Since Easter this year I have received many representations, written and oral, on a wide range of education topics. These include provision in schools, school development proposals, cross-community contact schemes, youth service review and funding for arts, museums, sport and community services.
Will the Minister confirm that at a recent meeting with representatives of the parents' action group for education—they had come to see him about extra cover for absentee teachers—he shouted at them and thumped the table when they refused to agree with him on where cuts should be imposed in the education service to enable the extra cover to be made available? If that is true, will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to apologise for his childish behaviour?
Of course it is not true. I am neither a shouter nor a table thumper. I had a constructive discussion with the representatives of the parents' group. They made clear their concern about substitute cover in primary schools, especially in P1 and P2. I undertook to consider their views, along with others that have been expressed, in the review that we are conducting, as promised in the management-union negotiated settlement that was arrived at last summer.
What representations has my hon. Friend received from the Catholic hierarchy about the proposed education reform, and what has been done to remove its misgivings?
I have received representations from the leaders of the Church and from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. Representatives from both organisations will see me in the near future to discuss their representations. Representatives of the Church leaders will see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I will be in attendance.
Will the Minister confirm that one of the more significant interest groups in the educational affairs of Northern Ireland is the Government of the Irish Republic, using the offices of the Anglo-Irish Conference, where they purport to represent what I think is called the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland? As the Minister can ignore and deliberately take no account of the wishes of the remainder of the people in Northern Ireland, but is under an obligation to work thoroughly to reach agreement with the representatives of the Government of the Irish Republic, how does he intend to work in that regard?
The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is no. The answer to the second part of his question is that with all groups in Northern Ireland, whether they be from the Unionist or Nationalist communities, I will seek to find as broad an area of support as possible to achieve higher education standards and greater parental choice and involvement in the education process. I hope that it will not be too long before the hon. Gentleman lets me have his views so that I may take those into account in the decision-making process.
What is the Minister's response to the parents and teachers at Skegoneill primary school in north Belfast, who see the Minister allowing the board to close their school, which by September will be fully integrated in terms of student numbers, while at the same time the Minister has agreed to the building of a new Catholic school 100 yds up the same road? The Minister has told us that integrated education is the way forward. Why has he made this decision? Does the decision stem from insensitivity, arrogance or incompetence? What is the reason for it?
The reason is that the Skegoneill primary school was not viable. Whatever the composition of the school force, it was the test of viability that had to be applied to granting approval to the proposals from the education and library board. I noticed that the hon. Lady did not say that within a matter of days of the closure of Skegoneill I accepted Hazelwood college—not far from Skegoneill—into maintained status. I am disappointed that the hon. Lady has not welcomed that decision.
Will the Minister reaffirm in the House that it is still the iniquitous policy of his Department to discriminate entirely against independent Protestant schools and tell them that they will receive no money whatsoever from his Department?
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the schools that have a relationship with his denomination, it is my understanding that those schools have never made application for funds from my Department. I further understand that it is the view of his party and Church that they would not make such an application as a matter of principle. If the hon. Gentleman is telling me otherwise, I would be very happy to discuss the matter with him.
Is the Minister aware of the great concern that exists about his proposal, or suggestion, that the Irish language should not be a foundation subject? Will he take steps to ensure that that very important part of his tradition and mine and his cultural background and mine is included as a core foundation subject in the curriculum?
I am aware of the concern about the Irish language. That concern has been reflected to me by organisations, including the hon. Gentleman's party, and I thank him for that, and by a number of individuals. It has also been reflected by the Catholic Church. We are looking at all the proposals. However, I join the hon. Gentleman in affirming that it is important that the children of Northern Ireland should have some understanding of their cultural heritage and of the diversity of the cultural heritage that applies in the Province.