The Case Against an Education and Skills Authority
Below is the speech by TUV leader Jim Allister during the Second Stage of the Education Bill on Monday:
Today, some Members have been anxious to go out of their way to suggest that this is a very different Bill from the previous one. Most notably, Members from the DUP Benches have been striving to make that point. If that is right, the first issue that arises is this: why has there not been a regular, proper and complete consultation?
When we go to the explanatory document, we find that recourse is had to the fact that there was consultation way back in RPA times and before the previous Bill. Singularly missing, however, is any consultation on this Bill. It is my understanding that the Department's guidelines suggested a consultation period of up to 12 weeks. Even a few weeks ago, I was taken to task in the House by some Sinn Féin Members for not having had a long enough consultation on my private Member's Bill. My consultation lasted for seven weeks, and the guidance for a private Member's Bill is six to eight weeks. Yet those same Members come from a party whose Minister heads the Department that had no consultation on this Bill. Why is that? Why have we not been done that due courtesy? More particularly, why have the stakeholders — the parents across the country — not been done the courtesy of consultation. It seems rather strange, unless, of course, it would be a waste of time because this is a done deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and the Bill is guaranteed to be pushed and rammed through the House whatever anyone thinks. Maybe that is more the truth of it.
I am not persuaded, as some would have us persuaded, that this is such a radically different Bill. The main thrust, trajectory and purpose of this Bill remain the same: it is still a charter for totalitarian control of the education sector by the Sinn Féin Minister. Perhaps I will elaborate on that in a moment.
Right at the heart of the Bill is ESA itself. How ESA is to be composed is, of course, most enlightening, because it gives a little indicator of how it is likely to operate. It will have 20 members plus a chairman appointed by the Sinn Féin Minister. Of the 20 members, four will be transferors and four will be trustees. A further eight people will be appointed by the political parties and will, under d'Hondt, if I am not incorrect, break down as four unionists and four nationalists — you can see where this is going — and four people will be appointed to reflect the balance of the community.
Earlier, a Member for South Down complained that there was no express representation on ESA for the Irish-medium sector. I suggest that he watch that space for the appointment of one of those final four. If I know anything about the Sinn Féin agenda, I know that it is likely to manifest itself in that regard. You can expect that the four community background people will be made up of two representatives of each of the two main communities. So what do you have? You have an ESA board likely to be composed of 10 members from a unionist background and 10 members from a nationalist background, with the all-important post of chair appointed by none other than the Sinn Féin Minister of Education. If that is not good enough, he gets to appoint the first chief executive of the board and is required to ratify the appointment of every subsequent chief executive.
The history of appointments of individuals to boards by Sinn Féin Ministers since the Assembly was re-elected, and the irrefutable statistics for those appointments by, for example, the present Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the previous Minister for Regional Development, show that, whatever about the safeguards that are supposed to exist on public appointments, if you are a Catholic applicant for a public appointment under those Sinn Féin Ministers, you are twice as likely to be successful as a Protestant applicant is. I must say that that gives me no confidence when it comes to how the ESA board will be appointed, particularly for the all-important post of chair of the board.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. You said that you are twice as likely to be appointed if you are from the Catholic community. Does the Member acknowledge that, if you are a certain type of Catholic from the Catholic community, you are more likely to be appointed?
Mr Allister: The Member would know a lot more about that than I would. I take it that she makes that point with compelling validity, and, therefore, I am sure that it is right. That perhaps underscores an even greater concern. She could also take it back from me that, if you are a certain type of person from the Protestant community, you are maybe more likely than others to be appointed by some. However, that may be another story altogether.
The core body that lies at the heart of the proposals, ESA, is imbued with all the things that should cause alarm. Before we even come to analyse the extent of the powers that it has, just a looking at the hands into which we are putting those powers is enough at this point. Those who have done the deal to establish ESA need to, even yet, think carefully about what they are committing the future of education in Northern Ireland to and to whose hands they are committing it. It may not be a happy outcome. I suspect that they know that, but political expediency and the requirement of the moment are greater compulsions and have driven them to that position.
There have been some interesting articles, and a most interesting one was published in the 'Irish News' Saturday week ago. I think that it has been referred to in the debate. It was by Patrick Murphy and, in it, he gave an interesting analysis of the proposals. In that article, with a lot of rational argument, Mr Murphy stated, quite clearly:
"Educationally, the big losers are the grammar schools which now enter the system's mainstream administration for the first time. While other state-funded schools are financed through education and library boards, grammar schools receive their funding directly from the Department of Education."
He went on to make the point — it was a point I exchanged with Mr Storey when he spoke — that:
"However, area planning for groups of schools will be much easier now, because ESA will be the sole employing authority for all teachers, including those in grammar schools.
But will ESA allow grammar schools to recruit children with low grades in academic selection to keep their numbers up at the expense of neighbouring secondary schools?"
The suggestion there is that, in area planning, the device will be used to squeeze, ostracise and eventually destroy grammar schools. That, undoubtedly, is part of the raison d'être for these proposals.
The same article in 'The Irish News' went on to make some other interesting points. It said that, politically:
"the winner in all this is Sinn Féin."
It went on:
"The draft bill differs little from what Caitríona Ruane advocated during the years of stand-off and stalemate. Politically, her adversary, Mervyn Storey now looks a little bit silly. (Well, very silly actually.) Presumably Peter Robinson backed down on ESA in return for DUP advances elsewhere — maybe over the chair of the Maze development".
The chronology is interesting. I will pause there to reflect that, sadly, there is probably a lot of truth in that: the so-called heads of agreement, who took this decision way above Mr Storey's pay grade to the Office of the First Minister, decided that, after all the sham fights, shadow boxing and loud protestations, ESA was the right way to go.
That is a bit embarrassing for Mr Storey, of course, because he is on record as having said many interesting things. In fact, he told the House that the ESA Bill was dead, although some Members have not realised that it has had a funeral and seem to think that there will somehow be a resurrection if we lay hands on it. We need to put that idea to bed once again. Poor Mr Storey did not realise that, just a short ride down the road, in Stormont Castle, it would indeed be resurrected and that he would be the one sent in to sell it, to eat his words and to pretend that that which hitherto was hideous and unacceptable was now wholesome and wonderful. That is the uncomfortable position that the Member for North Antrim occupies tonight. He told the 'Belfast Telegraph' that, as far as the DUP was concerned, ESA "is in the bin". Well, through resurrection, retrieval from the bin, or however you describe it, it has had a remarkable comeback.
The other point that I wanted to draw attention to in Mr Murphy's article was this:
"ESA's significance is that if the argument over academic selection is a political football match, Sinn Féin now clearly owns the ball. And the pitch. And the fixture list. In the party's drive for influence over education, it has left little to chance. ESA will implement educational policy made by John O'Dowd. Its 20-strong board will oversee that implementation."
No wonder Sinn Féin Members are so happy today. After such a long time struggling and fighting to get ESA back on stream, here it is, large as life before us again.
I said that my primary problem with ESA was the totalitarian control that it gives to the Department. That is rampant throughout the Bill. ESA employs all the staff, approves all the employment schemes and, under clause 4(3)(a), can bring forward schemes to include the "general management of the staff". That is, I think, an interesting clause. There is lots of scope there for control freakery. It can secure rolling control by reason of the Department's power in clause 4(6) to amend schedule 2, which governs the employment schemes. It has the power, in clause 6, to make an employment scheme for a school. Under clause 9(3), it can force a board of governors to reconsider decisions taken under an employment scheme. It has the power, in clause 18, to establish controlled schools. In fact, it can do anything, because, if you look at clause 22 of the Bill, it has the most sweeping powers imaginable. Clause 22(1) provides that:
"Except as otherwise provided by any statutory provision, ESA may do anything that appears to it to be conducive or incidental to the discharge of its functions."
It is veritably all-powerful.
We then have the clause 24 powers over area planning. There, we have the same controlling power in respect of the schemes of management that we have in respect of the employment schemes. They are duplicated virtually word for word. The effect is to give totalitarian control to the Department, because it appoints ESA; it appoints the controlling chairman and the CEO. The nub is that the Sinn Féin Minister emerges with far more power through this Bill.
Then, some come to the House today and tell us that this is a better Bill. It is certainly a better Bill if you are a scheming Sinn Féin Minister who wants to control education, but it is very far from a better Bill if you are someone who has some concern about where education might be taken. I say to those who are falling over themselves to try to make this a better Bill and to say that it is a better Bill that they need to read some of the small print. They will see that, far from being a better Bill, it is a very dangerous Bill.
Of course, we then have the issue of who all the power is going to go to. Well, it will go to ESA and to a chief executive in ESA, Mr Gavin Boyd, a man who has had a most charmed existence in education. He has had the most bountiful of positions. Although there has been no ESA, he has been its chief executive. He has been its chief executive, at times, on a salary, we are told, of about £145,000. If that was not good enough, he has been chief executive of certain other organisations as well. He has been running CCEA and some education board that he took over. What a charmed existence. What a favoured son is Mr Gavin Boyd. Why could that be? Could it be because his anti-selection credentials are impeccable? Could that be why he is the favoured son of successive Sinn Féin Ministers? Methinks it is.
Let us look at CCEA. Let us see whether it has been a fantastic success. Has it been a body that has steered clear of the pitfalls and difficulties of administration and has emerged from all of that with distinction? Well, think of InCAS. Think of the scheme it introduced and the shambles it was, only now to be outdone by the shambles of NINA and NILA, the numeracy and literacy assessment instruments.
I forgot at the beginning, but, out of deference to Mr McElduff, I ought to have repeated in the House my declaration of interest, in that I am the chairman of the board of governors of Moorfields Primary School. I hasten to add that it is not a proscribed organisation, nor has it ever been, but I declare that interest nonetheless. Last week, I spent part of a morning being shown, by the utterly frustrated staff, the shambolic operation of the literacy and numeracy assessment instruments. I could not believe the inefficiency and downright unreliability of the system. Whose brainchild was that? Who decided that we would pay some colossal sum of money for these mismatched, inoperative, faulty schemes? Someone who heads up CCEA. It does not exactly fill you with confidence when such a person has control of ESA.
OFMDFM are empowered in the Bill. This is a new clause in the Bill and a new dimension to the Bill. Clause 5(2) introduces, for the first time, reference to OFMDFM. It states that OFMDFM has to approve the guidance that is thought fit with regard to employment schemes. As a Member asked earlier, why are we now engaging OFMDFM? Of course, OFMDFM also has the power to make the regulations about the tribunal. The tribunal is actually appointed by the Department, but OFMDFM makes the regulations. Why are we now involving the most dysfunctional, slow-moving Department in all of government in something as pertinent to education as the making of regulations and the establishment and approval of the draft schemes on management and employment? Of course, the answer is — the Minister hinted at this earlier — that it has been done at the behest of the DUP. The DUP thinks that it is some sort of protection. Of course, if the DUP thinks that it needs such protection, it should look at why it is going to give such powers in the first place.
Mr Byrne: I thank the Member for giving way. Has it dawned on the Member and, indeed, others that there is a growing power base in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that will impinge on other Departments as we move forward?
Mr Allister: Yes, one can see that OFMDFM likes to have a finger in every pie. That might not be so bad if it was capable of the productivity that you might expect to go with that, but, as I said, it has to be the most dysfunctional of all the Departments that report to the House.
The truth is that this change is being made so that the DUP can say, "We have a veto" or Sinn Féin can say, "We have a veto". We all know about the historical great success of mutual vetoes in the House. The problem with that is that issues are then decided not on their merits but as part of a trade-off. You could have logjam and standstill on a multiplicity of issues, such as the need to approve regulations for the tribunal or the need to improve the guidelines for a management scheme for schools. However, the decision in OFMDFM will not be made on the merits of a scheme and whether it is a good one or a bad one; it will be made on the basis that one side plays it off against the other to get something else. And so, we will end up with education being mired in that scenario. The losers in that are the schools, the boards of governors, the parents and the children. That is the folly of engaging, in the House and in this Bill, in any enhancement of the powers of OFMDFM. Far from that being a comfort to me, it is an unnecessary development that is totally negative and will not produce the good governance and good arrangements that we all hope to see in education.
If this is a new Bill, there certainly is one very important new dimension, and that is the special status for Irish-medium education. The Minister comes from a party that has a history of liking special status, and in the Bill there is deliberate special status for the Irish-medium sector. I refer to clause 2(5), which states:
"ESA shall ensure that its functions relating to grant-aided schools are (so far as they are capable of being so exercised) exercised with a view to encouraging and facilitating the development of education provided in an Irish speaking school."
That is not just some throwaway line or feel-good collection of words. That creates a statutory duty. It is couched in mandatory terms. The words "ESA shall ensure" put a statutory duty on ESA to ensure that
"its functions relating to grant-aided schools"
— not selected functions, but all its functions —
"are exercised with a view to encouraging and facilitating the development of"
Irish-medium education. Why is that? It this is about equality, why is it thought necessary to pick out a particular sector of education — the Irish-medium sector — and bestow on it the special status of a statutory duty of the Department in all that it does in relation to grant-aided schools to do what it does with a view to encouraging and facilitating the development of that sector? That is an outrage to other sectors. It is politically gratuitous and put in there by the Department to deliberately and consciously advance a particular sector.
It gets worse. In clause 33(5), we discover:
"The scheme of management for an Irish speaking school shall require the Board of Governors to use its best endeavours to ensure that the management, control and ethos of the school are such as are likely to ensure the continuing viability of the school as an Irish speaking school."
The clause also says that the scheme of management of a part-Irish-speaking school is required to do the same. In this situation, in a scheme of management for the board of governors of Moorfields Primary School or any other primary school that is not in the Irish-medium sector there is no compulsion on those who serve as governors to use their best endeavours to ensure that the management, control and ethos of the school are such that it is likely to ensure its continuing viability, yet that special status, that special imposition and that special hedge exists in the Irish-medium sector. That is what it is; it is building a hedge around the Irish-medium sector and saying that, when it comes to the management of those schools, amalgamation or moving into the integrated sector cannot be considered. We might say to a controlled school that it must close or go integrated, and we might say to some other school that it needs to make arrangements to amalgamate. We do not say that the board of governors must use its best endeavours to maintain the viability of the school. We say, in fact, to those schools that they might be compelled and required to consider other options. However, when it comes to the Irish-medium sector, the Bill builds in that special hedge of protection. Why is that if the agenda is not to give preference and advancement to that very sector?
Then Ms Ruane tells us that it is all about equality. All of us who have an interest in controlled schools would gladly take a bit of that equality, but it is not available to us in this Bill. How anyone who is interested in fairness and protecting our education could vote for this Bill with that in it is way beyond my comprehension. That, in itself, along with the bureaucratic, totalitarian control of ESA, is more than enough to damn this Bill and not make it worthy of a Second Stage.
That is even without considering the dangers that, I fear, may lie in the area planning powers. We can all see and suspect that they will be used at the behest of the Department to guide and control the fusion of schools. That fusion of schools will cause the closure of controlled schools, but not Irish-medium schools, because they will have special protection. That fusion of schools will undermine the voluntary grammar sector particularly, and area planning will become an instrument in the hand of those who are malevolent towards grammar schools and will mark the death knell of those schools. The Bill is utterly devoid of very much that warrants agreement.
Even in the way it is drafted on some matters, it is a surprising Bill. In clause 3(4), I read about a test of compatibility with the heads of agreement. Reading the Bill, you would not know if that is the heads of agreement between tribal leaders in west Sahara or Afghanistan, because nowhere is it defined. Multiple pages of the Bill reference the fact that something has to be done in compatibility with the heads of agreement, and no one reading it would know what on earth it is talking about. Even in drafting, it is so deficient.
I can find very little in the Bill to recommend it to me, and I will certainly take the opportunity that is afforded tonight to vote against the Second Stage, and so should anyone who cares about the future of education and does not want it to be handed over to those who have already demonstrated malevolent intent towards key sectors and a vested interest in protecting, promoting and ring-fencing one sector above all others.