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14 Jan 2003 : Column 562—continued

Mr. McCabe: I must confess that I am slightly astonished to discover that the hon. Gentleman has opened a debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland on behalf of the Ulster Unionist party without making even a passing reference to the integrated education movement. Before he finishes his speech, would he care to tell the House how he thinks that that movement relates to the wider argument that he has made today?

Mr. Beggs: I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue, but I am conscious of the breadth of opportunity to speak that this short debate offers, and of the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute. However, responsibilities are shared in my party, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) when he winds up the debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed by what he has to say.

If ever there were a place where people needed to look to the future with a greater sense of hope, it is Northern Ireland. I trust that the Minister of State has listened carefully to my remarks, and I hope that she will act on them.

I commend the motion to the House.

1.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move, to leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), and his colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party on giving the House the opportunity to debate the 11-plus, post-primary and transfer arrangements in Northern Ireland, and the wider questions of education and lifelong learning for which I now have responsibility.

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The motion neatly encapsulates the conundrum that I face when it

That is very much one of aims of the post-primary review, which we will debate in detail today. Sadly, the Government consider the rest of the motion flawed, and that is the reason for the amendment. However, I am grateful for the opportunity that this debate gives me, as Minister with responsibility for these matters, to place on record my appreciation of the efforts and achievements of principals, teachers, governors, other school staff and pupils in Northern Ireland.

The Liberal Democrat party tabled an amendment that was not selected but which paid tribute to the integrated schools movement in Northern Ireland. I should like to associate myself with that tribute.

As the hon. Member for East Antrim said, over the past 30 years schools in Northern Ireland have operated in the most arduous of circumstances. Governors and staff have worked tirelessly to make schools safe and secure places where children can learn.

The recent deplorable events in north Belfast at Holy Cross, Wheatfield and Currie primary schools demonstrate the ongoing pressures that schools have to face. However, I have no doubt that, across Northern Ireland, schools will continue to display the resilience and fortitude that have sustained them through the most difficult of times.

Northern Ireland's schools have long had a well deserved reputation for high achievement. They have produced more pupils with qualifications at the top end of the achievement scale than England or Wales. Northern Ireland grammar and secondary schools are to be congratulated on those achievements, but there is no room for complacency. As the hon. Member for East Antrim said, alongside the high achievers, Northern Ireland has also historically had more pupils leaving school with low qualifications than elsewhere. Various programmes, such as the raising school standards initiative and the school improvement programme, have been successful in reducing the proportion of school leavers with no GCSEs, but the problem of low qualifications persists.

There is strong social differentiation in educational achievement in the Province. Pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds do significantly less well than other pupils. The most disadvantaged pupils are only one third as likely to achieve a grade A in the 11-plus and only around half as likely to achieve five or more high-grade GCSEs as the least disadvantaged pupils. This matter has been debated for many years in Northern Ireland, and it is appropriate for me to set out its recent history. When we also consider the results of the 1996 international adult literacy survey, which showed that almost a quarter of the Northern Ireland work force are at the lowest level of literacy, it is clear that although the Northern Ireland school system does very well for many pupils, it does much less well for many others.

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I agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim that a number of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I shall therefore limit the number of interventions that I accept.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Will the Minister give the House the figures that show how pupils in England and Wales are doing worse at the lower end even than pupils in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: I could provide those figures, but I have chosen not to go into too much detail in my speech. We can discuss statistics, but there is broad consensus among the political parties, members of the educational establishment and the general public in Northern Ireland that the poor performance of the education system for the most disadvantaged pupils is unsatisfactory. That is largely the reason why we are discussing the subject today, and I should like to go into detail about these matters.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the acknowledged inequalities in Northern Ireland, more children from working-class backgrounds there go to university than is the case with pupils studying at comprehensive schools in England?

Jane Kennedy: Yes. As I said, the high level of success achieved by Northern Ireland pupils is remarkable. They deserve congratulation and encouragement, and any review that is set in train should not damage their success. I take my hon. Friend's point: the figures show that 4.5 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieve no GCSEs, compared with 5.5 per cent. in England. However, it is important to take account of the number of pupils who achieve more than one pass at that level.

I do not want to get bogged down in statistics. Although they can enhance our debate, we are discussing questions of principle. I do not argue with the clear and demonstrable achievement of the grammar school system in Northern Ireland, to which the figures provide testimony. I want to explain today why the 11-plus is deemed to have been failing in Northern Ireland, and why there is such a broad consensus about the need for change.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Is not the strongest principle of all that we should not risk replacing a system that works well with one that works less well? The statistics show that fewer children in Northern Ireland emerge from school with no GCSE passes. They also show that pupils in England do slightly better in the next band above that, with 89 per cent. leaving school with five or more GCSEs at grades A to G, compared with 86 per cent. in Northern Ireland. However, the Minister must know that that is vastly outweighed by the fact that 57 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieve five or more A to C grades, compared with 50 per cent. in England. The Northern Ireland system is achieving better than the system in England. She must take that fact very seriously as she considers replacing the Northern Ireland system with something that does not work as well.

Jane Kennedy: Clearly, I take that very seriously. That is why we are approaching the issue with great care and

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engaging in detailed discussions with all those who have an interest and a stake in developing a new method of transferring children from primary schools to secondary schools. The wide disparity that exists in Northern Ireland and the concern about the low achievement of significant numbers of children was one of the key findings of research into the effects of the selective system there commissioned in 1998 by one of my predecessors, my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington).

A report by Professor Tony Gallagher of Queen's university and Professor Alan Smith of the university of Ulster, published in September 2000, emphasised the adverse impact of the transfer tests on the primary curriculum and the undue pressure placed on children, teachers and parents. It said that many children entered secondary schools with a sense of failure.

Further research by Professor Gardner of Queen's university found that the transfer tests had the potential to misclassify pupils by up to three grades above or below their given grades. Following the publication of that research my immediate predecessor, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), established a post-primary review body chaired by Mr. Gerry Burns—and mentioned by the hon. Member for East Antrim—to consult widely and produce recommendations for post-primary arrangements. The Northern Ireland Assembly's education committee conducted its own review of post-primary arrangements, and made an important contribution to the debate. Its report concluded that change was both necessary and appropriate, and was subsequently endorsed by the Assembly.

The Burns report was published in October 2001 for consultation. Its proposals have implications for every child in Northern Ireland, along with his or her parents, and for every primary and post-primary school. It generated huge interest, and sparked a healthy and continuing public debate.

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