Tuesday, 10 December 2013
the education debate
Posted on October 18, 2012 by stephennicholl So during the debate on the 2nd stage of the Education Bill just what did Mervyn Storey DUP Chairman of the Education Committee say. In response to a question from David McNarry on the future of grammar schools Mervyn stated; “A legal document, in the region of 10 or 11 pages, that was made available to us was as conclusive as the answer from the Education Minister a few moments ago about how to break down the definition between the employing authority and the employer. Not having any legal background, I do not want to tread too far into that territory other than to say that their (OFMDFM) heads of agreement was an attempt to ensure that the concerns, particularly among voluntary grammars, about the voluntary principle were enshrined in legislation in such a way that it did not take away from them the autonomy, responsibility or place they have had but recognised that we were still moving to a place where there would be the establishment of a single employing authority. In direct answer to the Member, I believe that there will be no change to that current arrangement and system other than that the employer will be ESA. The Committee needs to take time to be clear in members’ minds that that is the case and to have every possible assurance that we are not moving to a situation in which this Bill will be used for some other purpose, reason or means.” Surely if the heads of agreement was signed off by Peter Robinson then it should represent more than just an attempt to ensure that concerns were met. Surely if the DUP delivered on the heads of agreement they would not need the additional reassurance that the Bill will be used for other purposes. Mr Storey then, in response to a question from Basil McCrea about the recognition of the voluntary grammar school principle said; “That is where we want to get to, and that is why I believe that the issue that I raised at the start about schedule 2 and the linkage between the Bill and the ‘Heads of Agreement’ needs to be clear. It should have been clearer before we got to this stage. However, having got to this stage, the work that we have ahead of us with your party colleagues on the Education Committee is to ensure that recognition is reflected in a way in which we understand…….. Unfortunately, however, when you are dealing with the party that is responsible for bringing the Bill to the House or with the Department of Education, one can never be sure that that is exactly how it is, but the duty and role that has been vested in the Committees is to ensure that, when it comes to the minutiae and the detail, we are as clear as we possibly can be and that we have as many checks and balances as possible in place to ensure that those who have concerns have them mitigated.” So Mervyn is clear then, the heads of agreement negotiated by Peter is not the robust protection required and there remains concern about Sinn Fein’s intentions. And so Jim Allister asks; “Has the Member any concern that the Trojan Horse for moving matters towards the destruction of the voluntary grammar schools might well be the area-planning powers now in the Bill?” To which Mervyn replies; “I share his concern, and not only on area planning. We need to look at every element of the Bill, and I will come to the inspectorate later on. It will raise more concerns for me, although I share concerns about the area planning process.” So Mervyn shares Jim Allister’s concerns about the process not just about area planning but about other elements as well. He continues, “As mentioned by Mr Allister, the Bill will make ESA the area planning authority for schools in Northern Ireland. The Committee recently spent some time considering the operation of the area planning process. I do not intend to discuss that at length at this time. It is sufficient to say that the majority of Committee members are most unimpressed by the area planning and viability audit process that has been exercised to date……… We have issues with the current process, and, if we have issues now, I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we will have issues with the area planning that is outlined in the Bill. Clause 27 requires an adequate opportunity for persons to make representations to ESA on revisions to area plans. Given its recent experience, I expect that the Committee will wish to deliberate on exactly what will constitute an adequate opportunity.” Still stating the fundamental flaws in the Bill he states, “The Education Bill is yet another cause for concern for many in the education sector, including, as I said, our principals, teachers, boards of governors and others……. The majority of Committee members are just about content to allow the Bill to go to Committee Stage, albeit with some reservations and issues that they believe will have to be further explained and ironed out and amendments that will have to be agreed.” On his party’s concerns he states, “The Bill seeks to confer certain responsibilities on ESA and the board of governors with regard to the Irish language sector.” “when we come to the Bill, lo and behold, the integrated sector has disappeared. It is not in the Bill, but the Irish-medium sector is.” “Furthermore, there are differences in the approach to the role given to boards of governors in the controlled sector with regard to being the submitting authority for schemes of management and the approach to the role in the Catholic maintained sector. That is another area that has given rise to concerns. We, as a party, need to be satisfied that no deals will be done by the Minister or his officials outside the Bill.” “That brings me to the clauses that deal with the inspectorate. I know that it was unfair to ask the officials, on their first outing to the Committee on Wednesday past, about that issue, but we took the opportunity to say to them that we had great concern about the inspectorate seemingly being used in the pursuit of political or departmental objectives.” “I get concerned when I see the powers that the Bill seeks to confer. Although it has been said that the powers will try to bring the inspectorate into line with other arrangements in the United Kingdom, I am concerned that we will have a situation where we have an inspectorate that is very strong in its powers. The provisions, we are told, are similar to those previously drafted, with the exception of the removal of the inspection powers for library premises, as requested by DCAL. I have to ask why the Department feels it necessary to have an inspectorate that can lift papers and lift computers. I place it on record that I trust that it is not being used by the Department as another method of spooking or spying on primary schools that are being put in a very difficult position around transfer.” Despite all of these concerns about the implications of the Bill and what the Minister would use the powers in the Bill for Mervyn and his colleagues were committed to supporting it. When considering why this should be the later exchange between Danny Kinahan and Mervyn are illuminating. Danny suggested that the “First Minister realised that he could not sell to his own party what he had agreed.” Mervyn’s angry intervention in response was to state, “Let me make it very clear: there are no differences between Peter Robinson and myself; and there are no differences between Peter Robinson and the members of this party.” So the question is, are the DUP supporting the Education Bill because it is a robust and transparent piece of legislation which they are happy to endorse? Alternatively are the DUP supporting the Education Bill because Peter stumbled on the heads of agreement and they have no option other than to vote for their leader?