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14 Jan 2003 : Column 565—continued

Mr. Connarty: Did the Burns review body look at results in Scotland? Rather than comparing, say, Kent with Northern Ireland, would it not be better to consider a comparable system across the water that has shown much higher levels of achievement because it has a universal comprehensive system—unlike England, which is a hotch-potch of grammar schools, comprehensives and mixed messages?

Jane Kennedy: My immediate predecessor was looking at other systems. I cannot definitely say, hand on heart, that we looked at the Scottish system in detail, but I know that many different systems were compared, and I would be surprised if that were not the case.

Reflecting the importance of the issue, the consultation on the Burns report was the widest ever undertaken on an education matter. There were five strands. Twenty-eight ministerial meetings were held with the education sector, business, the Churches, the main political parties, and voluntary and community organisations. Moreover, more than 1,300 written submissions were received from a range of stakeholders, 40 per cent. of schools completed detailed response

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booklets, 200,000 people completed and returned household response forms, and the views of young people were obtained through focus groups and independent research.

Those responses were published last October and published in a report by the Department of Education. They demonstrated a clear demand for change. While there was little support for the review body's model in its entirety, individual recommendations attracted support. For example, there was consensus about the guiding principles, abolition of the transfer tests, and the development of a pupil profile.

I found the recent threat by the Irish National Teachers Organisation to refuse to co-operate in the development of the pupil profile extremely disappointing and unhelpful at this stage of the review. The majority view is that pupil profiles would be useful to teachers, pupils and parents and would formalise the good practice that already exists in many Northern Ireland schools, and I hope that the INTO will reconsider its position.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Confusion has arisen over the Burns report survey every time the Minister has come here to answer questions on the subject. Will she confirm, clearly and precisely, that although most of those surveyed opposed the existing 11-plus procedure, a majority did not favour the ending of a form of academic selection between primary and secondary school?

Jane Kennedy: Yes. Now I will make progress while I am winning.

There was consensus on the need for more co-operation and collaboration among schools, and a common curriculum for those aged up to 14. Many respondents also thought 14 a more appropriate age than 11 for pupils and their parents to consider and make choices about the curricular options or pathways best suited to the interests, needs and abilities of those pupils. There was also agreement on the need for young people to have broader curricular choice and more flexibility to change the nature and direction of their learning. Support was expressed for a range of approaches enabling post-primary arrangements to reflect the differing needs and circumstances of local areas.

Following publication of the report on responses to the consultation, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster announced the abolition of the transfer tests and said that the last tests would be held in 2004. When I assumed responsibility for education, I considered the responses carefully. I was satisfied that there was a clear demand for a change in the current arrangements, and support from, among others, the political parties for abolition of the transfer tests. They have disadvantaged too many children, and that cannot be allowed to continue. I therefore announced, on 31 October, my intention to take forward the post-primary review and work towards the abolition of the tests as soon as practicable. I should make it clear, however—reinforcing the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside)—that no decisions have been made about academic selection or the shape of new arrangements.

It is important for the review to progress in a way that has the confidence and support not just of parents but of the education sector and the wider community. I want to

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build on the emerging consensus from consultation as we proceed with the review. I believe it is the responsibility of everyone involved in education to work together to develop new arrangements. As part of the process, my officials and I have held a series of meetings to discuss the responses to consultation, explore the full range of suggestions for new arrangements—including arrangements involving academic selection—and consider the next steps in the review. I have already met representatives of the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and the Alliance party, and further meetings have been arranged with other political parties. My officials have met representatives of the education sector, and will meet parents tomorrow.

I have found those meetings very useful. When they have been completed, I intend to consider carefully the views that have been expressed—along with the responses to all strands of the consultation—before deciding on the next stages of the post-primary review.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Can the Minister give us an idea of when she might be able to share her conclusions? If she intends to proceed with these changes, she should bear it in mind that the clock is ticking.

Jane Kennedy: There are a few more meetings to be held before I can begin to pull together all the strands of the thinking that is currently taking place. I hesitate to give a definitive timetable, but this should take only a few weeks. I am well aware that a deadline is looming. Schools want certainty: they want to know what to begin to plan for. I know of the pressure that is on us, and it is right for us to work under pressure. One of my reasons for saying that I would try to meet the deadline if that was practicable was my feeling that it was necessary to maintain pressure on my Department to resolve the issue.

The hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned issues relating to higher education and student support. Northern Ireland is fortunate in having so many young people, and indeed mature adults, with access to higher education. It is also fortunate in having a superb range of higher education provision in its universities, teacher training institutions and further education institutes. Northern Ireland has around 40,000 undergraduates in the university system at present, of whom more than 28,000 attend the local institutions. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman said, almost 15,000 undergraduate students study part-time in Northern Ireland. In total, that represents a rise of 33 per cent. over the past five years.

The Government and, indeed, the Executive, have pursued policies that continue to encourage the movement of students within the United Kingdom while, at the same time, steadily increasing the number of places in local institutions. As the hon. Gentleman said, from 1999 to 2005, it is planned to have an additional 5,500 full-time undergraduate places in Northern Ireland. He is right that there is more to do, but that was the programme that was in place; it was the objective of the Executive, and we are continuing to work towards meeting that objective. There is no cap on part-time students; the system caters for as many as wish to undertake their studies in that way.

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The expansion in full-time places has included additional places at St. Mary's and Stranmillis for diversified courses, the pilots of foundation degrees in further education institutions and, of course, expansion at the two main universities. The figures show clearly the expansion of local places and the growth of overall participation. The proportion of young people who leave Northern Ireland for their higher education has reduced, from 31 per cent. in 1996 to 27 per cent. in 2001.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate that money has been found for research for Queen's university and the university of Ulster. However, is the Minister aware that Stranmillis university college and St. Mary's university college received no money for research and that, under the new regulations, they are required to have research facilities or they will be marked down in the next review? Has she been given any account of that and can she give us any guidance and hope?

Jane Kennedy: I was not aware of that issue, but now that the hon. Gentleman has brought it to my attention, I will look into it and write to him, if he will permit me so to do.

A significant proportion of young people seeking undergraduate education clearly wish to undertake it outside Northern Ireland. They are attracted for a variety of reasons including, no doubt, the desire to experience life elsewhere, as in my wonderful home town of Liverpool. Those who wish to undertake their higher education in the rest of the United Kingdom should have the opportunity to do so. The Government are, at the same time, conscious of the need to expand local provision, and have responded positively to that need. We will keep the issue under consideration.

Student support was an area of much interest to the Executive. A major review of student support was carried out in 2000–01 and resulted in a number of changes to the prevailing arrangements. Grants were reintroduced in 2002 for full-time undergraduate students from lower-income families. The threshold for the payment of a private fee contribution to higher education was raised to #20,000 in 2001, and has since been raised further in line with inflation. Child care grants were introduced in higher education and a number of further education bursaries were introduced in 2001 for full-time students over 19 on vocational courses, to supplement the existing discretionary awards. The threshold for such bursaries was set in line with the higher education scheme.

The changes have begun to affect the system. Some 11,000 students have so far availed themselves of the reintroduction of grants in higher education, and around half of all students do not have to pay the fee contribution either in full or in part. Some 300 students have taken up child care grants, and in further education, more than 400 students have so far taken up the new bursaries. The question of thresholds is important. The Executive set the further education and higher education bursary thresholds at the same level. It will take time to judge whether that is the appropriate level.

Student support arrangements, including bursary levels and income thresholds, are kept under continuous review. I shall consider them again in the light of any

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proposals that may be contained in the higher education White Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will shortly publish. In addition, I shall be considering how we might make entitlements to the rather complex student support system easier for students to understand.

Last month, the Government announced the budget for the three years from 2003–04. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), gave the details. It provides an additional #239 million for education by 2005–06, an increase of 16.6 per cent. In addition to maintaining existing service levels, the budget delivers #52 million across the period for real-terms increases in schools' core budgets to improve schools' capacity to achieve further improvements in pupil performance. A further #530 million will be available for a major programme of investment to improve the education estate.

I am pleased that the budget includes an increase of #10 million a year for funding for research and knowledge transfer in the universities, to which the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) alluded. The increases will allow Queen's university, Belfast and the university of Ulster to sustain and build on their performance in the 2001 research assessment exercise.

In addition, there is to be an increase in higher education capital funding of #5 million for next year, rising to #10 million a year for the following two years as part of the reinvestment and reform initiative. Combined with the injection of #25 million from 2003 to 2007 under the second phase of the support programme for university research, those additions represent the most significant investment in higher education for the past decade. They will allow Northern Ireland to play its full part in the Government's science strategy, XInvesting in Innovation". Including the proposals for the strategic investment programme, it represents an overall increase by 2005-06 of just over 27 per cent. in student support and 31 per cent. in higher education. I am delighted that we have been able to make these very significant increases in the capacity of our universities, through the excellence of their teaching, the breadth and quality of their research and their expanding regional mission to contribute to society and the economy in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Antrim made three points. He asked me about Springvale, which I should like to deal with briefly. As he knows, the current plans are for 4,500 full and part-time students to enrol at Springvale. He will be aware of the difficulties that we are facing with the project. However, I remain committed to it. I want to see it taken forward, if not in its original form then in a revised form that offers the best and most appropriate provision for the people of north and west Belfast. Given the pressing needs of this part of Belfast, I am not prepared to walk away from the current difficulties.

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