Debate of the Week: NSMC and education

6 Oct 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Oct 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

The latest Debate of the Week is a Brexit-infused look at a recent meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council.

Looming Brexit is the major issue in European politics. There have been plenty of Assembly debates that have either dealt with that or which have descended into back-and-forth about the very issue.

Much of this has been barracking falling under the heading of “you have no plan” or “you’re just a sore loser”. Diminished quality of debate, however, does not imply diminished importance of topic.

In the Northern Ireland context, the future of the border is of primary concern. Not just policing and security of the border itself, or even movement of people to and fro, but also the future of cross-border initiatives and concerns.

For that reason, the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) has become a bit more interesting. Assembly plenary sessions receive regular updates on council meetings from the Executive – and on Monday new Education Minister Peter Weir gave his first address about this body, and a meeting that occurred in Armagh on September 21.

Ministerial summary

First up, Brexit, and the fact that the council “had initial discussions on the implications of the UK European referendum result. Ministers in both jurisdictions will continue to engage on this important issue.”

The minister then outlined various measures that reach across the border:

  • Co-operation Ireland has been awarded the contract to boost teachers’ professional development in both jurisdictions, with Mr Weir and Minister Bruton agreeing this should also cover dissemination of best practice in literacy and numeracy from the work of the two inspectorates.
  • “Good progress” was noted by both departments and the Middletown Centre for Autism to help allied services for children and young people with autism, and there is a consensual desire to expand the reach of the centre as “an essential delivery body for the range of services” to support children with autism in both NI and RoI.
  • A follow-on joint inspection of the centre took place in April, was published in August, and was very complimentary while the centre “has been considering any potential implications following the outcome of the EU referendum.”
  • Other initiatives with one foot on each side of the border were also mentioned, including “the joint update from the two teaching councils and continued cooperation between the teaching councils on measures to reduce obstacles to the mobility of teachers.”

The minister went on: “In particular, the Council noted that the Teaching Council of Ireland is in the process of introducing mechanisms to address qualification shortfalls that arise as a result of the introduction of the two-year professional master of education qualification and that the North/South teacher qualifications working group, in conjunction with the two teaching councils, will be considering the impact of the outcome of the referendum on EU membership on teacher mobility at its next meeting, which is scheduled to be held on 19 October 2016.”

Joint work between the two inspectorates was also praised, with a further round of inspector exchanges due to take place next year.


Sandra Overend (UUP) asked if any future meetings would lead to clarity about ownership of the schools estate in Northern Ireland, with the minister saying he was not sure this was relevant for the NSMC.

Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff, who is Chair of the Education Committee, said there “appears to be a contradiction” in the fact that praise for Middletown sits beside plans to move up to 70% of parental training online, with residential support apparently “abandoned”. He also asked what would happen to financial support for local students training as teachers south of the border following Brexit.

Mr Weir said an increased focus on outreach for Middletown could prove beneficial, and “seems to be the better route” according to professionals involved, and online tools will help people who live far away from the centre. Regarding trainee teachers, he said this could be looked at when EU withdrawal takes “precise shape”.

Lord Morrow (DUP) asked if the minister is satisfied the Middletown delivery model is fit for purpose, and was told it will need “refreshment” with Middletown adapting to changing circumstances, including taking professionals from the centre and embedding them in schools for a time.

The SDLP’s Colin McGrath noted the EU referendum result and asked if there is any future for continued North/South exchanges, with the minister saying he “always” sees the benefit in such exchanges.

The DUP’s David Hilditch asked what advantage exists in cooperation regarding educational underachievement. Mr Weir said he had attended a Newry conference last week on this topic, organised by Co-operation Ireland, which will result in a range of proposals – and that much can be learned and shared about underachievement.

SF’s Jennifer McCann asked if there would be a greater focus on underachievement, particularly for those from a disadvantaged background, with the minister saying this was a priority – and that, in terms of solutions, he believes early interventions are key and this would be reflected in his efforts.


DUP MLA Carla Lockhart asked for details about ongoing co-operation between the North/South education and training standards committee and other jurisdictions, with the minister saying that all wider learning is useful, and saying there is particular contact with similar groups in England, Scotland and Wales.

Rosemary Barton, UUP, asked how Co-operation Ireland will boost professional development in underachievement, particularly literacy and numeracy, given there are different curriculums. Mr Weir saying there will be a “range of outputs”, with conferences on the horizon and what occurs in them providing a basis for what comes after – adding that the plans to address underachievement might not be “particularly or massively curriculum driven”.

“This is a lesson that may need to be learned in Northern Ireland. The absenteeism policy, for example, and working out how to ensure that the attendance, particularly of those who are underachieving, is better, has an important impact on educational underachievement. Different schemes operate at grass-roots level in Northern Ireland, and it is about learning those things. That is pertinent not only to Northern Ireland; it arises in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and, indeed, throughout the world.”

Alliance’s Kellie Armstrong asked if the cross-border professional learning collaboration included discussions about the shortfalls for teachers of children with special educational needs in particular. The minister said collaboration in Middletown is focused on autism specifically, and there have been “58,000 specific contacts on the issue of training” there.

Jim Allister asked what such collaborations exist with the rest of the UK, with the minister saying a range of efforts are ongoing.

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