Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:23 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Theresa Villiers and to hear contributions from other Members about improving education standards across the whole United Kingdom. The Minister has responsibility only for England and Wales, but I wish to put on the record in Hansard some of the excellent education achievements from Northern Ireland. Although the Minister does not have direct responsibility for the improvements we are seeking, I still wish to put my points on the record.

It will not be a secret in this House that this is another great day on which I am proud to hail from Northern Ireland and be the Member of Parliament for Strangford. I also wish to put on the record my thanks to all the principals, teachers, care staff and kitchen staff, and all those who work in the schools and education system in my constituency and across Northern Ireland, with all its collective and different strands, including state schools, integrated schools, or the Catholic-controlled maintained schools. They are all doing an excellent job, as indeed are the faith schools.

On days like this, I am able completely to dispel the label that is often attached to those of us from Northern Ireland. Earlier the Minister referred to languages, and yesterday in the Jubilee Room near Westminster Hall, there was a modern languages event held by the Open World Research Initiative. Queen’s University Belfast was represented at that event, as were some other universities, and it is important to realise the importance of languages and how they can open up the world and provide opportunities and jobs for students.

This year, again, results in Northern Ireland outstripped those on the mainland and, with respect, in recent years students from Northern Ireland have outperformed their counterparts in England and Wales. In 2017, for instance, A* or A grades were achieved by more than three in 10—30.4%—of Northern Ireland entries. There have been big changes to A-levels in England with reduced or no coursework in some subjects, and exams alone determining results. AS-levels no longer count towards the final A-level grade in England. That is not the case in Northern Ireland, where AS-level results still count towards the final A-level grade. More than three-quarters of A-levels in Northern Ireland are taken through the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment, and the rest of the entries are taken through a variety of English and Welsh exam boards.

Exam results this year have been excellent, and I declare an interest as one of the governors in a school in my constituency, Glastry College. Its results were excellent, as were many results across my constituency and Northern Ireland. The number of A* to C grades rose by just under 1% to 81.1%, around one in 10 entries received the top A* grade, and 85.1% of entries from girls achieved A* to C grades. The proportion of entries from boys achieving those grades was slightly lower at 76.9%. There was also a significant rise of almost 5% in the number of girls taking science, technology, engineering and maths—other Members have mentioned that point in their contributions. We were greatly encouraged by the interest shown in those STEM subjects, which now account for 43% of all GCSE entries. A total of 8.4% of entries from boys resulted in an A* grade, compared with 8% for girls. Again, that is a vast improvement and step forward.

Girls in Northern Ireland still outperform boys overall, although the gap is closing. The percentage of entries achieving A* or A grades remained unchanged from last year at 30.4%, but the overall A* to E pass rate at A-level in Northern Ireland decreased slightly to 98.2%. Those are significant figures that show that the education system in Northern Ireland has achieved much. We could, however, perhaps do more when it comes to improving educational standards, and I will outline why.

In Northern Ireland the grades are great, but it is difficult to see how long that can continue without an Education Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is not currently functioning as it should. We need someone to step up and step in. Our schools are massively struggling with budget cuts—a cut of £40,000 for a small country school means the loss of a teacher, which is the death knell for any small school. Teachers are increasingly attempting to source and buy their own resources so that their pupils have the necessary learning tools. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into education and health in Northern Ireland, because those are two of the most pertinent and important social issues at this moment. A doctor is not expected to purchase morphine, so why are teachers buying craft items out of their own pockets? That is happening is schools across Northern Ireland. It might be happening elsewhere as well—I suspect it is.

I was proud and yet annoyed that in one small local school, Carrickmannon Primary School, the teachers and parent-teacher association bag packed on a Saturday to raise money for a new computer whiteboard that could not be sourced from the education authorities because the monies are not there. I am proud because of the school spirit that saw teachers giving up more of their free time to pack people’s bags out of a love for their school, yet annoyed that the school was in such dire straits that it had no option other than to ask the local community for help. Again, these are some of the things that are happening.

It is absurd that the school had to do that. There is a pot of funding for other purposes such as allowing children to go on cross-community school trips, yet they come back to schools with wonky chairs and no glue. We need someone in place at Stormont to review budgets and allocate funding appropriately. Failing that, if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could take some time out—I say this with respect; she is not in her place—of her propaganda tour of Northern Ireland businesses to address this issue, I would be intensely appreciative. I know with certainty that every parent in Northern Ireland would be incredibly grateful, too, if we could find ourselves with an education system that can transcend the financial cuts.

The education authority has analysed the financial position of about 1,000 schools for 2018-19. Its figures show that 446 schools are projected to be in the red in 2018. Let us be clear that that is not due to any mismanagement or frivolous spending. The Northern Ireland Audit Office has said that school budgets have been reduced by 10% in real terms over the past five years, so how can they be expected to continue to meet the budget while improving education standards? That is what this debate is about. I have boasted and bragged over our results in Northern Ireland, but I know with certainty that this cannot continue in underfunded schools—this disgrace must be addressed.

We must all acknowledge—other hon. Members have referred to this—that school is about more than grades. It is about life experience and helping children to find out what they are good at and can excel at. It is about encouraging them to do better, making their minds work creatively and initiating their abilities. It is about granting a child a love of music through free lessons that their parents could never afford to provide. It is about encouraging children to be active with after-school sports clubs by providing equipment and teaching skills. These are the things that build character and personality for the jobs they will have in the future. All that is affected by budget cuts. One of my local schools has had to stop employing its music teacher and the after-school programme due to lack of funding. I feel intensely frustrated when I see something good having to stop. Teachers are already not paid for additional work, such as replacing whiteboards and buying craft materials to make learning interesting. Now schools are being forced to cut teachers or make them take on even more responsibilities. Something has got to give and my fear is that it will be educational standards and the quality we have to offer. Considering the results we have in Northern Ireland, it would be a terrible pity if we in any way inhibit them.

The results show that Northern Ireland has the best—I say this with respect to the Minister and to every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber—education system in whole of the UK.