Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 12 February 2001 (continued)

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Time is up. The House is suspended until 2.30 pm.

Mr Poots:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, you called two Members of the Ulster Unionist Party consecutively. When calling Members to speak, I understood that you had to do so on the basis of how they were aligned when they were elected to the House. You called Mr Weir and then Mr Hussey. That removed the opportunity for other parties to have their full allocation.

Secondly, perhaps you could facilitate Mr Taylor by giving him a copy of the rules of the House on the use of mobile phones. We know that he does not attend very often, so he may not understand them.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I do not want to delay the House. As you know, we are going to a memorial service at 1.00 pm. Mr Taylor is quite aware of the rules on mobile phones. With regard to calling two Ulster Unionist Members in a row, I understood that Mr Weir did not fall into that category. I hope that that explains the situation.

The sitting was suspended at 12.52 pm.

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

Oral Answers to Questions




School Performance Tables

2.30 pm


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister of Education if he gave advance notice to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of his announcement of 10 January 2001 that he was to end the publication of school performance tables.

(AQO 780/00)

The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):

Responsibility for decisions on school performance tables rests entirely with me, as Minister, and the Department of Education. A paper outlining future options was the subject of widespread consultation, as well as consideration by the Assembly Education Committee. I considered the range and nature of the responses and, as the Minister responsible, took the final decision. It was not necessary to involve any other Minister on an administrative issue that was the exclusive responsibility of my Department.

Mr Armstrong:

Why did the Minister not consult the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Executive on those issues?

Mr M McGuinness:

It is important to note that the decision on the tables was the exclusive responsibility of the Department of Education and, as such, was no different from other decisions that fall exclusively within the responsibility of other Ministers.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson):

Is the Minister telling the House that he ignored other members of the Executive when he made that important decision? On 19 December, the Education Committee sent him a unanimously agreed report that concluded as follows:

"The Department should regularly publish comparative information based on value-added performance indicators to enable a more accurate assessment of schools to take place. In the interim, while a suitable value-added method is being identified, the Department should consider making widely available the benchmarking data currently provided to schools, which enables them to compare their performance with schools of similar size."

Is the Minister saying that he ignored not only the Executive but the Education Committee and the views of members of his own party who sit on that Committee? How does he intend to raise school standards if he refuses to have any comparative measures?

Mr M McGuinness:

In response to the value-added contribution made by Sammy Wilson, I would point out - I believe that I have done so previously, but I am subject to correction on that - that research on the topic has been carried out for some years. No satisfactory means has been found of including such information in a way that would recognise progress in a broad range of qualifications and, at the same time, be readily understood by parents. There are no special factors relating to our schools that would justify the commissioning of further research. My Department will, of course, continue to monitor developments.

Benchmarking information is provided annually by my Department to schools and is available to anyone who would like a copy. Its purpose is to enable schools to see how they are performing in comparison with other schools of similar size or catchment, as defined by the number of pupils in receipt of free school meals. It is also sent to education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment and the teachers' unions. I would be happy to send a copy to the Member and the members of the Education Committee, if they so wish. However, the information is quite technical, and I do not believe that it would be helpful or meaningful to a wider audience.

School Guidance Counsellors


Mr McNamee

asked the Minister of Education to (a) outline why school guidance counsellors in Northern Ireland do not require specific counselling qualifications and (b) enhance the status and profile of guidance and counselling as a means to support disadvantaged pupils.

(AQO 793/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

I recognise that there are times when pupils and, sometimes, parents need access to counselling. Increasingly, schools are identifying the need for such support, as staff become more alert to the signs that a young person is under stress.

I also accept the need for counselling staff who are appropriately trained and professionally supervised. In recognising this fact many schools refer pupils for external professional help when they judge it necessary. Several pilot counselling services are operating in schools, and my Department will consider the reports that are evaluating these. My departmental budget does not leave me with enough resources to provide the education service with professionally trained and supervised counsellors, but I intend to expand appropriate training and access to counselling, as resources permit.

Mr McNamee:

Go raibh maith agat. Given that guidance counsellors in the South of Ireland require a postgraduate qualification, will the Minister consider establishing a similar level of qualification for those employed in this important service in the North?

Mr M McGuinness:

A range of courses and qualifications is available to those who want to train as counsellors. At this point, I do not want to stipulate the best form of training of those working with young people, in or out of schools. I will, however, seek further advice on this.

Classroom 2000 Private Finance Initiative


Mr Kennedy

asked the Minister of Education to clarify the current position on the Classroom 2000 private finance initiative (CPFI)

(AQO 782/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

Unfortunately, it was not possible to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on the PFI contract for Classroom 2000 that included commercial terms which also represented value for money in public expenditure. However, urgent steps are being taken to ensure that schools will have the same level of Classroom 2000 services, through the negotiating of several procurement contracts over the coming months.

Mr Kennedy:

What action is the Minister taking to minimise the undue delays and inevitable disadvantages that this will impose on schools and pupils?

Mr M McGuinness:

The Department is working hard to resolve the difficulties created by the failure to agree a way forward with Trilith. The Department believes that it can move forward and ensure that there is no change in the planned level of service provision - an average of one computer per 10 children. The Department is certain that it can resolve this issue.

The Classroom 2000 project board is positive that implementation will begin in schools from June 2001, with follow-up implementation to be completed in all schools no later than March 2003. Its director of services has written to all schools to inform them of the planned roll-out of services during this period.

Mr Gallagher:

What are the alternative arrangements, in relation to Classroom 2000, that the Minister has said are coming into place? Is he in a position to tell us the number of contracts that it will involve and what the minimum period of those contracts will be?

Mr M McGuinness:

It is the Department's view that it will probably not go down the PFI route, and several alternative options are being considered. At this stage, it is difficult to say how many contracts that will involve, but I feel that there will be more than just one.

Attacks on Rural Schools


Mr Paisley Jnr

asked the Minister of Education to detail discussions he has had with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to discuss attacks on rural schools and to detail the security measures he has requested.

(AQO 736/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

I have had no discussions with the Chief Constable of the RUC, nor is there any need for me to have any. School security is the responsibility of individual school authorities, and any additional security measures which may be required after an attack on a school must be determined locally and in the light of the specific circumstances of that school. My Department has issued practical advice and guidance to all schools on security and personal safety.

I deplore all attacks on schools and call on all responsible members of the community to help to prevent them by highlighting the fact that such attacks are totally unacceptable. I also welcome the appeals made by representatives of all political parties for attacks on schools to end so that schools are safe havens for all our children.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Given the fact that the Minister is linked to an organisation that has attacked schools, school bus drivers and teachers, is his refusal to contact the RUC on this matter due to the fact that he does not have the brass neck to go to it because of his past? Or is he allowing his prejudice and hatred of the RUC to stand in the way of student safety in our country?

Mr M McGuinness:

The supplementary question betrays the real reason for this question. The question was not asked out of any concern whatsoever for schools or for schoolchildren. The question was asked so that Mr Paisley Jnr could launch a political attack on me as Minister of Education.

As Minister of Education, it is my responsibility to ensure that schoolchildren, schools and teachers are protected. In recent times we have been involved in issuing important advice to schools as well as spending a considerable amount of money to ensure that schools can upgrade their security. Over the course of the last four years, this has amounted to about £4 million.

We must focus on the reality that the greatest contribution towards ending these attacks could come from politicians in the Assembly making politics work. Politicians must work with one another to ensure that we set a proper example to those people who think that this is the sensible way forward.

In recent weeks I was pleased to hear the courageous comments of DUP Assemblyman Roger Hutchinson and to see the leadership that he has given in the Larne area. He made it absolutely clear that under no circumstances will he support people who are involved in attacks on isolated Catholics - be it in Larne, Coleraine, Ballymena or anywhere else. That type of leadership shows the way forward.

Mr Paisley Jnr would learn an important lesson from Mr Hutchinson were he to accept that that is the right way to go. I also commend the comments of the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, who was courageous recently in making it clear that it is time for Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters to stand together against those who try to destroy political progress.

Mr McClarty:

Given his public comments of 30 November last year following an attack on a youth at Corpus Christi College in west Belfast, will the Minister encourage anyone who has information on attacks on schools to pass that information on to the RUC? Furthermore, as wanton vandalism caused by the lack of proper security measures at schools is a continual drain on school revenue resources, will the Minister confirm that his Department will financially support security measures where they are deemed necessary?

Mr M McGuinness:

My Department is working proactively with the employing authorities and all education sectors to ensure that there is adequate provision for security measures at schools deemed to be at particular risk.

2.45 pm

From my own point of view, a large section of our community has a huge difficulty in relation to the RUC. The best way to resolve all these difficulties, which have been in existence for many decades, is to ensure that we have the new beginning for policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement. That is why it is particularly important that all elected representatives do everything in their power to ensure that that new beginning comes about.

Mr McHugh:

A LeasCheann Comhairle, I am sure the Minister would agree that these attacks have largely taken place against Catholic schools, and that the situation was quiet in some areas until members of Mr Paisley Jnr's party became involved in whipping up tensions in such places as Dunloy. That is the real reason that there has been an environment for these attacks.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

What is the Member's question?

Mr McHugh:

The question is, does the Minister agree with me?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Is the Minister clear as to the question?

Mr M McGuinness:

I am.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Could I suggest that, in order to prevent this fractiousness, it might be wise to keep the politics down.

Mr M McGuinness:

I cannot see how we can possibly keep the politics down when this place is supposed to be about politics. The people on the other side of the House who are making fools of themselves are only too keen to use every possible issue in order to prevent political progress in this establishment.

I agree with Gerry McHugh that the vast majority of attacks that took place in the summer and autumn of 2000 were against Catholic schools. Fortunately, they have been relatively rare in recent months. It is important that people -

Mr Deputy Speaker:


Mr M McGuinness:

It is important that people in this establishment recognise the huge contribution they can make towards providing a good example to people on the ground. However, they need to go further. They need to recognise that the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is the only way forward for all of us because those who are attempting to bring down the agreement know that the result will be an escalation of such attacks on our schools and on isolated Catholic families. That is why I think they have a particular responsibility. I hope and trust that some day in the future the DUP will wise up, catch themselves on, and recognise that it is time for all of us to work together.

Toberlane and Churchtown
Primary Schools (Cookstown)


Mr Hamilton

asked the Minister of Education to explain his decision to overturn the proposed closure of Toberlane and Churchtown Primary Schools in Cookstown.

(AQO 786/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

There were two fundamental reasons for my decision. First, the significant level of opposition to the proposals reflected the strength of local opinion. Secondly, there was the view of the inspectorate acknowledging that teachers at both schools work particularly hard - and with success - to cope with a wide range of abilities and ages, and provide a broad curriculum in line with the statutory requirements.

My decision was also a practical demonstration of an approach which emphasises the importance of good schools as part of an infrastructure necessary to support rural communities by providing the best possible education for young people.

When I announced these decisions, I said that I would consider all development proposals on the merit of each case.

Mr Hamilton:

Will the Minister confirm that he will apply the same criteria that he used in his decision on the proposed closure of Tobermore and Churchtown schools to all small rural schools facing closure?

Mr M McGuinness:

When I made my announcement I made my approach crystal clear. I value the importance of small rural schools and the huge contribution that those schools make to the life of the rural community. There have been many cases in recent years where local communities have organised themselves effectively against what they perceive to be the Department's strategy of closing rural schools. It is important to listen to local people. There will, however, be occasions when a school will have to be closed because it is not fit for children to be educated in and is not conducive to providing teachers and pupils with the proper educational environment. There will also be arguments for amalgamation and for federation, and we are prepared to look at those issues. In my original answer I stated that it is important that I, as Minister, examine and judge all these cases on their individual merits.

Mr McCarthy:

I welcome the Minister's commitment to the rural schools. What practical support can he give to enable rural schools to remain open? They are the linchpin of the rural community.

Mr M McGuinness:

This is an issue that has struck a chord with many people, particularly those who live in rural areas -

Mr McCarthy:


Mr M McGuinness:

Absolutely. In moving forward to strengthen and enhance our education system it is necessary that we recognise the important contribution that rural schools make to the life of the local community. The assessment of relative needs exercise - which all the boards have to deal with - takes account of the incidence of small schools in each board area. The local management of schools schemes, through the application of the formula and the common criteria for the distribution of each board's curriculum reserve support fund, ensure that each small school receives a budget that reflects its relative need.

There has been much interest in the Assembly and among the parties about the decision in relation to the schools in the Cookstown area of County Tyrone. There will be occasions in the future when it will be sensible, for the purpose of ensuring proper education for the young people in certain areas, to close some rural schools. We may be involved in amalgamation and federation projects - we have to be flexible. From the way that the rural community has responded to the development proposals, it can be seen that people have strong views on schools that have been in existence for quite some time and that have made a huge contribution to their areas.

We want to move forward in partnership with the different education sectors and with local communities. We want to put in place an education system that people can recognise as being responsive to their needs and demands.

Ethnic-Minority Children:
Educational Needs


Ms Lewsley

asked the Minister of Education to detail the steps he has taken to address the educational needs of traveller children and children of other ethnic minorities.

(AQO 795/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

The provision of education for ethnic-minority children is set within the framework of the Race Relations Order 1997, which makes it unlawful for schools to treat a pupil from a particular racial group less favourably than other pupils, and requires education authorities to ensure that facilities for education are provided without racial discrimination. Section 75 of the 1998 Act places a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity among persons of different racial groups. The provision made for the education of children from ethnic minorities attending primary or secondary schools usually takes the form of a more generous staffing ratio and/or the use of support teachers, including those specialising in teaching English as a second language, where the need for this is identified.

The education and library boards can, and do, mount specific initiatives within the overall block grant allocated to them by the Department. For example, some boards have appointed a traveller liaison officer to develop localised strategies for meeting the needs of traveller children. The cost of providing interpreters for parent/teacher meetings in situations where the parents are not fluent in English is met centrally by the boards.

As part of New TSN, the Department is engaged in reviewing its education strategies for travellers and other ethnic minorities in order to help further promote the social inclusion of these minority groups. In doing so, we will be giving careful consideration to the recommendations contained in the report -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Two more people want to speak.

Mr M McGuinness:

I am almost finished. We will be giving careful consideration to the report of the promoting social inclusion working group on travellers and the research report 'Opportunities for All' produced by the Statistics and Research Agency.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

One other person wants to speak after you, Ms Lewsley, so please be brief.

Ms Lewsley:

Has the Minister's Department any type of outreach programme for these children, because many are lacking in self-esteem and confidence? There should be a pre-education programme run for them before we integrate them into the classroom.

Mr M McGuinness:

That is something that we need to examine. The education and library boards and the different education sectors are looking at the particular difficulties and problems which the education of these children poses for the education system. We are open to examining that and seeing what more can be done.

Dr Adamson:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister indicate how many Irish-medium schools he has visited since June last year, and how many formal meetings he has had with representatives of the ethnic minority and the Ulster-Scots communities?

Mr M McGuinness:

I cannot say, off the top of my head, how many Irish-speaking schools I have visited, but I will provide the Member with that information.

In relation to the Ulster-Scots community, I have made it clear to everyone within the education system that my door is open to anyone who wishes to speak to me about issues of importance to them. Unfortunately, my door has not been rushed by people who are involved in that sector. I reiterate: if they wish to come and speak to me, I will meet with them and treat them with all the respect to which they are entitled.

Anti-Drugs Education


Rev Dr Ian Paisley

asked the Minister of Education to detail discussions he has had with the Chief Constable or other senior Royal Ulster Constabulary officers to assess ways to improve anti-drugs education in schools.

(AQO 741/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

I have had no discussions with the Chief Constable of the RUC or other members of the RUC on this subject, nor is this necessary in my view. I am a member of the ministerial group on drugs which deals with this issue in detail. The Minister for Social Development should also be attending those meetings, but he does not. He boycotts them. It would be worthwhile if Mr Paisley would advise him that the sensible thing to do would be to work with the rest of us to deal with these issues.

In my Department a high priority is attached to tackling the increasing problem of the availability and use of illegal drugs. It has always been recognised that schools have a major preventative role to play in addressing the problems of the misuse of drugs and other substances. For this reason, drugs education is a statutory requirement within the schools curriculum. It is one of the objectives of the health education cross-curricular theme, and it is recommended that it should be taught within the context of health education. Science, religious education, and personal and social education programmes are the most common areas through which the topic is covered.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

The Minister did not mention that his Colleague in IRA/Sinn Féin set up a different committee in order to remove the police. That is why the DUP did not co-operate with that committee. Let us have a bit of truth.

3.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Dr Paisley, is that a question?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

The Minister has admitted in the House today that he does not discuss this matter with the Chief Constable of the RUC.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Your question, please.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

My question is whether this is part of his policy to put the RUC out of schools, despite the good work that it has done there. Is it not a fact that, at certain schools, the RUC, which has been doing good work on the drugs issue, has been put out of the schools?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I warned you that we had only two minutes left. Time is up.

Mr S Wilson:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This part of the Assembly's proceedings is billed as "Questions to the Minister". Can you rule on whether there is also an obligation on the Minister to answer those questions. In addition, was the Minister correct, or was he abusing the House, when he gave a three-minute answer to a question from a Member from one party, yet spent six minutes avoiding giving an answer to a question from a Member from this party?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The Minister answered the questions to the extent to which he felt empowered and knowledgeable to do so. However, you had only two minutes to discuss this matter, and that time is up.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Further to the point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. During the debate Mr McHugh referred to an incident which took place in Dunloy, which is in my constituency. Why did he not tell the House that that attack was carried out by Republicans and that it was as a result of an internecine fight involving his own party?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Dr Paisley, that is not a point of order. Our time is up.


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

Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Royal Victoria Hospital: Neurosurgery


Mr Kane

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she is aware that there is a waiting list for patients requiring surgery for brain tumours of up to 10 days at the Royal Victoria Hospital neurosurgery department, and to detail the steps she is taking to rectify the situation.

(AQO 757/00)

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mar gheall ar nádúr agus práinn an reachta seo cuirtear othair a bhfuil obráid uathu faoi scian a luaithe is féidir. I rith na bliana 1999-2000 glacadh isteach othair a ndearnadh fáthmheas príomhúil nó tanáisteach i leith siada inchinne orthu taobh istigh de sheacht lá ar meán ón dáta ar cinneadh go raibh obráid riachtanach. Go hiondúil, rachaidh othair den chineál seo faoi scian ar an lá a ghlactar isteach iad nó ar an lá dár gcionn.

Is eol domh go raibh ócáidí ann ar na mallaibh nuair a cuireadh moill ar roinnt obráidí de bharr dianbhrúnna ar an aonad néarmháinliachta réigiúnach. Ach dearbhaítear domh anois nach bhfuil aon mhoill mhíchuí ann faoi láthair maidir le hobráidí d'othair a bhfuil siadaí inchinne orthu.

Because of the nature and urgency of this condition, patients requiring surgery are operated on as soon as possible. During 1999-2000, patients with a primary or secondary diagnosis of a brain tumour were admitted for surgery within an average of seven days from the date on which an operation was deemed necessary. Operations on such patients normally take place on the date of admission or on the day after. Recently, there have been occasions when severe pressures on the regional neurosurgical unit have led to delays in some operations. At present, however, I am assured that there is no undue delay in surgery for patients with brain tumours.

Mr Kane:

How far will the Minister's proposed series of measures go towards shortening the waiting list for neurosurgery and redeeming what is in effect a meltdown of neurosurgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital? Recently, in attempting to represent a patient requiring spinal surgery, whose admission for treatment had been cancelled 10 minutes before he left home in Coleraine, I contacted the consultant at the RVH. The consultant informed me of his frustration and that of his colleagues at the RVH at the dramatic reduction in the number of days on which surgical procedures can be carried out by one full day a week. The lack of resources available for neurosurgery -


<< Prev / Next >>