Burns Report

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 14 October 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Tom Hamilton Mr Tom Hamilton UUP 2:30, 14 October 2002

2. asked the Minister of Education to outline (a) if he has taken any further action on the Burns proposals and (b) what that action was.

(AQO 334/02)

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

On 8 October 2002 I published a report summarising the responses to the consultation on the Burns Report. I made a statement in the Assembly outlining the next steps and announced my commitment to abolish the transfer test as soon as is practical. I am absolutely determined that my decision to abolish the test will not be thwarted by political developments.

On 11 October I announced that the last tests will be held in 2004. That decision allows my Department to proceed with work with our key education partners to build on the emerging consensus and to develop new arrangements finally to consign the transfer test to history. To allow the suspension of the Assembly to delay the abolition of the test and the development of new post-primary arrangements would only prolong the unfairness and inequalities of the current system, and I am not prepared to countenance that.

Photo of Mr Tom Hamilton Mr Tom Hamilton UUP

Given that the Minister’s announcement was made, to some extent, under cover of darkness, how does he square the fact that 64% of parents, 62% of teachers and 50% of pupils support the retention of academic selection, according to his own recent survey? Is it not the case that his decision was driven by petty political malice and his own personal prejudices?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Petty political malice has no place in the education of our children.

Two thirds of those who returned the household response form supported the retention of academic selection. Those views are important and will be taken into account. However, they cannot be considered to be fully representative of the wider public, because only 16% of the population responded to the household survey. The response rate from well-off areas was almost three times greater than that from the poorest areas. Responses from the parents of grammar-school pupils were over-represented by more than 50%, given the proportion of children who attend grammar schools.

In developing new arrangements, my Department and its key education partners must examine the views of the public as expressed through all strands of the consultation in responses from the education partners, schools, churches, community organisations and political parties. Some — [Interruption].

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Let me go further, some members of the Committee for Education are focusing exclusively on the responses to the household response form on academic selection. The position they have now adopted is an about-turn from their previous position when consulted on the household response form, when they said:

"The Committee would also wish to express reservations about the limited nature of this tick-box questionnaire and the fact that a yes or no answer is being sought on complex issues which many of the respondents will have a limited knowledge or understanding of. While it may be a useful exercise to encourage some sort of feedback it may not be appropriate to rely on or cite the results as clear and unequivocal support for certain proposals or a particular way forward."

However, that is precisely what the Member and his Colleagues are doing. The Member’s party is also trumpeting the views of teachers who responded to the household response form — the same teachers about whom they said:

"We have reservations about the emphasis being placed on teachers’ views, particularly given that they only make up a small proportion of the population to which this household form will be sent."

Having previously rubbished the views of the public and of the teachers, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party members of the Education Committee are now citing them in support of their case. That is the lowest form of political point-scoring on an issue of the highest importance. From the outset, I have made it clear that the consultation would be multi-stranded and account would be taken of responses to all of the strands, and I am sticking to that commitment.

In contrast to the political point-scoring by the UUP and the DUP, I have given clear leadership to the education sector by announcing a date for the end of these iniquitous tests. That will provide the impetus to develop new arrangements, and my Department will be working with its key education partners to take that work forward by building on the consensus that has emerged from the consultation. [Interruption].

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member had an opportunity to ask his questions.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

The SDLP’s position on the 11-plus is well known to the Minister and to the Assembly. Does the Minister agree that his announcement on Friday, if it is to take effect, must include a decision about what will replace the 11-plus in 2004? Will he tell the House whether any decisions have been taken about what will come into being in 2005 and thereafter?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I have made it clear that the transfer tests will not be part of education here in the future. My Department will be working with its education partners to determine how we move forward in relation to new transfer arrangements. A range of suggestions for alternative post-primary arrangements was included in the responses to the consultation, and my Department, in consultation with its education partners, will consider those further.

Those who support academic selection agreed that substantial modifications to the current system are required. There was some support for all-ability schools, or a fully comprehensive school system, operating on the basis of catchment areas. There was broad support from our education partners — all the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the teachers’ unions and others — for a system of informed election, whereby parents and pupils consider information and advice about the pupil and the range of educational opportunities and courses available and choose or elect which courses or institutions to apply for admission to. Whatever structure is put in place must enable all pupils to have educational provision that meets their individual learning needs and enables them to fulfil their potential. That is what it is about.

Children are central to how we move forward. The matter is more about children than institutions.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

For someone who has based his life on not answering questions by remaining silent during lengthy interrogations by the security forces, the Minister appears to have adopted a new tack today: he spends around six minutes speaking on a question without answering it.

Perhaps I may remind him of the original question. The Minister has said that the responses that he received in the household survey were not representative. He described the monitoring survey as a representative sample of 2,000 homes, and it produced the same result as the household survey. Why does he still insist on ignoring the results of a survey in which the people said that they wished to retain academic selection and which he has himself described as representative? Why did the Minister say on Tuesday 8 October 2002 in his statement that he would

"carefully consider the views expressed by our education partners… along with the views of the Assembly and the Committee for Education and the responses to the consultation." ? —[Official Report, Bound Volume 18, p387].

He went on to say that he would announce proposals for the review’s next stage in December. Why has he broken that promise? He said that he would listen to the people, yet he has ignored them. He said that he would listen to the Assembly, yet he has ignored it. Perhaps he will explain why his final act as Minister of Education has simply reinforced the view that he is duplicitous, deceitful —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member has made his question clear.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Last Tuesday, no decision on suspension had been taken. I am determined — [Interruption].

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

It is an act of desperation.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

There is no desperation about me. I am determined that political developments will not prevent progress on that vital issue.

Consultation on the Burns Report showed overwhelming support for the abolition of the transfer test, and last Tuesday I made clear my commitment to ending it as soon as practicable. By making clear that the transfer test will end in 2004, I have exhibited clear leadership to the education sector and provided the impetus for this important work to be continued. Many respondents acknowledged the achievements of the system of academic selection but argued that it is not adequate or acceptable for the future.

The predominant view from the consultation is that academic selection at the age of 11 should end. Some support depended on certain conditions being met. However, those in favour included — and this is extremely important — all 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 and the Association of Head Teachers in Secondary Schools; two thirds of schools; the Northern Catholic bishops and the Transferor Representatives’ Council, which represents Protestant churches; those institutes of higher and further 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; 30 % of those who returned the household response forms and the majority of the voluntary and community interests that responded; the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; the Children’s Law Centre; the Comptroller and Auditor General; the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions; and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance. Some complain about the decision that was taken last Friday to abolish the transfer tests. I heard some people claim — [Interruption].

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I heard some people claim at the opening of the sitting that no consultation took place with the Executive. Ulster Unionist members of the Executive are on the record as stating that it was very unlikely that the Executive would meet again in its present form.

That decision was well within my competence as Minister of Education. I am within my rights to take that decision — [Interruption].

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

It is about the future education of our children — [Interruption].

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member will find it difficult to ask his supplementary question from outside the Chamber.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I wish that the Unionist Members of the House would take their responsibilities seriously and focus on the needs of children. This issue concerns children. It concerns the way in which the Assembly should progress. I do not know how long suspension will last. However, I believe that whoever manages the Department of Education in the foreseeable future will be guided by the important decisions that have been taken.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I do not see Mr Conor Murphy in his place. Therefore Mr Hay may ask his question to the Minister.