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14 Jan 2003 : Column 583—continued

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chaytor: If I had something by way of reciprocation, I would give way.

It is important that those now grappling with this issue in Northern Ireland realise that the matter has been exhaustively debated on the mainland for 40 years. The overwhelming conclusion in most parts of the United Kingdom system is that a comprehensive admissions policy serves to raise standards and build social cohesion. Even the most passionate advocate from the Ulster Unionist party cannot with conviction claim Northern Ireland as a model society for the rest of Europe in terms of social cohesion. We have to examine very carefully the nature of the secondary school system that we create and its consequences for society.

Those who argue the importance of academic selection at age 11 have to be convinced of certain factors. First, they must be convinced that it is possible accurately to identify a child's ability at 11, the age of transfer from primary to secondary school. That age is arbitrary; in a different system we could have transfer at 13 or at nine. They must be convinced also that the young person's ability will not increase, change or develop in their teenage years, and that there is a means of identifying that ability. Clearly, the consensus in Northern Ireland is that the current means, the 11-plus, is insufficiently accurate.

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We should appreciate that as standards of education rise across the board, and as more primary school children attain high levels of performance, the challenge of discriminating between those who are above a given threshold at age 11 and those who are below that threshold becomes even more difficult. As levels of achievement rise, discrimination between the twenty-fifth percentile point and the twenty-sixth percentile point becomes almost impossible. The defenders of selection have to be convinced that a test, an interview or a pupil profile can accurately distinguish between those who will subsequently be given advantages and those who will be denied them.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and other colleagues, will say that the opportunities that I received were entirely due to my passing the 11-plus and my subsequent achievements at grammar school. However, we have to ask how many people are denied the opportunities that I had because they do not go to grammar school, having failed the 11-plus, and are subsequently labelled failures. Many of them feel that sense of failure throughout their lives. We cannot consider the advantages of those who succeed at 11 without considering the consequences for those who fail at 11.

Once we have made that decision and are confident that we can identify ability and that we have an accurate testing system, we have to pick up the social consequences for the 75 per cent. who are not selected. In her opening speech, the Minister of State gave statistics for attainment in Northern Ireland. She said that the GCSE rate in Northern Ireland is slightly higher than on the mainland, but she pointed out that there is a huge amount of under-achievement. We accept that that is a factor not only for Northern Ireland but for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Comparing Northern Ireland with England on the assumption that the education system in England is 100 per cent. comprehensive is a fallacy. Although the system in most of England is, in theory, comprehensive, a significant minority is selective, and in the majority that is comprehensive, many subtle layers of selection operate. We must make sure that we compare like with like. We must be clear about the consequences of selection at 11 for those who are not selected.

We are talking about standards for the population as a whole, not for an arbitrarily selected minority, and we are also talking about social exclusion. I ask Ulster Unionist Members to remember that this issue is not a new one for the mainland; people have grappled with it for 40 years. There is now a consensus in most parts of the mainland, although not yet in Kent, Buckinghamshire or Lincolnshire—I accept that. If we believe in parity between the academic and the vocational, in equality of opportunity for all young people and in a society that minimises social exclusion, a comprehensive admissions policy is the way forward.

2.56 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): We are all agreed that Northern Ireland achieves impressive results for a proportion of the young people who go through the education system.

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Mr. Quentin Davies: Including you.

Lembit Öpik: Including me. I am ever so grateful to have had the opportunity to go to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. It is certainly the best school in Northern Ireland and probably the best in the world. I took the 11-plus, and I wish to talk about that and then move on to integrated education.

As I listen to the debate, it seems to me that we are concerned about the abolition of the 11-plus because we fear that it may materially alter the excellent schools that many right hon. and hon. Members had the privilege to attend. Let us bear it in mind, however, that Gerry Burns was very clear about the 11-plus process in his report. He said:

He clearly feels that the test is a divisive tool.

Thinking about trauma, I can remember doing the 11-plus. The first time I mucked it up, but by an act of fate some naughty people had stolen a few papers and I had the chance to re-sit it. Obviously, I then passed it and got into the institution. However, I remember the enormous stress that I felt, and I am one of those people who prefers examinations to continuous review.

We need to recognise that the issue is not really whether the 11-plus is the correct system of selection; it is how we maintain what is best in the Northern Ireland education system while ensuring that those who are not selected are protected from harm and given an opportunity to shine academically and make more of their education.

On the question of whether the majority of people in Northern Ireland are for or against selection, the answer is not as clear as it may at first seem. Paragraph 4.26 of the Department of Education's report on responses to consultation on the Burns report indicates that only 30 per cent. support the ending of academic selection. However, let us remember that only 16 per cent. of the population responded, and the response rate from better-off areas was almost three times greater than that from less-well-off areas. More than 50 per cent. of the responses were from the parents of grammar school pupils. It is hardly surprising that people who benefited from the system want to retain it.

I accept that a large body of people and organisations support the idea of a selection system, but once again the figures are very telling. Responses from the education sector show that 60 per cent. of primary schools and 93 per cent. of secondary schools believe that academic selection should be abolished, but not surprisingly only 10 per cent. of grammar schools hold that view.

There are many examples of organisations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo or changing it. It is not surprising that individuals who have benefited from the system or perceive a benefit to their work would prefer the status quo, whereas those who feel that it is harming the children in their care or has harmed their personal opportunities would be in favour of a change. For that reason, we need to look at the issue more strategically and ask how we can best find a consensus solution that is satisfactory to the great

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schools that Northern Ireland has and does not compromise their performance, at the same time as widening access for other groups.

The Alliance party has proposed some interesting ideas. It suggests that although the age of 11 is the natural time in light of emotional, physical and mental development for students to progress from the single classroom atmosphere of primary education to a system of multiple specialist subject teachers, it is not an appropriate stage of development to distinguish between students on the basis of academic ability. The Alliance party proposes that children should progress together in post-primary schools that provide a general middle school curriculum for the first three years—say, to the age of 14.

At the end of that period, children would be in a much better position to understand their strengths and areas for development and, crucially, what their personal aspirations were, whether vocational or more academic. At the age of 14 it is more likely that they can make informed decisions about the rest of their education. It is surely not beyond the wit of politicians in the Chamber, consulting closely with the vested interest groups in Northern Ireland and led by the Northern Ireland politicians, to find a solution bringing all that together in a way that works.

I move to the second issue that I want to cover. Although I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to those thoughts and suggestions with regard to selection, the most striking feature of the motion and the Government amendment is the absence of any written recognition of integrated education. That is one of the most significant social developments in the past 20 years in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education describes its role as

I hope that the amendment tabled by me and my fellow Liberal Democrats adequately reflects what is missing from the motion and the other amendment.

The first integrated school was Lagan college, established in 1981 by All Children Together, a campaigning parent group. There are now 47 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, 18 second level colleges and 29 integrated primaries. There are also eight new integrated education projects across Northern Ireland. The expected announcement of the opening of Maine integrated primary school in Randalstown, and the transformation of Springfarm primary school in Antrim and Glengormley primary school in September will bring the number of integrated schools to 50. Surely the Minister would agree that that is glowing testimony to the fact that things are changing and that parents believe that that is a good way forward. Can he assure the House that the recent rapid increase in interest in integrated education will be fully supported financially and in other ways by the Government and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland?

More than 15,000 pupils now study in integrated schools in the Province. That represents just over 5 per cent. of the total school-going population. I am greatly

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encouraged by the fact that there are so many and that the number is growing. Will the Government ensure that the obvious and continuing demand for places at integrated schools in Northern Ireland is facilitated? According to the Northern Ireland Audit Commission, there are 45,000 unfilled places in Northern Ireland schools. The only sector with no unfilled places, and the one that the population seems keen to use, is the integrated sector. There is, therefore, pressure on the Government to act more quickly.

I remind the Minister that in the Good Friday agreement, the Government stated that they would facilitate the development of integrated education. It is disappointing that one of the few changes made to the Government's XBuilding on Progress" document was the removal of support for growth in integrated education from the Department of Education's public service agreement. That was a telling change and it concerns me. Can the Minister explain why it took place and assure the House that support for the growth of integrated education will be pursued, and that there has not been a move away from the integrated education project?

If anyone doubts the benefits of integrated education, I advise them to visit an integrated school. I went to Hazelwood integrated primary school in Newtownabbey last September. After speaking with the principal, Jill Houston, I met many pupils. We discussed what made Hazelwood special. They replied that anyone could go to school there. When we asked whether it mattered where they came from, how clever they were or what colour hair they had, the children said no. Clearly, there is much more to integrated education than simply bringing together people from different religious traditions. One little boy had been turned down by other primary schools in the area because he had a hearing difficulty. I pay tribute to the fact that integrated education is about showing that all of us should be regarded as equal. By encouraging their children to go to those schools and to learn together, parents are actively contributing to the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Minister will focus on those two substantive points—selection and integrated education. I have set out the assurances that I seek on integrated education. May I impress on him the need for a clear timetable for the changes in selection procedures, as I requested from his colleague in my intervention? It is right for the schools to be nervous about the vacuum left by a stated change in policy and the absence of any detail. Perhaps even today, the Minister can say when we may expect those details to come out for consultation.

I remind all hon. Members once again of the importance of recognising that educational reform goes hand in hand with the kind of cultural reforms that I consider so important. It is a shame that the Minister and the Opposition spokesman took a full hour between them in a debate that properly belongs to the Ulster Unionists. I hope that by curtailing my remarks, I have enabled others from those parties to speak.

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