Previous SectionIndexHome Page

14 Jan 2003 : Column 573—continued

Mr. Connarty rose—

Mr. Davies: I give way to the hon. Gentleman but, like the Minister, I shall not give way frequently this afternoon.

Mr. Connarty: The hon. Gentleman repeated a statistic that I hear again and again—that 93 per cent. of pupils gained two A-levels—but it relates to the 93 per cent. of pupils who enter the final year and actually sit A-levels. Can he tell us the number of pupils who enter the S1—secondary 1—in Northern Ireland and who then achieve two A-levels before they leave high school education?

Mr. Davies: When I am a Minister, I shall be delighted to take the initiative in publishing such figures. However, for the moment—I hope that it does not last long—the Conservatives are not in government so the hon. Gentleman should ask his Front-Bench colleagues to publish the statistics.

I emphasise that the figures I quoted are aggregate figures, so they do not reflect the performance of one sector—the grammar schools. They reflect the average position, taking account of the performance of other secondary schools. Therefore, it is not true that the better outcomes of the grammar schools in Northern Ireland are discounted by the less good performance of other secondary schools. The aggregate position takes account of both types of school.

The Minister's treatment of the statistics was somewhat confusing. One point struck me, and it would have been an egregious piece of special pleading if it were not confusion. She prayed in aid in her argument against selection the fact that adult literacy rates in Northern Ireland are lower than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom. Adult literacy rates reflect the education that was delivered 20, 30 or even 50, 60 or 70 years ago and they are an extraordinarily poor guide to the current performance of the school system. If one is taking important strategic decisions on that basis, God help education in Northern Ireland or whatever else they may affect.

I am not the only one to have been struck by the fine performance of schools in Northern Ireland. Many visitors notice that, and the people of Northern Ireland are extremely proud of their system. They relate the performance of their schools to the existence of selection. There can be no doubt about that. That is why the responses to the Burns report showed that, although people were not satisfied with the test currently used, there was overwhelming support for selection itself. Of those who returned the household response form—more than 200,000 people and far more than ever take part in any opinion poll—64 per cent., or nearly two thirds, opposed the ending of selection. Some 62 per cent. of teachers who returned the survey opposed the ending of selection. Those are very eloquent figures.

The previous Minister of Education in Stormont used his last hours of power before the institutions were suspended to try to establish a fait accompli by abolishing the test. It is extraordinary that the Minister of State has simply endorsed that decision. She has not listened to other views and not taken the opportunity afforded by the Ulster Unionist party in this debate to

14 Jan 2003 : Column 574

tell us with what she intends to replace the current system. The current position is that the test will be abolished in 2004, but we do not know what will replace it. That is a thoroughly irresponsible approach to administration and a particularly irresponsible approach to schools, because of the long-term consequences of any decision that is taken. How can one abolish anything at all without knowing what will replace it?

The Minister has acknowledged that the existing system of education in Northern Ireland is working very satisfactorily, and that makes her approach even more irresponsible. Surely the right professional approach to the problem would be to leave the present system in place until and unless she is persuaded that a better solution exists. She should then come before the House and argue for that better solution. To destroy a system or to create a gap without knowing how she will replace what has been destroyed or how she will fill that gap is extremely frivolous.

Jane Kennedy: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has provoked me to intervene on his diatribe and on his heaping of coals on my head. Surely he accepts that I inherited the decision when I took up my post. If I had reversed it, I would have created even more chaos. I considered carefully the reasons and details for the decision, and my work is now entirely focused, with the Education Department in Northern Ireland, on coming up with an alternative. As I have made clear, we will seek to find an alternative but the current system will continue until we do so.

Mr. Davies: With respect to the Minister, I cannot accept that excuse. She took over her new functions almost within hours of Mr. McGuinness having signed the decree to abolish the test. No structural consequences had flown from his decision and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to have reversed it. She could have said that the Government were not going to allow an outgoing Minister to take a decision in his last few hours in office without their being clear as to what would be put in its place. They could have decided to allow the present system to continue while they restored confidence and discussed whether to maintain selection and whether it should be conducted under the 11-plus or some other test. When they had come up with a better system, they could have introduced the changes.

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I will not give way at this stage for the reason that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have already given. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his point in the debate.

The fact is that the Minister took a decision. She may have decided that it was easier to do nothing than to do something, but it was a decision, if only by default, and it was quite unnecessary. By default, she endorsed the destructive decision taken by Martin McGuinness just before he left office. The decision raises anxieties, particularly because a Labour Government are behaving in this way. We know that it is in their nature to try to do things by stealth. The nastier the thing that they are trying to do, the more likely they are to want to

14 Jan 2003 : Column 575

use the weapons of stealth. We must seriously ask whether the Government are ideologically committed to destroying good schools in Northern Ireland, but do not have the courage—they never have the courage of their convictions—to say that they will abolish selection and will force excellent schools to cease to have any further role in selecting their pupils. The Government do not have the courage to say that they are destroying the character, ethos and individuality of those schools, and they will not tell the public in Northern Ireland or in Britain as a whole.

The Government are acting indirectly by saying that the decision was taken before the suspension of Stormont. They say, XWe can't do anything about it. It will take us months to look at the matter. We are awfully sorry but there is no alternative in place to the system that we are going to abolish." I am not suggesting that the Minister is making plans along those lines, but to abolish the existing test without being clear as to how it will be replaced raises justifiable suspicions. There are only two possibilities in such circumstances. The first is that the Government do not have an agenda and have abolished something without knowing how they will replace it. When I made that suggestion, the Minister leapt to her feet in indignation. I accept that it was not a particularly flattering suggestion and, as I have said, I do not accept her explanation.

The alternative is that the Government have an agenda, but they will not tell the House or the people of Northern Ireland what is in their mind. The Minister might not know what the agenda is, but perhaps she will receive orders one day from Alastair Campbell, who wants to create what he has described as Xbog-standard comprehensives" in Northern Ireland. She may be acting in entirely good faith and be sitting here with her brief without having yet received her orders from Alastair Campbell. She may have been told to soft-soap the House of Commons to try to keep us all as happy as possible in the meantime. I have no idea whether that is true. However, if one is abolishing something and is not clear with the House about how one will replace it, we can come to one of only two conclusions. The first is that the Government do not know and do not have an agenda. In that case—this is probably the more likely explanation—they are being irresponsible. The second is that there is an agenda, and we will not be told what it is today. That would be a far more reprehensible course of action by the Government.

I am glad that we have had an opportunity to air these issues, and that my remarks have smoked out some response.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am delighted at the hon. Gentleman's generosity in giving way. Will he comment on the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) that we should establish an education advisory panel? Does the hon. Gentleman support that proposal?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Lady will have heard my earlier remarks if she was in the Chamber at the time. I expressed reticence about deciding such matters of detail in the House. It is unfortunate that the Government have placed us in this position by abolishing Stormont. Before we make detailed decisions about how we replace the present test, there should be

14 Jan 2003 : Column 576

much more detailed, thorough and professional discussion than we have had in this debate or are likely to be able to have. In the meantime, we should keep the existing system and lift the threat to it. We should do what I have already suggested the Government should have done and leave well alone. It is a fine and performing system and we should not replace it until and unless we have persuaded ourselves that there is a better solution. So my answer to the hon. Lady's question is that I am not committed, nor are the Conservative Opposition, to a particular form of selection test in Northern Ireland. We are committed to supporting good, thriving schools and to the principle of choice—that is fine—and we are against any act of educational vandalism. If a technically better mechanism to achieve selection than the present one can be found, we are open to being persuaded to consider it.

However, the mechanisms are not in place for the House to take an intelligent decision, given the very limited time now available to discuss Northern Ireland business. Meanwhile, when in doubt, we should not destroy what we have got, and I hope that the Government will think again about what was obviously an extraordinarily rapid—if it was not worse—decision simply to endorse Martin McGuinness's final present to the people of Northern Ireland.

Next Section

IndexHome Page