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Bain Review

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2007

5. If he will make a statement on the outcome of the strategic review of education led by Professor Sir George Bain. (113215)

We welcome the landmark report published last month by Professor Sir George Bain, which recommended improving the quality of education in Northern Ireland through better use of resources, better planning of schools and improved sharing and collaboration. It is a blueprint for excellence in all our schools and will enable all Northern Ireland children to get full value from the efficient use of the massive 60 per cent. real-terms increase in resources committed to education by the Government at a time of falling rolls.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she briefly explain the relationship between the Bain review and the policy documents issued by the Department with specific reference to the planning of new schools and the rationalisation of schools? Paragraph 9.3 of Bain states that any planning of new schools must reflect the make-up of society in Northern Ireland, but that does not appear in the Government document for consultation. It further states that each sector must be supported in its plans, but only one sector seems to be relevant—the Department, which will dictate exactly what happens. Will the Minister please rationalise that?

One of the main recommendations of the Bain review—one that will enable us to achieve maximum efficiency in the spending of increased resources—is the concept of area-based planning. It will no longer be sensible or possible for individual sectors to plan only within their sectors, which would be a recipe for pouring our extra resourcing down the drain. It will be important for all sectors to involve themselves, in conjunction with the Department, in planning for schools, and to spend increased resources on an area and geographical basis, not just within sectors.

Does the Minister accept that, in the light of the findings of the Bain review, there is absolutely no justification—[Interruption.]

There is absolutely no justification for continuing with the unfair and wasteful policy introduced by Martin McGuinness, which requires the Education Department to fund integrated and Irish-medium schools with an intake as low as 12 pupils—at a time when there is massive overcapacity and the Minister is closing down schools with far higher intakes in the maintained and controlled sector. That is unfair, divisive and wasteful, so will the Minister end that policy?

I certainly do not agree that integrated or Irish-medium schools are divisive, as they are meeting a need that parents in Northern Ireland want to see met. That is legitimate. However, I accept that we will not get full value from the extra resources going in if we keep supporting extremely small schools, as we have in the past. Bain set out some minima below which it will be important to review the continued educational sustainability of schools, and it is important to take those recommendations forward speedily and in all seriousness. I hope that all education stakeholders in Northern Ireland will join me, and the Department, in taking them forward in a positive and constructive manner.

Regarding the—[Interruption.] I think that hon. Members should leave any cheeky business to me.

Regarding the death of David Ervine, I knew him for more than a decade, and in my book he was a true statesman of Northern Ireland politics. He was also a friend. I shall miss him, and I am sure that everyone who worked with him feels the same way about his passing.

In his report, Sir George Bain underlines the need for more religious mixing in schools, so how can the Minister refuse new integrated schools in Antrim, Ballymoney and Strabane, and deny existing schools in Armagh and Belfast integrated status, especially as that would have no impact on existing schools? Will she reconsider that that is a bad decision?

Under the present Government, we have seen the biggest push ever towards increasing integrated education. As I have already said, the integrated sector is a vital part of creating the shared future that is crucial to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Whenever I consider proposals, I do so with a view to being positive and constructive. I have accepted proposals that had previously been turned down, and I have just accepted four proposals to create, transform or expand integrated schools. I shall consider further proposals constructively, but each proposal must be considered on its merits and on the basis of the legal framework pertaining; unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to turn one down.