Northern Ireland: Integrated Schools

– in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 17 July 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Blood Baroness Blood Labour 8:31, 17 July 2006

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to develop more integrated schools in Northern Ireland and to encourage the transformation of existing schools to integrated schools.

My Lords, I declare an interest. I am the campaign chair of the Integrated Education Fund in Northern Ireland.

"I do not see how any man can think that peace can ever be permanently established if the children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinion".

When Dr Doyle, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare, expressed that sentiment in the mid-19th century, he could have had no idea that 170 years later 95 per cent of children in Northern Ireland would still largely be educated in separate schools, divided by virtue of their religious affiliation.

I thought it would be appropriate to begin today by paying tribute to the late Lord Henry Dunleath, for it was he, through this House, who successfully secured an amendment to the Education and Library Board Order 1972 allowing existing schools in Northern Ireland to convert themselves into integrated schools—a process we commonly refer to today as transformation. It was with disappointment that no existing schools availed themselves of that process, which eventually lead to the creation of Lagan College, Northern Ireland's first planned integrated school, which this September will celebrate its 25th anniversary. It began with 28 children, at a time of enormous civil unrest and violence, and today educates over 1,000 children.

It may be surprising to many to learn that little has changed since the early beginnings of Lagan College. Back then, pioneering and risk-taking parents brought that school into existence and today the same pioneering and risk-taking parents are taking forward initiatives to establish integrated schooling for their children. In 1981, the Government denied any funding to this newly established school, and here we are again in 2006, with a different Government denying another four schools the right to exist with government funding in their community.

There is no doubt that integrated education has been one of the most significant social developments within Northern Ireland over the past 25 years. It is sometimes hard to believe that parents alone have been largely responsible for taking the number of integrated schools from one in 1981 to 58 today, spread right across Northern Ireland and educating more than 18,000 children. But does it work? The answer is yes, both in terms of academic attainment as well as creating friendships across the divide. Independent research has consistently demonstrated that children who have attended an integrated school have more positive attitudes toward children who come from a religious or community background different from their own. A recent 2004 Young Life and Times survey conducted by Queen's University, Belfast, also highlighted that children from integrated schools have significantly more friends from different backgrounds outside school. Integrated education consistently outperforms the Northern Ireland average for the non-grammar sector in GCSE results.

That is not to say that integrated schools are a panacea for all Northern Ireland's problems. Nor is it to say that the children who attend, or have attended, integrated schools are saints. That is simply not the case. There is, however, widespread support for having Catholic and Protestant children, and those of other faiths and none, together in the same school as a certain way of increasing the chances of building understanding and respect for each other's cultures and traditions from an early age. Indeed, many mothers and fathers who meet at the school gates and on sports days also get the chance of interacting socially for the first time in their lives.

Let us remind ourselves that Northern Ireland is becoming more ethnically diverse. Our education system should reflect that. It is no longer just about Protestants and Catholics, but a wide range of people whose cultures and traditions also need respecting and understanding. Integrated schools serve children right across the social spectrum, with many located in areas of severe deprivation and segregation, with an average of 25 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals.

Despite the positive results shown by integrated education, it is disappointing that the Government have remained largely neutral on the subject. There have been some positive moments, such as the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order1989, when the former Education Minister—now the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney—included specific reference to integrated schools in legislation and established more effective ways of setting up and funding new integrated initiatives. However, despite a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education through the 1989 order, and the reference to integrated education in the Good Friday agreement, there has been an unwillingness by successive direct rule Ministers to take this issue on. That is undoubtedly due to the powerful vested interests of traditional politics and conservative religious institutions. Life has been made very difficult for parents seeking the right to educate their children together. Unsurprisingly, the Government continue to put the vast majority of funding into the existing segregated system. Ironically, on the day before funding was denied to four integrated school projects this year, the Minister responsible for education announced the capital funding of more than £300 million for the segregated system.

I appreciate that a declining birth rate in Northern Ireland, across both the traditions, has placed great strain on the education system as a whole. That has led to an increase in the number of spare places, estimated to be around 55,000 and rising. Secondly, I appreciate that the financial pressures on the education system have created the need for increased rationalisation of the schools' estate. However, there is a clear lack of strategic planning from the government department responsible, the Department of Education. It would appear that rationalisation is currently being implemented by individual authorities such as the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and the education and library boards. It is essential that the Government re-examine current proposals and future strategies against their shared future policy. The recently published triennial action plan on a shared future policy states,

"on the basis of clear criteria to be developed, projects relating to new schools, re-organisation or rationalisation are more likely to justify receipt of financial support if they are shared or operate across the community".

The key is implementation. Unless this is done immediately, the risk is that segregation will be further strengthened. To date, there has been no sign of widespread meaningful collaboration across and between the traditional segregated sectors. There must be a clear delivery mechanism for ensuring greater co-operation or sharing across sectors and the sectarian divide.

So what should the Government do? The recently announced independent review of education, to be led by Sir George Bain, provides an excellent opportunity for the Government finally to get to grips with the issue. First, it is important to stress that no one in the integrated movement wants or believes that the Government should impose integrated education against the wishes of any parents. Those campaigning for the development of more integrated schools in Northern Ireland do so on the basis of parental demand. More than 60 per cent of parents consistently state that they would prefer to send their children to integrated schools, yet only 5 per cent of school places are currently integrated. It is important that the Government begin to recognise that more integrated schools can offer potential solutions to their problems. They should not shirk from them because of vested interests.

Transformation is the process by which existing non-integrated schools can vote by parental ballot to transform to integrated status. Where a transformation is genuine and takes on board the necessary changes to reflect a truly welcoming and diverse ethos for all children in the school it is a major opportunity. As well as the added value and benefits that a proactive integrated ethos brings, transformation will effectively allow a school to open itself up to enrolment from all communities. As we try to manage scarce resources and a declining school-going population, it makes sense, even if only for economic reasons, that the Government actively promote and encourage transformation. I welcome the additional financial support to the Integrated Education Fund to help transforming schools, but that is only a start.

As the Government, through their shared future policy, start to encourage all schools to consider creative ways of sharing educational resources, transformation should be prioritised. I recognise that all transforming schools to date have come from the mainly Protestant controlled sector, with none from the Catholic maintained sector. However, transformation should threaten no one, and a transformed integrated school should respect and provide for the religious instruction of all children, and the proactive support of all Churches would be welcome. After all, Churches should be concerned that they are providing the best possible pastoral care for all their children, not just those who attend a particular type of school. Children should not be serving the needs of institutions; institutions should be serving the needs of children.

If a planned integrated school is a step too far for some, let us at least explore just how far other schools are prepared to go. I recently discovered that all over the world, including in the Irish Republic, there are examples of schools that are managed with the support of Catholic and Protestant clergy. If it can happen in other countries, what is the difficulty in taking forward such an initiative in Northern Ireland? As the need to rationalise the education estate develops, I urge the Government to explore such models with Church leaders and education authorities to find out if an innovative model can be developed. Surely there are small rural areas where Catholic maintained and controlled schools working together may become a necessity, especially if the alternative could be the closure of both. We must seriously address the need to provide schools serving all our community. We can call them integrated, community or shared or whatever we like, but let us make it happen.

With the forthcoming Bain review of education, the Government have already alluded to the possibility of developing shared campuses between schools, similar to recent initiatives in Scotland. While I welcome any steps that could be taken to bring schools closer together in any form, I hope that shared campuses do not become the easy thing for the Government to do—the soft option. The desire of parents and children to have integrated schools is clear, let us not waste it. There is greater potential here than sharing sports halls.

I call upon the Government effectively to engage with organisations such as the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and the Integrated Education Fund, along with other educational partners in the Catholic maintained, controlled and Irish language sectors to develop strategies for the development of shared education in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's education system has suffered long enough from a lack of strategic planning by Government. Parents are still required to lead educational change.

This makes the denial of conditional approval for the new integrated schools for 2006 and the existing independent Lir integrated primary school all the more infuriating, placing the integrated movement at arguably its most critical juncture in 25 years. The proposals were rejected on the basis that there were existing places in other schools in each area and that approving the new schools would have a negative impact on those non-integrated schools. However, that is surely the point: they would have a negative impact on other schools only if parents decided that the integrated school was their preferred choice. The leap of faith to enrol children in schools starting with no buildings and no teachers is remarkable. To force them back into segregated schools is outrageous.

It is wrong that existing schools should have the right to veto the development of integrated schools, and I applaud the Integrated Education Fund in offering independently to fund these schools until the Government see sense. A parent's right to have an integrated choice should not be worth less than a parent's right to send their child to a non-integrated school. There is a solution—let the Department of Education conduct community audits and ask the local community what educational provision it wants. Ask the parents and the children about the type of school they want.

Today, as I speak to this House, a number of new parents' groups are coming together to campaign for an integrated choice for their children, and a number of existing schools are exploring transformation. If the Minister's decision to deny integrated schools earlier this year was an attempt to thwart the process, it could well have the opposite effect. Integration should be the "norm" in Northern Ireland, as it is in others parts of the United Kingdom, not something that needs to be continually fought for by parents, fundraised for and campaigned for.

Let me finish with two short final points. If I proposed today that the Government should consider segregating our two universities, one for mainly Catholic students and the other for mainly Protestant, you would think it crazy. Why therefore, in a bitterly divided society, continue to separate children during their most formative of years? Now that is really crazy! I asked a young student as he was about to finish his integrated school education what, apart from the great education he had received, was the biggest lesson he took away. He replied: "I learnt to celebrate other people's cultures, not fear them".

Photo of Baroness David Baroness David Labour 8:46, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I am speaking in the debate today to support the excellent and hard work the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, does for integrated education in Northern Ireland. It seems so obvious to me that integrated education is the sensible way forward. Children learning, working and spending the day together, learning how each other lives is the surest way to bring tolerance, understanding and good sense to the people of Northern Ireland and encourage them to live together in amity. I shall be pursuing this theme tomorrow when we are again in Committee on the Education and Inspections Bill.

I feel a bit of a fraud speaking on Northern Ireland education when I have visited none of the schools that are already integrated. That is not entirely my fault; the all-party group was planning a visit in June and my name was down to go. Alas, the plan fell through and no suitable date could be found before the Summer Recess. However, I hope that the plan will be reinstated in the autumn in the quieter times after the Queen's Speech.

The Commons tabled an Early Day Motion welcoming the decision of the Integrated Education Fund in Northern Ireland to give financial support of more than £750,000 to establish integrated education in a number of areas, and noted that support for IE was a key theme of St Patrick's week celebrations in the United States.

We in this House have recently been discussing the miscellaneous provisions Bill, and I am glad to say we carried the vote to end selection in Northern Ireland.

It was a heavy blow that the Government refused to fund the expansion of IE in Northern Ireland. It seems strange that the Government, so enthusiastic to give parents greater choice over the schools their children go to, did not on this occasion give them what they wanted. The Government talk about a shared future yet, when faced with people so committed to sharing their future that they are prepared to stake their children's future on it, the Government leave them stranded and force the children into segregated schools against their parents' wishes.

The Minister, Angela Smith, gave as the main reason for the controversial decision that there were too many surplus places in the proposed areas, and the impact that a new school would have on local schools' enrolment. That was hotly contested. Spare places in local segregated schools must not be allowed to veto parental choice where there is great demand and no local option.

In recent months, five more schools have undergone successful transformation ballots, and there will be two new schools, so that from September this year there will be 64 integrated schools. Deborah Girvan, communications and lobbying manager for the integrated movement, said that even though demand for IE was at an all-time high,

"tough times are ahead. The Review of Public Administration along with the Shared Future policy, the demographic downturn, and cash strapped budgets, will test the mettle of us all".

She continued, however, that,

"the will and spirit of parents, a legacy started by the pioneering parents of Lagan 25 years ago, will give us the resolve and inspiration to fight on and challenge the status quo".

I very much hope that she is right. The best of luck to IE and I wish it very well.

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 8:50, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, for introducing the subject with considerable information and passion.

I want to begin by making a general point. In all divided societies, schools always face a paradox. On the one hand, a lot is expected of them by way of healing the wounds and divisions that characterise divided societies. At the same time, their capacity to do so is greatly limited, for two reasons. Children come to school bringing all kinds of prejudices that they have learnt from their parents and, although they learn something at school, when they go home at the end of the day, whatever they have learnt—the good that has been done—is negated by parental prejudices and remarks.

The question is: on what do we rely? We cannot wait until social divisions get sorted out but, at the same time, we cannot expect schools to perform miracles. It is in that context that we should approach the question of integrated education, or integrated schools, in Northern Ireland.

I greatly welcome the popularity of integrated schools in Northern Ireland. Although only 5 per cent of pupils go to such schools, almost 60 per cent of parents want to send their children to them. That shows that, increasingly, integrated schools are acquiring democratic legitimacy and considerable popularity. But unless we realise the kind of problems that they face, we are likely to run the danger of expecting far too much from integrated schools. I want to raise six questions for the Minister.

First, the number of integrated schools is inevitably limited. That is for obvious reasons—not because of reluctance on the part of the Government but for purely financial considerations. As a result of demographic changes, there are 50,000 empty places, which is likely to rise to 80,000 within the next three or four years. One always wants to use the facilities of existing schools, rather than open new schools. Obviously, the question arises: what should be our priority and how do we cope with the financial problem that that poses?

Secondly, integrated schools do not necessarily mean integrated education, just as segregated schools do not necessarily mean segregated education. One may lead to the other, but the two need not be equated. We might have integrated schools, in the sense that they accommodate both Catholic and Protestant pupils, but do they provide the kind of education that we want? Here, the important question is: what is an integrated education? We know what is an integrated school, but what is an integrated education? There are two very different views and we need to be very careful what we ask for. Integrated education has been greatly in demand in the United States in the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Israelis have been wanting to concentrate on integrated education to accommodate the 17 per cent of their population constituted by Arab minorities, which is both Christian and Muslim.

If we consider all those experiments, including those in Northern Ireland, there are two different approaches. One is that, in integrated schools, one does not talk about differences; one talks only about generalities such as mutual respect, but one does not raise controversial questions. On the other hand, there is the opposite approach, which is to recognise differences and divisions and work through them. It is to get pupils to talk about their differences even if, occasionally, the temperature rises, and to get them to resolve their differences by understanding where they come from. I think that our approach in Northern Ireland has, by and large, been that of ignoring differences rather than getting schools to help children to work their way through deep historical divisions.

Thirdly, in an integrated school, we have to ask what kinds of teachers are available. So far as I can see, teachers have not undergone any kind of specialised training in integrated education. They, too, are the product of sectarian schools. Some teachers in integrated schools also seek employment largely because it is easier to be promoted, for the very simple reason that these schools are relatively new. I am sometimes told, and the research I have seen seems to suggest, that teachers sometimes lack commitment. I am not saying that they do or do not; I am saying simply that we need to address this question because I very much want integrated schools to succeed in providing integrated education.

Fourthly, if we are to have integrated primary schools, we will obviously have to have a similar number of integrated secondary schools, because otherwise parents will have the problem of wondering whether there are enough spaces in secondary schools for children who have gone to integrated primary schools. If not, parents might be discouraged from sending children to them.

My fifth worry is the way in which certain subjects come up again and again and need to be taught in integrated schools. I have seen research done by various academics, including friends of mine at Queen's University, Belfast, which suggests that two subjects—religious education and history—have proved to be the most contentious. It is very important that we find proper ways of teaching these two subjects in particular and develop appropriate textbooks and pedagogical methods.

My sixth point is that when sectarian schools transform themselves into integrated schools—I am delighted that they do, and I hope they will do so in larger numbers—the question arises: do the ethos and culture change as well? It is not enough for a sectarian school to accommodate a certain percentage of minority students from either of the two communities; it is also important that their teachers undergo a different kind of training. The ethos also has to change so that the schools become genuinely integrated.

I have not said all this with a view to criticising integrated schools; on the contrary, I have said it precisely because they are the only way of dealing with the deep divisions of Northern Ireland. We should therefore address this question so that they can deliver the kinds of result that we expect of them. While the integrated schools flourish and develop in large numbers along the lines that I have outlined, we have a problem; sectarian schools are bound to remain for some time to come and will not be easily transformed into integrated schools. What do we do in the mean time? I shall make three suggestions. First, it is very important, as all the research has pointed out and as the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, rightly emphasised, that there is greater systematic collaboration between different sectarian schools. This can take the form of an exchange of pupils for part of the time, as happens in Israel and as has happened in the United States, an exchange of teachers, common sports, shared summer camps and shared campuses. We have not paid sufficient attention to the possibility of an exchange of teachers and schools. It is also important that boards of governors of sectarian schools have members drawn from other communities.

Secondly, much of the curriculum should be in common. I see no reason why different kinds of sectarian schools, while emphasising different kinds of ethos, should not have 90 or 95 per cent of their curriculum in common. After all, our concern is to ensure that they produce citizens who are perfectly at ease with each other.

Thirdly—I may be slightly controversial here—it might be useful to take a second look at the employment law that allows schools to employ teachers from their own denominations. I see the point of that, but it may sometimes be worth asking whether a Protestant teacher, for example, is unequipped to teach English literature, mathematics or science in Catholic schools, or vice versa.

As I said—I shall end by ensuring that I am not misunderstood—integrated schools are the only way forward. They will not perform miracles by themselves, because changes have to take place in the wider society, but, so long as we retain a bifocal approach, there is a good chance of success.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 9:00, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Blood for giving us the opportunity to debate this fundamentally important issue for education in Northern Ireland. This year, the integrated education movement is 25 years old. I pay tribute to the many dedicated teachers and governors who have worked so hard to make their schools a success, as well as to the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and the Integrated Education Fund for the very important part that they have played in developing integrated education.

In integrated schools we have 18,000 pupils, 58 schools and between 5 per cent and 6 per cent of the school student population. It has already been said that there are 50,000 empty school places in Northern Ireland and that by 2015 there will be 80,000. Although the case for integrated education becomes stronger through the empty places that now exist, the case for integrated education in principle does not depend on that. I shall develop the argument on empty places later.

Some years ago, when I was a junior Minister in Northern Ireland, I went to an event in Dungannon for parents who had played a part in a project in which their children lived for six weeks with families in the United States. American families each took one Catholic and one Protestant child. The event was a reunion of the parents and children who had been on the project. I talked to people as they drank cups of tea at long trestle tables. It was dismaying to meet many Catholic and Protestant parents who had never before had a cup of tea with a member of the other faith. In a nutshell, that was the argument for integrated education. If children do not know members of the other faith or community, they tend to demonise them. That demonising has played a corrosive part in education and communities in Northern Ireland.

A couple of years ago, I opened a new integrated primary school in Cookstown. It was an exhilarating experience to see a community made up of members of all faiths—Catholic priests and Protestant, Church of Ireland clergymen—supporting the new integrated school. Most of the governors were local women who had got together to set up the school. It was an exciting occasion. Of course, new schools are bound to be rare at a time when there are 50,000 empty school places. The key is of course to transform existing schools to integrated status, probably through the merger of schools that have plenty of spare places. Otherwise, we will continue having Catholic and Protestant children leading separate lives.

Those of us who support integrated education in Northern Ireland do not believe that there is one model for education or that it should always be integrated. We have a much more modest request: parents and children should have the choice of an integrated school. At present, parents do not have such a choice, which is the burden of our argument: do not force one type of education on parents—give parents the freedom to choose. In a recent survey, 82 per cent of parents personally supported integrated education; 81 per cent believed that integrated education was important for peace and reconciliation; and 71 per cent said that they would support a request to transform their school to integrated status. The 71 per cent divided into 69 per cent Protestant parents and 73 per cent Catholic, so there was no religious difference in the wish that local schools should be transformed.

It is also depressing that the bulk of teacher training is segregated. As my noble friend Lord Parekh said, it is difficult for teachers to teach in integrated schools when their training has been largely on the basis of segregation. Of course, some schools have a mix of children, but they have not adopted the full practice and philosophy of integrated status. Teachers and governors should believe in the philosophy of integrated education, and schools should teach respect for members of other faiths and be balanced in their composition with children of the main faiths as well as those of none. At the moment, just over 2 per cent of Northern Ireland schools are mixed without being integrated, having 30 per cent of more of their pupils from the other religion. That is better than total segregation, but it does not meet the philosophical wish of what a school can do to enable children to understand the community that they live in and bridge the gap between themselves and members of another faith.

The 50,000 empty school places, while presenting a problem, provide a real opportunity. I believe that many schools with spare places could be merged, leading to an integrated school. Why not ask local parents whether in such a situation they would favour a merger of two or more schools with the result being a properly integrated school? The transformation of an existing school to integrated status takes place when parents vote by a simple majority in favour of change, but depressingly the vast majority of parents in Northern Ireland—86 per cent—do not know that that is possible. That becomes even more important as education information for parents when we consider the problem of declining numbers and the need to reduce school places.

Every Northern Ireland Minister with whom I have discussed this supports integrated education. A Shared Future, published last year, states:

"All schools should ensure through their policies, structures and curriculae, that pupils are consciously prepared for life in a diverse and inter-cultural world".

In a recent speech in Donegal, Peter Hain said:

"Two segregated primary schools in a village are doomed to closure where a merger might be viable and produce a higher standard, where separately they cannot. Secondary schools with inadequate facilities where a rational school estate with integrated or shared facilities could produce high quality ... The educational future of Northern Ireland must be shared and focused on what unites, or divided it will be bleak".

Let us ensure that the young people of Northern Ireland are, wherever they wish it, educated together with respect for those of another faith based on shared experience at school.

Integrated education in Northern Ireland will not solve all the problems of a divided society—no one claims that—but over time it will go a long way towards lessening the divisions. We all remember those terrible scenes at Holy Cross School in north Belfast, when children from one faith had to run a gauntlet of protestors who were violent and intimidating. But then I saw a television news programme featuring children at Lagan College, the first integrated school. When asked what they thought of it, the children said that they could not understand it: "Here we sit next to each other in the classroom, and there is no problem. Yet up there, there is hostility, tension and division".

There is no problem with government Ministers supporting integrated education. It has been government policy in Northern Ireland for a long time. What it needs is political will.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 9:07, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I have been a friend and supporter of integrated education in Northern Ireland since well before the days when Lagan College opened with 28 pupils in a borrowed Scout hall. I intervene because I have seen it stated in print that Northern Ireland now has 50,000 spare school places. If that figure is anything like correct—it has been confirmed in the debate by the noble Lords, Lord Parekh and Lord Dubs—it is remarkably large for a region with only 1,600,000 people. That point was also touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady David. Can the Minister tell us what plans the Northern Ireland government have for making the best possible use of those vacant places so as to comply with the stated wishes of so many parents? Surely those vacancies give scope for reorganisations that would allow new integrated schools to open in existing school buildings or at the very least in the wings or sections of existing schools. The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, pointed out correctly that more was needed than shared campuses used by segregated schools.

Enabling new integrated schools to start would not only please parents who opt for integrated education only to find that all the places in the existing 58 schools have been allocated, it would remove many suspicions and fears that arise as young people grow up in segregated schools, where pupils often have no friends of the other sort. Finally, it would enable parents and staff to co-operate in many ways, thus doing something useful to bring together a deeply divided society.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs 9:10, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Blood. It is worth mentioning that, with the exception of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, we have no speakers—or even attendees—here from Northern Ireland. That is deeply significant.

Of course, noble Lords who have spoken before me have given all the statistics about opinion polls, redundant schools on so on. I think that the crux can be summed up by saying that, although Northern Ireland has the highest expenditure on education per capita of any part of the United Kingdom, less is spent per pupil than anywhere else. That is the cost of maintaining two overlapping systems. There is a great deal of redundancy and, I have to say, having lived there for eight years, that it is helping to sustain the polarisation of the two communities.

Our sister party in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party, has proposed a 10-point plan. I shall briefly go through the points. My good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, always enumerates his points, and I shall follow him. First, the Government should set a minimum target of 10 per cent of children being educated in integrated schools by 2010. Secondly, the duty on the Department of Education to encourage—not merely to facilitate—the development of integrated education should be extended to the education and library boards and the new single education authority to be established under the review of public administration. Thirdly, the department and other education authorities should have a duty to strategically plan for the future provision of integrated education, including identifying where additional provision needs to be situated. The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, made the point that it was rather pathetic that the Government in Northern Ireland simply limp along trying to survive between pressure groups, rather than taking a lead. It is really now necessary for the Department of Education and other government agencies to act proactively and positively.

Fourthly, where new schools are being built in Northern Ireland—for example, to service new housing developments—there should be a presumption that they shall be integrated. Fifthly, the Government should encourage the transformation of existing schools to integrated status and review the current procedures to make that easier. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to that, and all noble Lords who have spoken tonight would agree with that. Sixthly, the Government should reform and relax the criteria for the creation and maintenance of integrated schools, giving recognition to children of mixed, other or no religious background. The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, pointed to the increasing diversity of Northern Ireland's population. It no longer consists of only the two traditional communities; there has been a significant rise in the Chinese and Asian populations.

Then, the Government should give formal recognition to the contribution being made to the process of reconciliation by mixed schools, those with a mixed enrolment but no formal integrated status. The Government should encourage existing schools to share facilities and, ultimately, campuses. The Government should oppose any creation of a perceived right to a guarantee of public funding for segregated schools, as that could forever entrench segregated schools and frustrate the process of integration. Finally, the Government should advocate the desegregation of teacher training courses and facilities and the familiarisation of integrated education policies and practices in such institutions.

When we discussed the Stranmillis Bill that would give it a proper legal basis, I remarked that, although Stranmillis and St Mary's had produced some outstanding teachers, leading, particularly at secondary and grammar school level, to Northern Ireland being the best region in the UK for A-level results, the teaching was done with a silo mentality. Stranmillis and St Mary's, while having the virtues of being very good educational facilities, have perpetuated the divide. I should have thought that it would be relatively simple to undertake an initiative so that those two colleges could begin to work side by side to integrate and to teach what integrated education is.

The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said that although teachers who came from different backgrounds taught together, that does not mean that they are teaching in an integrated way. We must look at that seriously. I declare an interest: the university over which I had the honour to preside—the University of Ulster—is the only integrated provision in Northern Ireland. That is an example of what might be achieved in the future.

The expansion of integrated education and shared campuses by both sectors is the only rational way forward. As has been mentioned, the Republic of Ireland is leading the way and has in the past 20 years become a much more secular society than anyone thought possible. Surely, Northern Ireland can follow and learn from that experience. Educational segregation on religious lines is not a recipe for a democratic civil society at peace with itself.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland 9:16, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, for giving us this opportunity to speak on this very important subject. The undemocratic nature of the Orders in Council used under direct rule to govern Northern Ireland means that opportunities to debate Northern Ireland issues such as this are few and far between. It has been good to hear noble Lords around the House expressing so clearly their views and their encouragement of the main topic.

Schools in Northern Ireland have already been subjected to enormous changes in the recent education order—some of them, such as the banning of selection, in the face of enormous opposition from the Northern Irish public. More thought, time and attention needs to be given to the wishes of the public before such draconian orders are put through in the future. Integrated schools are a matter that, more than most, should be governed with great sensitivity to public opinion and local, as well as national, feeling. These points were made very clearly by the noble Lords, Lord Parekh and Lord Smith.

On these Benches, we have been consistent supporters of integrated schools ever since Lagan College opened in 1981. In 1989, we laid a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage integrated schools in our education order, and we have never looked back. Lagan College was the first site that the leader of our party visited in Northern Ireland in 2005.

Over the years, integrated schools have proved themselves many times over. They are academically successful, with a significantly higher GCSE average than other all-ability schools in Northern Ireland, and they are extremely popular. In the face of falling enrolment numbers, already mentioned several times, integrated schools have to turn away 500 pupils a year. They contribute immeasurably to the all-important task of bringing the communities of Northern Ireland together.

When I started the Ocean youth club in 1979, we set about bringing together young people from different walks of life. Youngsters would come on board, each thinking that the other was from a different world, whether it was a Catholic looking at a Prod or a Prod looking at a Catholic. Then, 10 days later, they would be walking hand in hand down the quay. That is living together and creating understanding, even though, in that case, it was only for about a week.

However, integrated schools cannot be imposed on a community. It is the parents who seek such an option for their children and remain active in the governing of schools who make that success possible. The fact that so many parents actively reject the religious divisions that have defined Northern Ireland community relations for so long and send their children to be taught in an environment that consciously moves on from the past is extremely encouraging and one of the greatest causes for optimism about Northern Ireland's future.

Integrated schools are a crucial tool to allow the next generation to be educated in a growing atmosphere of cross-community co-operation and friendship. But you cannot force people to change their ideologies, nor can you expect children to move on from beliefs that their community has propounded for generations without the full and active support of their parents. Of course, I would like more integrated schools to be set up, but that drive must come from the parents themselves. I hope, therefore, that this Government continue to make grants available for the foundation of integrated schools as soon as there is sufficient support to maintain them. The over-subscription that we see today suggests that more could be done to meet that demand.

However, I cannot support the idea that children should be forced to integrate beyond what their parents are comfortable with. It is in the family that children learn their values and prejudices, not only in schools. Integration must be fully supported by the wider community before a school can have a chance of succeeding. It is naïve and optimistic to believe that you can parachute into a troubled area an oasis of fraternity and love.

The Conservative Party has always stood for parental choice. I hope that the Government will continue to offer the choice of an integrated schooling to those who are willing to go down that route, but we cannot ignore the majority of parents who wish to send their children to other varieties of schools—Catholic, Protestant, academic and selective, or other types. Parents should decide how their children should be educated and the Government's role—going back to the opening speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood—is to give them those options and to support their choice.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 9:22, 17 July 2006

My Lords, I consider myself incredibly lucky as Northern Ireland spokesman in this House for the Government to have such a debate, and for the participants in the debate. I do not think that I have heard a word that I have disagreed with from any speaker—and that is not playing one side against the other. I was particularly struck by the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in respect of parents, and I shall say one or two things about parental choice.

In some ways, this is about parental choice—that is very important. But the idea that I would personally want to leave the future of Northern Ireland to parents who actually, today, create measurable sectarian attitudes in children aged three is something that I am not too keen on. The root cause of the problem is not the children but the parents. There are measurable sectarian attitudes in children aged three, and they got those not from the schools but from their homes and their parents. That is what we need to have a real look at.

I have a prepared text and I am going to use it, but I shall take as my text for the speech a letter that I happened to spot on page 29 in today's Guardian. I know that that is like a red rag to a bull to some people, but listen to this; it is the complete letter, but it is very short. It says:

"I found myself in the bizarre position of being an atheist chair of governors with a Roman Catholic headteacher at our only local primary school in rural Devon—which was Church of England voluntary controlled. Time to remove religion from education so we can get on with the job in hand without distraction".

That was a letter from a Mr Mark Beer in Umberleigh, Devon. There is a little melting pot there. I know nothing about the school—he did not name it—but the idea that these things could actually be the norm, because that is what is created and no one will argue one way or the other, says a lot about what is wrong with going down a silo approach to education. Segregation stops after secondary education. I do not think that there are any segregated further education or higher education colleges. So there is no argument; it can be done.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, in higher education, Stranmillis College and St Mary's College are deeply segregated.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, yes, I was referring not to teacher training colleges but to the norm of further education colleges at post 16 and the two universities. No one would say that further education colleges ought to be run on religious or sectarian grounds. Yet at 16 or 17, when children come out of the sectarian sectors and go on to further education, they meet people from the other community probably for the first time. I have met youngsters myself who have never until the age of 16 or 17 met, spoken with or been in close proximity to someone from the other community. It is unbelievable to those of us who are not familiar with the detail of Northern Ireland. I cannot help but contrast this Chamber tonight with last Monday evening, when, with others—I will not call them the Northern Ireland windbags, because that would be very unfair, and they would be after me for the future—we did not have a wide-ranging debate. I know that there is an argument about the Orders in Council, but the real time to come and debate education in Northern Ireland for 90 minutes was tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, hit the nail on the head: they are not there, except for the participants in the debate. One asks why.

It is true that the Government have a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education—that is to say, education at school of Protestant or Roman Catholic pupils. It is obvious to say it, given the debate tonight. It is a vision that will benefit all areas of life, in all sections of the population of Northern Ireland. The Government take their responsibility seriously. We recognise that integrated education is an important building block towards creating conditions necessary for long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland. It is actually crucial and fundamental.

Over the financial year 2006-07, we will provide the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education with over £0.5 million to develop and support integrated education across Northern Ireland. We will provide the integrated schools with over £68 million in recurrent funding, and allocate about £25 million in capital expenditure for grant-maintained integrated schools alone. I realise there is a sensitivity about the decision on the four schools, but other schools that have been referred to have been approved to be integrated. Since 1998, the Government have provided £1.5 million to the Integrated Education Fund to support the development of integrated education, and since 1998 the number of integrated schools has risen from 34 to 56 and, as has been said, the number of pupils attending those schools has more than doubled to almost 18,000. These are considerable investments and significant achievements that demonstrate the support for the integrated sector.

The Department of Education has operated a twin-track approach to the development of integrated education, establishing new schools if they meet the relevant criteria and allowing existing schools to transform to integrated status where a majority of parents agree to it. The latter is certainly recognised as a more cost-effective method, because it obviously does not involve major capital investment, though it does involve some. That is not to say that it is perfect all the way down the line. I am told that there are two integrated schools in Northern Ireland with no pupils from the other, minority religion. So this is not a straightforward or a perfect scenario. You do not open the school and have parents from the other religion come rushing in. But we offer practical assistance with the policy of transformation in a number of ways.

The Department of Education published and distributed to every school in Northern Ireland the booklet Transformation: An Information Pack for Schools. It is updated annually and contains practical information on the process of transformation, including the legal requirements on balloting parents and the development process. The booklet is available in hard copy or on the department's website. The Department of Education receives an annual budget to help schools with the transformation process. The budget for 2006-07 is some £278,000. This assists schools in the initial stages of the transformation process and with the employment of a teacher from the minority community to assist with religious education.

In March 2006, the Government provided the Integrated Education Fund with an additional three-quarters of a million pounds for the delivery of an agreed plan. The main emphasis of the approved plan is to develop opportunities for existing schools to transform to integrated status and to provide additional support for transformed schools. It is to be hoped that delivery of the plan proves fruitful for the sector.

When discussing the level of support offered for integrated education by the Government, I have to dispute the claims of the integrated sector about the number of children who do not receive a place in an integrated school each year. Figures ranging from 600 to more than 1,000 are mentioned with impunity. Indeed, I believe that the figure of 500 was mentioned tonight. These figures do not tell the whole story and devalue the case for pushing forward integrated education, as I shall explain. To reach these numbers, people are including all children turned away, regardless of the preference stated. The reality regarding numbers, places and applications is that there is no significant shortfall of places in the integrated sector.

The appropriate figure for assessing the popularity of the integrated sector is the number of parents who want their children to enter that sector and for whom it is the first choice. That is what parental choice is about. It is inappropriate to then add parents who expressed first choice for what I will call a sectarian sector and second choice for the integrated sector. In this case, 95 per cent to 100 per cent of first choice places are available. You cannot include preferences in the calculation of parents who expressed a higher preference for a non-integrated school. As I say, for the current school year and the previous two, places were available in the integrated sector for the children of 95 per cent to 100 per cent of parents who expressed a first preference for that sector. Therefore, there is no shortfall of places in the post-primary sector.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is short of time, but the majority of parents have no integrated school within reach. Therefore, the figures that my noble friend mentions are for a limited part of Northern Ireland only. Most parents do not have that choice.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, if enough parents demanded such a choice, and the relevant schools were three or four times oversubscribed, the earth would have to move to meet the choice because that is what we would be required to do. There would be a clear parental choice. There would be uproar if people could not get their kids into their first choice of school. The polls on integrated education do not always reflect what actually happens when parents choose schools for their own children.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has a point. It is an unrealistic choice for many parents unless they are prepared to bus their children to, or board them in, other areas. Both statistics need looking at again.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, they may need looking at again, but I think that the result would be the same. We want parents to have a genuine choice, but if they do not use that choice, we cannot measure the demand. It is all very well taking vox pop polls on what people prefer when they subsequently choose something else. As I have said, 95 per cent to 100 per cent of parents who express a first choice for integrated education get their choice.

Photo of Baroness Blood Baroness Blood Labour

My Lords, I find what the Minister is saying incredible. This year, we had three groups of parents who wanted to start a school in their area for almost 80 children, and they were turned down by the department. The Minister is talking about children who are perhaps going into secondary school or going into an integrated school that is already there, but many of these schools are set up by parents. I know three schools starting in September which do not have buildings yet; the parents are putting their faith in that. But when we go to the department, it tells us, "Sorry, there are too many empty desks in that area".

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I take what my noble friend is saying, and we can look further into the figures. As I said, decisions on those individual schools were made earlier in the year and they were fully explained at the time. That does not mean that the Government do not support or are not in favour of integrated education. I want to complete what I have to say, because I want to answer the points that have been legitimately raised about the surplus places.

The figures used have been correct. Demographics tell us that the number of children is falling. There are currently 50,000 surplus school places. Pupil numbers are set to decline by a further 30,000 in the next 10 years, so there will be a surplus of 80,000, which is quite unsustainable. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, it costs almost twice as much to educate in this way, and we do not spend the money on education; we are spending it on empty places and doubling up on everything. Unless we address the consequences of falling school rolls, low vocational skills, vacant school places and limited access to a broad curriculum, we will be incapable of delivering the skills and standards necessary for Northern Ireland to have a prosperous future.

The segregation of the school system comes at a high price, particularly at a time of surplus capacity and falling rolls, which make it more difficult. We need to explore new ways of schooling which involve sharing facilities. With respect, I say to my noble friend that I agree with every word that she said, but it is about a lot more than just sharing sports halls. If there is a way to break the segregation, it has to be making better use of resources. If I remember right—I am speaking from memory now—80 primary schools in Northern Ireland have fewer than 45 pupils. You cannot provide a rounded education with such small schools; something has to give.

Answers are coming from Sir George Bain—I hope—who was asked by the Secretary of State early in the year to examine the education system and funding in Northern Ireland. He will focus on the strategic planning and organisation of the estate, taking into account curriculum changes and falling rolls and how best to meet the duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education. The remit of the review will envelop the Government's commitments under A Shared Future, which sets out the Government's policy and strategic framework for good relations in Northern Ireland. A Shared Future recognises the balance to be struck between parental choice and the additional costs and potential diseconomies that the diversity of provision generates. In improving school planning, we must tackle the challenges of addressing parental choice and falling rolls. We will plan and develop school buildings to provide replacement schools or amalgamations in the context of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. We need to explore the options of how those assets could contribute to our objective in A Shared Future.

While we remain committed to the duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education, we recognise that integrated education is one important model, and there will be other ways of sharing. Our ultimate aim must be to ensure that we are integrating education provision across the board more effectively and for the benefit of Northern Ireland and its people today and in the future. As I said initially, it is important that the parents have a choice; but the parents need a little bit of education at the same time.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, Northern Ireland business expands to fill the space available. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-one minutes before ten o'clock.