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14 Jan 2003 : Column 569—continued

David Burnside rose—

Jane Kennedy: I hesitate to give way, given the time, but I will as long as the intervention is very short.

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David Burnside: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is making the mistake of talking about Springvale benefiting north and west Belfast. That is a political decision. If we want an additional campus within the university of Ulster, it should benefit Greater Belfast and the whole educational outreach area of Northern Ireland. To sell something academically for political reasons is a mistake; to sell an additional campus as benefiting all the people of Northern Ireland but based in north and west Belfast is very different. Does the Minister agree?

Jane Kennedy: Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He makes his point forcefully and I hope that he will have the chance to reinforce it. That is my initial response on Springvale.

The hon. Member for East Antrim talked about the common funding formula. I will not delay the House on that today; I hear the hon. Gentleman's points and there will be an opportunity to discuss it further in the debate on the order, which will take place soon.

The hon. Gentleman talked about morale among teachers, and I accept his point. However, we have set up an independent inquiry into teachers' pay and conditions, being careful to ensure that the unions agreed. The employing authorities and unions have received an interim report on principals' and vice-principals' salaries and differentials. We will discuss all that through the negotiating machinery in the immediate future. The full report is scheduled to be received in the spring. I appreciate that teachers are not merely concerned about pay and remuneration, but about many other issues that affect morale in the difficult environment in which they work in Northern Ireland. We are listening and responding to the representations that teachers have made and are making.

In conclusion, there has been—

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman will get a chance to make a speech later in the debate, but I will briefly give way.

Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way as I realise that she is coming to her peroration. I thank her for her general support for the Liberal Democrat amendment and I listened carefully to her remarks to ascertain whether there would be anything other than that general message of support. She will be aware that there is mounting interest in the possibility of opening more integrated schools in Northern Ireland, especially the Maine integrated school in Randalstown. As I have heard nothing about that possibility, can she tell us when we might hear something about it?

Jane Kennedy: Very, very imminently but not today. We remain extremely interested in the development of that sector. Everyone working to develop such schools deserves our support and encouragement.

There has been extensive and inclusive consultation on the Burns report, which provides a firm basis on which to take forward the post-primary review. I do not

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accept the description of the current situation as Xchaotic". I am determined to build on the emerging consensus to achieve the objective of putting in place new post-primary arrangements that will build a modern and fair education system that enables all children in Northern Ireland to achieve their full potential and that will maintain the current high standards of achievement.

We have a major success story in Northern Ireland with regard to higher education in all its forms, whether one looks at investment, participation or performance. Higher education is a tremendous asset, especially for supporting economic development and attracting inward investment. All those who work in the sector deserve our congratulations and encouragement and I am sure that the House will join me in confirming that later in the vote.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I say to the House that, in a limited debate, of which an hour has already been taken up, it would be appreciated if all further contributions, whether from Front or Back-Bench Members, could be moderated with that in mind?

2.2 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I take note of your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Indeed, it is my intention to be brief.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) and his right hon. and hon. Friends on choosing to debate this vital matter this afternoon. Although my congratulations and my pleasure in discussing the topic are entirely sincere, equally sincere is my sense of regret that such matters should be decided here in Westminster and that we have brought to an end debate in the Assembly.

I hope that that suspension will not be for too long, but I warned the Government that once institutions are suspended it takes a long time to get them going again.I fear that the current period of suspension will last much longer than the Government calculated and while it continues we must do the best possible job, but I cannot disguise from the House our regrets about the present situation or the fact that these matters cannot be discussed by the representatives of people in Northern Ireland who could take the time that is required to go through them in detail. Some of the confused statistical discussion that we have already heard this afternoon has demonstrated how damaging and dangerous it is to deal superficially and rapidly with such important matters. I greatly regret that it has not been possible for the Assembly and the Executive to continue to play their role in making important decisions about the future of education in Northern Ireland.

Before I talk about schools, I should like to say something nice and, I hope, encouraging to the Minister about higher education. I was delighted and heartened by the commitment that she gave from the Dispatch Box that she will not allow the Springvale development—the university of Ulster campus on the Springfield road site—to be dropped, as there was real fear of that. The Minister and I have discussed the matter privately and I am glad that it will not happen.

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I agree very much with the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim: such a campus will be an asset for the whole of Northern Ireland and especially for the greater Belfast area—for obvious reasons—and we look forward to it. However, may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are two especially strong reasons for locating a campus in that area? First, it is close to the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. More than anything else, people in such communities need ready and easy access to education locally, if we are to solve the problems of deprivation. Secondly, as the hon. Lady knows, the campus will be within walking distance of both the Falls road and Shankhill road areas, which are not merely deprived but also subject to paramilitarism and extremism of all kinds. Those communities suffer from a sense—even a complex—of being neglected hitherto by the establishment and by people who have an easier life than them. It is important to reverse those feelings and to provide for people from both communities so that they can work together and share in making a success of an institution that is located, literally, between both of them. It will enable people to form the normal social and personal relationships across the community divide that have been so lacking in that part of Belfast. The Opposition set great store by the coming to fruition of that project and we support the strong commitment to it that the Minister has made so clear this afternoon.

Anyone coming to Northern Ireland afresh, as I did when the Leader of the Opposition asked me to take on my present role, is immensely and immediately struck by the extremely high standard of and commitment to education. As an Englishman, I can perhaps say that we are a bit philistine in this part of the United Kingdom. That problem does not exist so much in what is sometimes known as the Celtic fringe. It certainly does not exist in Northern Ireland, in the island of Ireland, in Scotland or in Wales, where people value education even if they have not had the chance to benefit very much from it. People set great store by their children being able to have access to education. Teachers and university professors have the status that they deserve.

The achievements in Northern Ireland have been striking. The hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned some of the figures—57 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland achieved five or more GCSE at grades A to C in 2000-01, whereas the corresponding figure in England was only 50 per cent. A further statistic from the same period struck me forcefully: 93 per cent. of Northern Ireland pupils achieved two or more A-levels whereas the figure in England was only 82 per cent.

Those are statistically significant differences. Those results were achieved despite the apparent disadvantage faced in Northern Ireland due to the troubles and the difficulties in access to schools caused by the sectarian divide. As the Minister pointed out, some schools were targeted by paramilitaries. Those results were achieved despite the fact that prosperity in terms of per capita income is lower in Northern Ireland than in England. Normally, there is a positive relationship between per-capita income and educational performance.

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