Education (Northern Ireland)

– in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 14th January 2003.

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Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim 1:01 pm, 14th January 2003

I beg to move,

That this House
urges the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to honour the clearly expressed preference of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to retain a selection procedure for transfer to post-primary schools, thus limiting the damage flowing from the administrative vandalism of the former Education Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly;
congratulates governors, principals, staff and pupils in Northern Ireland schools on achieving higher qualification levels at post-primary level than their counterparts in England and Wales;
calls on the Government to maintain the levels of excellence achieved at so many schools while striving to enhance the performance and status of schools with a lesser level of achievement;
regrets that too many able students from local grammar and secondary schools cannot obtain university places in Northern Ireland;
calls for a change in household income thresholds to encourage higher uptake of discretionary awards;
and urges the Government to honour its pledges to ensure a fair allocation of resources to education in Northern Ireland, including adequate research funding for Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster.

The future well-being of our education system is critical to Northern Ireland's long-term success. We must have a well educated and well trained work force if we are to commend and promote Northern Ireland nationally and internationally as an ideal location for investment and job creation. That is why we believe that it is essential that these issues should be debated in full on the Floor of the House this afternoon.

One of the key issues that the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland has inherited is the future structure of post-primary education. Unless this matter is handled very carefully, there is a real danger of doing irreparable harm to our education system and of undermining the good standards presently being achieved by pupils in Northern Ireland. Standards in Northern Ireland's schools—controlled, maintained, voluntary and integrated—are already high compared with other areas of the United Kingdom. According to the Northern Ireland annual abstract of statistics 2001—the most recent set of figures available—pupils in Northern Ireland continue to perform better than their counterparts in England at the higher qualification levels, with 57 per cent. of year 12 pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with 49 per cent. in England and Wales, and with 93 per cent. of final-year pupils gaining two or more A-levels, compared with 81 per cent. in England and 92 per cent. in Wales. Indeed, it is interesting to note that only 4 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieved no GCSEs, compared with 6 per cent. in England and 8 per cent. in Wales.

This issue has its genesis in the Burns report on post-primary education. One unfortunate legacy of that report is that the statement by the then Northern Ireland Education Minister that the present transfer test would be abolished by 2004 was made without any attempt to spell out alternative selection transfer procedures. We were therefore utterly amazed that one of the first acts of the present Minister with responsibility for education was to reiterate and support that statement of educational vandalism and malice. According to the Burns consultation report on post-primary education, only 30 per cent. of the 200,551 respondents to the household survey believed that academic selection should be ended, while 64 per cent. stated that academic selection should be retained in some form. A further 7 per cent. were undecided.

There is evidence that these trends run across the sectoral divide, and many Roman Catholic parents support academic selection. Indeed, one of the strongest advocates of academic selection is Monsignor Faul, a distinguished former head of a large Roman Catholic grammar school and a leading spokesman on community issues. Bearing these figures in mind, does the Minister still think it wise to press on with implementing proposals to abolish the 11-plus without a suitable and acceptable alternative transfer procedure being put in place? Would it not serve the educational needs of school children in Northern Ireland much better if we were to keep the current transfer system in place until such time as a final replacement system is found and agreed to? Any results from focus groups—which, at best, will be no more representative than a widespread survey of households into the future of post-primary education selection—cannot be allowed to overrule the democratic wishes of the people in an attempt to subvert democracy.

Representatives of the Ulster Unionist party met the Minister on 7 January and put forward the sensible recommendation that she should appoint an education advisory panel which could make recommendations to her on how a new transfer procedure could be put in place. At the meeting, the hope was expressed that she would act to create a new body that could be transparent, open, independent and capable of ending the chaos and uncertainty in education that has arisen out of the decision by the former Minister to abolish the 11-plus examination. There is concern as to whether the Department for Education and Skills could develop an alternative system in a truly impartial manner. An independent body could bridge the gap caused by the suspension of the devolved institutions. I ask the Minister to show her commitment to the future of post-primary education by adopting the suggestion for an education advisory panel.

We accept that there are problems with the present 11-plus transfer procedure. Indeed, we support its replacement, but only when a suitably worked out alternative has been put forward. We have our own alternative proposals based on informed parental choice and the use of pupil profiles, with the requirement for objective assessment. We want genuine choice, greater diversity and a greater emphasis on vocational and skills-based education. Diversity in the provision of post-primary education is to be encouraged, as long as it provides families with real choices and maintains high standards of education and opportunity. We must ensure that any change enables all our young people equally to maximise their individual potential, whatever their various personal abilities. Equality and diversity are central to our education system. I ask the Minister to look at the question of equality legislation in schools.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's background means that he takes a serious interest in education. How would his ideas on equality and access deal with the problem that only 8 per cent. of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Northern Ireland are able to gain access to grammar schools? What are his proposals for tackling that obvious inequality in the current structure?

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

We need a clear definition of disadvantage. I am a member of a family of 12 children; I have six sisters and five brothers. My father worked in the shipyard and in the textile industry for a time. He also worked hard on a small farm to provide for his children. Was I disadvantaged? The education system in Northern Ireland afforded an opportunity to every member of my family and to many others who did not start off with a silver spoon. We were able to make our way and benefit from the excellent education in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Let me press my hon. Friend on what is meant by access. In my constituency, children are disadvantaged by their inability to access secondary education without undue expense for their parents. It is not simply a matter of grammar school children being disadvantaged; they get their fares paid if they live outwith the area.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

I believe that every child in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to benefit, irrespective of family circumstances. We must perhaps do more to encourage the parents of children in households where there is no history of third-tier education. I try to do that in my constituency by encouraging the university of Ulster, which is the local university, to contact primary and secondary schools in East Antrim when there is no clear sign over time that children have moved through them and taken advantage of the excellent opportunities that further and higher education affords in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

The hon. Gentleman has not answered the previous question. The figures that an Ulster Unionist councillor gave me for his ward in north Belfast show that only 6 per cent. of children made it to grammar school. What does the hon. Gentleman propose for the other 94 per cent.?

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

As I said, we must encourage parents more. Many youngsters do not even enter the selection procedure. In parts of north Belfast, children traditionally grew up to believe that the greatest achievement for them and their families was gaining an apprenticeship with Short Brothers, the aircraft factory, with Mackie's foundry or in the shipyard. They had no higher expectation. However, many able pupils who stayed at school until they were 14 or left at 16 without qualifications have subsequently taken advantage of workers education courses and night classes to improve their skills and qualifications. They have continued through our university system as mature students. The process will take time, but we must focus on the group that has benefited least.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Is it not the case that 25 per cent. of the adult population of Northern Ireland are at the lowest literacy level? Does not the hon. Gentleman perceive a relationship between the selective system that has operated historically and the exceptionally poor achievement in literacy?

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

A few years ago, we were worried about the low achievement of a significant proportion of our school-age population. I am happy that that has been tackled and that steady improvement has occurred in the past three or four years. We hope that that will continue.

It is vital that an academic option be available to pupils for whom that path is appropriate in order to maintain and improve standards. It is equally important to develop a strong technological and vocational curriculum, which should have parity of esteem with the traditional academic path. If our schools are oversubscribed, they must be permitted to select pupils on ability. Every school should be helped to achieve academic, vocational and technological excellence.

We ask the Minister to be careful not to destroy the existing strengths of all our schools when making the changes that we agree are necessary to the detailed transfer arrangements. I should like her to assure us about that. We are happy to meet her and discuss the matter at any time.

We must congratulate school governors, principals, staff and pupils of Northern Ireland schools on maintaining high standards of educational achievement, especially given the external difficulties that they have faced in the past 30 or so years. I am referring not only to grammar schools. Many secondary schools provide excellent support services to pupils and assist them to achieve their full potential.

Any changes to our post-primary selection transfer system must acknowledge and protect the vital role of primary school teachers. We must continually try to raise the esteem in which teachers are held in our community and ensure that any new administrative burdens are kept to a minimum. An obvious improvement could be achieved by the Government's making a conscious effort to listen to teachers' voices as expressed through respected organisations such as the Ulster Teachers Union.

The union took the time and trouble to conduct a survey on stress. It also undertook a health and safety risk assessment for teachers. However, the Government ignored the results and the Department of Education decided to waste a great deal of taxpayers' money on launching its own surveys, only to discover what everyone else already knew. In the light of such incidents, is it any wonder that teachers suffer from low morale?

We must develop a stronger working relationship between universities and further education colleges and primary and post-primary schools, especially in communities where low numbers of young people go on to the third level of education. I do not apologise for emphasising that again. The reasons for educational failure among pupils, especially young males, must be tackled.

Approximately one third of people in Northern Ireland who gain university degrees have studied outside Northern Ireland, mainly in Great Britain. In some cases this reflects free choice, but the worrying aspect is the extent to which many of these leavers—of whom there are some 4,500 annually—have left Northern Ireland because there are simply not enough local university places to accommodate them.

In 1997, the Dearing report concluded that, compared with Scotland, Northern Ireland had a shortfall of about 12,000 places. The devolved Executive in Northern Ireland were able to bring about an increase in places of some 5,500. Clearly, much remains to be done. It is important for our economy that we encourage local undergraduates to study and to work in Northern Ireland. Some of those additional places in the pipeline related to the Springvale campus of the university of Ulster and to the Belfast institute. It seems that the future of that project is now in some doubt. I ask the Minister to provide further information on the review of Springvale. In particular, if it is concluded that Springvale is not now a viable concern, we will want to know whether those places will be reallocated to other parts of the higher education sector in Northern Ireland.

Even before the conclusion of the 2000 review of student support by the then Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, training and employment, the Ulster Unionist party had called for a return to means-tested grants. We therefore welcome the introduction of a maximum bursary of #1,500 in the 2002 academic year, which will be increased to a maximum of #2,000 next year. We support the principle of wider social access to further education and, indeed, to higher education, so we think that the level of these grants, and the extent to which they are tapered off according to income, should be kept under review. Much more should be done to encourage the uptake of discretionary awards by further education students.

The Ulster Unionist party has long recognised the need for an injection of additional resources into higher education. As this cannot all come ultimately from the taxpayer, it may be that the most equitable method is some variation on the model of deferred or graduate contributions. In other words, to the extent that students will, on average, gain a private monetary benefit from their course of study—the available evidence strongly confirms this—it is not unreasonable that after they have graduated they should, as they are able to, make some contribution to cover part of the cost of their university training.

We call on the Government to honour their pledge to ensure a fair allocation of resources to education in Northern Ireland. We welcome in principle the planned introduction of the common funding formula, but we realise that this is enabling legislation. We await the fine detail and hope that the consultation process will be open, transparent and inclusive.

There are certain issues relating to the common funding formula that need to be given particular consideration, the first of which is teachers' salaries. We consider that further detailed consideration needs to be given to determining a factor in the formula that will reflect the natural progression of teachers towards the top of the salary scale, but which will still leave schools with the freedom to take staffing decisions within their delegated budgets. We also consider that more guidance should be available to school governors to assist them in determining appropriate individual salary ranges for principals and vice-principals, and the salary levels within these ranges.

Secondly, we accept that there is a need to tackle the problem of underachievement in a minority of Northern Ireland's schools. We consider that further research is required to justify present funding levels before any additional allocations are considered. There is a need to address the educational and skills requirements of specific groups of disadvantaged young people, such as those in care, school-age mothers, those from traveller and other ethnic minority backgrounds, and the disabled. Furthermore, we do not believe that targeting additional funding on the basis of free school meals is suitable or appropriate. Allocations should be founded on objective measurements that are based on key stage results.

Our third concern about the common funding formula is its impact on schools. We are aware of the funding problems facing primary schools, but we have also been alerted to a number of financial pressures in the secondary sector. It is clearly essential that we look again, in some detail, at the balance of funding between the primary and secondary sectors in Northern Ireland. It is also clear that the current underfunding of the primary sector cannot be allowed to continue.

Finally, we feel that there is a need to refine the way in which money is allocated for the upkeep of buildings under the formula. The formula must reflect the fact that it is much more expensive to maintain old buildings than purpose-built, newer ones.

I want to commend what has been achieved so far in the funding of higher education. Teaching and research assessments indicate that, in many cases, standards are in line with national and international aspirations. That said, as Universities UK has highlighted so effectively, universities in Northern Ireland, like their counterparts in Great Britain, have suffered from long-term underfunding and there is a limit to the extent to which they can be expected to continue to deliver quantitative and qualitative improvements without greater input of funds.

While I welcome the recent announcement of #10 million extra annually over the next three years for core university research funding, a good case can be made for the need for a further #20 million per annum, to close the gap that has opened up in comparison with Great Britain. Such research is intrinsically desirable, but it would almost certainly also deliver considerable economic spin-offs. It is worth remembering that the total level of research and development spending in Northern Ireland is low by United Kingdom regional standards, and very low compared with most of the rest of the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We welcome the current innovation strategy and await the results of the consultation process with interest.

On the Northern Ireland spending block, the XBarnett read-across" has implied that Northern Ireland's universities have been unable fully to match some of the very worthy initiatives being taken by English, Scottish and Welsh colleges in terms of widening social access. That said, we already have a larger proportion of students coming from low-income backgrounds. One further point of concern is that the pay of university lecturers and staff has fallen behind the private sector. This is a UK-wide problem that the Government have to address.

I end where I started out. Investment in our education system means investment in all of our futures.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I must confess that I am slightly astonished to discover that the hon. Gentleman has opened a debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland on behalf of the Ulster Unionist party without making even a passing reference to the integrated education movement. Before he finishes his speech, would he care to tell the House how he thinks that that movement relates to the wider argument that he has made today?

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue, but I am conscious of the breadth of opportunity to speak that this short debate offers, and of the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute. However, responsibilities are shared in my party, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble when he winds up the debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed by what he has to say.

If ever there were a place where people needed to look to the future with a greater sense of hope, it is Northern Ireland. I trust that the Minister of State has listened carefully to my remarks, and I hope that she will act on them.

I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1:30 pm, 14th January 2003

I beg to move, to leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

Xcongratulates governors, principals, teachers and other school staff on the contribution they make to educating young people in Northern Ireland;
welcomes the high qualifications achieved by many pupils but acknowledges that there are also large numbers of young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, leaving school with low qualifications;
urges the Secretary of State to continue to take forward the review of post-primary education with the objective of putting in place new post-primary arrangements that will maintain those high standards of achievement and build a modern and fair education system that enables all children in Northern Ireland to achieve their full potential;
and further welcomes the additional higher education places and the Secretary of State's decision to increase Government funding for research and knowledge transfer at Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster.".

I congratulate Mr. Beggs, and his colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party on giving the House the opportunity to debate the 11-plus, post-primary and transfer arrangements in Northern Ireland, and the wider questions of education and lifelong learning for which I now have responsibility.

The motion neatly encapsulates the conundrum that I face when it

Xcalls on the Government to maintain the levels of excellence achieved at so many schools while striving to enhance the performance and status of schools with a lesser level of achievement".

That is very much one of aims of the post-primary review, which we will debate in detail today. Sadly, the Government consider the rest of the motion flawed, and that is the reason for the amendment. However, I am grateful for the opportunity that this debate gives me, as Minister with responsibility for these matters, to place on record my appreciation of the efforts and achievements of principals, teachers, governors, other school staff and pupils in Northern Ireland.

The Liberal Democrat party tabled an amendment that was not selected but which paid tribute to the integrated schools movement in Northern Ireland. I should like to associate myself with that tribute.

As the hon. Member for East Antrim said, over the past 30 years schools in Northern Ireland have operated in the most arduous of circumstances. Governors and staff have worked tirelessly to make schools safe and secure places where children can learn.

The recent deplorable events in north Belfast at Holy Cross, Wheatfield and Currie primary schools demonstrate the ongoing pressures that schools have to face. However, I have no doubt that, across Northern Ireland, schools will continue to display the resilience and fortitude that have sustained them through the most difficult of times.

Northern Ireland's schools have long had a well deserved reputation for high achievement. They have produced more pupils with qualifications at the top end of the achievement scale than England or Wales. Northern Ireland grammar and secondary schools are to be congratulated on those achievements, but there is no room for complacency. As the hon. Member for East Antrim said, alongside the high achievers, Northern Ireland has also historically had more pupils leaving school with low qualifications than elsewhere. Various programmes, such as the raising school standards initiative and the school improvement programme, have been successful in reducing the proportion of school leavers with no GCSEs, but the problem of low qualifications persists.

There is strong social differentiation in educational achievement in the Province. Pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds do significantly less well than other pupils. The most disadvantaged pupils are only one third as likely to achieve a grade A in the 11-plus and only around half as likely to achieve five or more high-grade GCSEs as the least disadvantaged pupils. This matter has been debated for many years in Northern Ireland, and it is appropriate for me to set out its recent history. When we also consider the results of the 1996 international adult literacy survey, which showed that almost a quarter of the Northern Ireland work force are at the lowest level of literacy, it is clear that although the Northern Ireland school system does very well for many pupils, it does much less well for many others.

I agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim that a number of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I shall therefore limit the number of interventions that I accept.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Will the Minister give the House the figures that show how pupils in England and Wales are doing worse at the lower end even than pupils in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I could provide those figures, but I have chosen not to go into too much detail in my speech. We can discuss statistics, but there is broad consensus among the political parties, members of the educational establishment and the general public in Northern Ireland that the poor performance of the education system for the most disadvantaged pupils is unsatisfactory. That is largely the reason why we are discussing the subject today, and I should like to go into detail about these matters.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the acknowledged inequalities in Northern Ireland, more children from working-class backgrounds there go to university than is the case with pupils studying at comprehensive schools in England?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Yes. As I said, the high level of success achieved by Northern Ireland pupils is remarkable. They deserve congratulation and encouragement, and any review that is set in train should not damage their success. I take my hon. Friend's point: the figures show that 4.5 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieve no GCSEs, compared with 5.5 per cent. in England. However, it is important to take account of the number of pupils who achieve more than one pass at that level.

I do not want to get bogged down in statistics. Although they can enhance our debate, we are discussing questions of principle. I do not argue with the clear and demonstrable achievement of the grammar school system in Northern Ireland, to which the figures provide testimony. I want to explain today why the 11-plus is deemed to have been failing in Northern Ireland, and why there is such a broad consensus about the need for change.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

Is not the strongest principle of all that we should not risk replacing a system that works well with one that works less well? The statistics show that fewer children in Northern Ireland emerge from school with no GCSE passes. They also show that pupils in England do slightly better in the next band above that, with 89 per cent. leaving school with five or more GCSEs at grades A to G, compared with 86 per cent. in Northern Ireland. However, the Minister must know that that is vastly outweighed by the fact that 57 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieve five or more A to C grades, compared with 50 per cent. in England. The Northern Ireland system is achieving better than the system in England. She must take that fact very seriously as she considers replacing the Northern Ireland system with something that does not work as well.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Clearly, I take that very seriously. That is why we are approaching the issue with great care and engaging in detailed discussions with all those who have an interest and a stake in developing a new method of transferring children from primary schools to secondary schools. The wide disparity that exists in Northern Ireland and the concern about the low achievement of significant numbers of children was one of the key findings of research into the effects of the selective system there commissioned in 1998 by one of my predecessors, my hon. Friend Tony Worthington.

A report by Professor Tony Gallagher of Queen's university and Professor Alan Smith of the university of Ulster, published in September 2000, emphasised the adverse impact of the transfer tests on the primary curriculum and the undue pressure placed on children, teachers and parents. It said that many children entered secondary schools with a sense of failure.

Further research by Professor Gardner of Queen's university found that the transfer tests had the potential to misclassify pupils by up to three grades above or below their given grades. Following the publication of that research my immediate predecessor, Mr. McGuinness, established a post-primary review body chaired by Mr. Gerry Burns—and mentioned by the hon. Member for East Antrim—to consult widely and produce recommendations for post-primary arrangements. The Northern Ireland Assembly's education committee conducted its own review of post-primary arrangements, and made an important contribution to the debate. Its report concluded that change was both necessary and appropriate, and was subsequently endorsed by the Assembly.

The Burns report was published in October 2001 for consultation. Its proposals have implications for every child in Northern Ireland, along with his or her parents, and for every primary and post-primary school. It generated huge interest, and sparked a healthy and continuing public debate.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

Did the Burns review body look at results in Scotland? Rather than comparing, say, Kent with Northern Ireland, would it not be better to consider a comparable system across the water that has shown much higher levels of achievement because it has a universal comprehensive system—unlike England, which is a hotch-potch of grammar schools, comprehensives and mixed messages?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My immediate predecessor was looking at other systems. I cannot definitely say, hand on heart, that we looked at the Scottish system in detail, but I know that many different systems were compared, and I would be surprised if that were not the case.

Reflecting the importance of the issue, the consultation on the Burns report was the widest ever undertaken on an education matter. There were five strands. Twenty-eight ministerial meetings were held with the education sector, business, the Churches, the main political parties, and voluntary and community organisations. Moreover, more than 1,300 written submissions were received from a range of stakeholders, 40 per cent. of schools completed detailed response booklets, 200,000 people completed and returned household response forms, and the views of young people were obtained through focus groups and independent research.

Those responses were published last October and published in a report by the Department of Education. They demonstrated a clear demand for change. While there was little support for the review body's model in its entirety, individual recommendations attracted support. For example, there was consensus about the guiding principles, abolition of the transfer tests, and the development of a pupil profile.

I found the recent threat by the Irish National Teachers Organisation to refuse to co-operate in the development of the pupil profile extremely disappointing and unhelpful at this stage of the review. The majority view is that pupil profiles would be useful to teachers, pupils and parents and would formalise the good practice that already exists in many Northern Ireland schools, and I hope that the INTO will reconsider its position.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

Confusion has arisen over the Burns report survey every time the Minister has come here to answer questions on the subject. Will she confirm, clearly and precisely, that although most of those surveyed opposed the existing 11-plus procedure, a majority did not favour the ending of a form of academic selection between primary and secondary school?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Yes. Now I will make progress while I am winning.

There was consensus on the need for more co-operation and collaboration among schools, and a common curriculum for those aged up to 14. Many respondents also thought 14 a more appropriate age than 11 for pupils and their parents to consider and make choices about the curricular options or pathways best suited to the interests, needs and abilities of those pupils. There was also agreement on the need for young people to have broader curricular choice and more flexibility to change the nature and direction of their learning. Support was expressed for a range of approaches enabling post-primary arrangements to reflect the differing needs and circumstances of local areas.

Following publication of the report on responses to the consultation, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster announced the abolition of the transfer tests and said that the last tests would be held in 2004. When I assumed responsibility for education, I considered the responses carefully. I was satisfied that there was a clear demand for a change in the current arrangements, and support from, among others, the political parties for abolition of the transfer tests. They have disadvantaged too many children, and that cannot be allowed to continue. I therefore announced, on 31 October, my intention to take forward the post-primary review and work towards the abolition of the tests as soon as practicable. I should make it clear, however—reinforcing the point made by David Burnside—that no decisions have been made about academic selection or the shape of new arrangements.

It is important for the review to progress in a way that has the confidence and support not just of parents but of the education sector and the wider community. I want to build on the emerging consensus from consultation as we proceed with the review. I believe it is the responsibility of everyone involved in education to work together to develop new arrangements. As part of the process, my officials and I have held a series of meetings to discuss the responses to consultation, explore the full range of suggestions for new arrangements—including arrangements involving academic selection—and consider the next steps in the review. I have already met representatives of the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and the Alliance party, and further meetings have been arranged with other political parties. My officials have met representatives of the education sector, and will meet parents tomorrow.

I have found those meetings very useful. When they have been completed, I intend to consider carefully the views that have been expressed—along with the responses to all strands of the consultation—before deciding on the next stages of the post-primary review.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Can the Minister give us an idea of when she might be able to share her conclusions? If she intends to proceed with these changes, she should bear it in mind that the clock is ticking.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There are a few more meetings to be held before I can begin to pull together all the strands of the thinking that is currently taking place. I hesitate to give a definitive timetable, but this should take only a few weeks. I am well aware that a deadline is looming. Schools want certainty: they want to know what to begin to plan for. I know of the pressure that is on us, and it is right for us to work under pressure. One of my reasons for saying that I would try to meet the deadline if that was practicable was my feeling that it was necessary to maintain pressure on my Department to resolve the issue.

The hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned issues relating to higher education and student support. Northern Ireland is fortunate in having so many young people, and indeed mature adults, with access to higher education. It is also fortunate in having a superb range of higher education provision in its universities, teacher training institutions and further education institutes. Northern Ireland has around 40,000 undergraduates in the university system at present, of whom more than 28,000 attend the local institutions. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman said, almost 15,000 undergraduate students study part-time in Northern Ireland. In total, that represents a rise of 33 per cent. over the past five years.

The Government and, indeed, the Executive, have pursued policies that continue to encourage the movement of students within the United Kingdom while, at the same time, steadily increasing the number of places in local institutions. As the hon. Gentleman said, from 1999 to 2005, it is planned to have an additional 5,500 full-time undergraduate places in Northern Ireland. He is right that there is more to do, but that was the programme that was in place; it was the objective of the Executive, and we are continuing to work towards meeting that objective. There is no cap on part-time students; the system caters for as many as wish to undertake their studies in that way.

The expansion in full-time places has included additional places at St. Mary's and Stranmillis for diversified courses, the pilots of foundation degrees in further education institutions and, of course, expansion at the two main universities. The figures show clearly the expansion of local places and the growth of overall participation. The proportion of young people who leave Northern Ireland for their higher education has reduced, from 31 per cent. in 1996 to 27 per cent. in 2001.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I appreciate that money has been found for research for Queen's university and the university of Ulster. However, is the Minister aware that Stranmillis university college and St. Mary's university college received no money for research and that, under the new regulations, they are required to have research facilities or they will be marked down in the next review? Has she been given any account of that and can she give us any guidance and hope?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I was not aware of that issue, but now that the hon. Gentleman has brought it to my attention, I will look into it and write to him, if he will permit me so to do.

A significant proportion of young people seeking undergraduate education clearly wish to undertake it outside Northern Ireland. They are attracted for a variety of reasons including, no doubt, the desire to experience life elsewhere, as in my wonderful home town of Liverpool. Those who wish to undertake their higher education in the rest of the United Kingdom should have the opportunity to do so. The Government are, at the same time, conscious of the need to expand local provision, and have responded positively to that need. We will keep the issue under consideration.

Student support was an area of much interest to the Executive. A major review of student support was carried out in 2000–01 and resulted in a number of changes to the prevailing arrangements. Grants were reintroduced in 2002 for full-time undergraduate students from lower-income families. The threshold for the payment of a private fee contribution to higher education was raised to #20,000 in 2001, and has since been raised further in line with inflation. Child care grants were introduced in higher education and a number of further education bursaries were introduced in 2001 for full-time students over 19 on vocational courses, to supplement the existing discretionary awards. The threshold for such bursaries was set in line with the higher education scheme.

The changes have begun to affect the system. Some 11,000 students have so far availed themselves of the reintroduction of grants in higher education, and around half of all students do not have to pay the fee contribution either in full or in part. Some 300 students have taken up child care grants, and in further education, more than 400 students have so far taken up the new bursaries. The question of thresholds is important. The Executive set the further education and higher education bursary thresholds at the same level. It will take time to judge whether that is the appropriate level.

Student support arrangements, including bursary levels and income thresholds, are kept under continuous review. I shall consider them again in the light of any proposals that may be contained in the higher education White Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will shortly publish. In addition, I shall be considering how we might make entitlements to the rather complex student support system easier for students to understand.

Last month, the Government announced the budget for the three years from 2003–04. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend Mr. Pearson, gave the details. It provides an additional #239 million for education by 2005–06, an increase of 16.6 per cent. In addition to maintaining existing service levels, the budget delivers #52 million across the period for real-terms increases in schools' core budgets to improve schools' capacity to achieve further improvements in pupil performance. A further #530 million will be available for a major programme of investment to improve the education estate.

I am pleased that the budget includes an increase of #10 million a year for funding for research and knowledge transfer in the universities, to which Rev. Martin Smyth alluded. The increases will allow Queen's university, Belfast and the university of Ulster to sustain and build on their performance in the 2001 research assessment exercise.

In addition, there is to be an increase in higher education capital funding of #5 million for next year, rising to #10 million a year for the following two years as part of the reinvestment and reform initiative. Combined with the injection of #25 million from 2003 to 2007 under the second phase of the support programme for university research, those additions represent the most significant investment in higher education for the past decade. They will allow Northern Ireland to play its full part in the Government's science strategy, XInvesting in Innovation". Including the proposals for the strategic investment programme, it represents an overall increase by 2005-06 of just over 27 per cent. in student support and 31 per cent. in higher education. I am delighted that we have been able to make these very significant increases in the capacity of our universities, through the excellence of their teaching, the breadth and quality of their research and their expanding regional mission to contribute to society and the economy in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Antrim made three points. He asked me about Springvale, which I should like to deal with briefly. As he knows, the current plans are for 4,500 full and part-time students to enrol at Springvale. He will be aware of the difficulties that we are facing with the project. However, I remain committed to it. I want to see it taken forward, if not in its original form then in a revised form that offers the best and most appropriate provision for the people of north and west Belfast. Given the pressing needs of this part of Belfast, I am not prepared to walk away from the current difficulties.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I hesitate to give way, given the time, but I will as long as the intervention is very short.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is making the mistake of talking about Springvale benefiting north and west Belfast. That is a political decision. If we want an additional campus within the university of Ulster, it should benefit Greater Belfast and the whole educational outreach area of Northern Ireland. To sell something academically for political reasons is a mistake; to sell an additional campus as benefiting all the people of Northern Ireland but based in north and west Belfast is very different. Does the Minister agree?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He makes his point forcefully and I hope that he will have the chance to reinforce it. That is my initial response on Springvale.

The hon. Member for East Antrim talked about the common funding formula. I will not delay the House on that today; I hear the hon. Gentleman's points and there will be an opportunity to discuss it further in the debate on the order, which will take place soon.

The hon. Gentleman talked about morale among teachers, and I accept his point. However, we have set up an independent inquiry into teachers' pay and conditions, being careful to ensure that the unions agreed. The employing authorities and unions have received an interim report on principals' and vice-principals' salaries and differentials. We will discuss all that through the negotiating machinery in the immediate future. The full report is scheduled to be received in the spring. I appreciate that teachers are not merely concerned about pay and remuneration, but about many other issues that affect morale in the difficult environment in which they work in Northern Ireland. We are listening and responding to the representations that teachers have made and are making.

In conclusion, there has been—

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman will get a chance to make a speech later in the debate, but I will briefly give way.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way as I realise that she is coming to her peroration. I thank her for her general support for the Liberal Democrat amendment and I listened carefully to her remarks to ascertain whether there would be anything other than that general message of support. She will be aware that there is mounting interest in the possibility of opening more integrated schools in Northern Ireland, especially the Maine integrated school in Randalstown. As I have heard nothing about that possibility, can she tell us when we might hear something about it?

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Very, very imminently but not today. We remain extremely interested in the development of that sector. Everyone working to develop such schools deserves our support and encouragement.

There has been extensive and inclusive consultation on the Burns report, which provides a firm basis on which to take forward the post-primary review. I do not accept the description of the current situation as Xchaotic". I am determined to build on the emerging consensus to achieve the objective of putting in place new post-primary arrangements that will build a modern and fair education system that enables all children in Northern Ireland to achieve their full potential and that will maintain the current high standards of achievement.

We have a major success story in Northern Ireland with regard to higher education in all its forms, whether one looks at investment, participation or performance. Higher education is a tremendous asset, especially for supporting economic development and attracting inward investment. All those who work in the sector deserve our congratulations and encouragement and I am sure that the House will join me in confirming that later in the vote.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. May I say to the House that, in a limited debate, of which an hour has already been taken up, it would be appreciated if all further contributions, whether from Front or Back-Bench Members, could be moderated with that in mind?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2:02 pm, 14th January 2003

I take note of your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Indeed, it is my intention to be brief.

I congratulate Mr. Beggs and his right hon. and hon. Friends on choosing to debate this vital matter this afternoon. Although my congratulations and my pleasure in discussing the topic are entirely sincere, equally sincere is my sense of regret that such matters should be decided here in Westminster and that we have brought to an end debate in the Assembly.

I hope that that suspension will not be for too long, but I warned the Government that once institutions are suspended it takes a long time to get them going again.I fear that the current period of suspension will last much longer than the Government calculated and while it continues we must do the best possible job, but I cannot disguise from the House our regrets about the present situation or the fact that these matters cannot be discussed by the representatives of people in Northern Ireland who could take the time that is required to go through them in detail. Some of the confused statistical discussion that we have already heard this afternoon has demonstrated how damaging and dangerous it is to deal superficially and rapidly with such important matters. I greatly regret that it has not been possible for the Assembly and the Executive to continue to play their role in making important decisions about the future of education in Northern Ireland.

Before I talk about schools, I should like to say something nice and, I hope, encouraging to the Minister about higher education. I was delighted and heartened by the commitment that she gave from the Dispatch Box that she will not allow the Springvale development—the university of Ulster campus on the Springfield road site—to be dropped, as there was real fear of that. The Minister and I have discussed the matter privately and I am glad that it will not happen.

I agree very much with the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim: such a campus will be an asset for the whole of Northern Ireland and especially for the greater Belfast area—for obvious reasons—and we look forward to it. However, may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are two especially strong reasons for locating a campus in that area? First, it is close to the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. More than anything else, people in such communities need ready and easy access to education locally, if we are to solve the problems of deprivation. Secondly, as the hon. Lady knows, the campus will be within walking distance of both the Falls road and Shankhill road areas, which are not merely deprived but also subject to paramilitarism and extremism of all kinds. Those communities suffer from a sense—even a complex—of being neglected hitherto by the establishment and by people who have an easier life than them. It is important to reverse those feelings and to provide for people from both communities so that they can work together and share in making a success of an institution that is located, literally, between both of them. It will enable people to form the normal social and personal relationships across the community divide that have been so lacking in that part of Belfast. The Opposition set great store by the coming to fruition of that project and we support the strong commitment to it that the Minister has made so clear this afternoon.

Anyone coming to Northern Ireland afresh, as I did when the Leader of the Opposition asked me to take on my present role, is immensely and immediately struck by the extremely high standard of and commitment to education. As an Englishman, I can perhaps say that we are a bit philistine in this part of the United Kingdom. That problem does not exist so much in what is sometimes known as the Celtic fringe. It certainly does not exist in Northern Ireland, in the island of Ireland, in Scotland or in Wales, where people value education even if they have not had the chance to benefit very much from it. People set great store by their children being able to have access to education. Teachers and university professors have the status that they deserve.

The achievements in Northern Ireland have been striking. The hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned some of the figures—57 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieved five or more GCSE at grades A to C in 2000-01, whereas the corresponding figure in England was only 50 per cent. A further statistic from the same period struck me forcefully: 93 per cent. of Northern Ireland pupils achieved two or more A-levels whereas the figure in England was only 82 per cent.

Those are statistically significant differences. Those results were achieved despite the apparent disadvantage faced in Northern Ireland due to the troubles and the difficulties in access to schools caused by the sectarian divide. As the Minister pointed out, some schools were targeted by paramilitaries. Those results were achieved despite the fact that prosperity in terms of per capita income is lower in Northern Ireland than in England. Normally, there is a positive relationship between per-capita income and educational performance.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I give way to the hon. Gentleman but, like the Minister, I shall not give way frequently this afternoon.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

The hon. Gentleman repeated a statistic that I hear again and again—that 93 per cent. of pupils gained two A-levels—but it relates to the 93 per cent. of pupils who enter the final year and actually sit A-levels. Can he tell us the number of pupils who enter the S1—secondary 1—in Northern Ireland and who then achieve two A-levels before they leave high school education?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

When I am a Minister, I shall be delighted to take the initiative in publishing such figures. However, for the moment—I hope that it does not last long—the Conservatives are not in government so the hon. Gentleman should ask his Front-Bench colleagues to publish the statistics.

I emphasise that the figures I quoted are aggregate figures, so they do not reflect the performance of one sector—the grammar schools. They reflect the average position, taking account of the performance of other secondary schools. Therefore, it is not true that the better outcomes of the grammar schools in Northern Ireland are discounted by the less good performance of other secondary schools. The aggregate position takes account of both types of school.

The Minister's treatment of the statistics was somewhat confusing. One point struck me, and it would have been an egregious piece of special pleading if it were not confusion. She prayed in aid in her argument against selection the fact that adult literacy rates in Northern Ireland are lower than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom. Adult literacy rates reflect the education that was delivered 20, 30 or even 50, 60 or 70 years ago and they are an extraordinarily poor guide to the current performance of the school system. If one is taking important strategic decisions on that basis, God help education in Northern Ireland or whatever else they may affect.

I am not the only one to have been struck by the fine performance of schools in Northern Ireland. Many visitors notice that, and the people of Northern Ireland are extremely proud of their system. They relate the performance of their schools to the existence of selection. There can be no doubt about that. That is why the responses to the Burns report showed that, although people were not satisfied with the test currently used, there was overwhelming support for selection itself. Of those who returned the household response form—more than 200,000 people and far more than ever take part in any opinion poll—64 per cent., or nearly two thirds, opposed the ending of selection. Some 62 per cent. of teachers who returned the survey opposed the ending of selection. Those are very eloquent figures.

The previous Minister of Education in Stormont used his last hours of power before the institutions were suspended to try to establish a fait accompli by abolishing the test. It is extraordinary that the Minister of State has simply endorsed that decision. She has not listened to other views and not taken the opportunity afforded by the Ulster Unionist party in this debate to tell us with what she intends to replace the current system. The current position is that the test will be abolished in 2004, but we do not know what will replace it. That is a thoroughly irresponsible approach to administration and a particularly irresponsible approach to schools, because of the long-term consequences of any decision that is taken. How can one abolish anything at all without knowing what will replace it?

The Minister has acknowledged that the existing system of education in Northern Ireland is working very satisfactorily, and that makes her approach even more irresponsible. Surely the right professional approach to the problem would be to leave the present system in place until and unless she is persuaded that a better solution exists. She should then come before the House and argue for that better solution. To destroy a system or to create a gap without knowing how she will replace what has been destroyed or how she will fill that gap is extremely frivolous.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has provoked me to intervene on his diatribe and on his heaping of coals on my head. Surely he accepts that I inherited the decision when I took up my post. If I had reversed it, I would have created even more chaos. I considered carefully the reasons and details for the decision, and my work is now entirely focused, with the Education Department in Northern Ireland, on coming up with an alternative. As I have made clear, we will seek to find an alternative but the current system will continue until we do so.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

With respect to the Minister, I cannot accept that excuse. She took over her new functions almost within hours of Mr. McGuinness having signed the decree to abolish the test. No structural consequences had flown from his decision and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to have reversed it. She could have said that the Government were not going to allow an outgoing Minister to take a decision in his last few hours in office without their being clear as to what would be put in its place. They could have decided to allow the present system to continue while they restored confidence and discussed whether to maintain selection and whether it should be conducted under the 11-plus or some other test. When they had come up with a better system, they could have introduced the changes.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I will not give way at this stage for the reason that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have already given. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his point in the debate.

The fact is that the Minister took a decision. She may have decided that it was easier to do nothing than to do something, but it was a decision, if only by default, and it was quite unnecessary. By default, she endorsed the destructive decision taken by Martin McGuinness just before he left office. The decision raises anxieties, particularly because a Labour Government are behaving in this way. We know that it is in their nature to try to do things by stealth. The nastier the thing that they are trying to do, the more likely they are to want to use the weapons of stealth. We must seriously ask whether the Government are ideologically committed to destroying good schools in Northern Ireland, but do not have the courage—they never have the courage of their convictions—to say that they will abolish selection and will force excellent schools to cease to have any further role in selecting their pupils. The Government do not have the courage to say that they are destroying the character, ethos and individuality of those schools, and they will not tell the public in Northern Ireland or in Britain as a whole.

The Government are acting indirectly by saying that the decision was taken before the suspension of Stormont. They say, XWe can't do anything about it. It will take us months to look at the matter. We are awfully sorry but there is no alternative in place to the system that we are going to abolish." I am not suggesting that the Minister is making plans along those lines, but to abolish the existing test without being clear as to how it will be replaced raises justifiable suspicions. There are only two possibilities in such circumstances. The first is that the Government do not have an agenda and have abolished something without knowing how they will replace it. When I made that suggestion, the Minister leapt to her feet in indignation. I accept that it was not a particularly flattering suggestion and, as I have said, I do not accept her explanation.

The alternative is that the Government have an agenda, but they will not tell the House or the people of Northern Ireland what is in their mind. The Minister might not know what the agenda is, but perhaps she will receive orders one day from Alastair Campbell, who wants to create what he has described as Xbog-standard comprehensives" in Northern Ireland. She may be acting in entirely good faith and be sitting here with her brief without having yet received her orders from Alastair Campbell. She may have been told to soft-soap the House of Commons to try to keep us all as happy as possible in the meantime. I have no idea whether that is true. However, if one is abolishing something and is not clear with the House about how one will replace it, we can come to one of only two conclusions. The first is that the Government do not know and do not have an agenda. In that case—this is probably the more likely explanation—they are being irresponsible. The second is that there is an agenda, and we will not be told what it is today. That would be a far more reprehensible course of action by the Government.

I am glad that we have had an opportunity to air these issues, and that my remarks have smoked out some response.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am delighted at the hon. Gentleman's generosity in giving way. Will he comment on the suggestion made by my hon. Friend Mr. Beggs that we should establish an education advisory panel? Does the hon. Gentleman support that proposal?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Lady will have heard my earlier remarks if she was in the Chamber at the time. I expressed reticence about deciding such matters of detail in the House. It is unfortunate that the Government have placed us in this position by abolishing Stormont. Before we make detailed decisions about how we replace the present test, there should be much more detailed, thorough and professional discussion than we have had in this debate or are likely to be able to have. In the meantime, we should keep the existing system and lift the threat to it. We should do what I have already suggested the Government should have done and leave well alone. It is a fine and performing system and we should not replace it until and unless we have persuaded ourselves that there is a better solution. So my answer to the hon. Lady's question is that I am not committed, nor are the Conservative Opposition, to a particular form of selection test in Northern Ireland. We are committed to supporting good, thriving schools and to the principle of choice—that is fine—and we are against any act of educational vandalism. If a technically better mechanism to achieve selection than the present one can be found, we are open to being persuaded to consider it.

However, the mechanisms are not in place for the House to take an intelligent decision, given the very limited time now available to discuss Northern Ireland business. Meanwhile, when in doubt, we should not destroy what we have got, and I hope that the Government will think again about what was obviously an extraordinarily rapid—if it was not worse—decision simply to endorse Martin McGuinness's final present to the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall 2:20 pm, 14th January 2003

I welcome this debate and congratulate the Ulster Unionist party on initiating it. I hope that it will help to make the Minister—I see that she is now leaving the Chamber—and the Government realise that they should be cautious about what is happening in Northern Ireland. I want to urge caution on two levels.

First and foremost, it is still quite dreadful that not a single person in Northern Ireland was able to vote for the party that will now take the decisions about the future of the education system. The reality is that there is a huge democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. It is very sad indeed that the Assembly is not taking such decisions and I hope, like everyone, that it will soon be working again.

Given that the education system has done so much for so many years, such changes should not be rushed through by dealing with them in this Chamber, when they could easily be delayed, allowing more discussion and debate, so that the decisions could be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that those in the Assembly want to get back to work as soon as possible and that such issues would be on the horizon for them. So caution really does need to be shown.

I want to declare an interest: I am absolutely convinced that I would not be a Member of Parliament if I had not had the opportunity to have a grammar school education in Northern Ireland at an extremely good school, Belfast Royal Academy. It is still an extremely good school, and it takes children from all parts of Belfast and all sorts of backgrounds. Mr. Beggs talked about his farming background, but my background was probably more deprived. I grew up on a much smaller farm. I have absolutely no doubt that, without the opportunity offered by that school, I would not have been able to go on to college and university and become a Member of Parliament.

I have another interest to declare. I often visit schools in Northern Ireland, so I know that the standards of all schools—grammar and secondary schools—are so much better than anything that we have in England. So I urge caution because it seems absolutely amazing that we should want to destroy something that is working. I accept that too few people in some areas of Northern Ireland are able to go on to the right sort of education, but that happens in my constituency and deprived areas of England. The idea is that, somehow, what is really good and works should be destroyed to give, in theory, more children from deprived areas a better education, but we have shown that that just does not work in many other parts of the United Kingdom.

As recently as November, the Prime Minister himself condemned the Xenormous damage" done by the pursuit of the comprehensive ideal and said that he is determined to provide choice and diversity in education. He said that it is time to lay to rest the controversy over the future of the comprehensive system and that

XIt has all too often carried with it the notion that children should be treated as of the same ability."

Given that not one person in Northern Ireland had the opportunity to vote for a Labour Government, I cannot understand how we can try to push the current proposals through. The Burns report is clear: there is unhappiness with the 11-plus. That is taken for granted. My sister and I both passed the 11-plus. I went along feeling absolutely wonderful and looking forward to taking that test. Apparently I told my mother and father that I was looking forward to meeting lots of children. I lived in the country, but went elsewhere to take the test and it was nice to meet other children. My sister was much brighter than me, but she was absolutely terrified by the test. She hated it and worried about it. Children are different, and there is no doubt that the test needs to be adapted. We need profiles and different ways of doing things, but I do not accept that a majority of people in Northern Ireland favour ending academic selection. It is nonsensical to try to change what has proved to be very good indeed.

I also want to give the Minister some sense of caution about the Education and Libraries Bill. Again, the provisions in that Bill may be pushed through by an Order in Council—I am not quite up to date on when that may happen—and it will give the Minister strong, dictatorial powers. The Minister will have the power to remove all the governors of any grammar school—quite unacceptable—and make all sorts of changes to alter the system by stealth. I urge the Minister that that measure should not be pushed through the House, and I will certainly not support it. I do not understand why any Labour Member should support any measure on Northern Ireland when we do not even allow people in Northern Ireland to join the party that is governing them.

Lots of Members wish to speak, but I want to say that the standards of education in Northern Ireland are unquestionably high. That does not mean that we cannot do better or that we should not give greater encouragement to those children from some parts of Northern Ireland who do not even sit the exam. They do not take that opportunity for all sorts of reasons, which are similar to those in some of the worst parts of my constituency, where the assumption is that parents and children cannot become properly involved in education. Such problems should be considered, but I want to urge caution.

I recently visited one of the best girls schools in Northern Ireland, Strathaern school. Lady Hermon knows it well. Some of the children at that school have come from the most deprived parts of Belfast. The young girl whom I presented with the overall achievement award was from a very poor part of Belfast. In my constituency, such children would have great difficulty getting the sort of education that they would receive at Strathaern school, because no school in the immediate area offers that kind of opportunity.

Another important thing, which has not been mentioned at all in today's debate, is that private education hardly exists in Northern Ireland because no middle class parent needs to buy private education. The changes will affect the work being done by schools such as Belfast Royal Academy and the Methodist college—I could name many others—if they are no longer able to select pupils.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

My hon. Friend knows that I hold her in very high respect—we share many similar views—but she sadly appears to be guilty of trying to portray the future of Northern Ireland without selection as being like the position in her constituency, Vauxhall. Does she accept that, in fact, it would be more comparable to parts of Scotland, where the comprehensive education system allows parents to work hand in glove with the local education authority to improve the results? That vision may be denied to the people of Northern Ireland to protect the privileged system that she herself came through.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I have great respect for my hon. Friend, and he also supports my view that people in Northern Ireland should be allowed to join the Labour party. The statistics about Scotland, however, are not necessarily as good as he made out earlier. The comparison would not be between like and like, although I do not want to go into the detail of that now.

The other thing that is different about Scotland is that there is still a large amount of private education there. People who go to Northern Ireland, perhaps to take a job in the BBC or in the civil service—the kind of people who would pay for private education here—are helped to move when they realise that they will not have to pay to get their children into a good school, as there are so many of them. If we opt for a straightforward, one-size-fits-all comprehensive system in Northern Ireland, we will have private schools as a result, and we will lose the fantastic mix in the very best schools in Northern Ireland, in which young people from very poor backgrounds—the kind of background from which I came—can mix with the children of people running Northern Ireland industry. That mix still exists, and it is a huge advantage to young people.

I therefore urge the Minister to be cautious. There is absolutely no reason to go ahead with what Martin McGuinness did in his last few hours, outrageous and vindictive as it was. Instead, we should use the opportunity of the current lull before the Assembly is reconstituted to bring people together to talk about a solution that will build on our best provision, not destroy it.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:31 pm, 14th January 2003

I welcome this debate, and I commend my hon. Friend Mr. Beggs for his opening speech, which set out in detail and with great clarity the issues that confront us in terms of the future of education in Northern Ireland. I want to speak about my experience both as a parent and as a constituency MP, having spent a considerable amount of time visiting and getting to know the teachers, boards of governors and parents associated with the various post-primary schools in my constituency.

First, speaking as a parent, may I say that my eldest daughter underwent the 11-plus transfer test last year? As it happens, she did very well. She got an A grade and was accepted into Wallace high school, which is one of the grammar schools in my constituency: a very successful school named after one of my illustrious predecessors, Sir Richard Wallace, who was the Member of Parliament for Lisburn. Wallace is one of a number of post-primary schools in my constituency enjoying considerable success. The Friends school, which comes from a Quaker background, is an equally successful grammar school. Secondary schools such as Laurelhill community college, Forthill school, Lisnagarvey high school and Dunmurry high school are all proving successful and improving the standards of educational attainment in the greater Lisburn area and the Lagan Valley constituency.

My eldest daughter, however, like my youngest daughter, who sat the 11-plus last November, undoubtedly felt the stress and the pressure of the 11-plus examination, and it was the focus of concern and discussion in our family home for months. We felt the pressures on our children—we await the results of the test for my younger daughter, and I hope that she will be successful—and, as a parent, I see the need for the reform of the transfer procedure and of the 11-plus examination. I agree with many in the field of education who believe that two examinations are not the best or fairest way of determining a child's academic ability at the age of 11. I strongly disagree, however, with the recommendation in the Burns report on post-primary education for an ending of academic selection. Having looked at the practicalities, in my constituency in particular, I do not see how the proposal for a collegiate system can work in practice and be fairer than the academic selection that exists at present, even though I support reform of the method but not of the principle of academic selection.

I have received a large number of letters and telephone calls and have had many conversations with parents in my constituency who are very concerned about the proposals in the Burns report and the impact that they will have on their ability to have a proper choice to send their children to the school that they desire. The Burns report is very much based on the concept of parental choice, but the consequences of its proposals will, in many cases, limit the choice of parents. To give a simple example, I live in the village of Moira, which is on the outskirts of my constituency and about 10 miles from the city of Lisburn. It is also right on the boundary of the Craigavon area, which operates an entirely different education system known as the Dickson plan, under which transfer takes place at the age of 14 and a system of junior high schools and senior high schools or colleges exists. That system has been quite successful in many respects. Lurgan college and Portadown college, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble will know, have a record of successful educational achievement for their pupils. Lurgan college is particularly well placed in terms of its results, although I do not want to single out schools in the constituency of another Member too much—I am simply repeating what I read in the newspapers.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Not always.

Under the system that would exist if the Burns proposals for post-primary education were adopted, however, parents living in Moira would be at a real disadvantage. A constituent from Moira wrote to me:

XThe new system is supposed to introduce parental choice. I should be able to list my school of choice, which would be a school suitable to the academic ability of my child. I have an extremely bright child. His reading ability is of the standard expected of children three years older. Under the new system he will have no chance of gaining a place at"— what is currently known as—

Xa grammar school because he lives in a rural area, even though he currently attends a school next door to a grammar school."

Under the Burns proposals, that child will be at a significant disadvantage in terms of gaining a place at such a school because of his place of residence. Many of my constituents are therefore afraid that we are moving to selection by postcode.

Another constituent wrote to me:

XWe should find some way to retain an academic sector at the same time putting a great deal more emphasis and funding into a technical and vocational sector. This would give us the best of both worlds—excellence for all. Selection ultimately by postcode offers no real parental choice and should be vigorously opposed."

That is from a constituent living in Lisburn who is in closer proximity to the post-primary schools in my constituency than those who live in rural areas.

The collegiate system also has other consequences. In terms of fairness, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 places on Departments an obligation to treat people fairly and equally. The consequences of implementing the collegiate system, however, can be arbitrary. Let me quote two examples in which people in my constituency will be placed at a distinct disadvantage, and, in my opinion, will be discriminated against. A constituent living in Dunmurry has written to me to make the point that since Dunmurry will be in the west Belfast collegiate area, the parents of Protestant boys attending primary schools will no longer have any choice to send their child to what is now a controlled grammar school, because there is no controlled grammar school for boys within the west Belfast collegiate area. The only controlled grammar school within the west Belfast collegiate is Hunter House, which is a girls' school.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Does my hon. Friend accept that the chances of Hunter House getting anyone from west Belfast are nil and that it will be cut off from the natural hinterland?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I accept that. Indeed, the principal of Hunter House college made precisely that point to me when I met her recently.

Protestant families living in Dunmurry are discriminated against and severely restricted in their choice of school. However, Roman Catholic parents from Lisburn wrote to me explaining that Roman Catholic families from that town who wish to send their children to what is a maintained grammar school have no choice within the collegiate area covered by Lisburn, Banbridge and Crumlin. In fact, when the previous Roman Catholic maintained grammar school in Lisburn was closed in the 1960s, the Education Department gave a written undertaking that the parents of Roman Catholic children in the area would be given preferential places at Rathmore grammar school, the replacement for the new school. However, Rathmore is now in the west Belfast collegiate, so Roman Catholic parents living in Lisburn will no longer have that choice. Those are the hidden but real consequences of the collegiate system and the manner in which it discriminates against parents and parental choice.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

May I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend expresses clearly? The Government will be aware that parents are entitled to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions, as set out in the Human Rights Act 1998, and that, when not suspended, the Assembly will have to abide by those obligations.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must consider not just the equality obligations in section 75, but the implications under the Human Rights Act. That has not been fully thought through in the proposals in the Burns report.

There is much that one could say on the issue. However, I shall deal briefly with two key aspects of the proposals in the Burns report. The first is the admissions criteria. There is little doubt that the criteria set down by Burns will lead to the creation of area comprehensives. Without any form of selection, schools will have an all-ability intake. By making distance from school the determining criterion, schools will increasingly draw their pupils from the immediate area, so introducing an element of social injustice. Parental choice for those who live in rural areas, such as those in my constituency, will be substantially curtailed.

Friends school, for example, draws its pupils from a wide catchment area. Of the pupils in years 8 and 9, 60 per cent. come from the Lisburn area postcodes of BT27 and BT28. A further 20 per cent. come from Hillsborough and Dromore, with the postcodes of BT26 and BT25. But a significant proportion of year 8 and 9 pupils come from areas such as Moira, Aghalee, Maghaberry, Ballinderry and Glenavy. They will all be disadvantaged under the proposals because of the distance/proximity criteria. The Minister and the Department need to consider that.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the catchment area of a particular grammar school. Does he give any consideration to the people who live beside that school and who are denied access to it because they cannot pass the academic qualifications in the 11-plus? They have to watch people receiving the higher education that they are denied.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Minister (Defence), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but Friends school and Wallace school are within a few hundred yards of each other. Within half a mile of them and on either side are two excellent secondary schools, Forthill and Laurelhill, so I fail to understand his point. People who live within a mile radius have at least four excellent post-primary schools from which to choose, whereas my constituents in Moira, Glenavy and Ballinderry have none of those choices and will be discriminated against under the system.

The second key aspect that worries me is the transfer test and the issue of selection. The end of a selective system will inevitably mean the end of grammar and secondary schools as currently defined. However, Burns envisages that schools will offer specialist provision and that parents will decide on the most appropriate school for their child on the basis of the information contained in the pupil profiles and in consultation with primary school principals. The report appears to be offering the best of all worlds: the end of selection and the continuance of schools with a specialist academic provision, with guidance from the pupil profile and, ultimately, free parental choice. Surely, however, the former grammar schools will not be able to offer a specialist academic curriculum and meet the needs of individual pupils in an intake that, without selection, will inevitably cover the full range of ability. So it is misleading to assert that parental preference will be given priority when particular schools will be oversubscribed.

I hope that the Minister and the Department take on board the real concerns expressed in the debate and understand that the proposals in Burns are not the way forward. There has to be another way that commands a much broader consensus within Northern Ireland.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North 2:46 pm, 14th January 2003

I am reluctant to contribute to the debate, because Northern Ireland is not a part of the United Kingdom that I visit frequently and I would not want to be sufficiently presumptuous to comment in detail on its schools. However, I feel strongly about secondary school admission policies and want to make a few remarks that may inform the future debate in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Beggs made a balanced and broad presentation, and most of us would agree with much of what he said. However, when he tries to defend selection at the age of 11 by academic ability and at the same time says that he wants parity of esteem between the academic and the vocational, he is treading on difficult ground. It is intrinsic in any system that selects by academic ability that the academic will always be seen as superior to the vocational when it provides a superior level of per capita investment and superior life chances to those young people.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I hope the hon. Lady will accept that, as I only have a few minutes in which to speak because many of my colleagues want to contribute, I do not want to give way.

It is significant that the Government will next week publish their White Paper on the development of 14 to 19 education. We anticipate a great leap forward in the establishment of parity between the academic and the vocational which I fear many people in Northern Ireland have not yet appreciated. I note the concerns of the hon. Member for East Antrim and the consensus that the Burns report reflected on the need to do away with the existing testing regime. The debate should now focus on what is the best alternative.

Mr. Davies spoke of upholding devolution and his regret at the suspension of the Assembly. Almost in the same breath, however, he criticised the Minister for merely upholding the decision taken by the Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He cannot have it both ways. In addition, he should not criticise the Minister for supporting the response to the consultation on the Burns report, which clearly called for an end to the existing selection test, by saying that she should not have taken that decision. It is important that we take a consistent approach to these matters.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

If I had something by way of reciprocation, I would give way.

It is important that those now grappling with this issue in Northern Ireland realise that the matter has been exhaustively debated on the mainland for 40 years. The overwhelming conclusion in most parts of the United Kingdom system is that a comprehensive admissions policy serves to raise standards and build social cohesion. Even the most passionate advocate from the Ulster Unionist party cannot with conviction claim Northern Ireland as a model society for the rest of Europe in terms of social cohesion. We have to examine very carefully the nature of the secondary school system that we create and its consequences for society.

Those who argue the importance of academic selection at age 11 have to be convinced of certain factors. First, they must be convinced that it is possible accurately to identify a child's ability at 11, the age of transfer from primary to secondary school. That age is arbitrary; in a different system we could have transfer at 13 or at nine. They must be convinced also that the young person's ability will not increase, change or develop in their teenage years, and that there is a means of identifying that ability. Clearly, the consensus in Northern Ireland is that the current means, the 11-plus, is insufficiently accurate.

We should appreciate that as standards of education rise across the board, and as more primary school children attain high levels of performance, the challenge of discriminating between those who are above a given threshold at age 11 and those who are below that threshold becomes even more difficult. As levels of achievement rise, discrimination between the twenty-fifth percentile point and the twenty-sixth percentile point becomes almost impossible. The defenders of selection have to be convinced that a test, an interview or a pupil profile can accurately distinguish between those who will subsequently be given advantages and those who will be denied them.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Kate Hoey and other colleagues, will say that the opportunities that I received were entirely due to my passing the 11-plus and my subsequent achievements at grammar school. However, we have to ask how many people are denied the opportunities that I had because they do not go to grammar school, having failed the 11-plus, and are subsequently labelled failures. Many of them feel that sense of failure throughout their lives. We cannot consider the advantages of those who succeed at 11 without considering the consequences for those who fail at 11.

Once we have made that decision and are confident that we can identify ability and that we have an accurate testing system, we have to pick up the social consequences for the 75 per cent. who are not selected. In her opening speech, the Minister of State gave statistics for attainment in Northern Ireland. She said that the GCSE rate in Northern Ireland is slightly higher than on the mainland, but she pointed out that there is a huge amount of under-achievement. We accept that that is a factor not only for Northern Ireland but for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Comparing Northern Ireland with England on the assumption that the education system in England is 100 per cent. comprehensive is a fallacy. Although the system in most of England is, in theory, comprehensive, a significant minority is selective, and in the majority that is comprehensive, many subtle layers of selection operate. We must make sure that we compare like with like. We must be clear about the consequences of selection at 11 for those who are not selected.

We are talking about standards for the population as a whole, not for an arbitrarily selected minority, and we are also talking about social exclusion. I ask Ulster Unionist Members to remember that this issue is not a new one for the mainland; people have grappled with it for 40 years. There is now a consensus in most parts of the mainland, although not yet in Kent, Buckinghamshire or Lincolnshire—I accept that. If we believe in parity between the academic and the vocational, in equality of opportunity for all young people and in a society that minimises social exclusion, a comprehensive admissions policy is the way forward.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 2:56 pm, 14th January 2003

We are all agreed that Northern Ireland achieves impressive results for a proportion of the young people who go through the education system.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Including me. I am ever so grateful to have had the opportunity to go to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. It is certainly the best school in Northern Ireland and probably the best in the world. I took the 11-plus, and I wish to talk about that and then move on to integrated education.

As I listen to the debate, it seems to me that we are concerned about the abolition of the 11-plus because we fear that it may materially alter the excellent schools that many right hon. and hon. Members had the privilege to attend. Let us bear it in mind, however, that Gerry Burns was very clear about the 11-plus process in his report. He said:

XWe have been left in no doubt that the Eleven-Plus Transfer Tests are socially divisive, damage self-esteem, place unreasonable pressures on pupils, primary teachers and parents, disrupt teaching and learning at an important stage in the primary curriculum and reinforce inequality of opportunity."

He clearly feels that the test is a divisive tool.

Thinking about trauma, I can remember doing the 11-plus. The first time I mucked it up, but by an act of fate some naughty people had stolen a few papers and I had the chance to re-sit it. Obviously, I then passed it and got into the institution. However, I remember the enormous stress that I felt, and I am one of those people who prefers examinations to continuous review.

We need to recognise that the issue is not really whether the 11-plus is the correct system of selection; it is how we maintain what is best in the Northern Ireland education system while ensuring that those who are not selected are protected from harm and given an opportunity to shine academically and make more of their education.

On the question of whether the majority of people in Northern Ireland are for or against selection, the answer is not as clear as it may at first seem. Paragraph 4.26 of the Department of Education's report on responses to consultation on the Burns report indicates that only 30 per cent. support the ending of academic selection. However, let us remember that only 16 per cent. of the population responded, and the response rate from better-off areas was almost three times greater than that from less-well-off areas. More than 50 per cent. of the responses were from the parents of grammar school pupils. It is hardly surprising that people who benefited from the system want to retain it.

I accept that a large body of people and organisations support the idea of a selection system, but once again the figures are very telling. Responses from the education sector show that 60 per cent. of primary schools and 93 per cent. of secondary schools believe that academic selection should be abolished, but not surprisingly only 10 per cent. of grammar schools hold that view.

There are many examples of organisations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo or changing it. It is not surprising that individuals who have benefited from the system or perceive a benefit to their work would prefer the status quo, whereas those who feel that it is harming the children in their care or has harmed their personal opportunities would be in favour of a change. For that reason, we need to look at the issue more strategically and ask how we can best find a consensus solution that is satisfactory to the great schools that Northern Ireland has and does not compromise their performance, at the same time as widening access for other groups.

The Alliance party has proposed some interesting ideas. It suggests that although the age of 11 is the natural time in light of emotional, physical and mental development for students to progress from the single classroom atmosphere of primary education to a system of multiple specialist subject teachers, it is not an appropriate stage of development to distinguish between students on the basis of academic ability. The Alliance party proposes that children should progress together in post-primary schools that provide a general middle school curriculum for the first three years—say, to the age of 14.

At the end of that period, children would be in a much better position to understand their strengths and areas for development and, crucially, what their personal aspirations were, whether vocational or more academic. At the age of 14 it is more likely that they can make informed decisions about the rest of their education. It is surely not beyond the wit of politicians in the Chamber, consulting closely with the vested interest groups in Northern Ireland and led by the Northern Ireland politicians, to find a solution bringing all that together in a way that works.

I move to the second issue that I want to cover. Although I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to those thoughts and suggestions with regard to selection, the most striking feature of the motion and the Government amendment is the absence of any written recognition of integrated education. That is one of the most significant social developments in the past 20 years in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education describes its role as

Xthe bringing together in one school of pupils, staff and governors, in roughly equal numbers, from both Protestant and Catholic traditions. It is about cultivating the individual's self-respect and therefore respect for other people and other cultures. Integrated education means bringing children up to live as adults in a pluralist society, recognising what they hold in common as well as what separates them, and accepting both."

I hope that the amendment tabled by me and my fellow Liberal Democrats adequately reflects what is missing from the motion and the other amendment.

The first integrated school was Lagan college, established in 1981 by All Children Together, a campaigning parent group. There are now 47 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, 18 second level colleges and 29 integrated primaries. There are also eight new integrated education projects across Northern Ireland. The expected announcement of the opening of Maine integrated primary school in Randalstown, and the transformation of Springfarm primary school in Antrim and Glengormley primary school in September will bring the number of integrated schools to 50. Surely the Minister would agree that that is glowing testimony to the fact that things are changing and that parents believe that that is a good way forward. Can he assure the House that the recent rapid increase in interest in integrated education will be fully supported financially and in other ways by the Government and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland?

More than 15,000 pupils now study in integrated schools in the Province. That represents just over 5 per cent. of the total school-going population. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that there are so many and that the number is growing. Will the Government ensure that the obvious and continuing demand for places at integrated schools in Northern Ireland is facilitated? According to the Northern Ireland Audit Commission, there are 45,000 unfilled places in Northern Ireland schools. The only sector with no unfilled places, and the one that the population seems keen to use, is the integrated sector. There is, therefore, pressure on the Government to act more quickly.

I remind the Minister that in the Good Friday agreement, the Government stated that they would facilitate the development of integrated education. It is disappointing that one of the few changes made to the Government's XBuilding on Progress" document was the removal of support for growth in integrated education from the Department of Education's public service agreement. That was a telling change and it concerns me. Can the Minister explain why it took place and assure the House that support for the growth of integrated education will be pursued, and that there has not been a move away from the integrated education project?

If anyone doubts the benefits of integrated education, I advise them to visit an integrated school. I went to Hazelwood integrated primary school in Newtownabbey last September. After speaking with the principal, Jill Houston, I met many pupils. We discussed what made Hazelwood special. They replied that anyone could go to school there. When we asked whether it mattered where they came from, how clever they were or what colour hair they had, the children said no. Clearly, there is much more to integrated education than simply bringing together people from different religious traditions. One little boy had been turned down by other primary schools in the area because he had a hearing difficulty. I pay tribute to the fact that integrated education is about showing that all of us should be regarded as equal. By encouraging their children to go to those schools and to learn together, parents are actively contributing to the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Minister will focus on those two substantive points—selection and integrated education. I have set out the assurances that I seek on integrated education. May I impress on him the need for a clear timetable for the changes in selection procedures, as I requested from his colleague in my intervention? It is right for the schools to be nervous about the vacuum left by a stated change in policy and the absence of any detail. Perhaps even today, the Minister can say when we may expect those details to come out for consultation.

I remind all hon. Members once again of the importance of recognising that educational reform goes hand in hand with the kind of cultural reforms that I consider so important. It is a shame that the Minister and the Opposition spokesman took a full hour between them in a debate that properly belongs to the Ulster Unionists. I hope that by curtailing my remarks, I have enabled others from those parties to speak.

Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough 3:07 pm, 14th January 2003

I hope that I shall not take too long. The debate is welcome, as it is a debate about real politics called by the Ulster Unionists. It is an opportunity to discuss an issue that has been central to the politics of this country for many years—selection by academic ability at the age of 11 and its impact on educational achievement as a whole.

I remember the 11-plus. The key thing about it was that one passed or failed. The word Xfail" dominated the lives of so many people who were then passed on to a secondary system. Their self-expectations were thereby reduced. I come from a city, Sheffield, which shares with Northern Ireland the justification which, I understand, was part of what the Burns committee took on board in its deliberations on the matter—the research done by the Programme for International Student Assessment. This concentrated not on the achievements of the educational system in Northern Ireland, which I recognise is very high, in terms of the percentage of pupils getting high grades at A-level and so on, but on the differential between the best and the worst achievers. That differential reveals some of the worst symptoms of academic selection at 11.

Sheffield is a widely disparate city in terms of educational achievement. I was greatly relieved that the 11-plus had finished by the time my children went to school there. In Sheffield, the pressure was on from day one to live in the right place. As people said that the only schools to go to were those with sixth forms in the south-west of the city. They were the schools that enabled students to get into the top universities and that was the only place to live. That residential discrepancy has, in a sense, dominated Sheffield and ensured that the educational and social achievement differences between those living in the Hallam constituency and those in the Central and Brightside constituencies are some of the greatest in any city in the country.

This debate on selection is important and gives Labour Members the chance to demonstrate how the issue has played a part in determining our priorities. As Northern Ireland is a key part of the United Kingdom, we are a Government who are intent on driving forward equality of opportunity there. If we are going to achieve that, which I think is the thrust of the point made by those who tabled the motion, it is essential first to say that the test will be abolished. Continuity is an important point. Different things cannot be done simultaneously, so I completely endorse the idea that the first action of the Minister in wanting to change to system should be to say that the academic selection test at 11 will be abolished. It is then necessary to move forward, as I believe the Government are, in establishing further ways in which the factors that affect educational discrimination can most usefully be dealt with.

More will be needed than the abolition of the academic test at 11, including greater emphasis on integrated education and schools. From what I know of the integrated schools, they are playing a major part. I welcome what the Minister of State said about the expansion that is being proposed in further and higher education in Northern Ireland. The opportunity of part-time and full-time places for students and part-time places for mature students will also be essential in raising expectations and opening up possibilities for dealing with disparities between the top and bottom ends. Abolition of the test is only a first step. I hope that this Government, while the current system remains in place, and also the devolved Administration, which I hope will be re-established before too long, will be able to work on those further steps and encourage the child care provision, integrated schools and extra student support that will be necessary in taking them.

I want to mention one other aspect of education in Northern Ireland of which I had some experience when I worked with the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland as their Parliamentary Private Secretary. I was given a brief of keeping closely in touch with educational work, especially for adults and among women in Northern Ireland. On a number of occasions, I visited the award givings of the Belfast Women's Training Services organisation in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of certificates were distributed and the courses were full year on year. I was struck by how young women from the working-class areas of Belfast on both sides of the sectarian divide were so eloquent about the fact that it was only after they had left school that they were starting to realise their own educational potential, as well as their potential for taking a useful and active role in the community. I pay tribute to a lot of the work that has been done by that organisation among mature students in the working-class areas of Belfast, as well as by the Workers Educational Association and other adult education movements, which I got to know well.

Such organisations have lessons for many of us in the rest of the United Kingdom, especially in respect of inner city areas where such disparities of educational achievement exist, but the better way forward is to establish an educational system that does not end up with huge disparities for mature students. It is in that context that I think that the Government were correct—the Minister made a strong case built on the Burns report and the work of the devolved Assembly—that it was right to say at the start was that there would be no academic selection at 11, which can be divisive, and that they would abolish it as soon as was practicable, and work hard to establish how best to ensure that the transfer from primary to secondary education results in a society in Northern Ireland that is as little divided educationally as possible.

Of course, all of us in the House hope that a society will come about in Northern Ireland that is also as little divided as possible in any other way. This debate plays its small part in that wider political role as well.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim 3:16 pm, 14th January 2003

I was not in the Assembly when my party and the others chose their election portfolios. Ministries are always a difficult matter. The old hands, such as the now Lord Kilclooney—an old hand and one of the few Unionists who were in government in the old Stormont Parliament—always go for finance first, as that has the purse strings. That may be right or wrong, but I would have argued for education as the top priority with farming second on the list. That is my personal preference, but I was not there at the time.

The Executive cannot be reformed in the foreseeable future because of the former Education Minister's continuation with an operational terrorist criminal organisation, but if and when it does come back with some sort of structure, I hope that my party and the Democratic Unionist party, which is represented on the Benches to my left, will try to get together next time around and take education as our priority. It is the one priority that we should take. It is the major challenge and has the most importance for the future prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland.

The administrative vandalism to which the motion refers was an act of vicious vindictiveness. It was the act of a man who is not interested in the long-term future of Northern Ireland. I hope that he never again has an opportunity to hold that portfolio, but what happened happened, and what happens under the law we must accept. The Minister, who is not now in the House, will have to make a decision in the near future about the uncertainty that is now in the minds of all parents. Parents who have a child at school in year 6 do not know what is going to happen. They do not know about the selection procedure or about how their children will proceed into secondary education. Children do not know whether they will go to grammar or secondary school, or whether there will be a new form of selection procedure.

That uncertainty must be ended. I hope that it will end by reflecting the views of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, and the greatest possible number across the teaching establishment, as well as the political establishment, including all the political parties in Northern Ireland. The Minister's decision does not have majority support from either the Protestant or the Catholic community in Northern Ireland.

I went to the Antrim grammar school prize giving last year, and was extremely proud. I saw increasing academic standards—a proud school, good staff and pupils who want to be part of that school. Just after I was elected, I went to Ballyclare high school and had a briefing there, and then to the senior civil servant in the North Eastern education and library board to ask for a rating of the schools in the constituency. He said, XWhen we bring in visitors from outside Northern Ireland, we take them to Ballyclare high to show them an excellent school, a state school performing well." As has been said, we do not have private schools. I say to the Government: do not destroy this excellence.

Defending grammar schools does not mean that we will lower standards for our secondary sector. I heard the expression of some views that should have died with the Labour party in the 1960s—a lot of old fashioned socialist clap-trap, the sort of language that made it sound as if going to a grammar school somehow means that a social stigma attaches to the secondary school that might be only a couple of hundred yards away. When I attended one of the best institutions in Northern Ireland, the Coleraine Academical institution, I did not find such a stigma with the secondary school next door. I do not find it in my constituency now. I do not find a social stigma attaching to the very fine pupils who go to secondary school.

Let us not try to re-fight an old class battle of the 1960s. Comprehensive education failed in this country and was a disaster economically. A few academics involved in the Burns report share the left-wing parentage of the failed academia of the 1960s. Let us not make that mistake. We have a good, strong system with high academic standards that is highly respected by the community. Do not destroy it.

After making the strong point that we need a form of academic selection, let me turn to some related subjects. Whether it is Dickson or the American high school system, let us get the academic selection put in place so that parents and children, especially in year 6 but going back to years 5 and 4, have that uncertainty removed and we know what the transfer procedure will be from next year.

Two points on funding concern me. In this wide debate, I want to try to represent the concern within the primary sector. For historic reasons, going right back to the Education Acts of the 1940s, primary education in Northern Ireland has been the poor relation in funding terms of secondary education. On the mainland, in England and Wales, the amount in pounds per head spent on the secondary sector and on the primary sector is pretty even—within single percentage figures. In Northern Ireland the primary sector is very much the poor relation. As we all know, the overall budget is the problem on funding, but it is also the overall budget plus the allocation. I wish to make a plea on behalf of the primary school sector, which feels that it is often the poor relation of the secondary sector.

I move on to the problem of research. Years ago, I used to advise the Industrial Development Board, which is now Invest Northern Ireland. When it brings Japanese, Korean and American business men into Northern Ireland, our standard of education, our secondary education and our highly trained workforce feature right up high in the slides and presentations. That gives us a competitive edge in inward investment when there is so much competition in the United Kingdom between the regions. Let us not destroy that. Let us try to be conservative. If it is good, do not wreck it. Keep it there, because it is a selling point for Northern Ireland.

There is a point about research that I raised with the Secretary of State for Education last November. The underspend per head of population in Northern Ireland for the two universities, the university of Ulster and Queen's, is very low compared with that in England, Wales and Scotland. The matter needs to be considered by the Government. We need research linked into our universities, because that is how to get industry in and how to get good, modern, high-tech companies to come into Northern Ireland, where we have had considerable success in recent years.

In conclusion, I repeat to the Government: do not wreck it. We do not need an elected dictatorship in Northern Ireland telling us that it will destroy our grammar school system. We have a fine grammar school system, a fine secondary system and a fine primary system. There is a great deal of room for improvement and we want to take part in that. If the Government follow the action of the former Minister of Education, they will impose a comprehensive form of education in Northern Ireland that is not supported by the vast majority of the people, Protestant and Catholic, and that will destroy the grammar school system. I say to them: do not do it.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West 3:25 pm, 14th January 2003

I have only a few minutes, so I shall be swift.

My constituency is in Scotland, so it might seem that I would not have much to say about education in Northern Ireland. However, I spent a short while running a small but fairly diverse education service in Northern Ireland, and I did a couple of higher degrees while I was at it, so I got to know the Northern Ireland education system fairly well.

Some strong points have been made from both sides during the debate. The main points that I can raise in the time available relate to selection and the method of transfer between primary and secondary education, and the whole business of grammar schools and how to correlate them with grammar schools in England. We have none in Scotland.

My hon. Friend Mr. Connarty received short shrift from Mr. Davies when he mentioned pass rates. The pass rate referred to was 93 per cent. in Northern Ireland obtaining two A-levels at A to E, which is not the case. The point that my hon. Friend was trying to make was simply that that is the proportion of people who sit A-levels.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman with the correct figures. As a proportion of the 18-year-old population, the appropriate figures are, for those obtaining two or more A-levels in 1999 to 2000: in England 30 per cent.; in Wales 27 per cent.; and in Northern Ireland 37.7 per cent. Again, the Northern Ireland system is delivering better results.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but the point made earlier confused overall attainment with the degree of selectivity. One could have a pass rate of 100 per cent., but it would not tell us anything about the people who did not sit the exam. That is different from the way in which we express GCSE figures, which gross up the whole cohort.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

Perhaps I did not express myself clearly. This is even more compelling evidence. The figures I gave a moment ago are as a percentage of the total 18-year-old population, so there is a very significant improvement in performance in Northern Ireland compared with England.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West

I would not necessarily disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I simply wanted to amplify the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East for which he got fairly short shrift.

In Northern Ireland, the figures are slightly higher and have certainly improved because there is greater selectivity. In England, by contrast, there is a modest level of grammar school education. Another difference is that English grammar schools, particularly in Sutton in Surrey, for example, operate in a very different ecology. Surprisingly, the local secondaries perform at a level not far below that of the grammar schools. The latter, however, tend to perform better academically in England—I understand that this does not happen in Northern Ireland—because GNVQ and vocational figures are included in secondary school results. There is therefore a school ecology, as it were, in which everyone is getting comparable results. However, the grammar school system that has evolved in certain English counties has produced a more diverse education than exists in Northern Ireland where, I believe, a fairly conservative, old-fashioned structure has been preserved. By contrast, some of the best grammar school practice in England is forward looking and progressive.

I accept what one or two Opposition Members, including David Burnside, said about the comprehensive system in the 1970s. There is quite a lot of room, to say the least, for more diversity and choice based on aptitude testing. There is an important distinction to be made between raw and crude academic testing and sound, valid academic testing at the age of 11 that involves complex and sophisticated tests based on specific aptitudes. The latter gives parents a choice about the kind of school their children may attend, including, perhaps, sports or art-oriented schools. That philosophy is increasingly predominant in English education and should be naturally predominant in Northern Ireland too, even though it would have different origins.

Many Opposition Members nodded their agreement with the valid point made by my hon. Friend Kate Hoey. If we strip grammar schools out of the system and do not replace them with anything, people will simply opt for the private sector. Nationally, about 7 per cent. of kids are in private schools, but in Edinburgh the figure is about 20 per cent., which shows what happens when a fairly affluent group of people in a well-off city comes up against a non-differentiated system that does not provide choice. Grammar schools, or what they should evolve into, provide that choice.

I am pushed for time, so I shall cut my comments short. Opposition Members, including those who are diametrically opposite, bemoaned the potential loss of academic excellence if grammar schools disappear. That argument misses the point that grammar schools in England are evolving in a diverse ecology and have maintained academic excellence alongside schools that have managed to develop new specialisms. That is the dominant philosophy in education in England, and ought to be in Ireland too.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:32 pm, 14th January 2003

I welcome our debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland, and am glad of the opportunity to take part in it. I shall keep my remarks brief and deal with several general matters.

First, I join the Minister who, in her opening remarks, mentioned recent events in my constituency at the Holy Cross girls primary school, Wheatfield primary school and Currie primary school. Members will be aware that, whatever our arguments on the future of our education system, the first priority is the safety and well-being of all our children, as well as staff and parents going to school. It is right that the House should put on record its outrage at events not just at Holy Cross, but also at Wheatfield school and Currie school, as well other schools across north Belfast that have suffered terribly in recent years. Some schools rightly feel that their plight has been overlooked in favour of others that have received more media attention. I therefore welcome the Minister's remarks. I wish that Sinn Fein, in its comments on those events, would declare its responsibility, rather than trying to avoid it and placing the blame for the attacks, particularly at Currie and Wheatfield, on the loyalist community, as that is deeply resented.

The main thrust of my remarks concerns academic selection and Martin McGuiness's last-minute, last-gasp decision, which reminded me of the last-gasp decisions made by the outgoing President Clinton, when he rushed to pardon a host of dubious characters. There was a last-minute rush by the outgoing Education Minister to push through his decision to abolish the 11-plus at the very last moment, in breach of his commitment to Assembly Members that no such decision would be taken without its first coming back to the Assembly for consideration and decision. Those who argue that pursuing that course and simply adopting the former Minister's decision is simply advancing what was already agreed by the last devolved Administration are wrong. In fact, no such decision was made by that Administration—a decision was made by one Minister, which points to a flaw in the devolved system.

Speaking as an ex-Minister in the devolved Administration, I have some experience of this, and sometimes I have to say that it has worked to my advantage. The reality is, however, that Ministers are unaccountable and, in this case, the Minister of State has adopted a decision that did not have the backing of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The decision was in breach of the undertaking given by Martin McGuinness to the Assembly.

I have to agree with the remarks made by Kate Hoey. She attended a very good school, the Belfast royal academy, which I had the pleasure of visiting the other day and meeting the headmaster. He would be delighted with the comments that a pupil of that school has made today in the House, because he would entirely agree with what she said about academic selection.

There is no reason for the Minister to have adopted this decision, and no reason for there to be a rush to abolish the 11-plus, particularly when we recall that no decision has been taken on its replacement. The sensible thing to do would be to take our time, look at what should replace the 11-plus—if it is to be abolished—and then make the decision, so that parents, staff, pupils and everybody else in the education system would know exactly where they were. It would have been easy simply to say, XLook, this last-minute decision by the former Education Minister is not going to stand. We are going to maintain the status quo." There would then have been no upset whatsoever. The decision by the Minister in this House has plunged the education system into chaos because people are uncertain about what is happening.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

I would love to give way, but my time is very limited.

The decision should have been taken to maintain the status quo. I am reminded of the rush to abolish the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Without knowing what the final outcome of the House of Lords reform will be, the Government have proceeded with the first stage. In Northern Ireland, they have rushed to abolish the 11-plus with no idea at all—or certainly not one that they have shared with the people of Northern Ireland—of what its replacement is to be. I have often heard it said, particularly by Ministers, that we cannot advance the argument for the abolition or replacement of something without having a viable alternative. Northern Ireland politicians are lectured all the time on the need to put forward an alternative. In this case the Government are saying, XLet's abolish the 11-plus system, but don't ask us what the alternative is. We will come up with that as we go along." That is not a satisfactory, logical or sensible way to proceed.

The Government have not adopted this approach in relation to other matters emanating from the devolved Administration. For example, I had some responsibility for Housing Executive rent increases—a settled policy—but the new direct rule Minister has decided to increase Housing Executive rents by inflation plus 1 per cent., in breach of the previous settled policy of the devolved Administration that they should increase only by the rate of inflation each year. The idea that the Government are simply following on from the previous decision of the devolved Administration needs to be focused on. It is wrong to argue that that is happening. The Assembly did not have the opportunity to debate this matter following the decision announced by Martin McGuinness, and the Minister should reflect carefully on the comments of Northern Ireland Members today. He should recognise what they have been saying: you don't fix something that ain't broke. Northern Ireland has the finest education system anywhere in the United Kingdom, and that should be preserved and enhanced, not destroyed.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 3:38 pm, 14th January 2003

May I begin by thanking all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this debate? I am quite satisfied that our party took the right decision in bringing this matter before the House; this debate vindicates that decision completely. I echo the comments made by Mr. Dodds at the outset of his speech, when he referred to the recent outrages at Holy Cross, Wheatfield and Currie schools, coming as they do after the disturbances that we have had over the last year in the cockpit of north Belfast, which has seen some of the worst violence of the last 30 years. Riven as it is by sectarian divisions, it is also the area of Belfast that has been most affected by the disappearance of the engineering industry that had given the area much of its culture, and the consequent disappearance of what had been the normal career path for most people who lived there. This has contributed to the violence and to the recent disturbances. Improving the quality of the schools in north and west Belfast is crucial to improving matters generally. Work in the schools that we have mentioned is therefore important.

There is a sense of déjà vu about the debate. We have held many discussions in Northern Ireland about the Burns report and the shape of post-primary education over the years. It is understandable that Labour Members spoke in the context of their experience and the arguments in which they had been involved in England in the past 20 to 40 years. They may not appreciate that there are differences in Northern Ireland, and that it is wrong simply to compare the position in Northern Ireland with that in England. That struck me especially when I listened to the contribution of Mr. Chaytor. In socio-economic terms, society is much more egalitarian in Northern Ireland than in England. We have political divisions and quite acute religious and sectarian divisions, but our society is much more socio-economically egalitarian.

The greater equality is due to the current education system. Some hon. Members supported comprehensive education in England 30 or 40 years ago because they perceived it as a method of curing social divisions and a means of social engineering. It would produce the opposite result in Northern Ireland, where the more egalitarian society that they want already exists. The introduction of comprehensive schools would drive existing schools out of the state system. They would go private in ways that would reinforce and worsen the sectarian divisions. We must bear that in mind. Following the so-called comprehensive route and imitating events in England of 40 years ago would be a social disaster in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend David Burnside referred to the economic consequences, which would be equally significant.

Helen Jackson constantly referred to selection at 11. We are not considering that. A large part of Northern Ireland, especially my constituency, where the Dickson plan operates, uses a much more mixed approach. The age of 14 is as important—if not more so—as others. The Dickson plan works well, especially for those in the academic stream. Until recently, it did not work so well for those in the non-academic sector. That is one of the great weaknesses of the education system in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist party has repeatedly introduced proposals to try to enhance secondary and technical education. We appreciate that that is the challenge, and that we need to level up, not down. We must retain the excellence, but tackle the weaknesses. One method is to examine parity of funding and status with a view to attracting finance. The differences in the financial structures of grammar and secondary schools should be considered and changed. That is a matter not simply of funding but of schools' ability to deal with their position. We want such matters to be examined. Parity of esteem is not an idle phrase.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North—I must tackle that bad habit—in his criticism of the Minister's approach. It is essential to understand that the decision of the former Minister of Education in the last few minutes of devolution would not have been made without the prospect of suspension. The Northern Ireland Executive would never have made such a decision and the Assembly would not have approved it. The Minister of Education knew that his proposals on the Burns report were not going anywhere as far as the Assembly and Executive were concerned. That is the reason for the delay. If I had more time, I would explain the structures that we adopted for decision making in the Executive. They would have ensured that the decision could not be effected. Suspension led to the decision. In our motion, we use the term Xadministrative vandalism", and those words were deliberately chosen.

The Minister should not regard the decision as democratically legitimate, because it is not.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I am sorry—I would like to pursue this matter further, but we are short of time and I must give the Minister the opportunity to reply. Because this important decision is not democratically legitimate—indeed, I wonder even about its legality—and because it was taken without something else being put in its place, I very much doubt whether it would have survived a judicial review.

Before I leave the points made by the Minister, I want to refer to a matter that I touched on in replying to the hon. Member for Bury, North. One thing that we did in respect of student finance of which I am particularly proud was to introduce grants for further education. I was greatly disappointed to hear from the Minister that, so far, only 400 of them have been taken up. That is partly because of a certain reluctance within the education system to market them and to bring them to people's attention. We took a very deliberate decision to treat people in further education in the same way as those in higher education. We appreciate the importance of the skills developed in further education both in social terms, and to those who are pursuing that particular course in life. We cannot improve that sector and parity of esteem in the way we would like unless similar support is provided.

I do not want to spend too much time on the selection issue, which has been dealt with comprehensively. I agree with the Minister's observations on the comments made in yesterday's press by the northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation. He has adopted a must unhelpful approach, and I was amused to learn that, in making those comments, he began by attacking political opportunism, only to proceed to engage in a bit of such opportunism himself. He should keep out of politics and leave the political decisions to those with a mandate, rather than attempting through the threat of union action to determine the decisions that Governments take. To do so is wholly wrong, and we do not want that bad form of trade unionism to recur.

Lembit Öpik mentioned the integrated sector, and as he knew before today, I intended to raise that issue myself. It is perhaps not always appreciated here in England that integrated education is in fact a great lost opportunity in Northern Ireland. That lost opportunity occurred not 40 years ago but 80 years ago, when the first Unionist Government proposed the introduction of a single compulsory integrated education system in Northern Ireland. It was Lord Craigavon who tried to introduce that system, in 1924, but unfortunately he was unable to do so because of the combined opposition of all the Churches. Had he been successful, the history of the past 80 years would have been quite different.

Integrated education is not a new idea, therefore, and I was a bit disappointed that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred purely to the integrated education movement. I know that it includes a lot of well-meaning people, but they comprise just one particular movement, and there is more to integrated education than them. Some of the difficulties that people have with the integrated education movement concern issues such as accountability and creating yet another education sector. We already have too many such sectors: in addition to the controlled and maintained and the Irish medium sectors, we would then have the integrated sector. We need to look at these administrative structures more closely, and to encourage more of the integration that happens naturally. Many of the schools that are not in the integrated education movement are in fact integrated. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will know from personal experience that major grammar schools in Northern Ireland that are thought of as Protestant schools have significant Catholic enrolment, and would qualify as integrated. I do not want to speak only about grammar schools in Belfast. In the constituency of my hon. Friend Lady Hermon, the Catholic St. Columbanus secondary school at Ballyholme near Bangor has a Protestant enrolment of nearly 50 per cent. The school's ethos and quality mean that people go there as a matter of choice. There exists a significant integrated sector that is not recognised in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. We need to be more comprehensive in regard to such matters.

I was disappointed that no member of the Social Democratic and Labour party contributed to the debate. I recognise that that means that the party does not have to say something on the question of education. There may be reasons for that, and I hope that the House will forgive me for indulging myself by saying that someone once remarked that the distinction between the SDLP and Sinn Fein was that SDLP was composed of people who passed the 11-plus.

It is puzzling that the SDLP should have adopted a somewhat hostile approach to academic selection, given that opinion poll evidence shows that it is the most middle-class party in Northern Ireland, in terms of electoral support. Its members may find it difficult to come here and adopt a position that is contrary to the interests of most of the party's voters. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that there is a substantial number of Catholic grammar schools. I do not want to do a head count, but they may outnumber the grammar schools that are considered Protestant. Those schools have a view, as do the people who represent them.

The proposition is simple: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Certain sectors in education in Northern Ireland need to be improved, especially on the secondary side. Also, certain geographical areas have massive social problems that need to be addressed. Education is an important component, but not the only one. We need to look at a variety of social issues.

I was pleased that the north Belfast community project began to look at those matters, and it is a great disappointment that we have been interrupted in our follow-through to that project. It was an example of an approach—integrated in a different sense—that needs to be adopted in respect of areas where huge social problems are tied to lack of attainment in schools. The problem is one for society and not just for schools, and that is where our focus must be.

The Government are responsible for education in Northern Ireland. They could do a tremendous amount of damage, or they could help reinforce some of the good things that we were trying to do. I hope that they choose wisely.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office 3:52 pm, 14th January 2003

I am grateful to Mr. Beggs for initiating this afternoon's useful and interesting debate on education in Northern Ireland. I am grateful too for the lively and informed contributions from hon. Members, and I am pleased to use the short time available to reply to the debate.

As today's Opposition day debate was chosen by the Ulster Unionists, I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) will forgive me if I concentrate my remarks on the speeches made by members of the Conservative, Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties. However, I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions: it is clear that they have longstanding expertise in education, and specific local knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland.

The quality and passion of our discussions underline the importance that we all attach to the education of our young people. They illustrate why education is a key priority of this Government.

The education system in Northern Ireland has many strengths, and these have been referred to today. We have a highly qualified and professional teaching force, governors who make a substantial voluntary commitment to the management of our education institutions, strong schools and further education institutes, and a wide range of higher education provision in our universities, which have a world-class reputation in a number of areas.

Many young people in Northern Ireland schools and further education institutes achieve top-grade qualifications and a high proportion go on to higher education. We must continue to build on these strengths, and the investment being made in education by this Government is clear evidence of our determination to do so.

We have heard much today about the challenges facing education in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim—who made a thoughtful and wide-ranging speech—about the importance of education to Northern Ireland's economy, and the need to proceed carefully with the post-primary review. That is exactly what my hon. Friend the Minister of State will do. The hon. Gentleman also made important points about parity of esteem via the vocational route, and made comments about Springvale and the common funding formula which were addressed by my hon. Friend.

I have not much time, but I want to say something about the university funding system, which was mentioned by a number of Members. We entirely accept that many people cross the water to attend university here although they would much prefer to be educated in Northern Ireland, and we are dealing with that.

As the hon. Member for East Antrim knows, when—as the Minister responsible for finance in Northern Ireland—I saw the draft budget and observed that there was no money to fund education, research and the research assessment exercise, I was surprised, to say the least. I was pleased to be able to provide the necessary money—#10 million a year for the next three years—and also to announce, as part of the reinvestment and reform initiative, #25 million for capital projects that will ensure that Northern Ireland's universities have a world-class structure to accompany their expertise.

The gravamen of the hon. Gentleman's speech, and indeed the debate in general, concerned the former Education Minister's decision to announce the abolition of transfer tests. Mr. Trimble said that neither the Executive nor the Assembly would have made that decision, and I take his word for it. I also understand why Kate Hoey urged caution. I must tell them that we did not want devolution to be suspended, but it happened, and I do not think it would have been appropriate for an incoming home rule—[Interruption]—direct rule Minister's first action to be the announcement of the reversal of a decision made by the former Education Minister.

This is of course an important issue that needs to be addressed, and is indeed being carefully considered, but I must tell Opposition Members that consultation on the Burns proposals showed clear support for abolition of the transfer tests. I must add, notwithstanding the comments of Lembit Öpik, that the household form responses showed a clear preference for maintaining academic selection.

We need to discuss the way forward with the political parties. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has already had a round of meetings with education sector interests, parent representatives and the political parties, and is continuing to engage in such meetings. We hope to be able to make an announcement about the next stage of the review shortly. Again, we would all prefer local politicians to drive this forward rather than a direct rule Minister taking the decision. However, I reiterate that no decisions have yet been taken about the new post-primary education arrangements—they will be taken in the future.

In the short time available to me, I should like to talk about the other major issue raised—

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 144, Noes 377.

Division number 49 Education (Northern Ireland)

Aye: 144 MPs

No: 377 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House congratulates governors, principals, teachers and other school staff on the contribution they make to educating young people in Northern Ireland; welcomes the high qualifications achieved by many pupils but acknowledges that there are also large numbers of young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, leaving school with low qualifications; urges the Secretary of State to continue to take forward the review of post-primary education with the objective of putting in place new post-primary arrangements that will maintain those high standards of achievement and build a modern and fair education system that enables all children in Northern Ireland to achieve their full potential; and further welcomes the additional higher education places and the Secretary of State's decision to increase Government funding for research and knowledge transfer at Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster.