Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 24 April 2001 (continued)
Is the Minister aware that one of the losses incurred by this decision is that his Department for Regional Development has decided to move the design consultancy street lighting service from Downpatrick to Lisburn? That means the loss of three jobs in Downpatrick, and those staff will be moved to Lisburn. Does the Minister accept that I have made numerous representations to his Department to move the new unit to Downpatrick, thus creating 12 new jobs? Will he agree to discuss this issue with me? It is a matter of great concern that we are losing jobs from south Down to the greater Belfast area.
I welcome the announcement, and, on a constituency note, I would like to see the £1·5 million being diverted to East Antrim.
The onus is now going to be placed on the developer. Mr McFarland said that developers build small clusters of houses as phase 1, phase 2 and phase 3, and when they get to phase 5 or 6, the roads in phase 1 are still not adopted. My concern is that the same thing will happen with street lighting. It will be left to the end, and the limited company will suddenly go out of business - having made its profit from the houses - without having had the financial implications of having to provide street lighting and other facilities.
Once a certain number of houses have been built, could the street lighting be provided for those houses prior to starting the next phase? If a developer were to go under, the Department would not be left with the financial responsibility for a developer who has already made quite a hefty profit.
Mr Hay mentioned that a large number of roads have remained unadopted for 20 years. That seems to happen throughout Northern Ireland. Is there any way that the Department can put the ball firmly in the developer's court so that if one developer defaults in his obligations, he cannot create a new company and repeat the process? Cowboy builders have set up companies and sub-companies in the past without any overall responsibility.
They all seem to have the same structure - all the profits go back to the same person, but the company is actually split into four or five different parts for convenience.
I thank the Minister for his initiative.
I am going to take advantage of this occasion to ask the Minister a question posed to me yesterday by a constituent living in Robinson Road in Bangor. The census enumerator noticed that she did not have street lights, and my constituent asked me to ask the Minister what she should do about that. She lives in a new development, and in the context of these Regulations, I would like to know to whom my constituent can turn to get street lighting put in. With the onus being on the developer under these new Regulations, if there are not enough street lights, will constituents be able to go to the developer and ask for street lights to be put in? Also, who will be responsible for the upkeep of this lighting? Obviously, the more serious question is the huge importance of street lighting for safety in these areas, especially for women. Finally, what about trees? Will there be any onus on developers to plant trees as well?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is becoming apparent that Members believe this to be a statement on which they can ask questions. It is, in fact, legislation, and speeches can be made. I have only just discovered this after asking my question. I could have gone on for half an hour about the plight of the street lighting section in Downpatrick, but unfortunately it is too late.
On this occasion this is a point of order. It is somewhat surprising that the Member has not read the Order Paper, which makes it clear that this is a motion for the passage of Regulations - that is secondary legislation, as he has said. It is not a statement by the Minister; it is a motion for the passage of secondary legislation. The Member is correct that speeches are appropriate. Whether the Chair would have been content for him to go on for half an hour is another matter, but this does give Members an opportunity to speak. However, I should point out that it is the passage of a piece of legislation and not an opportunity for Members to ask constituency questions of Ministers.
The Member points to himself. It is not an opportunity for Members to ask constituency questions, any more than it would be in order for a Member to put down an amendment of a constituency question on the passage of a piece of primary legislation. Of course, Members may wish to refer to their constituency experiences in supporting a piece of legislation, but that is not entirely the same thing.
I welcome this legislation. I have three areas of major concern. First, will the Minister tell us when this legislation is going to kick in? In other words, precisely when will this legislation start?
My second point is in relation to the bond, which has already been mentioned by Cllr Hay. In Omagh we have a no-man's-land -
Order. I really wonder how much Members have prepared themselves for this debate. One Member has just said that he did not realise that it was a motion rather than a statement. A second has now raised the profoundly important question - he says - of when this will come into effect. I point the Member to the first paragraph of the Regulations, where it says that they shall come into operation on 1 May 2001. It is not in order for Members to waste the time of the Minister or the House by asking questions on things that they have not looked up, which are not only relevant, but are, indeed, the matters on which the House will be voting.
I stand corrected, Mr Speaker.
My last question is the most important of all. Will this not add to the cost of houses? After all, who pays for all of this? I wish to be assured by the Minister that for those people who wish to purchase property, there will not be an added bill that prohibits them from doing so.
I will certainly not be asking any questions about the Balmoral Show or anything else. I will be specific to the issue. I am glad that the street lighting legislation will bring us into line with the UK mainland, and I welcome the Minister's statement. However, at the same time it is important that the responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the developers. We all hope to see that, and this legislation will enable that to happen.
I have a couple of questions, and they are not to do with my constituency; they are specific to the legislation. Is there a deadline by which a developer must provide street lights, and who will ensure that this is adhered to and that people have sufficient street lighting?
In relation to the development itself, again it comes down to monitoring the street lighting that is installed. Who will ensure that a developer has the expertise to install street lighting to meet the standards of the Department, and who will ensure that it is brought up to the standard that will enable the Department to adopt and look after it?
There were a number of issues, and, Mr Speaker, I am glad that you dealt with some of them yourself. I will try to respond to Members in very generic terms.
A number of Members raised the issue of the savings that will result from the legislation. There will be a saving of £1·5 million, and I assure Members that I will look at how that can be utilised and what benefit it can bring. Obviously, there are people who have campaigned on rural street lighting and other issues, and those issues will have to be looked at in the light of this saving.
Mr Wells raised the design unit. I responded previously, and I will respond again on a separate occasion. On the commencement of the onus being on the developer, all those matters will be raised in the Roads Service, and it will ensure that the bond that any developer takes out to construct private streets includes an element which has street lighting as an essential part of it. If there is any failure on the part of a developer, that section of the bond can be used to ensure that the work continues.
We will also use best practice from the rest of the UK and other parts of Europe to ensure that the best parts of legislation elsewhere are contained in our legislation and that the pitfalls that have been experienced elsewhere are avoided in Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Private Streets (Construction) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001 be approved.
The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the publication of the consultative document and the intention to introduce a common formula for funding schools.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce the motion before the House today.
School funding is a very important matter. Formula funding to schools in the current financial year will total almost £750,000 million, which will be used to deliver education to 340,000 pupils, employ 23,000 teachers and 20,000 other staff in schools, including administrative staff, caretakers, classroom assistants and technicians, purchase books and equipment and heat and maintain 1,200 schools.
The level of funding and the way in which it is spent have a direct influence on the quality of education that schools can provide. It affects the number of teachers that can be employed, the level of support staff, the learning materials available and the quality of the school environment. Finance is on the agenda of almost every meeting I have with school representatives, and it forms a large part of the correspondence received by my Department. It may not generate as much interest among the public as the review of post-primary education, but rest assured that it does command the attention of schools.
The main concern is about lack of funding. I share that concern. Our primary and post-primary schools are underfunded compared to similar schools in England, Scotland and Wales, and I have consistently argued the case in the Executive and the Assembly for additional funding. That has met with some success, as the record shows. During the last year I obtained additional funds to assist schools with energy costs, reading schemes and maintenance. I also secured an additional £20·4 million for direct allocation to school budgets. Those extra resources will make a difference to the quality of education that our schools can provide. However, our children deserve better, and I will continue to press for further resources to ensure that schools are properly funded to meet pupils' needs.
The other concern regularly raised by schools is that the distribution of funding is unfair. Some school representatives feel that if their school were in a different area or sector, it would receive more money. There are seven local management of schools (LMS) formulae used to allocate funds; one administered by each of the five boards and two run by the Department in respect of the grant-maintained integrated schools and voluntary grammar schools. Each of them is different, so it is hardly surprising that schools and others find the system of funding complex, confusing, inconsistent and unfair. I agree with that view.
The present system has become inequitable. With just over 1,200 schools to fund, I cannot see why seven different LMS formulae for the allocation of resources are required. Therefore, I am committed to the development of a single common funding formula. The objective is relatively simple - to ensure that schools with similar characteristics receive similar levels of funding, regardless of the area or sector in which they are located.
However, the realisation of that objective is more complex because of the differences across boards in funding levels and in the make-up of funding formulae. Although useful progress has been made over the last few years in harmonising the current LMS formulae in preparation for the introduction of a common formula, significant differences still remain. Those differences must be tackled if schools are to be funded fairly. Therefore, the publication of the Department of Education's consultation document represents a major milestone in the achievement of equitable funding for all schools.
The document proposes some significant changes. The appropriate balance of resources between the primary and secondary sectors is a difficult issue, but one which must be addressed. Representatives of the primary sector have presented a robust case that they should have a larger share of the available resources. They have pointed to the fact that under current formulae a primary school pupil here generates about 65% of the amount generated by a post-primary pupil. That differential is much wider than in England and Wales, where an investigation by the House of Commons Education Committee concluded that primary schools should get a larger share of resources.
While there are different needs in the two sectors - particularly in the scope of the curriculum and its mode of delivery - the current differential is too wide. Intervention and additional support in the early years of primary education can reduce or prevent the development of many learning difficulties experienced by children at post-primary level, where remedial measures are not only more costly but also less effective. Investment in the early years of education, therefore, is a sound one.
Despite a reduction in the funding differential between primary and post-primary schools in recent years, an increasing number of primary schools are encountering difficulty in containing expenditure within budget. That is also reflected in rising primary pupil/teacher ratios. Taking those factors into account, I am satisfied that there is a case for further narrowing the resource gaps. I propose to increase primary sector funding by around 4%, or approximately £12 million, on the basis of the 2000-01 budgets.
This would mean that a primary school pupil would attract 67% of the funding attracted by a post-primary pupil, compared to 65% at present. This will help considerably to ease the pressures in the primary sector.
Targeting social need (TSN) is one of the Executive's key priorities, and it is a particular priority for me as Minister of Education. We must tackle underachievement among pupils from all backgrounds, whether they are regarded as socially disadvantaged or not, and we must help schools to deal with the problems of children from disadvantaged circumstances. The document proposes the use of educational indicators alongside entitlement to free school meals in the allocation of TSN funding to address these aspects of social need.
I also propose to increase the funding allocated under TSN from 5% to 5·5% of the total schools' recurrent funding. This represents a 10% increase in TSN funding in LMS. On the basis of the 2000-01 budget it would have the effect of increasing expenditure in TSN from £40 million to £44 million. This additional investment of £4 million underscores my commitment to tackling social need and disadvantage in education.
LMS is only one of a number of means by which the Department of Education seeks to fulfil its TSN role. The substantial range of other TSN-related education activities will continue. These include the school support programme, the group 1 schools initiative, the targeting of pre-school education, the code of practice in special needs and initiatives to help marginalised groups such as travellers and those educated under the EOTAS (education otherwise than at school) programme.
One factor at the heart of the current disparities in funding levels is the variation in the levels of funding delegated by education and library boards to schools. One board delegates 74%, whereas another delegates 67%. I accept that these variations reflect in part the different characteristics of board areas. For example, more rural boards will have higher transport costs, and more disadvantaged boards will have more free school meals. However, they also reflect differences in the level of service provided by boards and the manner in which they are delivered.
I am determined to bring levels of funding delegation to schools across boards on to a more consistent and higher level, and in doing so, to increase the size of school budgets. The Department has already urged boards to take positive action this year to increase allocations to schools. In introducing a common funding formula I will seek to realign existing budgets and will work to increase funding delegated to schools by up to £15 million or 2%. This is the high aggregated schools budget (ASB) model presented in the document. Priority must be given to the classroom, and my officials will work closely with boards between now and the end of the year to determine how this can best be achieved.
I am anxious to ensure that the debate on the common formula is founded on educational principles and arguments on what is best for pupils rather than whether an individual school is a winner or a loser. However, schools and other education bodies will, of course, want to know what effect the proposals will have on their particular circumstances. To assist these considerations, the document contains extensive tables and graphs setting out the potential impact of a common formula on school phases, sectors and management types. It also contains funding outcomes for a wide range of hypothetical schools of different types chosen to reflect variations across the key characteristics which affect the level of funding, that is, enrolment, premises and social disadvantage. These funding outcomes give as clear an indication as possible of the likely impact of the formula. However, it must be recognised that they rely on assumption and will be affected by any changes to the key factors between 2000-01, the year on which the data is based, and 2002-03, when commonality will be implemented.
Some people may have wanted the document to spell out the implications for individual schools. However, for the reasons just mentioned, such spurious precision would run the real risk of misleading schools. I am satisfied that the funding outcomes presented give all schools and sectors a good idea of how they are likely to be affected by commonality.
This is not to seek in any way to minimise the importance to schools of a change in their level of funding. In an exercise of this kind it is inevitable that there will be winners and losers, and the implementation of the new funding formula will need to be managed very carefully. The document proposes transitional protection arrangements to limit the annual change in individual school budgets and to assist an orderly and smooth adjustment to new levels of resourcing over a three-year period.
The consultation period will extend to 29 June, and the common formula will be implemented in April 2002. I will wish to make final decisions on the formula in September, following consultation with the Education Committee and discussions with the Executive Committee. This timescale is required to provide sufficient time for the new operational arrangements, including any new IT systems, to be developed and tested, so that schools can be provided with their budget outcomes early in the new year.
The proposals in the consultation document have been developed through extensive - albeit informal - discussion and debate with our key partners such as officials from education and library boards and CCMS, and representatives of the Governing Bodies Association and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. I thank everyone who has contributed to this process, and I acknowledge in particular the contribution made by the various board officers and school staff members who sat on working groups in the early stages. Their input has been very helpful in framing the current proposals. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Education Committee for its constructive approach in the discussion of these proposals. The Committee made a number of helpful suggestions which I have been able to reflect in the document. This is yet another example of the very constructive and positive relationship between the Committee and my Department, and I am most anxious that it should continue.
I cannot emphasise enough that this is a genuine consultation exercise. No decisions have yet been made, and I encourage everyone who has an interest to participate fully in the wider debate so that all views and suggestions can be carefully considered before the new formula is finalised. It is important that schools fully understand and respond to the proposals. My Department, together with the boards, has arranged two briefing conferences for all schools in each board area. Invitations have been issued to the principal and to the chairman of the board of governors of each school. The conferences are designed to give officials an opportunity to explain the proposals and to clarify any issues raised by school representatives. The first conference was held today, and others will be held between now and next Tuesday.
I want to emphasise again the importance of this issue. The introduction of a common funding formula forms a key part of my Department's contribution to the Programme for Government. It is a major lever in relation to the quality of education delivered by each of our schools, and it is therefore vital that we get it right. The current system cannot continue. It is manifestly wrong that the level of funding received by a school and the quality of education it can provide for its pupils can depend on the area or sector in which it is located. Our objective is to resolve this inequity through the introduction of a fairer system of funding, common across all areas and school sectors. I believe that this is good news for schools and will be widely welcomed. I trust that Members will also support the concept and principles of a common funding formula.
I look forward to hearing Members' views during the debate, and I assure them that these will be considered very carefully over the coming months before any final decisions are taken.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Kennedy):
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on this vital issue. I will address the Assembly as Chairman of the Education Committee and then in my role as Ulster Unionist Assembly spokesperson.
The Education Committee welcomes the publication of the consultation document. The issue of how schools are funded has generated the greatest number of requests for meetings with the Education Committee, and representatives from all sectors and all sizes of schools have expressed their concerns on this matter. As the Minister has indicated, there are a large number of formulae used to fund schools under the current LMS system.
As a result of this complex method, schools with the same characteristics receive entirely different allocations based on their location or sector. That needs to be addressed. The situation is neither satisfactory nor equitable. The Committee welcomes the key objective of ensuring that schools with similar characteristics receive similar levels of funding, regardless of which sector or area they are in.
The proposals comprise a number of welcome initiatives. The Education Committee strongly believes that investment in early intervention is an investment in the future and that it must be a priority. Funding for the early stages of the education process can result in long-term savings through a reduction in or prevention of learning difficulties and low achievement, which often lead to children becoming disaffected with education, subsequent problems with attendance and other difficulties. The proposed increase in primary-sector funding is, therefore, very appropriate.
I also welcome the intention to increase the proportion of the budget to be delegated to classrooms to help provide our young people with the best possible education. I support the proposal to revise the balance of funding based on the factors of social deprivation and special educational need. There should be a fifty-fifty funding distribution, which would provide greater support for tackling low educational achievement. All pupils who perform below the expected level need additional support, regardless of their social background.
The cost of teachers' salaries is the most significant element of a school budget, and it often accounts for 80% of the total expenditure. I welcome the fact that this document seeks views on whether the formula should reflect actual teacher costs or whether teachers' salaries should be excluded. The Ulster Unionist Party and myself favour a system that will take account of actual teacher costs rather than average teacher costs, as under the current system. This would be a fairer system and, in my view, a more realistic one. I have some concern that, in general, LMS funding has not encouraged long-term planning by schools and has led to a short-term management style. There is evidence that the current arrangements have contributed to the dramatic fall in numbers of newly qualified teachers who gain permanent contracts. I hope that this consultation exercise will highlight such issues and the implications of LMS funding generally.
The Education Committee encourages as many schools, education bodies and other interested organisations and individuals as possible to participate in the consultation exercise and to contribute their views to inform Members in their consideration of this most important issue.
We have expressed concern to the Minister about the length of the consultation period. Given the detailed and complicated nature of the issues, and the fact that there will be winners and losers if these proposals are implemented, it is most important that an adequate consultation period be provided. The Committee, noting the consultation document was due to be launched early in the new year, has proposed that the consultation period should be extended until the end of June to allow schools to submit their views. The Minister accepted this point of view. However, the publication of the document did not take place until April, and that period has now been considerably reduced.
I call on the Minister to address this matter immediately. In developing these proposals, we will need to take account of the review of post-primary education, the curriculum review and other consultative issues that prevail in the education sector.
As the Ulster Unionist Party spokesperson on education in the Assembly, and on a personal note, I have to express serious concerns about the proposal in this consultative document to introduce a provision relating to Irish- medium units. The proposal is to provide Irish-medium primary schools in units with an extra £100 per pupil and Irish-medium post-primary schools with an additional £25 per pupil. I do not agree that pupils in specific sectors, such as Irish-medium schools, should receive more funding than pupils in other sectors. The proposal is unfair to the majority of pupils. The current arrangements under which Irish-medium schools are funded on exactly the same basis as other schools are appropriate and should be continued. I therefore serve notice to the Minister that the Ulster Unionist Party will oppose this clause if it is included in any subsequent legislation. The clause is inequitable, and I stress that this is an education issue, not a political one. It is important that this debate be conducted on the basis of educational need and that other issues should not cloud this need or be allowed to interfere.
This consultative document is important. It comes in a long line of other important documents that have been mentioned, including the post-primary curriculum review. Many teachers, and others in the field of education, are weary of the weight of advice that is being sought from them from on high. That is another argument in favour of the Minister's considering an extension of the period involved. The Ulster Unionist Party will be making a formal request for an extension to this period. The issue is very important - perhaps the most important issue - to primary school principals, boards of governors, secondary schools and all schools, regardless of the sector they are in. It is a major concern to anyone with an interest in education.
It is important that we address the issue quickly; we must also address it properly, and we must move to a situation where sensible legislation can be introduced, which can be supported by those at the coalface of education, as well as Assembly party members. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will hear my plea for additional time to be given to this consultative body. I encourage schools, individuals and other interested parties to make submissions to it.
Schools and boards of governors will study the proposals to see how their school will fare under the new arrangements. That is an understandable reaction and one that will bear heavily on the representations that they will make. The current system is unfair, and we want to move to a more equitable one. The assessment of actual teacher costs, rather than average teacher costs, is one way of ensuring that all schools can feel that they are being fairly treated. I look forward to the Minister's comments on the extension of the time period and on my views about the Irish-medium factor.
The motion offers us a useful opportunity to have some discussion from the outset of the consultation period. Everyone must agree that the document is complex and detailed. If it is implemented, almost all schools will experience changes in the way that their budgets are allocated. Changes will be favourable for some, and while others will see no significant gain, some will have their school budgets reduced.
The proposed changes are set against a backdrop of radical curriculum changes and the resultant pressures on all schools over the last decade. Changes must also take account of current population trends, which see school enrolments, at both primary and secondary level, falling. Many schools are already experiencing severe financial pressures.
The founding principles of the document are very sound. We hope to achieve a system that will be easy to operate and understand, will be transparent and will reinforce wider education policy. The other changes, which I believe will be welcomed, include basing school budgets on the preceding year's census. That is a sensible suggestion that most schools will welcome. The extension of teacher salary protection will particularly facilitate smaller schools.
Funding will be increased for children from the travelling community and for those children for whom English is an additional language. Some tests on targeting social need (TSN) have been carried out. Social need factors are clearly defined in the document and are based on the twin criteria of social deprivation and special educational needs. TSN funding will be divided fairly on a fifty-fifty basis.
However, that will all happen without any extra money being available. We are commencing a new exercise by moving money around schools in a different way. As the Minister said, how that is managed will be a key factor. If all goes well we will have an efficient system that will give the Department of Education increased bargaining power with the Executive. If, on the other hand, it does not go well, that will present different problems.
When the Minister launched the document he said that the proposal would ensure that similar schools would be treated in a similar way. While nobody would disagree with that, careful consideration must still be given.
A number of questions immediately spring to mind. How are similar schools to be defined? For example, a 300-pupil school in one of the County Fermanagh sectors may look similar to a 300-pupil school in the same sector in Ballymena, yet they may not have much in common. One is urban while the other is rural. One relies heavily on the school transport service, whereas the other does not depend on it as much. One relies heavily on an adequate school meals service, whereas it may not be as important for the other because of its location.
The terminology must be clarified. The definition of a "similar" school needs to be looked at in greater depth. Before anything is changed we need clear information on how the Department proposes to arrive at the definition of "similar" when using the phrase "schools with similar characteristics". Every school, as we know, must be looked at from its social context, its position in the community and what access it has to services such as leisure facilities. The surrounding infrastructure and how that assists or has an adverse effect on school transport must be taken into account. All these elements must be considered before we can identify schools with "similar" characteristics.
Another aspect to consider is the shifts and changes that there will be in the school system and the education and library boards. The boards receive an allocation; they hold some of the money centrally for transport, support services and school meals, but they send the greater part of it to the schools. If we implement all the proposals, some boards will find that they are able to hold more money centrally, so the services that are centrally controlled by those boards will gain, whereas other boards may be required to give more money to schools and will have less to hold centrally. The result of that will be that their centrally held services may be under pressure.
I am speaking as a representative of a large rural constituency that depends heavily on what is, at present, an unsatisfactory school transport service. I do not want, as a result of this exercise, to end up with a situation that leaves school transport or the school meals services under greater financial pressure. The paper does not deal with how the funding will be allocated, under a relative needs exercise, to the boards. In the interests of equality and the overall good of the education system, we need to be fair to those who administer education as well as to those who benefit from it in the classroom. Together with the review of the local management of schools we must review how the money is allocated to the boards. If we do that, we will end up with a better system.
I welcome the opportunity to speak. I will focus, particularly, on pages 27 and 28 that deal with the key principles for common formula funding. These are the fundamental principles that underpin the direction and the objectives involved.
The first point that I want to make, not just to the Minister but to everyone in the Assembly, was made yesterday afternoon when many of us on these Benches pressed the Minister of Finance and Personnel to consider the idea of equality. We tried to persuade him to ensure equality by ring-fencing. He quickly retreated, on three or four occasions at least, to the wording of the criteria. I am therefore asking that all schools and all boards of governors keenly participate in the exercise. I ask the Minister, as the discussions progress, to reveal the criteria that underpin the key principles to the Committee and all the relevant bodies, because the thinking is emerging that they are involved.
We can have a very nice sounding term such as the "common funding formula", but if the criteria involved do not support that, it can be totally misleading. I want everyone involved in the delivery of education to scrutinise carefully and objectively what is going to be involved.
Point 3.1 indicates a vision. Point 3.2 says that "schools should be funded according to their relative need." Why did the Minister not use the term "educational need"? Is the word "relative" an escape route to try to manipulate the criteria, and could that mean that the funding is not common but skewed for a variety of reasons that are not to do with educational needs? I would alert everyone to that point.
What does he mean by "objective measures"? How does the Minister intend to spell those out? What are those measures? How can we study the criteria and benchmark them against objective measures that have not yet been revealed? Then the Minister uses very nice words like "underpin", "reinforce wider education policy and objectives", "transparent" and "comprehensible". None of these principles is transparent or comprehensible, and they cannot be reinforced unless we know exactly what the Minister wishes to achieve.
That the formula is easy to administer, I would have thought, is a very sensible and important point. I know that my words will be used against me. I have yet to be convinced that there is a great correlation between social need and educational need, because most of the large body of educational information supporting that here and in America is outdated. However, there is much newer evidence coming forward. The old debate over environment versus innateness that has raged for a century is now history in educational terms and thinking. The ideas of how we measure intelligence is now past history. We are looking at new systems and methods of measuring intelligence. A whole new raft of educational thinking has emerged. There is an idea, still current with many people, that somehow you can use social engineering to achieve a predictable outcome. Again, history is littered with a host of failures in that field. One of the great experimenters was dear old Adolf himself, who was so sorely tempted into social engineering that it led him to the idea of genetic engineering. History has dealt and dispensed with many of those ideas, so the Minister had better be very careful about what the real objectives of this exercise are.
Sometimes when I listen to people talking in social jargon I am convinced that they have developed a disease called "socialitis". I myself have a very strong social conscience, a very strong sense of fairness and a very strong sense of justice. However, that idea can be carried to the extreme where it so dominates one's thinking that one loses sight of the real issues.
What is the real object of the exercise? I put it to the Minister that it is to equip our generations with the education to enable them to compete in a competitive world. We can no longer risk experimenting with the education of our young people. Common funding should be fundamental to the idea that we need to continually improve our educational outcomes and standards. However, as another Member has mentioned, common funding should not be used for anything other than producing the best educational outcomes.
We do not want to reinvent ghettos. I can already see this prospect creeping into the thinking of those in my own constituency who feel beleaguered. At times they feel it is worthless and a waste of time to participate in an exercise the outcomes of which seem predestined. I am asking everyone, including the Minister of Education and his Department, to start to exercise their minds on the outcome of a common funding formula.
We are all too well aware of the inequalities of the last system. A lobby group from north Armagh compared two secondary schools, one of which was receiving about £50,000 a year more than the other. The group was also able to point to gross disparities in funding between primary schools of a similar size. I must stress that in my experience the educational performance of a pupil was never affected by whether he or she could pay for school meals. Many of us could quote similar glowing instances.
As section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 becomes an enforceable issue, the whole idea of equality will now be of paramount concern to those of us whose interest lies in the controlled sector. We are going to be thinking of fairness and justice. We will be looking critically at European legislation; I hope that this will be proofed by European legislation against ideas of unfairness or injustice. I wish this discussion well. I hope that everyone involved in our education system will take a vigorous, healthy and wholesome interest. This is important; its outcome is critical to our future generations.