Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers (NIA 53/02)

Public Accounts Committee 26 Feb 2003

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MR JOHN DOWDALL, Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, examined.
MR DAVID THOMSON, Treasury Officer of Accounts (Northern Ireland), examined.
REPORT BY THE COMPTROLLER AND AUDITOR GENERAL FOR
NORTHERN IRELAND:
The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers (NIA 53/02)

Examination of Witnesses

MR GERRY McGINN, Permanent Secretary, MR JOHN CALDWELL, Acting Head of Resource Allocation Division, Department of Education, MR DONAL FLANAGAN, Chief Executive, Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, and MR JACKIE FITZSIMONS, Chief Executive, South Eastern Education and Library Board, examined.

Mr Steinberg

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am going to pursue the same questions that the Chairman has asked because I found your answers, frankly, not convincing at all. I have to say that I feel a bit like a poacher turned gamekeeper because I was a head teacher at one time and can appreciate the problems that schools have in Northern Ireland because I had those same problems myself many years ago. It seems to me, however, that the problems you have you have brought upon yourselves and the problem is much deeper than the problem of managing substitute teachers. There are two major problems here, it seems to me; the one that the Chairman touched upon, the most important, which is the teachers' premature retirement scheme and, secondly, teachers' sickness absence management, and basically before you can solve the problem you have to address these two major problems which I think create the problems in the first place. If you look at page 41 to begin with, the first two or three paragraphs there, I see that the premature retirement scheme was introduced in 1978 and in the year just gone something like 5.9 million has been paid out in compensation to teachers who have retired. It says here that a teacher at 50 years of age with 25 years' service can retire. What would he or she expect to get in enhancements if they did that, bearing in mind that retirement age I suspect is after 40 years, so they would go to 60 or 61?

Mr McGinn: It would be 60 and we also have rules that the terms of re-employment would not be beyond 65.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But they could retire officially at 60?

Mr McGinn: Yes.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So what would basic enhancements be?

Mr McGinn: The enhancements charge up a number of years.

Mr Caldwell: A teacher who goes out on efficient discharge grounds could receive up to a maximum of four added years, but one who goes out on premature retirement for reasons of redundancy could expect up to six and two thirds added years.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What is this in cash terms basically? What does this mean extra to the taxpayer?

Mr Caldwell: I do not have that exact figure with me. Do you want an illustrated example sent to you?

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Yes, please. It is quite big, quite clearly? It is quite lucrative to go out early.

Mr Caldwell: Well, it could be for the teacher concerned. Obviously there is a loss of earnings.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So how can you justify this?

Mr McGinn: In terms of the enhanced payments?

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Yes. How do you justify saying that a teacher can basically go at 55 or 50?

Mr McGinn: Certainly in terms of looking at the chart as well and examining those who are going, the majority are now going through redundancy and there are significant numbers that are obviously affected by that.

Mr Fitzsimons: Obviously one of the efficient discharge redundancies is ill health, and from an ill health point of view obviously the significance to the employer is that a person cannot go out and get another job and they are obviously suffering loss of earnings, so that is an issue. The other issue I am talking about is infirmity or ill health where teachers get additional years in compensation for retiring early. Obviously those people are declared medically unfit to work.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Let us look at appendix 4, which says that 50% of teachers who retire do so with enhancements at an early age when frankly nothing is wrong with them. So if you look at the total, out of 50% of the teachers who go, 16% ED, 34% redundancy, and out of 72% who go with nothing wrong with them at all - they just leave - 23% are infirm. I wrote down as Mr McGinn was talking that you said you had abided by the PAC's recommendations to reduce efficiency discharge, but all that has happened is that the efficiency discharge numbers which were very high at one stage in the early 90s at 246 but which have been reduced to 52 have just transferred over to redundancy, so there has been no real improvement, and instead of going on an efficiency exercise they have gone on a redundancy exercise, so frankly you have just transferred them from one column to another. Now this in my view can not be justified, and is not justified in this country or in the United Kingdom. In this country, in England and Wales, you cannot basically go early unless there is a very reasonable circumstance, and it is a lot more difficult to get out on ill health. It seems to me that you in Northern Ireland have totally ignored what has gone on in England and are allowing teachers to go willy nilly, regardless.

Mr McGinn: Certainly under each of those columns - efficient discharge, redundancy and infirmity - there are very specific rules and Mr Fitzsimons was starting to illustrate in terms of infirmity, for example, and efficient discharge, but there are specific rules around each column in terms of how teachers are able to go - in other words, infirmity is --

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am sure there are and I do not really want to get into the reasons. All I am saying is it should stop, frankly, because there is no justification for it to be honest, whether it is efficient discharge or redundancy, unless there is a genuine reason, and I cannot for the life of me believe that 50% of teachers who retire are no longer needed in the system, and I just cannot accept that at all on the basis of the number of substitutions having to take place. For example, why can a teacher who is made redundant or an efficient discharge in one school not be transferred to another school? Why can you not have a permanent pool of teachers, for example, who have been made redundant which heads can draw on who will be permanently employed as substitute teachers? You have not attempted to do anything in that line. All you have done is allowed teachers to go, given them huge enhancements and then created a huge problem which now needs solving.

Mr Fitzsimons: With regard to redundancy, obviously there are rules in schools and we have a choice. Young teachers are made compulsorily redundant or we ask for volunteers, and in order to get those volunteers there need to be incentives, and that is how we come to our retirement grounds of voluntary redundancy. We have made a major investment in training young teachers, and if we do not give them teaching posts then we are going to lose them, so therefore we have to have an incentive for people to retire early and that incentive only occurs --

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): With great respect, I do not want to be impolite and say that is rubbish but it is, to be quite honest. You do not encourage a teacher who might be a little more expensive to retire just so that you can employ somebody else. That is just not common sense. If that is the case you are training far too many teachers.

Mr Fitzsimons: We do not employ anybody else. If, for example, a school has a quota of 15-20 teachers and they no longer have the pupils to sustain that number of teachers, they have to lose one member of staff and that one member of staff will be last in, first out usually. In order to try and avoid that young teacher losing the job and in order to maintain high quality teachers in the teaching profession, the issue of voluntary redundancy is offered to teachers and they volunteer for it.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Of course they do! If you are offered a golden handshake at 50 years old and you are going to make your pension up to what you would accrue at 60, obviously you are going to take it - it is just economic to do it. You have to come up with a system which is better than that! You cannot just keep saying, "We are going to offer people redundancy so that we can employ young teachers". You are going to have to find another system because you are just throwing taxpayers' money down the drain, frankly. People are making a fortune out of the taxpayer.

Mr McGinn: There are two points here. Firstly, each of the redundancy cases are arising in specific schools where numbers are falling. The issue which you are asking us to ensure we take on board is flexibility as well.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So you let your old teachers go, you pay them huge enhancements to go, and the next day they are coming back into a school and being re-employed on a supply wage, so they are being paid for being retired and being paid supply teacher wages. Why not say, "Once you retire you are finished, and you cannot come back into the profession at all unless you give up your pension. If you want to come back into the profession you give up your pension, freeze it, and come back into teaching. If not, you are no longer allowed to teach and we take on all these young teachers who have not got a permanent job"?

Mr Fitzsimons: If a teacher retires early and comes back into teaching, there is a cap on how much money they can earn. They are no longer able to earn full time and they lose the rest of their pension, but I think whenever we train young teachers we make a major financial investment in training those teachers. They are people who have a future career and there is a value added in terms of training them in the profession. If we do not find some way of retaining them we lose them, and that is a waste of public money if we have invested in their training, and if they are de-skilled or decide to move outside the teaching profession because they cannot get jobs, we have lost them.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Therefore there is no planning within the Department whatsoever because if you know that you are fully covered on the number of teachers that you have in Northern Ireland yet you continue to train them and there are no careers for them at the end of the day, you are wasting money there so you are digging a hole and burying yourself even further. There is no strategic plan at all. If your schools are that full of teachers who are not nearing retiring age, why are you then allowing so many young people to be trained to be teachers? In this country we have the exact opposite problem. We do not have enough teachers, and we are looking to train more and more. In Northern Ireland you have the opposite problem, and therefore you should be investing in more teachers - or perhaps something else, I do not know; I am not an expert in Northern Ireland by any stretch of the imagination - but it seems to me there is no strategic plan whatsoever here regarding the teaching profession.

Mr McGinn: Firstly, we have been operating in terms of a model for teachers coming through and you are absolutely right: there are five times the number applying for teaching as are accepted into teacher training colleges, so teaching certainly in Northern Ireland remains something that is valued and a profession that people continue to respect. What we then try to ensure is that, through that model, opportunities for those young teachers are happening for them and undoubtedly in terms of securing jobs the vast majority do in their first year, and in the second year the majority of them move into permanent employment. We have other issues in that there are teachers who cross the water as well and come over to England for posts, although again I cannot quantify that for you, but in terms of redundancy certainly falling rolls in specific schools have been a pressure point where that has been felt, and with them becoming a bigger issue over five or six years it is something in terms of revising our own model that we are going to have to take into account to a much greater extent than ever before, because we are now topping out and rolls are starting to fall.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I can understand you have a problem but all I can say is we are not a welfare system. We are not here to train and employ teachers and then ensure they have a decent pension because we have not planned properly. I will stop now because I have gone over my time but if there is time later I would like to come back on the second aspect which is the management of sickness.

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Mr Steinberg

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Following on from what Mr Rendel was saying, over here we changed the rules. In the past teachers were given early retirement on ill health grounds and were paid for by the Government. We changed the system whereby it was the local authorities who then financed it. How does it work in Northern Ireland?

Mr McGinn: Certainly the system we have is one where we have not actually introduced that particular change.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You should. That has got to be a recommendation surely. We will soon see how many go out then.

Mr McGinn: What we do, and this is the other difference in Northern Ireland, is that we as a department 100 per cent fund the boards, so it is a slightly different structure, but nevertheless I know the point you are making.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): As a matter of interest, Mr Fitzsimons, how many teachers have come back after retiring on grounds of ill health?

Mr Fitzsimons: I do not know the answer to that.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Could you let us know?

Mr Fitzsimons: Yes, we will find that out.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I will be amazed if it is many.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Whilst you were answering some questions I read this. I did not know it had been given as a supplementary. It is rather interesting, is it not? It says that 1,300 retired teachers were brought back, which is basically what we gleaned from the report. More worrying was the fact that up to 900 teachers each year qualify and only 26 per cent of them get permanent employment in their first year. How many actually get employment at all and when do they get employment eventually?

Mr McGinn: This is the first year of beginning teaching?

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Yes, the new teacher. How long is it before a new teacher actually gets a permanent job in Northern Ireland?

Mr Caldwell: Our information, which is taken from the Department of Trade and Investment figures, is that at any one time there will only be between one to 12 teachers who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks.

Mr McGinn: The other statistic we have is that certainly in the first year over 90 per cent are in employment, albeit in the first year a significant -----

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It says here in this question that was put to the Education Minister in Northern Ireland at the time that 900 young teachers qualify every year in the Province but only 26 per cent of them get a permanent employment in their first year, which means that 75 per cent basically do not get employment in the first year. What I am saying is, when do those 75 per cent get permanent employment?

Mr McGinn: I will make two comments about that. First, what tends to happen in the first year is that for many they get temporary contracts and those who get permanent contracts tend to be in the subjects where there are potential shortages - maths, physics and so on.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Mr McGinn, you are getting an easy ride here. If you were the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Education you would not get away with it. You are not answering the question. How many get permanent jobs out of that 75 per cent? How long does it take that 75 per cent to get permanent jobs? In other words, how many young teachers are unemployed and how long are they unemployed before they get permanent work?

Mr McGinn: In terms of the statistics I can come back and give you the numbers for that. What you will find is that the majority will be in temporary contracts for the first year. We have a system for the first three years of a beginning teacher and again the vast majority are in employment through that period where they are getting support and assistance as well in terms of their development. I can give you a note on that. I know that in terms of employment it is not an issue.

Mr Fitzsimons: I obviously cannot give detailed statistics but there is a view that it takes roughly two years. After two years most of them are in employment.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am rather surprised that you cannot give the statistics. I do not see how you can have a strategic plan of how many teachers you need if you do not know how many teachers are unemployed and how many teachers are employed. It seems to me there is no plan at all. It just seems to me to be a system which is a willy-nilly system which is plodding along in its own way and has been for years and years. I think it really needs looking into.

Mr McGinn: For those in permanent employment it is 31 per cent, one year temporary 24 per cent; less than one year temporary 32 per cent. That is for the post-primary. We would be able to come back with those statistics.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): From my own experience as a head teacher in a special school I notice that in special schools the statistics are as bad as they were in English special schools. We seem to have more absenteeism in England in special schools and I notice that in Northern Ireland it is the same. I used to be constantly on the telephone trying to find somebody to come in and cover. I found that the only way that I could do it, and I am talking now about 20 years ago, was to ring round my colleagues in other schools or ring round and ask staff who they could bring in, which was a totally unsatisfactory system. Basically what happened was that you got child minders, frankly. They came in for three or four days and they just looked after the class. They did not do a great deal of teaching. That is no criticism of their professional skills. It was just the fact that they could not fit into the curriculum, they could not fit into what the kids were doing at the time and therefore they just became baby-sitters or child minders. That is totally unsatisfactory and it appears that that is what is happening here 20 years on in Northern Ireland and I think something has got to be done about that. Just moving on from the points that I made originally and Jon Trickett made as well about the pool of teachers, it seems to me that what seems to be happening is that you are going to a pool of teachers, are you not? You are going to a pool of teachers in terms of employment agencies who have a pool of teachers. Frankly, it has proved not to be very satisfactory in this country. The very point that Jon was making was the fact that it seems to me that if employment agencies can have a pool of teachers there is no reason why the Department should not have a pool of teachers to call on. Substitute teachers are not the answer because they become child minders. They are not in tune with what is going on in improvements in education and reports on education and so forth. Would you comment on those two issues?

Mr McGinn: If I could take the use of agency teachers first, that obviously is something that is quite small, something like three per cent at the moment. Obviously, in the report you have seen that it has grown. We share the concerns that are being registered on this side of the water for a number of reasons and as a way forward we are setting up a pilot which is now under way, and so we are looking at a different way of dealing with the issue that you raise in terms of the employing authorities.

Mr Fitzsimons: We are trying to use new technology to establish registers of teachers by region and by geography. That register would include experience, qualifications and a curriculum vitae of the teacher. It would be possible then for the head teacher to book on-line a teacher and they would get a teacher. It would be a one-stop shop. The teachers also would be employed by the employing authority rather than by an agency and so obviously it would save money. Obviously we need to look at the cost/benefit analysis of that and we will pilot it very shortly.

Mr McGinn: The other issue of substitute teachers which I would like to mention is that the quality of the teachers in Northern Ireland we do believe is high. We do have a situation where the entrance qualifications are high. That in part is illustrated by the over-subscription. We also believe that in terms of initial teacher education, in the beginning years how we develop our teachers and the support which is reflected in this report, in the sense of the level of investment in our teachers for literacy, numeracy, those strategies in the curriculum, ironically gives rise to the use of substitute teachers and that is why we are looking at other strategies in terms of in-school etc to minimise the impact of that. All our evidence shows that the quality of substitute teachers through inspection is of a satisfactory standard. Obviously, taking forward the particular recommendation in this report, which is to do a discrete piece of work which shines the light on it in a more focused way, is something we will be taking forward in the next year.

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