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14 Jan 2003 : Column 559—continued

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Is it not the case that 25 per cent. of the adult population of Northern Ireland are at the lowest literacy level? Does not the hon. Gentleman perceive a relationship between the selective system that has operated historically and the exceptionally poor achievement in literacy?

Mr. Beggs: A few years ago, we were worried about the low achievement of a significant proportion of our school-age population. I am happy that that has been tackled and that steady improvement has occurred in the past three or four years. We hope that that will continue.

It is vital that an academic option be available to pupils for whom that path is appropriate in order to maintain and improve standards. It is equally important to develop a strong technological and vocational curriculum, which should have parity of esteem with the traditional academic path. If our schools are oversubscribed, they must be permitted to select pupils on ability. Every school should be helped to achieve academic, vocational and technological excellence.

We ask the Minister to be careful not to destroy the existing strengths of all our schools when making the changes that we agree are necessary to the detailed transfer arrangements. I should like her to assure us about that. We are happy to meet her and discuss the matter at any time.

We must congratulate school governors, principals, staff and pupils of Northern Ireland schools on maintaining high standards of educational achievement, especially given the external difficulties that they have faced in the past 30 or so years. I am referring not only to grammar schools. Many secondary schools provide excellent support services to pupils and assist them to achieve their full potential.

Any changes to our post-primary selection transfer system must acknowledge and protect the vital role of primary school teachers. We must continually try to raise the esteem in which teachers are held in our community and ensure that any new administrative burdens are kept to a minimum. An obvious improvement could be achieved by the Government's making a conscious effort to listen to teachers' voices as expressed through respected organisations such as the Ulster Teachers Union.

The union took the time and trouble to conduct a survey on stress. It also undertook a health and safety risk assessment for teachers. However, the Government ignored the results and the Department of Education decided to waste a great deal of taxpayers' money on launching its own surveys, only to discover what everyone else already knew. In the light of such incidents, is it any wonder that teachers suffer from low morale?

We must develop a stronger working relationship between universities and further education colleges and primary and post-primary schools, especially in communities where low numbers of young people go on to the third level of education. I do not apologise for

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emphasising that again. The reasons for educational failure among pupils, especially young males, must be tackled.

Approximately one third of people in Northern Ireland who gain university degrees have studied outside Northern Ireland, mainly in Great Britain. In some cases this reflects free choice, but the worrying aspect is the extent to which many of these leavers—of whom there are some 4,500 annually—have left Northern Ireland because there are simply not enough local university places to accommodate them.

In 1997, the Dearing report concluded that, compared with Scotland, Northern Ireland had a shortfall of about 12,000 places. The devolved Executive in Northern Ireland were able to bring about an increase in places of some 5,500. Clearly, much remains to be done. It is important for our economy that we encourage local undergraduates to study and to work in Northern Ireland. Some of those additional places in the pipeline related to the Springvale campus of the university of Ulster and to the Belfast institute. It seems that the future of that project is now in some doubt. I ask the Minister to provide further information on the review of Springvale. In particular, if it is concluded that Springvale is not now a viable concern, we will want to know whether those places will be reallocated to other parts of the higher education sector in Northern Ireland.

Even before the conclusion of the 2000 review of student support by the then Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, training and employment, the Ulster Unionist party had called for a return to means-tested grants. We therefore welcome the introduction of a maximum bursary of #1,500 in the 2002 academic year, which will be increased to a maximum of #2,000 next year. We support the principle of wider social access to further education and, indeed, to higher education, so we think that the level of these grants, and the extent to which they are tapered off according to income, should be kept under review. Much more should be done to encourage the uptake of discretionary awards by further education students.

The Ulster Unionist party has long recognised the need for an injection of additional resources into higher education. As this cannot all come ultimately from the taxpayer, it may be that the most equitable method is some variation on the model of deferred or graduate contributions. In other words, to the extent that students will, on average, gain a private monetary benefit from their course of study—the available evidence strongly confirms this—it is not unreasonable that after they have graduated they should, as they are able to, make some contribution to cover part of the cost of their university training.

We call on the Government to honour their pledge to ensure a fair allocation of resources to education in Northern Ireland. We welcome in principle the planned introduction of the common funding formula, but we realise that this is enabling legislation. We await the fine detail and hope that the consultation process will be open, transparent and inclusive.

There are certain issues relating to the common funding formula that need to be given particular consideration, the first of which is teachers' salaries. We consider that further detailed consideration needs to be given to determining a factor in the formula that will

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reflect the natural progression of teachers towards the top of the salary scale, but which will still leave schools with the freedom to take staffing decisions within their delegated budgets. We also consider that more guidance should be available to school governors to assist them in determining appropriate individual salary ranges for principals and vice-principals, and the salary levels within these ranges.

Secondly, we accept that there is a need to tackle the problem of underachievement in a minority of Northern Ireland's schools. We consider that further research is required to justify present funding levels before any additional allocations are considered. There is a need to address the educational and skills requirements of specific groups of disadvantaged young people, such as those in care, school-age mothers, those from traveller and other ethnic minority backgrounds, and the disabled. Furthermore, we do not believe that targeting additional funding on the basis of free school meals is suitable or appropriate. Allocations should be founded on objective measurements that are based on key stage results.

Our third concern about the common funding formula is its impact on schools. We are aware of the funding problems facing primary schools, but we have also been alerted to a number of financial pressures in the secondary sector. It is clearly essential that we look again, in some detail, at the balance of funding between the primary and secondary sectors in Northern Ireland. It is also clear that the current underfunding of the primary sector cannot be allowed to continue.

Finally, we feel that there is a need to refine the way in which money is allocated for the upkeep of buildings under the formula. The formula must reflect the fact that it is much more expensive to maintain old buildings than purpose-built, newer ones.

I want to commend what has been achieved so far in the funding of higher education. Teaching and research assessments indicate that, in many cases, standards are in line with national and international aspirations. That said, as Universities UK has highlighted so effectively, universities in Northern Ireland, like their counterparts in Great Britain, have suffered from long-term underfunding and there is a limit to the extent to which they can be expected to continue to deliver quantitative and qualitative improvements without greater input of funds.

While I welcome the recent announcement of #10 million extra annually over the next three years for core university research funding, a good case can be made for the need for a further #20 million per annum, to close the gap that has opened up in comparison with Great Britain. Such research is intrinsically desirable, but it would almost certainly also deliver considerable economic spin-offs. It is worth remembering that the total level of research and development spending in Northern Ireland is low by United Kingdom regional standards, and very low compared with most of the rest of the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We welcome the current innovation strategy and await the results of the consultation process with interest.

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On the Northern Ireland spending block, the XBarnett read-across" has implied that Northern Ireland's universities have been unable fully to match some of the very worthy initiatives being taken by English, Scottish and Welsh colleges in terms of widening social access. That said, we already have a larger proportion of students coming from low-income backgrounds. One further point of concern is that the pay of university lecturers and staff has fallen behind the private sector. This is a UK-wide problem that the Government have to address.

I end where I started out. Investment in our education system means investment in all of our futures.


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