Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 16 January 2001 (continued)

Mr Gallagher:

There is much sub-standard accommodation in the schools estate that affects Protestants and Catholics, and any plea for a fair distribution of resources will be taken seriously by everyone.

Mr Wilson spoke of the seriousness of the matter. It reminded me of the situation a few years ago. For many years, as everyone knows, Catholic schools had to put up 35% funding, then 15%. Eventually, the last Tory Education Minister gave Catholic schools 100% funding. There was one dissenting voice on that move: that of Mr Sammy Wilson, the proposer of today's motion. I am glad that he now takes a wider view. For the sake of improving all our schools, that wider view is needed.

Children are being educated in schools that resemble nineteenth-century institutions. Our priority must be to put an end to that situation; that would be to be really fair. If there are five such schools in the controlled sector and one in the maintained sector, or vice versa, we should tackle the problems in all six right away. Then we can have a serious debate about the equitable distribution of funding.

Like Mr Wilson, the Chairperson of the Education Committee referred to apparent unfairness. I shall listen to what is said. However, I have not heard any outcry from the education and library boards, who are responsible for prioritising capital projects in the controlled sector, about unfairness in the system. Perhaps, others have heard it. If so, we should listen to what they say and tackle the problem.

The PFI was rightly raised. It is not just the Department of Education; other Departments seem to be all for it. There is a great buzz about PFI. We are following other countries, not least England, but England is now pulling back from PFI arrangements because serious questions have arisen. Our Department of Education has not had a wide enough, or serious enough, debate about the implications for schools. They talk about entering into 25-year arrangements with private developers who will provide premises and collect rent. However, we have to look at the situation at year 15 and year 20.

Has the Department put controls in place that will ensure that, at the end of the agreement period, buildings will be in good condition and will have been value for money? It is all very well to tackle the problem in that way, but many working in education are not convinced that we have looked seriously enough at it. Many are worried about the advantages that appear to lie with the private developers under PFI. Developers will be able to choose the best projects. What will be left over? How will small schools, which have many of the most serious problems with accommodation, fare under PFI? We have had no debate on that, and I ask the Minister to note these concerns.

We have already seen ripples around the development of PFI initiatives in Northern Ireland. They are a knock-on from problems that have surfaced in England where developers have had very imaginative ideas for developing property in close proximity to schools. This is not about filling stations - most pupils do not have cars - it is about developers providing attractions which will persuade children to part with some of their money, perhaps even their lunch money. This is an important issue.

I hope that PFI will help to alleviate the problem, but I hope that we take on board the cautionary notes coming from elsewhere and do not store up problems for ourselves further down the road.

Mr Poots:

I intend to speak for people who do not seem to have much of a voice nowadays - namely, the low-to-middle income families in the Province.

We hear a lot about targeting social need and those on the lowest incomes. Many resources have been geared towards helping such people. However, there is another group of people who are employed on low incomes. One partner may have a part-time job. They may own a house, but it may be cheaper to own than to rent a house. It may be cheaper to buy a mid-terrace or small semi-detached house. They may own a car, but it may be five or six years old and not worth very much.

If such people live in a rural community, they do not have public transport. They are often forgotten about because they do not fit into a particular set of criteria - the targeting social need criteria. Their children can go to school and be educated, occasionally in conditions little better than a dump. I hesitate to use the word, but on some occasions they are little better than a dump.

In my area there is a triangle that consists of mostly privately owned houses. Nevertheless, many of the people living there could not be classified as wealthy. In that area, in Moira, the school is full. The area has a good new school, and that is fine.

In Maghaberry, they have a school that was built for 100 children but cannot take any more as 215 children are presently enrolled. Last year 46 children applied to enter P1, but only 30 could be accepted. There is planning permission for 300 new houses to be built, yet children have to go to schools outside the area. In Hillsborough, the school is full. It has 14 classes and only four permanent classrooms.

If every boy were to use the outside toilet during break, each would have just 15 seconds. That is happening in the leafy, affluent Hillsborough area. While many of the parents of these children may be affluent, others are not. Nevertheless, they are all entitled to be educated in good conditions.

The area between is also important. Children are being taken from the area in which they live and to other areas because there are not enough schools there. There has been a proposal to amalgamate three schools in the west Hillsborough area - the Maze Primary School, St James's Primary School and St John's Primary School. In addition, Hillsborough Primary School needs 21-classroom accommodation, while Maghaberry Primary School needs at least three additional classrooms, although there is an apparent need for it to become a 14-classroom school. The Maze Primary School was built in 1870. Only one of the school's classrooms is not undersized, and storage space is at such a premium that they have to use the toilets. There is no vehicular access to the school, and parents have to park on the road when leaving children off. One child was knocked down last year.

There is a similar situation at St James's Primary School - children are being taught in composite classes. Again, the toilets are located outside, and classrooms are undersized. In addition, the damp-proofing course has not been successful, so you can smell damp, which is also evident in the finish of the wall. St John's Primary School, which was built in 1853, also has temporary accommodation. One part of the school is in such disrepair that it can be only used for storage, and there are also outside toilets. There are no physical education facilities in any of these schools,and pupils have to travel to council facilities in buses because of that.

There is a growing population in those areas, and the need for proper educational resources must be addressed. I get a little weary of hearing about the problems of inner-city areas. There are great problems there, but there are also major problems in rural areas that I want to highlight because children are being educated in substandard conditions. They do not live in a TSN area, but why should they be deprived of decent educational resources because their parents do not fit into the TSN category?

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh mait agat. The motion is, in some ways, welcome. It is aimed at a difficult question which we must address from two directions. It is positive in that the proponent is engaging with the Minister and asking him to ensure that there is equitable distribution of the budget and capital spending.

The motion gives us a welcome opportunity to discuss linked issues, which are all important - some more so than others. The Minister will ensure that fairness in capital spending. An objective of my party and, I am sure, of the Minister is to strive towards equality, especially in the education system. One of our themes is the need to cherish all our children equally. The end goal is to achieve an equal society, and that was made possible by the Good Friday Agreement.

Young people must be made part of that process. They must have access to skills training, which will allow them to gain proper, adequately-paid jobs rather than the low-paid work which many had to put up with in the past. They must feel included in society. Fair employment is needed on all levels. Young people must feel that education will lead to their being treated equitably when it is finished.

3.30 pm

Personal development is an area that will probably need more spending in the years ahead. Education will also face changes, and preparing people through peace and reconciliation to deal with each other will put demands on the budget. These factors have a direct impact on capital spending.

As my Colleague Mr McElduff and others have said, a rebalancing of the past is an important theme that pervades the entire process. The education debate, and specifically capital spending from the point of view of Mr Sammy Wilson, must be decided in the context of how educational needs were dealt with in the past. The educational achievements of Nationalists over the last 30 years and before were nothing short of phenomenal, given the obstacles to education that were for so long put in their paths. Over the past 80 years in particular, the regime here was anything but forward-looking from the point of view of trying to prepare everybody, on a equal basis, for the future. In that time of one-party rule, underfunding was practised to establish control. Those mindsets from history may still exist now.

Mr Kennedy:

Does the Member not accept that the 1944 Butler Education Act, which was extended to Northern Ireland by the Stormont Parliament, enabled all classes of people here to get a higher standard of education? The crucial factor in education throughout that period was the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church on total responsibility for the education of its children - an insistence that remains in spite of the fact that its schools now receive 100% funding. Does the Member accept that contention?

Mr McHugh:

While that was indeed enacted the fact that it was certainly not endorsed or fully implemented by the Government of the time had an effect, on the end result, which amounted to more of the same. Things changed because of pressures from society. It was more that than anything else that brought any change in how education was funded or the Government were forced to direct their funds. We faced a system in which there was gerrymandering and a skewing of resources to a large degree to one side of the community at all levels by the Government. A lack of jobs and proper housing, discrimination and injustice had an effect on the education system and on how people viewed it.

Integrated and Irish-medium systems of education were ignored, and that imbalance must be redressed. That is why Irish-medium education was mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement and why funding has to go towards it. An earlier contributor made the argument for integrated education.

The capital allowed for by the present budget is insufficient, given the backdrop that I have described. The Blair Government, who purport to back education so much, have not been prepared to back the post-conflict situation and put schools here on a par with those in Britain.

There are serious accommodation problems in many schools that need to be addressed. Continually bad conditions in schools adversely affect the morale of teachers and pupils, who are trying to achieve high standards. They do not have the right tools, and this serious situation must be resolved.

PFIs must be discussed by the Education Committee and the Assembly. People are concerned that they seem to be being almost pushed down our throats as the only way of delivering a capital programmes for schools. We must have control and ensure that we do not lose it or long- fought-for assets.

The delivery of the programme is important. What we do now will have a major impact on our children's futures, and everything must be done to meet everyone's needs on an equal basis. Past difficulties have to be redressed, but we must also work towards the competitive market and educate our students to face the world and all its problems.

The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness): A LeasCheann Comhairle. I was pleased -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am so sorry. I overlooked the fact that there was one more Member who wished to speak.

Mr Gibson:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I thought I had escaped - [Laughter].

When listening to Ms Morrice I remembered attending a national school on a first floor. The principal and his family lived on the ground floor. That could have been called a high school or college of technology. Older generations in rural areas attended mixed schools, and my father would declare that mixed schools were great because you learned exactly what the opposition was like from childhood.

First, I would like to deal with Catholic underfunding. When representatives from the integrated sector came to lobby the Committee they produced a document that referred to Bishop Boyle of 1830. When I pointed out that he had been an Establishment placement, they were shocked. I reminded them of Cardinal Connell who declared 150 years ago that there should be Catholic education in Catholic schools by Catholic teachers. In 1922, Lord Londonderry wrote to Cardinal O'Donnell on education. The cardinal replied: "Dear Sir, We have our own education system." People say that they want their own ethos - and they are entitled to that - but they want someone else to pay for it.

Because of the poor quality of education that was being delivered, the Northern Ireland Government, in spite of constant barraging, felt compelled to move from 65% grant aid up to almost 100% grant aid. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools has raised the standard of Catholic education and is to be congratulated. The funding figures that are available for the past five years do prove a glaring point. In 1995-96, of a total of £60·5 million, £7·7 million went to the controlled sector. In 1996-97, of a total of £47·2 million, the controlled sector received £16·9 million.

In the year that was mentioned, 1997-98, the sum was as low as £23 million, of which £4·9 million went to the controlled sector. Three years ago, in 1998-99, it received £3·8 million out of £32 million. The final sum announced in 1999-2000 by Tony Worthington was £67 million, of which the controlled sector got £16·7 million. When Mr McElduff from my constituency hailed the announcement of £72 million this time last year as a great success, I examined the figures and found that £14·4 million of that figure had already been announced by Worthington, reducing the figure to £57 million - more than £10 million less than was announced by Worthington. Someone should get the right, or we shall be writing "Learn to count" on the bottom of that report. These facts explain the skewing of the figures.

My stance is not anti-Catholic nor anti-Catholic school. Rather, the skewing of figures against the majority sector has been so great recently that the Unionist community feels that it does not count. It feels that there has been an attack on its ethos. Unionist people consider education a treasured asset and feel that their very being is under attack, and not just because of 30 years of physical violence and the blowing up and destruction of their property. They perceive this to be the case, particularly given last year's announcements and the perception continues to be perpetuated: out of the supposed £72 million, which is not an accurate figure, the controlled schools received less than £25 million. Everything was going to be transparent and open with the new beginning. It is so visible that even the stupidest person can see that that was not so much phoney accountancy as "ropy adding", as Sammy Wilson called it.

One of the other areas I mentioned was the clamour by the mediocre. Everyone wants the best education he can get. We know that there is a difficulty over the amount of money, but I would like to have heard of something being done to redress the backlog worth at least £1 billion. At least £500 million is needed for new building and £500 million for urgent repairs. If we agree that that must be dealt with, let us look at the American system, which is not always good, not always great. We are talking about provision, and surely public and private partnerships could give us some help here.

Irrespective of the fears expressed by Mr B Hutchinson and others, I dearly want private finance initiatives in rural areas because I speak, as Mr Poots has spoken, for rural schools. I speak for schools all over west Tyrone, which are small and old and where all pupils use outside toilets that would horrify the urbanites. That is a fact of life in rural areas. I would like to see us, with public- private partnership, being able to cluster schools into a contractual package that could lead to the provision we need.

3.45 pm

I fear you will remind me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that my eight minutes are up. I can make my other points quickly. There is a perception in my community that must be dealt with. The people whom I represent feel that there is such a skewing away from the controlled sector that they are being ignored and their voice counts for nothing. I want that noted this afternoon.

Mr M McGuinness:

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas Cheann Comhairle. I am glad that the debate has taken place. It was in doubt earlier. Many people will remember Mr S Wilson saying some time ago that he intended to be like a Rottweiler at the heel of the Minister. The Rottweiler was 15 minutes late. I thought I would have to send out a search party for him and had visions of him coming up the steps on all fours, with his tongue hanging out. However, his speech turned out to be more of a yelp than an attack.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to both the motion and the points raised. I also welcome the opportunity to put it on record that fairness and equity are key principles in my approach to education issues. I can confirm that the capital budget of the Department of Education is not determined on a religious or sectoral basis. Resources are directed to priority educational need, in whatever sector.

The largest part of the capital budget is directed to major capital work across all sectors, but substantial funds enable education and library boards to undertake minor capital work in controlled schools. Funds are available to meet boards' responsibilities for furnishing and equipping controlled and maintained schools, school transport and accommodation. My Department also grant-aids approved expenditure on minor capital work in voluntary and grant-maintained integrated schools.

As I have said before, I am committed to improving the schools estate, but the number of major projects competing for a place in the capital programme far exceeds my available resources. Each year's school building programme is directed towards new schools, rationalisation, the replacement of substandard accommodation and ensuring that pupils and teachers have a proper learning environment. The available resources are directed to the highest priorities, based on educational need. It is important for people to understand that.

I also wish to comment on statements about imbalances in how capital funds are allocated. I refute any suggestion of inequality in those allocations, which are based solely on educational need. In any one year the allocation may favour one sector or another. However, Members should note that since 1990-91 the capital programme has been spread over 50 controlled schools, 43 maintained schools, 18 voluntary grammar schools, three Irish-medium schools and six integrated schools.

Contrary to popular belief, no decisions have yet been taken on next year's capital programme. I will be meeting the Education Committee next week, and I hope to announce the programme once I have heard and considered its views. The criteria for determining the programme will include educational priority, planning readiness, estimated costs, affordability and, not least, the capital resources available. The key factor is educational need, which is informed from a number of sources, principal of which is the capital planning list, which contains over 100 projects in categories one to three.

The criteria for each are clear. Category one provides for additional schools on identified sites or extensions to existing schools where there is clear evidence of insufficient places to accommodate pupils at suitable schools in a defined area. Category two provides for rationalisation proposals, which replace substandard accommodation and are essential to effect the rationalisation. Category three provides for schools that suffer significantly as a result of several serious accommodation inadequacies.

Projects in category one, which are sufficiently advanced in planning, have first priority for available resources, followed by projects in categories two and three. There are 108 projects in categories one to three on the planning list, representing 57 primary and post-primary schools in the voluntary sector - Catholic maintained, voluntary grammar and Irish-medium. There are 36 primary and post-primary projects in the controlled sector, representing 11 special and four grant-maintained integrated schools.

In drawing up the initial planning list, my Department consults with the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and individual school authorities. The Department subsequently consults the boards and the council representing the majority of schools on the planning list about their capital priorities. I consider that to be an important step since both have a specific statutory responsibility in their respective sectors.

Within the Department, advice is also sought from the education and training inspectorate and the Department's professional advisers about the relative educational needs of the competing priorities. Projects competing for a place on the conventional procurement programme must also be sufficiently advanced in design planning to be considered for a place on the programme.

The availability of resources is obviously the determining factor in the number that can be included in any year's programme. However, the present backlog of school building projects, which currently amounts to some £500 million, cannot be addressed by conventional procurement methods alone.

I am looking at the possibility of addressing some of that backlog through the private finance initiative. I understand the concerns and the reservations that people have expressed about that. To go down that route would obviously mean the conventional school building programme being complemented by the selective use of PFI in appropriate cases, to permit greater progress in meeting accommodation needs across the schools estate than would otherwise be the case. I hope that that information gives Members a better understanding of the allocation of my Department's capital budget and the difficulties that it faces in trying to meet the needs of all schools.

I cannot deal with all points raised but I will deal with one or two. Mr Wilson mentioned Regent House. The original announcement was made under the Chancellor's announcement, which assumed income from the sale of land - Scrabo High School and Belfast port. Neither of those transactions took place so no income was received, and money had to be found from elsewhere in the budget.

With regard to the point raised by Mr Kennedy on the situation at Strabane, I will clarify the position and, I hope, clear up the misunderstanding and confusion, which prompted an article in the 'Belfast Telegraph'. My decision to approve the development proposal for the amalgamation of Convent Grammar School, Our Lady of Mercy High School and St Colman's High School to form a new school was taken under the statutory provisions of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. A development proposal must be published where a new school is to be established or where significant changes are proposed to existing schools. It gives interested parties an opportunity to voice any objections before a decision on the proposal is reached. Far from undermining the mechanism in place, I was fulfilling my statutory responsibilities in that case.

The development proposal for the amalgamation of the three schools should not be confused with the Department's capital programme, which I announce annually. Only after a development proposal is approved and an economic appraisal undertaken can a building project can be considered under the capital programme. So, if the development proposal had not been approved, or if its approval had been delayed, the project could not have been considered for the capital programme and would have come to a standstill. The Strabane project will be considered alongside other priorities for a place in the capital programme, in the light of the resources available. However, no decisions have been taken about the make-up of the next capital programme. People will have to await the outcome of all of that.

Mr Kennedy made an important point. For many decades we have had neglect and underfunding in education. We can see that in the state of the schools estate. It is difficult to deal with all these matters against the background of the heavy backlog of work that needs to be done.

Ms Lewsley referred to PFI, TSN and social deprivation. The Department assesses all these matters and the state of the schools estate, and I hope that my statement to the House has cleared up the Department's and my approach to all this. There are too many mobile classrooms, but these are all a result of the nderfunding and neglect that we have had for many years.

The Department has been involved in pathfinder projects, but PFI is at a fledgling stage. We have attempted to use our limited resources in the best way possible. My officials are tough negotiators, and under no circumstances will they use public money on schemes that will make fat cats fatter.

An example of that is the collapse of the recent Classroom 2000 negotiations where, clearly, we decided that the deal on offer was unacceptable. Some hard and tough negotiations took place during the course of that. Our people stood their ground, and in the end we did not go for the proposed deal.

With regard to rural schools, I agree with Ms Lewsley about the importance of ensuring that they are treated with equality and fairness.

Mrs Bell raised Clifton Special School, and there are other special schools. That is something close to my heart. I have visited that school and a number of others, and I am very much taken by the need to support the teachers, parents and pupils. Ultimately, judgement will be made on the Assembly and the Executive, and we will be judged on how we treat the most disadvantaged people. I am conscious of my responsibilities with regard to those very special children.

People know where I stand on integrated education. I have a duty and responsibility as Minister to encourage and facilitate parents who choose integrated education for their children, and I intend to support those people the whole way down the line. Ms Morrice reiterated the point about integrated education. It is vital that my Department co-operates with NICIE to ensure that we deal with the demand of parents. Certainly when people come forward with robust proposals, we will support them. A good example of that recently is our lowering of the viability criteria, which makes it possible for such schools to start up more easily. We are making progress on that.

Mr Gallagher made an important point when he said that there are no criticisms coming from the education and library boards. That needs to be taken on board by people who come to the House and make totally erroneous claims about unfairness or injustice with the distribution of capital resources.

4.00 pm

There was a great contrast between Mr Sammy Wilson's speech, which was completely over the top, totally wrong and unjustified, and that made by Mr Edwin Poots, which was positive and constructive. It contained no hint whatsoever of criticism of any bias against one section of the community or the other. He dealt with the important issue of rural schools and said that there are people who feel that officials in the Department are anxious to deal with their concerns - whatever they may be.

Mr Poots mentioned three schools in the Hillsborough area that date back to the mid-1800s - Maze Primary School, St James's Primary School and St John's Primary School. Yesterday afternoon I met with a cross-party delegation of Members from that area to discuss the proposed amalgamation of the three schools. They will have high priority in the next capital programme. Mr Poots's speech was constructive, and that is the way forward, folks. The best way for DUP Members to represent their constituents' concerns, or perceived concerns, is to talk to me about them.

Under no circumstances will I preside over a Department that attempts to treat any child unjustly, be he from the Shankill Road, Portadown, Hillsborough, Coalisland, Maghera or Derry city. That is the past. I want to move on in a new spirit of friendship with everybody, including Sammy Wilson and the DUP, and try to build the new future that the vast majority of children and parents crave. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr S Wilson:

Mr Deputy Speaker, the Minister and his party said that they that welcomed the debate, yet at the start they protested and hoped that you would rule it out of order because of my late arrival. That probably said more about their real intentions than their words did. Of course, Sinn Féin is good with words. I was almost in tears during the final, impassioned plea from the Minister: "Please come and talk to me. I want to be your friend." His party cannot be friends with people from his own community. It goes around bashing them every night, yet he entreats us and says that he wants to be our friend.

I heard what he said about fairness and treating people with justice. We hear that from Sinn Féin on everything. It says that it wants the guns out of politics, yet holds onto its arms caches for dear life. It says that it wants justice, yet bashes people in Nationalist areas every night. We hear the weasel words "We want the funds distributed fairly", but do not judge it by its words; judge it by its actions.

The Minister, despite attempts to do so at the end of his speech, was not able to deny that he padded last year's figures to disguise the fact that one education sector was treated three times better than another sector. That sector just happens to be the one used by the community that I represent.

While the Minister tried to keep up the impression of wanting to be fair, he could not convey that message to the lieutenants sitting behind him. Barry McElduff and Gerry McHugh talked about the injustices of the past. Note the words: "The difficulties of the past have to be redressed." The implication is that spending allocations must be skewed towards one sector, and justification for that is spurious.

Oliver Gibson gave the figures for the last five years. There is no historical imbalance. The non-100% capital funding in the past is not unique. Republicans feel they must whinge about discrimination - it is almost obligatory. The voluntary sector chose to be independent and paid the same penalty. It did not get 100% funding. The big, bad Unionists did not discriminate against poor, downtrodden Nationalists. There was a price for independence, and it was paid by all sectors that chose that route. So let us dispense with the nonsense that is trotted out ad nauseam by people who ignore the historical facts.

On PFI the Minister and his lieutenants have not got their stories straight again. I sometimes wonder just where the lieutenants operate. Gerry McHugh was concerned because Billy Hutchinson taunted him about his socialist credentials. Mr McHugh said that Sinn Féin was concerned about PFI and that we need to debate the matter. Clearly he did not realise that that is actually what we are talking about - perhaps we should have used Irish. I do not know.

We did discuss PFI in the Committee. We had a presentation with plenty of documentation from officials. Furthermore, we responded to the Minister on PFI. I did not notice any dissent from Sinn Féin - its members agreed that PFI should be used in certain circumstances. Now Gerry McHugh is wringing his hands and saying that we need a debate on that because Billy Hutchinson taunted him.

If there is a £500 million backlog, we must look at innovative ways of dealing with it. PFI may not suit certain areas, but it does suit other areas. It is important that we do not rely simply on public funding to deal with that, and the Department is right to look at the possibility of using private finance to help.

I had no doubt that Eileen Bell, a zealot on this, and Jane Morrice would use the debate to promote integrated education saying that as people are queuing up to get into such schools we should spend money on them. By that definition, we should be throwing money at nearly every grammar school because people are queuing to get into them, and hundreds of children are being turned away every year. We should certainly not be spending money on integrated schools when there is under-capacity in the existing system, whether in maintained or controlled schools. It is madness to spend money on an alternative system when plenty of places are available in state or maintained schools.

I accused the Minister of fancy financial rope tricks, and it seems once again that he is trying to mislead or direct attention away from the imbalance. He talked about the number of controlled schools that had benefited from spending on capital projects. He is correct inasmuch as last year more controlled schools than maintained schools benefited from capital expenditure. However, when two controlled schools are given £700,000, two are given £1·2 million and another is given £1·3 million, you can make the figures tell whatever story you wish.

Eleven schools in the sector that caters for Protestants benefited from capital spending compared with six schools in the sector that caters for Catholics. However, £13·3 million was spent on the former while £40·3 million was spent on the latter. The Minister can use whatever fancy footwork he wants to, but there was an imbalance.

Tommy Gallagher said that we must look at the state of school buildings. I am happy to do that. Figures for schemes that were introduced and are now in contention were made available to Tommy Gallagher and me. For the last six years there was not much difference between the two sectors, but there are massive differences with capital spending. I am happy for the issue to be judged on that basis.

The problem exists because we have a Minister who reflects the views of the lieutenants who sit behind him. He wants to redress the perceived problems of the past, and that is why there is an imbalance in his spending. That is why the Assembly should be demanding fairness and equity.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Education to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of the capital spending budget between the various school systems in Northern Ireland.


Student Debt


Mr J Kelly:

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to address urgently the critical state of student debt.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I assure the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment that I did not table the motion to wind him up, as someone has suggested to me. I feel strongly, as I am sure the Minister does, about this, and I congratulate him on his recent efforts to meet with those who are at the cutting edge of the hardship being caused.

Students ought to be the beneficiaries of our education system and not victims of it. Unfortunately, the present system of a debt-burdened educational process is making victims of our student body. Education is as much a part of our infrastructure as roads, rail, transport, housing and the other physical manifestations. The absence of people who are educated in the arts and the sciences diminishes our physical infrastructure, however grandiose that infrastructure may be.

4.15 pm

Education is as fundamental to the good order of our society as the family unit, so the arguments against tuition fees are as strong today as they ever were. Tuition fees are wrong. They do not raise extra funds for higher education, and the Government's current tuition fee regime represents the thin edge of the wedge, which may eventually lead to the introduction of top-up fees and full-cost fees. Student hardship is a harsh reality that has been consistently ignored by successive Governments. The discretionary award has been reduced from £6 million in 1997-98 to £3·3 million in 1999-2000, thus creating major hardship for students wishing to take up second-chance courses and vocational postgraduate qualifications.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

Student unions are campaigning for a system of funding that will give students enough money to live on while they study without the need to resort to additional debt, low-paid jobs and further parental assistance. We do not have a properly funded education system, and students and parents are being made to suffer rather than being enhanced by it. The NUS/USI (National Union of Students/ Union of Students in Ireland) has clear ideas about the guiding objectives for the future delivery of student support. Any review of student funding must be tested against these objectives as they are the features that NUS/USI believe should be central to any funding regime. A new system should alleviate student hardship through maintenance and benefit support, increase and widen access to further and higher education, bridge the inequalities between funding for further and higher education, ensure equitable funding for both part-time and full-time study and enhance the quality of education on offer.

Those are laudable objectives that any society should aspire to. With regard to student hardship, the NUS/USI student income and expenditure survey of 1998 found that 20% of a sample of students in Northern Ireland owed more than £4,000 to the Student Loans Company. Students in further education only receive on average £656 a year in grants, student loans and parental contributions, yet they have an annual expenditure of approximately £3,000, a shortfall of £2,344 a year.

Average student debt is increasing. The Barclays Bank student debt survey 1998 revealed that graduates expect to have an average debt of £4,497. The findings showed that the cost of attending university has increased by 103% since 1994, while graduate salaries have increased by just 17%.

The NUS student hardship survey of 1999 found that 73·3% of full-time undergraduates, 71·4% of part-time undergraduates and 76·6% of postgraduates were in debt. In addition, mature students have substantially more debt than other students. Student hardship is forcing increasing numbers of students to withdraw from their courses and damaging the quality of academic life. A survey commissioned by the NUS and the GMB trade union in October 1995 found that 40% of students worked on average between 12·5 and 20 hours a week during term time. Two thirds of those students said that such employment affected their studies - 30% missed lectures and 20% failed to submit coursework due to the pressures imposed by part-time employment.

A follow-up survey specific to the North of Ireland was carried out by the NUS/USI students' centre in 1998. Was it found that 60% of students relied on part-time work, working an average of 17·7 hours a week. This adds to the difficulties of students attempting to pay their way through university.

Students in the North of Ireland, particularly mature students, are more vulnerable to the increased cost of higher education. Mature students, particularly working-class men, are discouraged from entering higher education by tuition fees. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) September 1999 figures, applications from mature students aged between 21 and 24 were 3·4% lower than the previous year, with a drop of 6·6% in students aged 25 or over.

In the North of Ireland, the proportion of mature students in higher education has always been much lower than in Great Britain. In 1997-98, mature students comprised only 18% of the student population, while the equivalent figure in England and the rest of Ireland was 28%.

Research evidence from Profs Cormack, Gallagher and Osborne of the Centre for Research on Higher Education at Queen's University confirmed that the participation rate of Northern Ireland students is more sensitive to financial issues than for students from Great Britain because of the social class profile of the student population here. They argue that the recent changes to the system of student financial support could have a more detrimental impact on the participation rates of our students.

The majority of the public and local politicians opposed the introduction of tuition fees, and there is substantial public support for the campaign against them. The study 'Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: the Fourth Report' by Breen, Devine and Robinson (1995) found that among a sample of the public, 79% believed that the Government should pay tuition fees, with only 17% saying that students should contribute. The vast majority of local politicians, MPs and councils opposed the introduction of tuition fees. The Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue also strongly condemned the proposals.

Government and education experts recognise the need for adequate funding for students. The Dearing Report on higher education says

"We are concerned however, that the combined value of the grant and state student loan together should not fall behind a level adequate to meet students' necessary expenditure."

In its manifesto document 'Lifelong Learning' the Labour Party says that one of the priorities for lifelong learning must be to tackle student hardship. During the debate on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill on 8 June 1998, David Blunkett assured MPs

"We are talking about ensuring that students have the money at the point when they need it, and that they repay it when they can afford to do so . We are talking about a provision to ensure that no one is in hardship at university."


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