A Shared Future
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A Shared Future
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Department of Education


Published 28 November 2006   


1. The Catholic Bishops - as Trustees of the large majority of Northern Ireland's 550 Catholic-managed schools  - welcome this opportunity to review how the education system is administered. We recognise that the current structures have grown up overa long period of time. It is important that finance be available to schools and that structures serve the delivery of a top class education system. The Post-Primary Review has made major structural proposals and the new Curriculum has focused on the content to be taught. We support the RPA process which is directed at streamlining structures. 

We recognise the large amount of work that has been done It is true that the existence of Catholic schools has played a role in supporting the specific identity of one part of our society in Northern Ireland. This can be caricatured as being either wholly positive or negative. We recognise the value of identity and belonging that comes fromby DE officials. We appreciate that the range of current educational providers and interests presents appreciable challenges for administrators and for all involved in education. The Trustees are committed to finding efficient and effective ways of educating all of our young people, in the context of all Government priorities such as building social cohesion, creating sustainable communities, targeting social disadvantage, raising educational achievement and building a shared future. 

DE is already aware of the major areas of concern, articulated at the meeting with the Minister on October 7th 2006 and in the statement from the Catholic Bishops on December 6th 2006.  We welcome many of the assurance given by the Minister in her letter to Archbishop Brady on January 5th 2007. These assurances will make ongoing engagement possible. 

Furthermore, we welcome the speech of the secretary of State on 23rd January 2007 in which he acknowledged the role played, and the leadership offered, by the Trustees in education. We are happy to be involved in a strategic approach to educational provision which includes area-based planning 

However, we have some fundamental concerns which must be restated. 

2. We note the statement (Paper 3, paragraph 1) that the relationship between the Department and the Education and Skills Authority “will not be one of 'command and control' but of 'empower and hold to account'”. If this is the spirit that is intended to animate all relationships within educational administration, then we welcome that. However, we are not convinced that this commitment to partnership arrangements pervades all the policy papers.  

3. It is important that the structures to be put in place are those which

(a) actually help to deliver quality education for all young people; and

(b) respect the rights of parents and young people to make real choices, as guaranteed by numerous international human rights declarations.

The structures should be there to serve the needs of schools, young people and communities, and should not just prioritise the slimming down of educational administration, irrespective of outcomes. 

For this reason, it is vital that the new structures to be put in place are those which have the confidence of the educational partners who have shown huge commitment to education over the years. A mere desktop exercise will have little chance of producing high quality cognitive and social outcomes. 

4. The Catholic Trustees have a long history of working with communities to ensure that young people are prepared for life and work. Catholic communities have made a huge investment in terms of finance, energy and personnel. The current high level of educational experience in Catholic schools has happened, not despite the close involvement of Church in the enterprise, but because of it. As Trustees, we have serious concerns that the structures and relationships proposed in the Policy Papers did not take as their starting point the question 'Who and what has helped most to deliver a quality education to all young people?'. Rather we fear that the writers seem to have taken as their starting point the question as to how the ESA could take over the role of managing the minority of schools which are classified as controlled - and then tried to fit the rest of the schools into that framework.  

However, since the schools which have delivered the best educational outcomes have not been those in the Controlled sector, it would seem perverse to impose on all schools an updated version of that system of ownership and control which has signally failed to maximise educational opportunities for young people. It is vital that DE builds on the best qualities exhibited by educational providers such as the Catholic Trustees. That alone will help to deliver an education system fit for purpose. 

5. We welcome the statement that 'the ownership of schools ... would not change'. (Paper 3.8). However, the remainder of that paper appears to assume that ownership is really merely ownership of the building and states that 'ethos is determined, not by ownership by Boards of Governors and Principals in individual schools' (3.10). Whereas some other schools and sectors do focus on the identity, tradition and purpose of an individual school, the Catholic Trustees hold responsibility for

a) a system of Catholic schools; and

b) for the whole educational enterprise that takes place in all those schools.  

Of course, it is true that, even in the Catholic sector, individual schools will develop their own strengths and schools owned by Religious Congregations will have their own particular emphases. However, all Catholic schools work within one agreed overall ethos. We object strongly to any proposal that would reduce the role of Trustees to a mere legal ownership of property and prevent them from providing cohesive leadership in service of the effective ethos that the whole Catholic sector has.  

Trusteeship is not, first and foremost, an exercise in power. Indeed it carries huge burdens of responsibility for those who hold the schools in trust now and into the future. However, as Trustees, we have taken - and will continue to take - that responsibility very seriously. We have a right to expect that educational structures would facilitate the exercise of that right. Furthermore, we ask that - as is the case in educational law in England and Wales - the rights and status of Trustees be confirmed, not just in regulations but in primary legislation. There is no reason why a right, given in Britain to such a key educational stakeholder, should be denied in Northern Ireland. 

6. Furthermore, DE will be aware that this ethos adds value. The ESA on its own will most certainly not provide schools with the vision, inspiration and individual support that they need into the future. The Education Reform Order (1989) created CCMS precisely for his purpose. Among its other responsibilities, CCMS was to ‘promote the effective management and control ….through the Boards of Governors’ (article 142) This was in recognition of the need that schools and their Governors had to be supported in the very challenging role. That support continues to be necessary. Therefore, new structures must maximise, not minimise, the role of Trustees in co-ordinating and delivering an energising and supportive ethos. 

 When Trustees and Boards of Governors are committed to a common set of principles and values, high quality educational outcomes for young people can be achieved. Any structures, which over-emphasise the role of individual Boards of Governors, risk creating unnecessary conflict between the Governors and Trustees which would never be in the interest of the pupils and staff of schools.  

It is also essential that the public policy protects the interests of the Trustees in the appointment of Governors.   

7. We welcome the commitment to offering schools ‘maximised supported autonomy’. Governors and Principals know what the local needs are, and they are best placed to make key decisions about a school’s future development. However, we believe that the principle of ‘maximised supported autonomy’ should be facilitated for individual sectors so that they can be enabled to make their contribution and exercise their rights on behalf of all the schools in their sector. Some sectoral groups have little or no strategic role in developing the schools in those sectors. However the very cohesive Catholic-managed sector should be enable to have the maximised supported autonomy which is espoused as a principle elsewhere. 

Unfortunately, the initial draft of the Policy papers offers no reassurance for Trustees in that respect. The ESA appears to be key executive body, making all the key decisions, with sectoral interests being reduced to an unclear consultative role in the Educational Advisory Forum. Since the EAF is intended to offer advice to the Department and DE’s role is primarily in the area of policy, this architecture seems to us to deprive the Trustees of any meaningful role in local decision making. 

8. We fear that the Policy Papers may have begun with the assumption that diversity is the source of ineffective administration. We, on the other hand, believe that diversity - while offering major challenges to us all - is a source of richness. Parents have a right to choose the form of education that they wish for their children. That is recognised in international charters. The Trustees’ ability to offer the option of a Catholic education to pupils of all faith backgrounds and none must, of course, be exercise in the context of effectiveness and accountability.  

Thus, being able to offer that real option in response to parental demand is not a concession from the state but rather a right of the citizen. Catholic schooling is not some local phenomenon, peculiar to Northern Ireland. It is a worldwide reality, open to all citizens. Within the limits of available public finances, it is the responsibility of Government and public administration to facilitate, not deny, that option to parents. 

9.  We are very concerned that the Policy Papers take, as their starting point, the assumption that schools will engage with the executive arm of government merely as individual, free-standing schools. In the context of that architecture, sectoral interests would have a relatively minor role in providing marginal encouragement and influence to those schools. This understanding of the individual school’s almost complete autonomy does apply in the case of some sectors outside the Catholic school system. To them, individual school identity is of paramount importance. 

However, we see our role, not just as that of supporting individual schools but of managing a system of schools which offers an educational option to all young people in an area and ensures that the rights and needs of the most vulnerable are not neglected. Thus, many parents will choose, not just to send their child to a particular Catholic school, but to a school that is part of that specific network of schools. The rights of Trustees to carry out this sectoral responsibility would include the capacity to plan, rationalise, and propose new developments, sign contracts and hold deeds. 

10. As Catholic Trustees, we are fully committed to working for reconciliation in our society. We are encouraged by the recognition in the Sir George Bain’s Report that all schools can, and should, contribute to a shared society. We do not see our schools as, in any way, an obstacle to a shared future.  

Thus we are very happy to dialogue with other educational partners in the interests of collaboration and sharing at local level. We welcome to opportunity to look at a range of possible initiatives, as long as the distinctive ethos of the Catholic school is not endangered or compromised. 

However, we ask that future Policy Papers ensure that the Trustees can promote sustainable Catholic schools while still maximising opportunities for collaboration. Any move to prioritise only joint institutions would severely limit the possibility of Trustees to offer a real alternative in response to parental choice and demand. Furthermore, it would be liable to adversely affect the provision of high class educational opportunities in areas of high social deprivation. 

This ability to exercise this right will require that the Trustees are enabled to plan and propose developments within their sector rather than have core decisions and initiatives taken completely out of their hands and given to the ESA. 11. The Trustees see any future support for the Catholic-managed sector as being applicable to and available for all Catholic schools, both the current maintained schools and the Catholic Voluntary Grammar Schools. This is important for DE when it comes to assessing the size of any constituency or sector which would ask to be enabled to support the current Voluntary Grammar Schools.

 12. The Policy Papers have provided a basis for engagement with DE at an early stage in the process of formulating future policy. However, it is clear that we see in the initial papers major deficiencies in

a)     The understanding of the Catholic view of trusteeship and the employment, planning and other rights of Trustees;

b)     The appreciation of the rights of citizens to choose a form of education other than the one offered directly by the state, and their right, as taxpayers to be facilitated -and not just tolerated - in exercising that right;

c)      How these rights of parents are to be safeguarded and promoted through the provision of sectoral support. 

The ownership role of Trustees is not a marginal or technical one but implies and an active engagement with schools and educational partners. We have shown that, within such a cohesive system, we can enable schools to promote excellence and add value. Our ability to deliver quality, locally-based governance and systemic improvement and our capacity to develop rationalisation proposals are a key asset for Government.  

We trust that, through dialogue with our representatives, the lacunae in the initial Policy Papers can be filled. We look forward to being enabled to make our uniquely successful contribution to the development of a world class educational system in Northern Ireland. 

January 2007