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Education chief won’t talk about 'lavish' spending

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Education chief Gavin Boyd

Education chief Gavin Boyd

Education chief Gavin Boyd

The head of Northern Ireland’s exams body has refused to answer questions about the controversial use of taxpayers’ money on “lavish” trips by his organisation.

The chief executive of the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), Gavin Boyd, who last year received a £155,000 salary from the Department of Education, was yesterday keeping silent after it emerged the CCEA had used public money to hire a private jet to fly 30 members from Belfast to Galway, cover bar bills running to thousands and put up members in Belfast hotels just a stone’s throw from its Clarendon Dock headquarters.

Over a period of seven years CCEA attended 33 events at private venues across Ireland, London and Paris. At one two-day event in Letterkenny in 2004, the 88 delegates ran up a bill of £15,849.

The lavish spending which occurred between 2004 and 2009 came at a time when many of Northern Ireland’s schools were crumbling because of an historic lack of under-investment.

In 2008, when the maintenance backlog for work on schools stood at £200m, CCEA members were spending £6,695 on sending 12 members to Paris for a two-day trip to collect a European Business Excellence Award.

That same year Mr Boyd, who was seconded to the Education Skills Authority, received a top salary of £165,000 while CCEA acting chief executive Neil Anderson was paid £85,322, and also received an additional £10,268 in performance-related pay.

Deputy chairman of Stormont’s Education committee and former UUP finance spokesman David McNarry described the CCEA expenditure on “jollies” as “lavish” and “scandalous”.

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Mr McNarry said: “They have been found out in abusing finances that could have been better used elsewhere and setting a very poor example.

“What makes it more scandalous was that the maintenance backlog in schools was known. There was never an abundance of money and such spending was not justifiable, and the question has to be asked how were they able to get away with this?”

A review of CCEA’s spending on hospitality and staff travel was ordered in November after it emerged procedures were not as robust as they should have been.

A Department of Education spokesman said: “The resulting report highlighted areas for improvement in the systems used for governing spend on hospitality and travel. CCEA has assured the department it has taken decisive action to address the issue and to minimise expenditure.”

Education Minister John O’Dowd added: “Under the Review of Public Administration, education bodies would be amalgamated into an Education and Skills Authority which would provide more effective and efficient governance in education.”

The CCEA said that Gavin Boyd was chief executive at CCEA from February 2000 until January 2007, and that Neil Anderson took over as interim chief executive in January 2007 until June 2010, when Mr Boyd was seconded to the Education Skills Authority.

It also told the Belfast Telegraph that “ultimately, the chief executive has responsibility for all expenditure”.

But Mr Boyd refused to be interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph.

A spokesman said: “The Department of Education conducted a review of CCEA external events and associated corporate hospitality in November 2010.

“A number of recommendations were made to improve the policies and practices used for governing spend on hospitality. All recommendations were accepted and have now been implemented.

“The investigations carried out identified no disciplinary action to be taken.”

The Council for Curriculum, Exams and Assessment (CCEA) is no stranger to controversy.

  • In March it emerged that CCEA was carrying out an inquiry into an alleged breach of exam confidentiality at Ballymena Academy. The incident impacted on pupils who sat the GCE A-level English literature exam on January 17.
  • In August 2010 an exam blunder resulted in 151 students from 41 schools and colleges across Northern Ireland receiving the wrong A-level results. Former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane ordered an external investigation into how incorrect results for the chemistry A-level were issued. CCEA “apologised unreservedly” for the blunder.

Speaking at the time, Ms Ruane said: “While I acknowledge the immediate apology from CCEA, the body has fallen short of the high standards of accuracy the public and I, as minister, expect of a public examinations body.”

  • In October 2009 a computer error in primary school assessment results led to teachers being given false information about the performance of their pupils.

The InCAS (Interactive Computerised Assessment) system is used to evaluate whether children are at the expected standard in subjects like maths and reading.

The mistake was noticed when principals at nine schools contacted CCEA and raised concerns. CCEA issued an apology.

  • Just weeks earlier pupils at more than 300 schools were told they had received incorrect test scores. Again the error related to the computer based InCAS assessment tool for general maths. The error was caused by a blip in the computer programme and CCEA was assured that this had been fixed.
  • In 2001 around 800 home economics students had their results downgraded after being given the wrong grades.

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