The publication of the Burns Report a year ago launched the second phase of the review that began with research by Prof Tony Gallagher and Prof Alan Smith into the effects of our selective system of secondary education. Our thanks are due to them for their extensive research, which provided the basis for the work of the post-primary review body.
We also owe a great debt of gratitude to Gerry Burns and the other members of the review body, and I want to place on record my thanks for their important work in producing such a helpful and thought-provoking report.
The review body’s report was far-reaching and challenging, and it stimulated thinking across the education sector and beyond about the full range of issues associated with post-primary education. It has been the catalyst for one of the biggest public debates seen in recent years — certainly the biggest in education.
When publishing the review body’s report for consultation, I invited comments on the proposals, suggestions for modifications to the proposals and suggestions for alternative arrangements. I extended the consultation period until 28 June 2002 to ensure that there was adequate time for everyone to consider the very complex and interrelated issues raised by the review of post-primary education.
From the outset I was determined to seek comments and views from as wide a range of interests as possible. To ensure that all sections of our community had the opportunity to respond, my Department conducted an unprecedented consultation with five strands. I sincerely thank the civil servants in my Department who assisted me throughout the process. Their work was of the highest quality, and I appreciate it very much.
I held 28 meetings with key interests between February and July to hear at first hand their views on the review body’s proposals and their suggestions for future post-primary arrangements. I invited written submissions, and over 1,300 responses were received from our education partners, schools, churches, higher and further education and training, business, political representatives, the voluntary and community sector, human rights and equality interests, and the public.
A detailed response booklet, together with supporting information in the form of a video and consultation pack, was issued to all schools, institutes of further and higher education, training organisations and a range of community groups. Booklets were returned by 510 schools. That represents 40% of our schools and constitutes the largest ever response from schools to a consultation exercise conducted by my Department.
A household response form was issued to each household seeking the public’s views on the Burns proposals. Over 200,000 household response forms were returned, which represented 16% of the adult population. Approximately one fifth of the people who returned the forms took the time to include additional comments. A survey was also carried out in a representative sample of 2,000 homes. The views of young people aged 14 to 19 were sought through a series of focus groups facilitated by the Northern Ireland Youth Forum.
I met the Committee for Education to discuss the arrangements for the consultation generally and also to discuss detailed aspects of the video and support materials. The Committee made helpful comments, many of which were incorporated into the materials. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, Danny Kennedy, and the members of the Committee, for their help. Last April, Sammy Wilson tabled a motion for an Assembly debate on the review body’s report. I thank him for initiating one of the best debates in the House on any issue. Members made thoughtful and considered contributions, and I listened carefully to all the views expressed.
Throughout the past year I have emphasised repeatedly my determination that the consultation on the post-primary review would be open and transparent. To ensure that it was, I made a commitment to produce a report drawing together the views expressed in the responses to the consultation and to put that before the public for everyone to see and consider. The report published today fulfils that commitment. Copies have been made available to MLAs, and the full report is available on my Department’s web site. Copies will be issued next week to all schools, our education partners and other organisations that responded to the consultation.
In their responses to the consultation, many organisations and individuals welcomed the opportunity afforded by the review to give their views on post-primary education. Many also commented favourably about the way in which the consultation was conducted. The consultation generated a healthy public debate. I have no doubt that that contributed to the impressive response received to the different strands. The debate was lively, sometimes passionate, but generally mature, well informed and constructive.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair.)
I know that our partners in the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), the Transferor Representatives’ Council, the Northern Catholic bishops and many other organisations consulted widely with their members in formulating their responses.
Many schools held meetings to discuss the issues with staff and parents. Some also included pupils, to ensure that their responses reflected the views of the entire school community. There were many contributions to the debate in the newspapers, which played an important part in ensuring that the wider public was kept informed about the range of opinions and arguments on all the issues.
It is always easier to be critical of someone else’s proposals than to produce your own. I was particularly encouraged, therefore, that so many organisations devoted considerable time and energy to thinking through how our current arrangements could be improved. In their responses, they suggested modifications to the review body’s proposals or outlined alternative arrangements. I thank all of them for the time and commitment that they invested in the review.
My Department analysed the submissions over the summer months and has summarised the responses from all the strands in the consultation report published today. The report sets out the responses to each of the main recommendations in the review body’s report and includes other issues raised by respondents. The report provides a full picture of the consultation responses but has been kept to a manageable length to make it accessible to as many people as possible. In the interests of openness and transparency, anyone who wishes to delve further into the responses to the consultation can access my Department’s web site, where they will find copies of the main submissions received, along with further statistical tables analysing the responses from the household response forms, the omnibus survey and the detailed response booklet.
Three key messages emerged from the consultation: the demand for change; the obligation to focus on the needs of the child as a learner; and the emerging consensus on key issues. The responses to the consultation demonstrate a clear and unequivocal demand for change. Many respondents acknowledged the achievements of the current system but argued that it was not adequate or acceptable for the future. They criticised the current arrangements as unfair and failing to meet adequately the needs of learners. They pointed to the skewing of the primary school curriculum in favour of preparing children for the transfer test and to the detrimental and stressful impact that it has on children with the damage to their self-esteem and the creation of more losers than winners.
They argued that the current system perpetuates social and class divisions and militates against equality of opportunity — particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There was also a widespread view that the system is inflexible and does not recognise the differing needs of children.
Almost all responses to the consultation supported the abolition of the transfer test. Those who wish to retain academic selection also accepted that the transfer test and associated coaching are unsatisfactory and that change is needed. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the current post-primary arrangements. The feeling is that they do not meet the needs of children and are not adequate for our society and economy in the twenty-first century. There must be change, and the status quo is not an option.
The second message arising from the consultation is the obligation on all of us to focus on the needs of the child as a learner. Human rights and equality obligations demand that the rights of the child are taken fully into account in the post-primary review and that the links between education and other human rights are reinforced. There was almost universal support for the guiding principles proposed by the review body, and particularly for the first two. They stated that each young person should be valued equally and that all young people should be enabled to develop their talents to the full.
There was a widespread view among the main education partners that the prime focus must be on the needs of the child as a learner. Children develop at different rates and have a wide range of talents, aptitudes and learning abilities. A consistent theme in comments about future arrangements was that they should ensure that education provision meets the needs of individual pupils. Society and the economy in the twenty-first century require a broader range of knowledge and skills than in the last century, and new post-primary arrangements must offer a wide range of curricular options, promote parity of esteem for all curricular choices and pathways and provide flexibility between them.
The third message arising from the consultation is that there is an emerging consensus on key issues, including the problems of the current system and the changes that are needed. In some quarters the debate has been crudely and inaccurately presented as one between two clearly opposing camps. The reality is very different. It is clear from the responses to the consultation that there are significant areas of consensus. In other areas there is agreement over the aims and desired outcomes, but differences over how they can be best realised.
While there was little support in the consultation for the review body’s model in its entirety, varying degrees of support were expressed for individual recommendations. There was a strong consensus on a number of the review body’s proposals, including the guiding principles, the abolition of the transfer test, the development of a pupil profile — although views differed on what that should contain and how it should be used — and the need for greater co-operation and collaboration among schools.
The predominant view was that academic selection should be ended, although some support for this proposal was subject to certain conditions being met. Most of those closely involved in education, the education partners, primary and secondary schools and the churches, supported the ending of academic selection. However, there was also substantial opposition to this proposal, particularly from the grammar school sector and the majority of those responding to the household response form.
There was little support for two of the proposed admissions criteria, proximity to the pupil’s home and having a parent on the teaching staff of the school, and for collegiates as proposed in the review body’s report. The consultation has demonstrated consensus on the need for a common curriculum to age 14 and for 14 years as a more appropriate age for parents and pupils to consider and make choices about the curricular options or pathways that best suit the interests, needs and abilities of the young people. There was agreement that new arrangements should offer flexibility on curricular choice and be able to accommodate changes of direction by young people.
Many responses also argued for a range of approaches so that post-primary arrangements could reflect local needs and circumstances. Throughout the review I have consistently said that I want to build consensus about the new arrangements. Building consensus remains the best way in which to make progress, and the considerable consensus demonstrated by the responses to the consultation provides a sound platform from which to move the review forward.
I want now to turn to the transfer test. The consultation has clearly shown that there is overwhelming support for the abolition of the test, and that requires a positive response. There are those who fear that the Department will move too quickly; others fear that we will move too slowly. I am aware that many parents are anxious about the possible effects of change on their children. However, there will be no chaos in the education system, nor will children suffer as guinea pigs during transition to new arrangements. Change will be implemented in a considered, planned manner, which will lead to real improvement in our education system.
The current arrangements, including the transfer test, must remain in place until decisions are taken on the post-primary review. The existing system must be managed, and the education of children currently in schools must be protected while the Department plans new arrangements.
The review body suggested that ending the transfer test in 2002 would be the earliest date on which changes could be introduced, and that would be subject to the outcome of the consultation process that the Department has just completed. To ensure that schools, parents and pupils know where they stand, I can confirm that the transfer test will take place in November 2003. Those pupils who are currently in primary six will, therefore, sit the test next year, and they will transfer to post-primary education in September 2004 under the current arrangements.
Although the transfer test must be held next year for practical reasons, I make it clear to the Assembly and to the people that it has no place in the future of education here. I am firmly resolved that it shall be abolished. It is unfair and damaging to many pupils, and it has adversely affected too many young lives. The consultation has confirmed the overwhelming support for its abolition.
Throughout its history the 11-plus branded most of our children failures: the real failure was not the children but the 11-plus itself. That injustice must be brought to an end. I am, therefore, announcing today that the transfer test will be abolished. I am determined that this will happen as soon as is practical, and my proposals for the way forward will ensure that the 11-plus is consigned to history at the earliest possible date.
That brings me to the next stages of the review. It is important that everyone, including myself, takes time to consider the responses to the consultation process in detail. I want to hear the views of key stakeholders in education on the responses to the consultation, and, in the light of my decision on the transfer test, on how best to progress the post-primary review before I introduce my proposals on the next steps. Any new arrangements and their implementation must be shaped by the responses to the consultation and must build on emerging consensus.
The views of MLAs are important in the process. I have tabled a motion to enable the Assembly to take note of the publication of the consultation report: that motion will be debated here next Tuesday. I had intended to discuss the report with the Committee for Education on Thursday, but that will be rearranged as early as possible. I look forward to both discussions.
Our main education partners must be fully engaged in the process of developing and implementing proposals for new post-primary arrangements. That is crucial. I have, therefore, planned a series of meetings with key education interests to seek their views on the responses to the consultation process and on how best to take forward the next stages of the review. Those meetings will take place with the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (the Council for Irish-Medium Education), the Governing Bodies Association of Voluntary Grammar Schools, the teachers’ unions, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, the Northern Catholic bishops, and the Transferor Representatives’ Council, representing the main Protestant churches.
The first meeting has been arranged for 5 November, and meetings will continue throughout November. In determining the way forward, I will carefully consider the views expressed by our education partners at those meetings, along with the views of the Assembly and the Committee for Education and the responses to the consultation.
I will announce my proposals for the next stages of the review in December this year.
My objective in advancing the post-primary review is to create an education system that raises standards for all pupils, is fair to all pupils, and provides a modern education system for the twenty-first century. The consultation provided three key messages: there is widespread demand for change, which cannot be ignored; there is an obligation on all of us to focus on the needs of the child as a learner, which must be paramount in considering future arrangements; and there is emerging consensus on key issues, which provides us with a platform on which to build new arrangements.
If we keep the focus on the needs of children as learners, we can build on emerging consensus to achieve the objective of creating a modern, fair education system that enables all young people to fulfil their potential, irrespective of their backgrounds or circumstances. That is a truly worthy objective, and I will work towards it with the help of our education partners, Assembly Members and the Committee for Education as we take the post-primary education review to the next stages.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important discussion on the publication of the responses to consultation. However, it is regrettable that the document was not made available until half an hour before the Assembly met. It is even more regrettable that the Minister’s statement was not made available to Members until 10.30 am. If the Minister wishes everyone to participate in the discussion, Members ought to have been given the opportunity to read those documents.
This is an opportunity to question the Minister, and the Committee for Education wishes to consider the report in detail. As the Minister said, he and his officials will meet the Committee to examine the outcome of the review.
Can the Minister confirm that the topic of discussion with key stakeholders will be the results of the consultation rather than proposals on the way forward? Does he intend to consult further on any proposals for the way forward? Will he make a commitment to bring any proposals to the Committee for consideration? Does he acknowledge that the Burns Report’s proposals are not acceptable as a way forward? When the Minister issued the household response form, he said —
I refer to the results that were published in today’s report on responses to consultation, in particular to responses to the question of whether academic selection should be abolished. Will the Minister accept that the majority of parents, teachers and all those who were consulted rejected the abolition of academic selection?
I do not normally take points of order during questions to a Minister, but this debate is obviously very important: that is not to imply that other debates are not. The normal procedure is that Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons are given slightly longer for questions than others. Mr Kennedy has had ample opportunity to put his question, and the Minister will now respond.
I consider the next stage of this process very important indeed. At the beginning of the process many people — not officials in my Department — said to me that the house would come down on top of me like a tonne of bricks if I tried to deal with the 11-plus. We moved through a process of research conducted by two eminent professors. The review body chaired by Gerry Burns carried out an incredible amount of work, and the consultation process was of vital importance.
The most striking feature of that process was the willingness of all those involved in education, on all sides of the debate, to be positive and constructive on how we move forward. It is a mood that I should like to sustain through what I consider to be the next stage of the process.
Many MLAs will appreciate that it is better that we move forward in a spirit of co-operation because this is about children. It is about the future of all our children, not just my children or Danny Kennedy’s children, and we have a responsibility to manage the process as best we can.
In answer to Mr Kennedy’s question, I intend to move forward sensibly, building on the good mood in education to deal with the important challenges before us. I shall not go to the education partners in the course of my November deliberations with a fait accompli. I shall continue to build consensus; and there is a good spirit abroad to do so.
I have clearly signalled to the Assembly that I shall come forward with my proposals at the end of that process. I wish to do so in co-operation with everyone, including the Committee for Education, which will have an opportunity to discuss the report, and those issues can be dealt with in debate here. I shall also meet with the Committee. Regarding further consultation on alternatives, I must say that the review body and my Department have already undertaken two broad consultation exercises. It is now time to take the review forward, working closely with the education partners to develop proposals that will take account of all the views expressed.
The need for change has been firmly established, and the majority now wishes to see proposals for new post-primary arrangements. Indeed, the Committee for Education, in the finalisation of its report into the matter, accepted that change was essential. Many respondents acknowledged the achievements of the current system of academic selection but argued that it was not adequate or acceptable for the future. The predominant view that emerged from consultation was that academic selection at the age of 11 should end.
Members should listen carefully to what I have to say. Those in favour were the five education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, the five main teachers’ unions, the Catholic Heads Association, the Association of Head Teachers in Secondary Schools, two thirds of schools, the Northern Catholic bishops, the Transferor Representatives’ Council, the institutes of further and higher education that responded, the Confederation of British Industry, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Women’s Coalition, the Workers’ Party, thirty of those people who responded to the household response form, the majority of the voluntary and community interests that responded, the Human Rights Commission, the Children’s Law Centre, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Council of Trade Unions, and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance.
Opposition came from the Governing Bodies Association, the Secondary Heads Association, one third of schools, two thirds of those people who responded to the household response form, rural interest groups, the UUP, the DUP, four district councils, the Institute of Directors, and the majority of 16 training organisations.
It is clear from the way that I have laid the report before the Assembly that this was a multi-stranded approach. It is totally wrong of Members to select the statistics that suit them and to ignore the rest.
The Ulster Unionist Party is opposed to the proposal for common admissions criteria. However, the majority of responses to the household response form, and in the omnibus survey, supported the proposal. The Member is being selective in identifying the responses that suit his and his party’s agenda.
I am the Minister of Education. It is my responsibility to be fair and objective, to consider the responses from all strands of the consultation, and to determine what is in the best interests of all of Northern Ireland’s children.
Does the Minister not agree that he has retreated from the position that he said he intended to see through during the lifetime of this Assembly? The 11-plus is to stay for the rest of this Assembly’s lifetime, and for a further two years.
Does he agree that he has been given a slap in the face, or — to use his parlance — a punishment beating, by the people? The majority of households have said that they oppose the central proposition of the Burns Report, that academic selection should be ended. The majority of teachers have said that academic selection should stay. Despite the gloss that the Minister has put on the figures, he has been comprehensively told, by all but the education mafia, that the people of Northern Ireland want academic selection to remain. According to his Department’s survey, more people have said that they want academic selection to stay than have said that they want the 11-plus to be abolished.
As he has given a commitment to the first group, will he also give a commitment to the second group that, in response to what the people have said, academic selection will be retained? Will he assure the House that he will not continue to squirm and try to avoid the conclusion that the people of Northern Ireland have come to?
If you will permit me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will ignore some of the nonsense that has been offered this morning.
The Member raised two issues. I have given a clear commitment to abolish the test and will be working with our education partners to determine a way forward to enable that to happen as soon as possible. Abolishing the test without new arrangements for transfer would create chaos within the system and cause anxiety and concern among pupils, parents, teachers and schools. I am not prepared to do that.
Some people will say that I am moving too fast; others will say that I am moving too slowly. I want to move at the right pace that enables me to work with education partners and determine arrangements that will allow change to be implemented in a planned and orderly way.
In relation to academic selection, it is just not good enough for people to select results from one strand and ignore everyone else’s opinions. I have been very forthright about this. The reality is that a majority of respondents to the household response form — 64% — did not support the end of academic selection. Those responding to the household response form constituted 16% of the adult population. Analysis shows that they included disproportionate numbers of those with children currently or previously at a grammar school. [Interruption].
Analysis shows that they included disproportionate numbers of those with children currently or previously at a grammar schools and those from the more prosperous areas of the North. Although that is an important body of opinion that must be taken into account, it cannot be construed as representing the views of the entire public. I have said all along that the consultation was multi-stranded and that reliance should not be placed on any single strand.
The public’s views were expressed in a variety of other ways through the responses of schools, representative organisations in the community and voluntary sectors, churches, political parties and education partners. I will be taking into account the public’s views as expressed through all strands of consultation, together with the other responses, in determining the best way forward.
Some people in the House may choose to exercise themselves on all those issues, but I appeal again to everyone on all sides of the House to recognise that children must be the central focus of our attention here. This is not about party political point-scoring or one-upmanship; it is about moving forward to face up to the challenges posed by the results of the consultation and by the unhappiness in society about the current arrangements. It is about sitting together in a positive and constructive spirit. That spirit exists outside this House, throughout the wide breadth of opinion within education. If that is the view, if people agree with it and are not prepared to challenge it, there is a huge responsibility on Members to add to and enhance that mood by continuing in a spirit of co-operation.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on the transfer test. I am pleased that those comments recognise the SDLP’s long-held view on the matter. The consultation report also contains strong support for many of the SDLP’s other suggestions, such as the development of pupil profiles. The report shows a clear rejection of the collegiate system and a desire for it to be replaced by the development of co-operation among all secondary schools. We must build on the goodwill and the good work of educationalists, teachers and school governors.
Does the Minister accept that any society that is based on justice must have at its heart an education system that is based on "equality of opportunity"? However, that term does not appear in the consultation report. Will the Minister ensure that the next document on the review of post-primary education will not only contain the term "equality of opportunity" but will have the capacity to develop and deliver equality of opportunity for all our children?
Mr Gallagher’s remarks contain nothing with which I can disagree. In fact, I agree with all of what he said. The whole concept of equality is vital, and it underpins the Good Friday Agreement. In our approach to that challenge, I have always been conscious that, when examining the minutiae of the faults in our education system, it is essential that everyone accept that a modern education system for the twenty-first century must be provided. That means that choice must be available for parents and children. I remind Members that the first two guiding principles proposed by the review body state that
"each young person should be valued equally; and all young people should be enabled to develop their talents to the full."
My commitment to equality is absolute. When will people see the next stage? I have made it clear to the Assembly today that I intend to introduce proposals in December. However, that will not happen until I have had critical discussions with education partners in the coming weeks. When the proposals are introduced, Tommy Gallagher and all Members who believe in a progressive approach will welcome that important change.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wholeheartedly welcome the Minister’s announcement. Does the Minister agree that people, including the household survey respondents and the education bodies, have clearly expressed widespread support for an end to the 11-plus? That support demonstrates that there is a broad acceptance that the primary-school curriculum has traumatised and alienated many children, and created a two-tier system. The Minister, therefore, has an obligation to act on that broad consensus.
In a week during which shipbuilding appears to have ceased to be an industry here, during which the Minister has announced profound changes to the future of the education system, does the Minister agree that it is ironic that Unionists on the Benches opposite, who profess such a passionate interest in those subjects, are engaged in such an unseemly scramble — [Interruption].
I shall repeat the question for your benefit, Madam Deputy Speaker, and for the benefit of those Members on the opposite Benches who are hard of hearing.
Does the Minister agree that it is ironic that, in the week during which the shipbuilding industry appears to be coming to an end, during which he has announced profound changes to the future of the education system, Unionists on the opposite Benches, who profess such a passionate interest in those subjects, are engaged in an unseemly scramble to see who can be first out of the very institution that will give —
In answer to that question, it is important to say that almost all of the responses supported the abolition of the transfer tests, because the tests are unfair; they are inappropriate to the current and future educational needs of learners; they skew the primary school curriculum; and they have a detrimental and stressful impact on children.
Without dealing specifically with the controversy in regard to the Member’s last question, it is important to say that, throughout this process, I have articulated my deeply held belief that, as we move forward, the concern is to improve the educational opportunities of all our children — regardless of where they live, whether it be the Bogside, the Shankill Road, Portadown or Maghera.
The Alliance Party believes that this should be a milestone on the way to a better education for our children. I hope that we will have the opportunity to continue the consultation exercise and the debate in the Committee for Education and in the Assembly. It would be a dreadful indictment of all of us, and our children would suffer, if this exercise were to be suspended because of prevailing political circumstances. My party welcomes the Minister’s clear statement on transfer tests and the end of the 11-plus, and we will take part in the consultation to ensure that that is carried out as quickly as possible.
Because of the late receipt of the Minister’s statement, my three questions relate only to the statement. Academic selection has already been discussed, and I appreciate what the Minister said. However, how will those concerns be directly addressed in the consultation exercise? On a practical level, with regard to the timetable for the end of the transfer tests, how will parents of children in primary 5 and primary 6 be assured that future stress will not be placed on those children during the transition period?
In general, I welcome the comments at the end of the statement. However, I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised at my next question. Whatever results from the consultation, will specific details on addressing the needs of children with special educational difficulties be included in this fairer education system that enables all young people to fulfil their potential, irrespective of background or circumstances?
I thank the Member for the constructive role that she and others have played throughout the course of this debate. With regard to the concerns identified by the Member, I have said time and time again that I want to build consensus on the new arrangements. Meetings with key education interests will be held in November to discuss their views on the responses to the consultation and how best to take forward the next stages of the review.
In developing the way forward, I shall consider carefully the comments and views expressed by our education partners at those meetings, together with the views of the Assembly and the Committee for Education, and the responses to the consultation. I shall announce my proposals for the next stage of the review in December.
I am aware of the anxieties and concerns of parents and teachers regarding change. The Member was right to draw attention to that. I assure Members that the interests of children will continue to be my prime concern throughout the review. I said earlier — and I want it to be absolutely clear — that there will be no chaos in the education system. Neither will any children suffer as guinea pigs. Changes will be introduced in a planned and orderly manner to safeguard the education of children in school. My objective is to improve our children’s educational experiences and to improve standards for all. I shall work closely with our education partners to achieve that.
In respect of replacing the transfer tests with another test, the response to the consultation showed overwhelming support for the abolition of the tests.
As I have said time and time again in the House, revised tests will have the same weaknesses as the current arrangements. I have made clear my commitment to abolish the transfer test, and it is not my intention to replace it with another test that will effectively perpetuate the weaknesses in the current system.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, which, because it concerns future of generations of working-class children, may address the most important decision to be made by the Assembly. Unfortunately, the media are likely to focus on the events of Friday 4 October rather than on this debate.
In line with targeting social need, how does the Minister propose to secure equality of access for all children who sit the transfer test next month? Will he consider a voluntary collaboration pilot scheme to include maintained, controlled, integrated and special schools? Is the Minister aware that such a voluntary collaboration network operates in north Belfast? Does he propose to review initial teacher-training programmes to facilitate the changes in the education system?
Although we cannot pre-empt the outcome of next month’s meetings with the education partners, a review of the initial teacher-training programmes must be given serious consideration. We know that there will be new arrangements of which initial teacher training must take account.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds constitute only 8% of pupils in grammar schools. The objective of the post-primary arrangements must be to ensure that all pupils, regardless of where their gifts lie, can progress and fulfil their full potential. I am seeking post-primary arrangements that provide flexible, diverse and high-quality choices to suit the varied needs, abilities and aptitudes of all our children. I passionately believe, as do most sensible people, that every child should be given the opportunity to succeed. My aim is to develop new arrangements that will address the weaknesses of the current system, be fair to all pupils and enable all pupils to fulfil their potential, irrespective of their background and circumstances.
The current academic selection system disadvantages low-income children in the following ways: pupils from the least disadvantaged schools are almost three times more likely to achieve a grade A than pupils from the most disadvantaged schools; the proportion of pupils in grammar schools entitled to free school meals is only 8% and has been declining in the past five years; disadvantaged pupils are only half as likely as other children to achieve five good GCSEs, grades A-C; and pupils from disadvantaged Protestant areas benefit least from the current system.
I have a tremendous amount of sympathy with Billy Hutchinson’s comments. His contribution to the debate, like the contributions of many other Members from all sides of the House, has been constructive and positive, which, as we continue the review, is the mood that we must capture. The positive mood exists in the education system. There is a good relationship between my Department and the education partners. There are difficult issues that must be faced up to, but we are well placed to do that. It is critical that we continue to work in a positive way. We must respect strongly held views from all sides. I have detected a strong mood of co-operation, which I have no doubt will carry over to the important deliberations that will take place in November before I bring my proposals to the Assembly in December.
The Minister’s statement is important. It sends the message from the Assembly that there is an emerging consensus about the widespread consultation, for which I thank the Minister. It was good that a household survey was conducted. However, were its findings broken down by class? Often only those who have the capacity to respond to household surveys do so, and lower income families do not. Was that the case, because, if so, that may have had an impact on the findings?
Given the emerging consensus about the Burns Report, it seems that the issues we have to resolve are the common admissions criteria and the opposition to the collegiate system. Given that the issue of proximity to schools seems to have caused the greatest divergence of opinion, will the Minister tell us what he plans to do about that in the interim? What does he plan to do about the inequities of the school transport system and how will he address that issue in the long term?
I made it clear in a previous debate that my Department was working on a review of school transport. However, I am conscious of the points that Ms McWilliams made. There is no doubt that we shall have to consider the issues raised today as we move forward. That said, we must recognise that it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the outcome of our deliberations with our education partners next month. We shall have to see what transpires from them before we proceed.
As regards Ms McWilliams’s point about class, we could not put all of the information about breakdown by class in the booklet published this morning because, had we done so, Members would not have been able to carry it home. As I said during my speech, further information is available and can be found on the web site.
As regards the household response form, the response was much lower from people in socially disadvantaged areas than elsewhere. However, it is important to point out that we should not focus exclusively on any one strand of the consultation. The views of the socially disadvantaged are fully represented in the responses from community and voluntary groups as well as in those of the umbrella bodies, such as the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), schools in disadvantaged areas, the churches, political parties and human rights and equality groups.
Views on the proposals for the common admissions criterion were mixed. Many views were expressed on the individual criteria, and a lottery system was the most commonly suggested alternative tie-breaker. We must give considerable thought to the outcome of the consultation, and I have no doubt that, as we proceed through November, we shall face up to the challenges that the matter holds for us all.
I shall reserve judgement on the report. I have had unfortunate experience of welcoming reports, only to find that the devil was in the detail. I am fascinated by the Minister’s crocodile tears for the people of the Shankill Road: I am sure they appreciate his tears given the previous occupations of some of his Colleagues and their nocturnal visits to the Shankill Road.
I am very concerned that the Minister has taken a selective approach to the statistics. It is unfortunate that Members received the booklet less than half an hour before arriving at the Chamber, and we got the Minister’s statement only on arrival at the Chamber Door — Members have not had an opportunity to dissect the documentation properly.
Would the Minister define the term "key stakeholder" and how that compares with "educational partners", a term he bandies across the Chamber a lot? Who are the educational partners and who are the key stakeholders?
Will the Minister assure the House and the concerned parents of Northern Ireland, who have made their feelings clear on some areas that the Minister has chosen almost to ignore this morning, that the consultation on the consultation will not constitute yet another attempt to skew our education system to suit his view of society? I heard one or two comments earlier in the debate that concerned me further —
Will the Minister also assure the House that the Committee for Education will be consulted and given adequate opportunity to make its views known and have them taken into account more meaningfully than heretofore? I notice that the Minister has all of his cheerleaders around him this morning, but perhaps that shows just how uncertain he is of this particular case —
Madam Deputy Speaker, I apologise for being late for this important debate. It must be realised that it is the same distance from Beragh to Stormont as it is from Stormont to Beragh.
I will ask serious questions of the Minister. Some parts of the Gallagher Report have been drawn to my attention and to the attention of other Committee members. [Interruption].
Parts of that report were the basis for the Burns Report. I have discovered that references in the ‘Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland’ are not found in the Gallagher Report. In a letter, the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University described that as "unfortunate". It is alleged that those references were published, but that is incorrect. The Minister based much of his thinking on that first premise. If there is a suspicion of a flaw in the original Gallagher research, we should know whether that research was tested by his academic peers. Such a flaw would cast suspicion on the whole exercise. I want the Minister to treat that question seriously.
Last week, at the end of the Labour Party conference, the leader of the working-class population said —
Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be brief with my questions. The representative of the working-class population of the United Kingdom said that we are now in a post-comprehensive period.
Can the Minister ignore such a statement and continue to advocate comprehensive education? I ask the Minister to consider those serious questions. I am concerned about the original statement.
I have a short answer. The Gallagher and Smith research has never been challenged seriously by anyone. In relation to the second point, there is no doubt whatsoever that during our discussions with the education partners we will have plenty of opportunities to deal with that. That is how I intend to deal with it.
On a personal and lighter note, this morning over his boiled egg, my son Charlie, who is in P7, asked, "Daddy, could you ask that man in Stormont who is in charge of education to get rid of the 11-plus?" I can now go home armed with the knowledge that the Minister has at long last abolished the 11-plus. Many schoolchildren and parents throughout Northern Ireland will be delighted. Alas, it comes too late for my son, Charlie. Perhaps the Minister will make an exception for him this year. [Interruption].
No, not during questions. This is a very unruly crowd — it is a very unruly class.
There have been mixed responses to the Burns proposals by the public generally and by academics.
However, there is a consensus against the 11-plus. That is beyond peradventure. The consultation has demonstrated consensus on the need for a common curriculum to the age of 14. Has the Minister proposals in the pipeline to create a common curriculum up to the age of 14 to meet that clear demand?
Strong views were expressed about the need for a common curriculum to the age of 14, and we will undoubtedly have many opportunities to deal with that. There was strong support for a common curriculum and for a broader range of curricular choices to be available to all pupils in Key Stage 4. Nobody should be under any illusions about that. We will deal with it, and we hope to outline to everyone how we intend to advance the issue in the proposals that we will submit in December.
I also want to tell the Member that I am going to write to Charlie to tell him that he has got his wish. [Interruption].
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The behaviour of some members of the Education Committee on the opposite Benches has been completely disgraceful. It seems that they have not read Standing Orders and do not know to ask questions during statements instead of making long-winded statements.
I welcome the Minister’s statement on the abolition of the 11-plus, as do most people. Does the Minister not agree that even though the so-called grammar school lobby was effective in mobilising its supporters to complete the household survey, the people have spoken clearly about the 11-plus? That has implications for the future structures of post-primary education, its curriculum and assessment.
It is open to any group to make its views known on matters of major public interest. The grammar school campaign has a legitimate interest in this. The Governing Bodies Association conducted a public advertising campaign in the newspapers, and many grammar schools held meetings with parents to discuss the Burns proposals.
That was reflected in the responses to the household survey, which showed a higher response rate from parents with children attending, or who had attended, grammar schools than from other parents. However, that does not in any way invalidate the views expressed. It is clear that many of those parents have genuine concerns about the potential impact that change will have on education standards. I shall take those concerns into account when new arrangements are being developed. My objective is to raise standards for all pupils.
I remind the Minister of the inadequate answer that he gave to questions on academic selection. I point out to him, to the House and to the Public Gallery, which may not yet be aware of the report, that 579 responses — 510 from schools and 69 from further and higher education institutes, community groups and training organisations — expressed a wish to see an end to academic selection.
Opposed to that were the views that were sought from 200,551 households. Some 64% of respondents favoured retaining academic selection. The Omnibus Survey reflected that view. From a sample of 2,200 members of the public, 54% favoured retaining academic selection.
When we look at parents — [Interruption].
No, I shall not. Therefore, 64% of parents were in favour of retention. Interestingly, when one looks at the figure for schools that claimed to oppose academic selection, one sees that 62% of the teachers surveyed favoured retaining it. A figure that has not been quoted, and which is contained in the report’s summary, is that the opinion of primary and post-primary pupils was divided equally for and against academic selection. Therefore, even within — [Interruption].
Yes. Some 50% of pupils were in favour of academic selection. In the light of those overwhelming figures in favour of academic selection, how can the Minister of Education stand before the House and say that the predominant view is that academic selection should be ended? Did the Minister of Education not go to the country to seek people’s views, thinking that he would hear what suited him, only to get a reaction that he did not expect? Instead of respecting the will of the people, he is trying to impose his will on the people.
I again remind Members that the household response form is only one strand of the consultation. Sixteen per cent of the adult population responded, from which just under two thirds were opposed to ending academic selection. Their views are important and will be taken into account. However, we must look at the wider picture and consider the greater number of people who did not respond, and also the responses to the other — [Interruption].
The majority is based on the fact that there was support for ending academic selection from all five education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the Transferor Representatives’ Council, institutes of further and higher education, the five main teachers’ unions, two thirds of schools, 30% of those who responded to the household response form — [Interruption].
— a majority of the voluntary and community interests that responded, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Women’s Coalition, the Workers’ Party, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Children’s Law Centre, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance and the Campaign Against Selection.
Conditional support also came from the northern Catholic bishops, the Confederation of British Industry, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment and the Catholic Heads Association. Opposition came from the Governing Bodies Association, the Secondary Heads Association, one third of schools, two thirds of those who responded to the household response forms, rural interest groups, the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP, the four district councils that responded, the Institute of Directors and a majority of the 16 training organisations that responded. That is clear. [Interruption].
There was a clearly expressed volume of support for pupil profiles. However, almost everyone seems to have his own ideas about what "pupil profile" means. How will the Minister be able to progress the development of pupil profiles to the satisfaction of all, being conscious of the administrative burden that might fall on teaching staff and of the interesting academic arguments about pupil profiles?
The concept of pupil profiles has been universally welcomed as a way of providing better information for parents and informing decisions about meeting the needs of learners. There are concerns about the use of pupil profiles in the transfer process, the need for consistency and fairness and the increased workload and pressure on teachers. However, I shall discuss that key issue in my meetings with the main education interests to consider how best to progress the next stages of the review.
In the city where I live, that injustice resulted in the introduction of a busing system. That was not in Boston, where they bused in the failures and bused out the successes in the various estates. I welcome the Minister’s announcement. Does he agree that any future system must provide not only equality of opportunity, but also equality of access and provision, issues that emerged as a result of the consultation process?
I am satisfied, given the constructive way in which the entire process has moved along over the past couple of years, that we can face up to the issues raised by Mrs Nelis. I have already addressed the central theme of her question. I shall not do the Assembly the disservice of giving another long answer.