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14 Jan 2003 : Column 580—continued

Rev. Martin Smyth: Do you believe them?

Mr. Donaldson: Not always.

Under the system that would exist if the Burns proposals for post-primary education were adopted, however, parents living in Moira would be at a real disadvantage. A constituent from Moira wrote to me:

what is currently known as—

Under the Burns proposals, that child will be at a significant disadvantage in terms of gaining a place at such a school because of his place of residence. Many of my constituents are therefore afraid that we are moving to selection by postcode.

Another constituent wrote to me:

That is from a constituent living in Lisburn who is in closer proximity to the post-primary schools in my constituency than those who live in rural areas.

The collegiate system also has other consequences. In terms of fairness, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 places on Departments an obligation to treat people fairly and equally. The consequences of implementing the collegiate system, however, can be arbitrary. Let me quote two examples in which people in my constituency will be placed at a distinct disadvantage, and, in my opinion, will be discriminated against. A constituent living in Dunmurry has written to me to make the point that since Dunmurry will be in the west Belfast collegiate area, the parents of Protestant boys attending primary schools will no longer have any choice to send their child to what is now a controlled grammar school, because there is no controlled grammar school for boys within the west Belfast

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collegiate area. The only controlled grammar school within the west Belfast collegiate is Hunter House, which is a girls' school.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does my hon. Friend accept that the chances of Hunter House getting anyone from west Belfast are nil and that it will be cut off from the natural hinterland?

Mr. Donaldson: I accept that. Indeed, the principal of Hunter House college made precisely that point to me when I met her recently.

Protestant families living in Dunmurry are discriminated against and severely restricted in their choice of school. However, Roman Catholic parents from Lisburn wrote to me explaining that Roman Catholic families from that town who wish to send their children to what is a maintained grammar school have no choice within the collegiate area covered by Lisburn, Banbridge and Crumlin. In fact, when the previous Roman Catholic maintained grammar school in Lisburn was closed in the 1960s, the Education Department gave a written undertaking that the parents of Roman Catholic children in the area would be given preferential places at Rathmore grammar school, the replacement for the new school. However, Rathmore is now in the west Belfast collegiate, so Roman Catholic parents living in Lisburn will no longer have that choice. Those are the hidden but real consequences of the collegiate system and the manner in which it discriminates against parents and parental choice.

Lady Hermon: May I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend expresses clearly? The Government will be aware that parents are entitled to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions, as set out in the Human Rights Act 1998, and that, when not suspended, the Assembly will have to abide by those obligations.

Mr. Donaldson: Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must consider not just the equality obligations in section 75, but the implications under the Human Rights Act. That has not been fully thought through in the proposals in the Burns report.

There is much that one could say on the issue. However, I shall deal briefly with two key aspects of the proposals in the Burns report. The first is the admissions criteria. There is little doubt that the criteria set down by Burns will lead to the creation of area comprehensives. Without any form of selection, schools will have an all-ability intake. By making distance from school the determining criterion, schools will increasingly draw their pupils from the immediate area, so introducing an element of social injustice. Parental choice for those who live in rural areas, such as those in my constituency, will be substantially curtailed.

Friends school, for example, draws its pupils from a wide catchment area. Of the pupils in years 8 and 9, 60 per cent. come from the Lisburn area postcodes of BT27 and BT28. A further 20 per cent. come from Hillsborough and Dromore, with the postcodes of BT26 and BT25. But a significant proportion of year 8 and 9

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pupils come from areas such as Moira, Aghalee, Maghaberry, Ballinderry and Glenavy. They will all be disadvantaged under the proposals because of the distance/proximity criteria. The Minister and the Department need to consider that.

Mr. Connarty: The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the catchment area of a particular grammar school. Does he give any consideration to the people who live beside that school and who are denied access to it because they cannot pass the academic qualifications in the 11-plus? They have to watch people receiving the higher education that they are denied.

Mr. Donaldson: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but Friends school and Wallace school are within a few hundred yards of each other. Within half a mile of them and on either side are two excellent secondary schools, Forthill and Laurelhill, so I fail to understand his point. People who live within a mile radius have at least four excellent post-primary schools from which to choose, whereas my constituents in Moira, Glenavy and Ballinderry have none of those choices and will be discriminated against under the system.

The second key aspect that worries me is the transfer test and the issue of selection. The end of a selective system will inevitably mean the end of grammar and secondary schools as currently defined. However, Burns envisages that schools will offer specialist provision and that parents will decide on the most appropriate school for their child on the basis of the information contained in the pupil profiles and in consultation with primary school principals. The report appears to be offering the best of all worlds: the end of selection and the continuance of schools with a specialist academic provision, with guidance from the pupil profile and, ultimately, free parental choice. Surely, however, the former grammar schools will not be able to offer a specialist academic curriculum and meet the needs of individual pupils in an intake that, without selection, will inevitably cover the full range of ability. So it is misleading to assert that parental preference will be given priority when particular schools will be oversubscribed.

I hope that the Minister and the Department take on board the real concerns expressed in the debate and understand that the proposals in Burns are not the way forward. There has to be another way that commands a much broader consensus within Northern Ireland.

2.46 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am reluctant to contribute to the debate, because Northern Ireland is not a part of the United Kingdom that I visit frequently and I would not want to be sufficiently presumptuous to comment in detail on its schools. However, I feel strongly about secondary school admission policies and want to make a few remarks that may inform the future debate in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) made a balanced and broad presentation, and most of us would agree with much of what he said. However, when he tries to defend selection at the age of 11 by academic

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ability and at the same time says that he wants parity of esteem between the academic and the vocational, he is treading on difficult ground. It is intrinsic in any system that selects by academic ability that the academic will always be seen as superior to the vocational when it provides a superior level of per capita investment and superior life chances to those young people.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chaytor: I hope the hon. Lady will accept that, as I only have a few minutes in which to speak because many of my colleagues want to contribute, I do not want to give way.

It is significant that the Government will next week publish their White Paper on the development of 14 to 19 education. We anticipate a great leap forward in the establishment of parity between the academic and the vocational which I fear many people in Northern Ireland have not yet appreciated. I note the concerns of the hon. Member for East Antrim and the consensus that the Burns report reflected on the need to do away with the existing testing regime. The debate should now focus on what is the best alternative.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) spoke of upholding devolution and his regret at the suspension of the Assembly. Almost in the same breath, however, he criticised the Minister for merely upholding the decision taken by the Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He cannot have it both ways. In addition, he should not criticise the Minister for supporting the response to the consultation on the Burns report, which clearly called for an end to the existing selection test, by saying that she should not have taken that decision. It is important that we take a consistent approach to these matters.

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