Integrated Education: Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at on 24 April 2024.

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Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Industry and Decarbonisation)

What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the expansion of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The Government remain committed to supporting integrated education in Northern Ireland and have already made funds available to support more schools than ever to convert to integrated status. I and my noble Friend Lord Caine look forward to engaging with the new Education Minister, Paul Givan, to make progress on this important issue.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Industry and Decarbonisation)

I travelled with colleagues to Northern Ireland two weeks ago, and we visited Forge Integrated Primary School and met lots of very fine children. In 2015, £150 million of Fresh Start funding was earmarked for integrated education in Northern Ireland. What does the Minister say to those schools that were expecting this funding but have found that it is no longer guaranteed?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The House may not know that only 7% of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland can be said to be attending an integrated school, which we would like to see change. The period over which Fresh Start funding was released would have ended at the end of March 2025, so we have repurposed £150 million of that funding to provide additional flexibility to the Northern Ireland Executive in respect of that funding stream and schools.

We are determined to see more parents given the opportunity to choose integrated education for their children as a vital part of the process of reconciliation. I, for one, am especially committed to it as someone who proudly attends a Baptist church, where for many years I worshipped with a Roman Catholic lady and had no idea. We should help Northern Ireland move to a point where denomination is a small matter and where people move forward together.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

An important item in the in-tray of the newly re-formed Executive is early years education and childcare. Thanks to the actions of this Government, we now have more generous entitlement to free childcare in England and Northern Ireland. Will he discuss with the Executive how Northern Ireland might be levelled up on childcare, including by using revenue-raising measures?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue and I am grateful to her for putting it on the agenda. Certainly we will engage with the Executive on this point. She is right to mention revenue raising. It is a fact that the Executive need to both transform public services and improve revenue raising, so that everything in Northern Ireland can be delivered on a sustainable basis.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I also recently visited the Forge Integrated Primary School in Belfast. I saw their much-needed and developed plans to replace their portacabins with buildings, answering their need for extra capacity. The school is disappointed that the plans have been shelved, along with projects at nine other integrated schools. Education is devolved, but money had been earmarked for such projects by the UK Government under the 2015 “Fresh Start” agreement. Does the Secretary of State understand why teachers, pupils and parents are so disappointed that those plans have been shelved? Does he have any plans to restore them?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I hear the hon. Lady. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I understand people’s concerns and we too have visited schools; I certainly have and I think my right hon. Friend has too.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I repeat that we have repurposed the money so that it can endure and be available to the Executive to be used for purposes as they decide. If we had not repurposed it, the money would have expired at the end of March next year. I am proud that we have taken the steps necessary, with the Treasury, to enable that money to continue to be available to the Executive. It is for them to decide how to spend it, but we continue to be fully committed to integrated education.