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14 Jan 2003 : Column 555—continued

Litter And Fouling Of Land By Dogs

Mr. Bob Blizzard accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision relating to litter and the fouling of land by dogs and to allow a local authority to retain the revenue from fixed penalty notices for such offences issued in its area for the purposes of enforcement: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 4 April, and to be printed [Bill 41].

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Opposition Day

Education (Northern Ireland)

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Prime Minister.

1.1 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I beg to move,

The future well-being of our education system is critical to Northern Ireland's long-term success. We must have a well educated and well trained work force if we are to commend and promote Northern Ireland nationally and internationally as an ideal location for investment and job creation. That is why we believe that it is essential that these issues should be debated in full on the Floor of the House this afternoon.

One of the key issues that the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland has inherited is the future structure of post-primary education. Unless this matter is handled very carefully, there is a real danger of doing irreparable harm to our education system and of undermining the good standards presently being achieved by pupils in Northern Ireland. Standards in Northern Ireland's schools—controlled, maintained, voluntary and integrated—are already high compared with other areas of the United Kingdom. According to the Northern Ireland annual abstract of statistics 2001—the most recent set of figures available—pupils in Northern Ireland continue to perform better than their counterparts in England at the higher qualification levels, with 57 per cent. of year 12 pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with 49 per cent. in England and Wales, and with 93 per cent. of final-year pupils gaining two or more A-levels, compared with 81 per cent. in England and 92 per cent. in Wales. Indeed, it is interesting to note that only 4 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieved no GCSEs, compared with 6 per cent. in England and 8 per cent. in Wales.

This issue has its genesis in the Burns report on post-primary education. One unfortunate legacy of that report is that the statement by the then Northern Ireland Education Minister that the present transfer test would be abolished by 2004 was made without any attempt to spell out alternative selection transfer procedures. We were therefore utterly amazed that one of the first acts of the present Minister with responsibility for education

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was to reiterate and support that statement of educational vandalism and malice. According to the Burns consultation report on post-primary education, only 30 per cent. of the 200,551 respondents to the household survey believed that academic selection should be ended, while 64 per cent. stated that academic selection should be retained in some form. A further 7 per cent. were undecided.

There is evidence that these trends run across the sectoral divide, and many Roman Catholic parents support academic selection. Indeed, one of the strongest advocates of academic selection is Monsignor Faul, a distinguished former head of a large Roman Catholic grammar school and a leading spokesman on community issues. Bearing these figures in mind, does the Minister still think it wise to press on with implementing proposals to abolish the 11-plus without a suitable and acceptable alternative transfer procedure being put in place? Would it not serve the educational needs of school children in Northern Ireland much better if we were to keep the current transfer system in place until such time as a final replacement system is found and agreed to? Any results from focus groups—which, at best, will be no more representative than a widespread survey of households into the future of post-primary education selection—cannot be allowed to overrule the democratic wishes of the people in an attempt to subvert democracy.

Representatives of the Ulster Unionist party met the Minister on 7 January and put forward the sensible recommendation that she should appoint an education advisory panel which could make recommendations to her on how a new transfer procedure could be put in place. At the meeting, the hope was expressed that she would act to create a new body that could be transparent, open, independent and capable of ending the chaos and uncertainty in education that has arisen out of the decision by the former Minister to abolish the 11-plus examination. There is concern as to whether the Department for Education and Skills could develop an alternative system in a truly impartial manner. An independent body could bridge the gap caused by the suspension of the devolved institutions. I ask the Minister to show her commitment to the future of post-primary education by adopting the suggestion for an education advisory panel.

We accept that there are problems with the present 11-plus transfer procedure. Indeed, we support its replacement, but only when a suitably worked out alternative has been put forward. We have our own alternative proposals based on informed parental choice and the use of pupil profiles, with the requirement for objective assessment. We want genuine choice, greater diversity and a greater emphasis on vocational and skills-based education. Diversity in the provision of post-primary education is to be encouraged, as long as it provides families with real choices and maintains high standards of education and opportunity. We must ensure that any change enables all our young people equally to maximise their individual potential, whatever

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their various personal abilities. Equality and diversity are central to our education system. I ask the Minister to look at the question of equality legislation in schools.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's background means that he takes a serious interest in education. How would his ideas on equality and access deal with the problem that only 8 per cent. of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Northern Ireland are able to gain access to grammar schools? What are his proposals for tackling that obvious inequality in the current structure?

Mr. Beggs: We need a clear definition of disadvantage. I am a member of a family of 12 children; I have six sisters and five brothers. My father worked in the shipyard and in the textile industry for a time. He also worked hard on a small farm to provide for his children. Was I disadvantaged? The education system in Northern Ireland afforded an opportunity to every member of my family and to many others who did not start off with a silver spoon. We were able to make our way and benefit from the excellent education in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Let me press my hon. Friend on what is meant by access. In my constituency, children are disadvantaged by their inability to access secondary education without undue expense for their parents. It is not simply a matter of grammar school children being disadvantaged; they get their fares paid if they live outwith the area.

Mr. Beggs: I believe that every child in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to benefit, irrespective of family circumstances. We must perhaps do more to encourage the parents of children in households where there is no history of third-tier education. I try to do that in my constituency by encouraging the university of Ulster, which is the local university, to contact primary and secondary schools in East Antrim when there is no clear sign over time that children have moved through them and taken advantage of the excellent opportunities that further and higher education affords in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): The hon. Gentleman has not answered the previous question. The figures that an Ulster Unionist councillor gave me for his ward in north Belfast show that only 6 per cent. of children made it to grammar school. What does the hon. Gentleman propose for the other 94 per cent.?

Mr. Beggs: As I said, we must encourage parents more. Many youngsters do not even enter the selection procedure. In parts of north Belfast, children traditionally grew up to believe that the greatest achievement for them and their families was gaining an apprenticeship with Short Brothers, the aircraft factory, with Mackie's foundry or in the shipyard. They had no higher expectation. However, many able pupils who stayed at school until they were 14 or left at 16 without qualifications have subsequently taken advantage of workers education courses and night classes to improve their skills and qualifications. They have continued

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through our university system as mature students. The process will take time, but we must focus on the group that has benefited least.

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