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14 Jan 2003 : Column 576—continued

2.20 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I welcome this debate and congratulate the Ulster Unionist party on initiating it. I hope that it will help to make the Minister—I see that she is now leaving the Chamber—and the Government realise that they should be cautious about what is happening in Northern Ireland. I want to urge caution on two levels.

First and foremost, it is still quite dreadful that not a single person in Northern Ireland was able to vote for the party that will now take the decisions about the future of the education system. The reality is that there is a huge democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. It is very sad indeed that the Assembly is not taking such decisions and I hope, like everyone, that it will soon be working again.

Given that the education system has done so much for so many years, such changes should not be rushed through by dealing with them in this Chamber, when they could easily be delayed, allowing more discussion and debate, so that the decisions could be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that those in the Assembly want to get back to work as soon as possible and that such issues would be on the horizon for them. So caution really does need to be shown.

I want to declare an interest: I am absolutely convinced that I would not be a Member of Parliament if I had not had the opportunity to have a grammar school education in Northern Ireland at an extremely good school, Belfast Royal Academy. It is still an extremely good school, and it takes children from all parts of Belfast and all sorts of backgrounds. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) talked about his farming background, but my background was probably more deprived. I grew up on a much smaller farm. I have absolutely no doubt that, without the opportunity offered by that school, I would not have been able to go on to college and university and become a Member of Parliament.

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I have another interest to declare. I often visit schools in Northern Ireland, so I know that the standards of all schools—grammar and secondary schools—are so much better than anything that we have in England. So I urge caution because it seems absolutely amazing that we should want to destroy something that is working. I accept that too few people in some areas of Northern Ireland are able to go on to the right sort of education, but that happens in my constituency and deprived areas of England. The idea is that, somehow, what is really good and works should be destroyed to give, in theory, more children from deprived areas a better education, but we have shown that that just does not work in many other parts of the United Kingdom.

As recently as November, the Prime Minister himself condemned the Xenormous damage" done by the pursuit of the comprehensive ideal and said that he is determined to provide choice and diversity in education. He said that it is time to lay to rest the controversy over the future of the comprehensive system and that

Given that not one person in Northern Ireland had the opportunity to vote for a Labour Government, I cannot understand how we can try to push the current proposals through. The Burns report is clear: there is unhappiness with the 11-plus. That is taken for granted. My sister and I both passed the 11-plus. I went along feeling absolutely wonderful and looking forward to taking that test. Apparently I told my mother and father that I was looking forward to meeting lots of children. I lived in the country, but went elsewhere to take the test and it was nice to meet other children. My sister was much brighter than me, but she was absolutely terrified by the test. She hated it and worried about it. Children are different, and there is no doubt that the test needs to be adapted. We need profiles and different ways of doing things, but I do not accept that a majority of people in Northern Ireland favour ending academic selection. It is nonsensical to try to change what has proved to be very good indeed.

I also want to give the Minister some sense of caution about the Education and Libraries Bill. Again, the provisions in that Bill may be pushed through by an Order in Council—I am not quite up to date on when that may happen—and it will give the Minister strong, dictatorial powers. The Minister will have the power to remove all the governors of any grammar school—quite unacceptable—and make all sorts of changes to alter the system by stealth. I urge the Minister that that measure should not be pushed through the House, and I will certainly not support it. I do not understand why any Labour Member should support any measure on Northern Ireland when we do not even allow people in Northern Ireland to join the party that is governing them.

Lots of Members wish to speak, but I want to say that the standards of education in Northern Ireland are unquestionably high. That does not mean that we cannot do better or that we should not give greater encouragement to those children from some parts of Northern Ireland who do not even sit the exam. They do not take that opportunity for all sorts of reasons, which

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are similar to those in some of the worst parts of my constituency, where the assumption is that parents and children cannot become properly involved in education. Such problems should be considered, but I want to urge caution.

I recently visited one of the best girls schools in Northern Ireland, Strathaern school. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) knows it well. Some of the children at that school have come from the most deprived parts of Belfast. The young girl whom I presented with the overall achievement award was from a very poor part of Belfast. In my constituency, such children would have great difficulty getting the sort of education that they would receive at Strathaern school, because no school in the immediate area offers that kind of opportunity.

Another important thing, which has not been mentioned at all in today's debate, is that private education hardly exists in Northern Ireland because no middle class parent needs to buy private education. The changes will affect the work being done by schools such as Belfast Royal Academy and the Methodist college—I could name many others—if they are no longer able to select pupils.

Mr. Connarty: My hon. Friend knows that I hold her in very high respect—we share many similar views—but she sadly appears to be guilty of trying to portray the future of Northern Ireland without selection as being like the position in her constituency, Vauxhall. Does she accept that, in fact, it would be more comparable to parts of Scotland, where the comprehensive education system allows parents to work hand in glove with the local education authority to improve the results? That vision may be denied to the people of Northern Ireland to protect the privileged system that she herself came through.

Kate Hoey: I have great respect for my hon. Friend, and he also supports my view that people in Northern Ireland should be allowed to join the Labour party. The statistics about Scotland, however, are not necessarily as good as he made out earlier. The comparison would not be between like and like, although I do not want to go into the detail of that now.

The other thing that is different about Scotland is that there is still a large amount of private education there. People who go to Northern Ireland, perhaps to take a job in the BBC or in the civil service—the kind of people who would pay for private education here—are helped to move when they realise that they will not have to pay to get their children into a good school, as there are so many of them. If we opt for a straightforward, one-size-fits-all comprehensive system in Northern Ireland, we will have private schools as a result, and we will lose the fantastic mix in the very best schools in Northern Ireland, in which young people from very poor backgrounds—the kind of background from which I came—can mix with the children of people running Northern Ireland industry. That mix still exists, and it is a huge advantage to young people.

I therefore urge the Minister to be cautious. There is absolutely no reason to go ahead with what Martin McGuinness did in his last few hours, outrageous and vindictive as it was. Instead, we should use the

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opportunity of the current lull before the Assembly is reconstituted to bring people together to talk about a solution that will build on our best provision, not destroy it.

2.31 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I welcome this debate, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) for his opening speech, which set out in detail and with great clarity the issues that confront us in terms of the future of education in Northern Ireland. I want to speak about my experience both as a parent and as a constituency MP, having spent a considerable amount of time visiting and getting to know the teachers, boards of governors and parents associated with the various post-primary schools in my constituency.

First, speaking as a parent, may I say that my eldest daughter underwent the 11-plus transfer test last year? As it happens, she did very well. She got an A grade and was accepted into Wallace high school, which is one of the grammar schools in my constituency: a very successful school named after one of my illustrious predecessors, Sir Richard Wallace, who was the Member of Parliament for Lisburn. Wallace is one of a number of post-primary schools in my constituency enjoying considerable success. The Friends school, which comes from a Quaker background, is an equally successful grammar school. Secondary schools such as Laurelhill community college, Forthill school, Lisnagarvey high school and Dunmurry high school are all proving successful and improving the standards of educational attainment in the greater Lisburn area and the Lagan Valley constituency.

My eldest daughter, however, like my youngest daughter, who sat the 11-plus last November, undoubtedly felt the stress and the pressure of the 11-plus examination, and it was the focus of concern and discussion in our family home for months. We felt the pressures on our children—we await the results of the test for my younger daughter, and I hope that she will be successful—and, as a parent, I see the need for the reform of the transfer procedure and of the 11-plus examination. I agree with many in the field of education who believe that two examinations are not the best or fairest way of determining a child's academic ability at the age of 11. I strongly disagree, however, with the recommendation in the Burns report on post-primary education for an ending of academic selection. Having looked at the practicalities, in my constituency in particular, I do not see how the proposal for a collegiate system can work in practice and be fairer than the academic selection that exists at present, even though I support reform of the method but not of the principle of academic selection.

I have received a large number of letters and telephone calls and have had many conversations with parents in my constituency who are very concerned about the proposals in the Burns report and the impact that they will have on their ability to have a proper choice to send their children to the school that they desire. The Burns report is very much based on the concept of parental choice, but the consequences of its proposals will, in many cases, limit the choice of parents. To give a simple example, I live in the village of Moira, which is on the outskirts of my constituency and about

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10 miles from the city of Lisburn. It is also right on the boundary of the Craigavon area, which operates an entirely different education system known as the Dickson plan, under which transfer takes place at the age of 14 and a system of junior high schools and senior high schools or colleges exists. That system has been quite successful in many respects. Lurgan college and Portadown college, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) will know, have a record of successful educational achievement for their pupils. Lurgan college is particularly well placed in terms of its results, although I do not want to single out schools in the constituency of another Member too much—I am simply repeating what I read in the newspapers.

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