17th January 2012
Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement to the Assembly on the outcome of the Review of the Pre-School Admissions Arrangements.
Members will recall the Private Members’ Business here on the 7th June 2011 when nursery and pre-school education was discussed. I then indicated my intention to review the procedures associated with the pre-school programme including the benefits of bringing in statutory pre-school education.
My priority as Education Minister is to create an education service that ensures that all our young people receive a high quality education. I made a Statement to this House in September – Putting Pupils First: Shaping Our Future. I emphasised that my focus would be on the needs of children over institutions. I also made clear the importance of ensuring that quality and the needs of all our children – including those with special educational needs - are to the fore. That applies to pre-school education in the same way as to any other sector.
There have been a number of developments since I announced the Review in May.
I am particularly encouraged by the commitment in the Draft Programme for Government to ensure that at least one year of pre-school education is available to every family that wants it. This aligns with DE’s existing policy objective and signals the wider Executive’s commitment to pre-school education.
The outcome of the Review which I am announcing today will be an important factor in terms of considering what changes are needed. The establishment of the Education and Skills Authority will also offer a changed context to take forward some of the actions identified in the Report.
I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the good quality pre-school education which is available across the region. In the current year, there are over 23,000 children in funded pre-school education with a budget of approximately £50m. This is a significant investment. Sometimes we hear about the difficulties in the system – the children who have not secured places, for whatever reasons, or the parents who have concerns. However, the vast majority of pupils are allocated places where they receive a good quality pre-school education which prepares them for the next important phase of primary school and indeed for later life.
My first priority is to make sure that no matter where pre-school education is provided that it is of high quality. That is achieved through the skills and expertise of staff and is governed by the Education and Training Inspectorate through whose inspections we are raising standards right across providers. While there are still areas for improvement, I think we should be rightly proud of the general standard of pre-school education. In every area of the north children have access to good quality education across all the sectors.
In that respect, I commend excellence wherever it is found. Equally I will expect improvement in the less successful pre-school settings, from whatever sector, and will take steps to ensure that this is the case.
The Review contains seventeen actions in total and I will draw Members’ attention to those which might be of most interest to them.
At the outset, I want to make it clear that while some of the actions identified are straightforward, others are more complex and would have significant implications for the way the pre-school programme is run and managed.
In the case of some of the more far reaching actions, further investigation, detailed costings, and possible additional consultation or legislation will be required.
I will also wish to consider their implications for the Irish Medium sector in particular. The Report should therefore be regarded as a framework for action rather than a list of agreed actions to be implemented immediately.
Turning now to the key actions, Mr Speaker, there was some debate in this House in June about whether or not there should be a statutory right to pre-school education. This can mean different things to different people. To some it means a right to a statutory place. For others, the interpretation of a statutory right to pre-school might be for the Department’s existing policy to be enshrined in legislation.
It would not make economic sense at this time to ignore or displace quality provision which has benefited from previous public investment and has many strengths to commend it. No particular advantage to enshrining the existing policy in statute has been identified as it would not increase the likelihood of parents gaining a place in their preferred setting.
I have therefore decided that the Department will not seek to place the existing policy on pre-school on a statutory basis at this time.
A number of other strategic actions have been identified to address specific pressures on the pre-school programme. While these need to be examined in more detail they include:-
- amending legislation to address the issue of underage children in statutory settings. While good administrative progress has been made to ensure that priority is given to children in their immediate pre-school year there are still underage children securing places
- a number of schools continue to offer reception provision. This has been shown to be educationally undesirable and can cause operational problems on the ground. Legislative amendment will also be needed to address this
The strategic planning of places is particularly challenging for pre-school as there can be significant variations in numbers in locations which apply only for one year. This is an issue which I know is of particular concern to Members.
In the first instance, the Department will look to the Education and Library Boards and the Pre-school Education Advisory Groups (PEAGS) – and subsequently the Education and Skills Authority – to improve the statistical data used to inform local area planning and to develop plans to address shortfall. We would also expect a protocol to be developed to encourage and support the creation of additional voluntary private sector provision where it is required. In relation to the statutory sector, the Department will review its policy on enrolment numbers to see if greater flexibility can be introduced - for example for time limited temporary extensions.
In progressing area based planning, the Department and ESA will also undertake a strategic review of the number and location of pre-school places to inform future planning.
Some actions seek to improve the admissions application experience for parents and carers and include:-
- a more centralised administration and the greater use of technology; and
- revised information about the programme as necessary and a new communications strategy
The Review has also identified some significant policy issues which will require detailed further consideration and investigation before deciding how they should be handled.
In relation to the duration of pre-school provision, both part-time and full-time provision are funded in the pre-school programme. We do need to look at this in some detail and I intend that this should be examined further as part of the Early Years Strategy.
The Review also highlights that some primary schools use attendance at a specified nursery or other pre-school setting as part of the admissions criteria. This is an admissions issue beyond the pre-school sector and I want to look at this in more detail before reaching a final decision on how this can best be addressed.
Mr Speaker, I have also identified some actions which I intend to progress immediately.
The Report confirms previous findings that the July/August birthdays admissions criterion can potentially disadvantage younger children in their pre-school year. I intend to revoke this criterion in the 1999 Regulations and also to remove it as a priority criterion for non-statutory providers.
I will also move to review and broaden the definition of children from socially disadvantaged circumstances and to amend it as appropriate in the Regulations.
Amendment of these key criteria will have a major impact on the pre-school admissions process. To ensure that the pre-school admissions process operates on a fair, consistent and equitable basis across all sectors and areas, the Department will work with key stakeholders to develop a pre-schools admissions code. I fully recognise the role of the Board of Governors and Management Committees in setting individual admissions criteria. However, the Department will provide specific guidance about its expectations in relation to particular groups of children.
Mr Speaker, the Review offers a sound framework for further work by identifying a number of potential actions. As I have already explained, further work will need to be done to decide how best to progress some of these. The complex nature of the pre-school programme means that some of the actions can have further, more far-reaching consequences than might first appear and we need to ensure that we understand these fully.
I have also identified today some actions which the Department will commence immediately to implement. However, the current process for this year’s admissions has already commenced and it will not be possible to introduce changes for September 2012. Other aspects of the Review will be considered as part of the Early Years Strategy and inform the work which is to be carried out under the Programme for Government. The introduction of the Educational Skills Authority will offer an opportunity to develop a more streamlined and co-ordinated programme and I will look to the Authority to take forward the relevant actions.
Before concluding, MrSpeaker, I also would take this opportunity to announce today my intention to allocate a further one-off payment of £1.25 million pounds to the private and voluntary sector. This will equate to an additional payment of £150 a place for this year only.
Members will be aware of the not insignificant funding differential between the voluntary and the private sectors and the statutory sector. This has been documented in a number of different reports and is one which the Department needs to address.
To remind Members, the current cost of place in a non-statutory setting is £1565 compared with £1827 for a part-time nursery unit or £1949 for a nursery school. Full-time places of course are more costly.
I deliberated carefully before deciding to make this payment this year. My preference would be to consolidate it for future years however I do not want to pre-empt the Early Years Strategy and I am also very mindful of the difficult budgetary position which I am facing.
Many of the actions that I have outlined to-day have cost implications and I concluded, therefore, that it would not be prudent to announce a consolidated uplift at this time. I will, however, revisit this issue this year.
To conclude, Mr Speaker, this Review provides a useful framework to improve the operation of the pre-school programme and will support the Department in its aim of making a place available to every child whose family wants it. It will inform both the Early Years Strategy and the Programme for Government work which has been identified.
The Pre-school Programme is a genuine partnership and I value that. It is delivered through both the statutory and voluntary sectors – both of which are highly valued. I want to harness the strengths of the different sectors and encourage them to work together in productive partnerships so that the distinctive offerings of each sector can be recognised and can contribute to this important programme.
Parents and carers are also an important part of this partnership. Parents have a fundamental role to play in contributing to a child’s early education and I am looking to them to play their part in supporting and encouraging their child in the pre-school setting.
As I said at the outset, we have much to be proud of in our pre-school programme. There is a good foundation but we need to develop it so that it is better able to respond, positively and flexibly, to the needs of parents and children - so that each child gets the best possible start in formal education.
JOHN O’DOWD MLA
MINISTER FOR EDUCATION