for them. I was particularly horrified at what I found in Ballymena, and I shall explain some of that picture today.

A brand new, state-of-the-art primary school was recently opened in Ballykeel, which is in Ballymena. It serves a large working-class area, and it is only right that that area should have such fabulous primary school facilities. I visited the school and was taken round an extensive, purpose-built moderate learning difficulties (MLD) unit. It is at the centre of the school, and in theory it permits the mainstreaming of special-needs children and the selection and targeting of help for them during their time at the school. I quite deliberately say "in theory," because the practice is far from adequate. The blame for the failure in delivering this service rests entirely with the Minister's Department.

A North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) report says

"one of the effects of the outworking of the code of practice has been to delay the throughput of children with statements at an early age."

That has prevented provision, and children already statemented are therefore being denied adequate provision because of a logjam in the statementing process. This is not only a board issue, but also a departmental one. In the same report, the board says that these factors explain why the unit in Ballykeel has not been opened and is not operating as originally envisaged by the board.

This logjam in the statementing process has a devastating impact on young people with special educational needs, on parents who want the best for their children, and on schools, which try to provide what is best for the children with very limited resources. Cash is quite clearly not being made available to them.

When I walked around the MLD unit of that fabulous primary school, I was gravely saddened to see numerous unopened boxes of equipment and books in a brand new, freshly painted building. Instead of thriving with young people with special needs, eager to learn and with the full support and active encouragement of parents and teachers, the lights were off in that unit. The facilities were not open to them, since the Minister's Department has not, to date, provided the money for that unit to operate. I understand that some of the equipment cost as much as £60,000 to provide, yet it is not being used.

As a result of the Department's failure to work the code of practice properly and allocate resources fairly to this needy school, there is more ministerially-driven waste of the scarce resources available to the Department while the Minister pays lip-service to special educational needs without delivering the actual provision. The ministerial attitude is one of waste, and that is disgraceful because of the devastating impact it has on the lives of vulnerable young children whose desperate special needs are not being met.

If the Department would decide what its policy on special needs provision is, then we could get somewhere with such a debate. The Minister does not have a specific policy on special education needs and is not prepared to back any particular policy with resources. That is why we have the sort of mess that I saw in Ballykeel. The Minister has to do something about that. It is no use him wearing National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) badges and paying lip-service to concepts. He has to add up the money, make the resources available and deliver the service.

According to my information from the Department and the NEELB, the Department generally supports mainstream integration of special needs pupils with statements, yet it builds separate MLD units and schools. What is the policy? Is it to have separate units or to mainstream and integrate those children? The Minister has to make up his mind.

I have met parents who are being betrayed and emotionally blackmailed by this policy of darkness - the policy in the shadowlands. The parents do not really know where the Minister wants to take their children. They appreciate the general and specific benefits derived from the concept of mainstream integration, but they know that their children have special requirements and need special assistance to meet their immediate needs and to target attention towards them.

The Department will come to this debate and argue that it cannot have a specific policy for the provision of these MLD units, because there is not the need in Ballymena. The fact is that the statistics on need are not accurate and have been jaundiced, because, as I said earlier, statementing is being delayed. If you delay statementing of young people with special needs, the provision is not provided downstream. That is exactly what has happened in Ballymena. I will read from the report again:

"The outworking"

- or the non-working -

"of the code of practice has [delayed] the throughput of children with statements at an early age."

It goes on to say

"There has been an increase in the number of statements, but at the same time there has not been an increase in the provision of places for those young people."


"[there has been] an increase of 64% in pupils being supported in mainstream schools."

We have the ludicrous situation where young people are supposedly not able to qualify for statementing, and yet schools are saying that they have had a 64% increase in these types of children, but that they do not have the statements. That all goes back to the outworking of the code of contract not working properly and delaying the whole delivery of the statementing process.

One family told me of an eight-month delay in the statementing process. That fails all the targets that the boards and the Department set for the statementing of children - fails them by months, not by days. When they did get the statement, it was inaccurate. They had to go back into the entire process again, which delayed things even further. If we have that mess, that catalogue of shame, operating in the Department we will have further problems downstream, as exemplified by the story about Ballykeel.

I have several constituents whose children are waiting for statements and have not yet got them. Worse than that, some are contesting what has been delivered. These are not one-off cases - there are at least six cases in one school. The more you dig into this, the more of these cases raise their heads. These parents are vulnerable. They want the best for their children and believe that if they go along with the schools they will get the best.

6.15 pm

They then realise that the schools are not getting the provision or the resources from the Department that are necessary to provide what is best for their children. I call on the Minister tonight to stop funding failure and mediocrity, and to start rewarding and funding the men and women of tomorrow no matter what their ability is. That message has to go out loud and clear. The Minister should climb down from his perch and start sending resources to the North Eastern Education and Library Board area instead of paying lip-service to the allocation of resources.

In the Ballymena area the parent:teacher ratio is at its highest and overcrowding is at its highest. I am glad that schools have not permitted these dual problems to affect their standards. Standards and results are also very high, but they are so in spite of the policy that the Minister pursues. It is about time that these North Antrim schools got the resources that they deserve. The Minister's policy can be characterised as one of funding failure and of ignoring success. The schools in my constituency are successful despite the robbery that characterises his Department's policy.

The headmaster of Ballymena Academy, Mr Peter Martin, writing in the 'Ballymena Guardian' on 1 November, made a very interesting statement about the whole process of the allocation of funds to schools. I will read it into the record of the House, because it is appropriate. He said

"Equality of opportunity does not mean directing all pupils, irrespective of individual talents, along the same path. Provision must be such that pupils can be directed appropriately according to their aptitudes and interests in order to give them an equal opportunity to enjoy success. Whatever the solution, it is important that in seeking change what is successful in the present system is retained and the adequate resources are provided to make improvements where they are most needed."

Obviously that does not just deal specifically with special education needs. That statement deals with a number of issues that are before the Department. However, when the principles enunciated by the headmaster of Ballymena Academy are applied to the issue of special needs, we see that he has really hit the nail on the head. Mr Martin is correct in his analysis. Provision must be targeted, and nowhere can this be more clearly exemplified than in the policy addressing special educational needs in the Ballymena area. These children and their parents must have, as Mr Martin said, equal opportunities.

I am not asking for special rights - I underline that - and neither are the parents of these children, but they are demanding equal rights. I believe that the Minister is guilty of pumping money into Irish-language schools, for which demand is low, when we have an area in Northern Ireland that is failing children with real learning needs, and who crave an education, not a cultural experience. I encourage the Department to direct resources at the delivery of education and not at the delivery of a cultural experience. There is a vital difference.

There have been some notable experiences in Italy from which lessons could be learnt. Not everything is directly applicable to the situation in Northern Ireland, but there are some interesting case studies in the Italian experience. Class sizes are similar, and there is the same level of assistance, but they have special care provision for special needs kids and for low achievers.

Northern Ireland needs a system that takes a number of key points into consideration to address the individual special needs of these children. First of all, where a special education needs child is able to cope, he or she should be integrated into the mainstream.

Secondly, every teacher should be a special-needs teacher, irrespective of the class they teach, so that they can cope with the children in their class. Thirdly, where the child cannot cope with mainstreaming they will be targeted with special help in an on-site moderate learning difficulty unit, which will not preclude integration at a later stage.

Such is the case at Ballykeel Primary School. The school was designed for that eventuality and was based on that model. However, when push came to shove, the money was not available to provide the resources needed to run the facility that was built. I am not talking about some Portakabin. I am talking about a multi-million pound unit, which requires teachers to staff it, and yet the necessary resources have been denied to it.

It is unfortunate that the model as provided at Ballykeel Primary School is not being utilised for the full advantage of pupils. Why is that? The answer is simple. The Minister has robbed the North Eastern Education and Library Board of adequate resources to do the job in question.

The Minister has already been judged and found wanting in other areas. He will be judged again on how he treats children who are the most vulnerable and who have special needs. I say to him tonight: stop the discrimination; stop the policy of waste; stop the deprivation; start funding success; start facilitating special needs; and start helping those who have the greatest needs.

I am afraid that no one on this side of the House will hold their breath for the Minister to rectify this great wrong. I believe that Ballymena's special-needs children have had their case aired, and they will call on this Assembly, through their parents and representatives, to do its duty and deliver an adequate policy that addresses their special education needs.

Mr Kane:

I support the motion proposed by my Colleague. It is clear that the Minister has failed the constituency. He has failed the weakest in the community, and he appears to have no intention of assisting special needs schoolchildren. Until the Minister clears up the confusion over his special needs policy all of Northern Ireland will suffer.

Will the Minister say if he is for integrated mainstreaming or for special, separate units? No one seems to know what he stands for because he has not given any official attention to this area. It is about time that he started working as a Minister, instead of trying to condemn the elected representatives for the area in question.

Many constituents have asked me to seek clarification on this crucial issue. How can parents work for the betterment of their children, in co-operation with schools, if the Minister actively robs the North Eastern Education and Library Board of the cash needed to put in place a policy that addresses special needs education. I support the motion.

The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I accept that Mr Ian Paisley Jnr has a genuine concern about children with special educational needs in the Ballymena area and, indeed, the entire North Antrim area. I commend that. It is admirable. However, I do not think it is admirable for Members to come into the House and, in effect, use the plight of children with special educational needs to pour forth bile, vitriol and hatred. I think you are a sad case, and I think you need to grow up, step out of your father's shadow and recognise that there is more to life than coming here and using children with special educational needs for your own political end.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Please address your remarks to the Chair.

Mr M McGuinness:

It is wrong for someone to come into the House and use the issue of children with genuine special educational needs for political ends. That is what we heard. The issue is being used by the Member to launch a political attack on me and on the good and decent people in my Department who work very hard for all children with special educational needs, irrespective of which community they come from.

The Member referred to the situation in North Antrim. He is obviously annoyed that on several occasions recently I have made it clear that that is the responsibility of elected representatives for the North Antrim area, which was afflicted by school burnings throughout the summer, to speak out against it. Many of the children who go to those schools have learning difficulties - some have severe learning difficulties, others have moderate learning difficulties - and those children are also affected.

I have yet to hear any Member from Mr Paisley's party launch a vitriolic attack in the House against people who burn down schools in the middle of the night. The Member should reflect on that and recognise that it is incumbent on all elected representatives to do everything in their power and use their influence to get such activities stopped. He referred to the burning of an Orange Hall in the Cookstown area last night. I have made a statement about that, and I repeat my view that such burnings are absolutely despicable and deplorable - just as despicable and deplorable as the burning of Bunscoil Dhál Riada in Dunloy a few days ago. The sooner that we show consistency in confronting people who believe that a cause can be served by that type of activity, the sooner we will fulfil the expectation of the electors who put us here - the expectation that we will be positive and constructive and build a new future for all our people.

In preparation for the debate, my officials made inquiries of the North Eastern Education and Library Board about special education provision in the Ballymena area and any perceived difficulties. Obviously, it would be much better if people communicated with me, the Minister of Education, about problems in their area. That is how we should do business. In fact, some of Mr Paisley's Colleagues do communicate regularly with me about a variety of educational issues. I commend them for that; they are representing their constituents, and whenever I get correspondence from them I do my level best to treat them with the equality and respect that they deserve as representatives of their electorate.

I have been informed that on 5 October 1995 the North Eastern Board published a development proposal to establish a two-class special education unit for pupils with moderate learning difficulties at Ballykeel Primary School- the school that Ian Paisley Jnr mentioned. The intention was to have Key Stage 1 and 2 classes in the unit and include accommodation for them in the new school that was being planned. The proposal was made because of a shortage of places for primary school-age pupils with moderate learning difficulties at Dunfane Special School, which was the only provision for children with those types of learning difficulties in the area. At that time, there were 17 such pupils on the waiting list for places in Dunfane. There were no objections to the proposal, which was subsequently approved, and appropriate accommodation for the unit's two classes was included in the plans for the new school.

The new school building was completed in November 1998, but the special education unit has not been opened. In recent years, the board has attempted to retain more primary school-age pupils with moderate learning difficulties in mainstream classes in primary schools, and that has relieved the pressure on places for that age group at Dunfane and other schools. The board has met a delegation of parents who wish their children to attend the unit in Ballykeel, although the board is not persuaded that the particular learning needs of those children would be best met in the moderate learning difficulties unit.

6.30 pm

The board also believes that there are insufficient numbers of children with moderate learning difficulties to warrant the provision of a unit at Ballykeel. At present, the unit accommodation and teaching resources are being used by two part-time remedial teachers. It is proper that the resources not be allowed to stand idle when they can serve the needs of the school. The board is unaware of any significant dissatisfaction among the parents of those children retained in mainstream classes, and it will consider alternative placements for any children whose parents so wish.

The board has been examining the possibility of setting up a unit at Ballykeel for children with other types of learning difficulties, but as yet has been unable to identify one for which there would be sufficient demand. However, since the issue has been raised with me, I will ask my officials to write to the North Eastern Education and Library Board asking it to review its special educational needs provision in the Ballymena area - particularly its provision for children with moderate learning difficulties. I will also ask the board to report to me on what plans it has to use the unit accommodation at the school to make provision for the area.

The total funding for special educational needs is £50 million per year. Funding is allocated on the basis of total pupil numbers per board area. There is no question of discrimination against the North Eastern Education and Library Board or any other board.

There are timescales built in to the statutory statementing process to permit the fullest possible involvement of the parents and the compilation of the requisite advice from all relevant sources. It is important to point that out.

The provision of teachers for the unit at Ballykeel is a matter for the North Eastern Education and Library Board in accordance with identified need. The board is not persuaded that there is such a need. The policy on placement of children is that all children with statements should be placed in mainstream classes, provided that that best meets their needs and does not prejudice the efficient education of other children or the efficient use of resources.

The statementing process set out in the special educational needs code of practice is 18 weeks long. I cannot comment on individual cases, but if parents have a complaint about the statementing process, they have recourse to the independent Special Educational Needs Tribunal. Placements must meet the needs of children.

Some of the utterances that we heard today were shameful. They were an attack not just on me but also on the good and decent people in the Department of Education who consistently work very hard for all children, irrespective of creed. Go raibh maith agat.

Adjourned at 6.33 pm.

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