Question Time: Education Tuesday 19 January 2016

There was great interest in the proposed Investing in the Teaching Workforce Scheme during today’s Questions to Education Minister, John O’Dowd. The Scheme is intended to provide early access to pension for teachers aged 55+, with the post being replaced by a recently qualified teacher.

There has been some disappointment expressed about the proposed parameters of the scheme however the Minister argues that 500 recently qualified teachers will be getting permanent jobs and 500 older teachers will be allowed to retire several years early with full pension benefits – “In the absence of the scheme, neither will happen”. When it was suggested that these are not new posts but replacement posts, Mr O’Dowd argued that “They are new jobs. Those jobs would not come online for perhaps five or 10 years. No other Department has been able to introduce a scheme to release 500 jobs on to the market in the next financial year.” In reference to the shortage of posts in the teaching sector the Minister added “I am on record as saying that I cannot and will not give advice to individuals on what career choice they should make. That said, anyone taking up a career in teaching should carefully consider all the issues, including whether they will be able to obtain full-time employment at the end of their training period. I think that that is a sensible thing for a Minister to say.” In response to whether he has considered any equality issues that may arise from the scheme, the Minister replied that his officials have met the Equality Commission and taken on legal advice that will help form any final decisions on the scheme.

Gordon Dunne then took the opportunity to ask the Minister about the proposed 3.8% cut to the departmental budget and how it might impact front-line educational resources. Mr O’Dowd described the 2016-17 Budget as “challenging”. However it is difficult to say where the impact may be felt most as he has not yet made and final decisions on 2016-17 budget allocations. The Minister encouraged “However, although the Budget 2016-17 resource outcome is challenging, as I stated, the position for capital in Education is much better. My aim is to reach final decisions on my Department’s 2016-17 budget allocations as soon as possible to allow for early notification to schools and other bodies.” When discussing the Executive’s attitude to education, the Minister was upbeat, saying “They have done their best, as a collective, to protect the Education budget amid competing priorities, for instance with regards to Health. However, the Education budget still receives uplifts that other Departments would be very happy to be dealing with. Even the scale of the cut to the Education budget is not in comparison with what other Departments are facing.”

Throughout Question Time Mr O’Dowd also fielded questions on the schools estate, school closures, GCSE provision and the status of various school new-builds.