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14 Jan 2003 : Column 573continued
Mr. Connarty: The hon. Gentleman repeated a statistic that I hear again and againthat 93 per cent. of pupils gained two A-levelsbut 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 S1secondary 1in 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 momentI hope that it does not last longthe 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 sectorthe 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 formmore than 200,000 people and far more than ever take part in any opinion poll64 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
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.
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
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 casethis is probably the more likely explanationthey 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.
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
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 rapidif it was not worsedecision simply to endorse Martin McGuinness's final present to the people of Northern Ireland.