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14 Jan 2003 : Column 587—continued

3.7 pm

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I hope that I shall not take too long. The debate is welcome, as it is a debate about real politics called by the Ulster Unionists.

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It is an opportunity to discuss an issue that has been central to the politics of this country for many years—selection by academic ability at the age of 11 and its impact on educational achievement as a whole.

I remember the 11-plus. The key thing about it was that one passed or failed. The word Xfail" dominated the lives of so many people who were then passed on to a secondary system. Their self-expectations were thereby reduced. I come from a city, Sheffield, which shares with Northern Ireland the justification which, I understand, was part of what the Burns committee took on board in its deliberations on the matter—the research done by the Programme for International Student Assessment. This concentrated not on the achievements of the educational system in Northern Ireland, which I recognise is very high, in terms of the percentage of pupils getting high grades at A-level and so on, but on the differential between the best and the worst achievers. That differential reveals some of the worst symptoms of academic selection at 11.

Sheffield is a widely disparate city in terms of educational achievement. I was greatly relieved that the 11-plus had finished by the time my children went to school there. In Sheffield, the pressure was on from day one to live in the right place. As people said that the only schools to go to were those with sixth forms in the south-west of the city. They were the schools that enabled students to get into the top universities and that was the only place to live. That residential discrepancy has, in a sense, dominated Sheffield and ensured that the educational and social achievement differences between those living in the Hallam constituency and those in the Central and Brightside constituencies are some of the greatest in any city in the country.

This debate on selection is important and gives Labour Members the chance to demonstrate how the issue has played a part in determining our priorities. As Northern Ireland is a key part of the United Kingdom, we are a Government who are intent on driving forward equality of opportunity there. If we are going to achieve that, which I think is the thrust of the point made by those who tabled the motion, it is essential first to say that the test will be abolished. Continuity is an important point. Different things cannot be done simultaneously, so I completely endorse the idea that the first action of the Minister in wanting to change to system should be to say that the academic selection test at 11 will be abolished. It is then necessary to move forward, as I believe the Government are, in establishing further ways in which the factors that affect educational discrimination can most usefully be dealt with.

More will be needed than the abolition of the academic test at 11, including greater emphasis on integrated education and schools. From what I know of the integrated schools, they are playing a major part. I welcome what the Minister of State said about the expansion that is being proposed in further and higher education in Northern Ireland. The opportunity of part-time and full-time places for students and part-time places for mature students will also be essential in raising expectations and opening up possibilities for dealing with disparities between the top and bottom ends. Abolition of the test is only a first step. I hope that this Government, while the current system remains in place, and also the devolved Administration, which I hope will be re-established before too long, will be able

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to work on those further steps and encourage the child care provision, integrated schools and extra student support that will be necessary in taking them.

I want to mention one other aspect of education in Northern Ireland of which I had some experience when I worked with the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland as their Parliamentary Private Secretary. I was given a brief of keeping closely in touch with educational work, especially for adults and among women in Northern Ireland. On a number of occasions, I visited the award givings of the Belfast Women's Training Services organisation in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of certificates were distributed and the courses were full year on year. I was struck by how young women from the working-class areas of Belfast on both sides of the sectarian divide were so eloquent about the fact that it was only after they had left school that they were starting to realise their own educational potential, as well as their potential for taking a useful and active role in the community. I pay tribute to a lot of the work that has been done by that organisation among mature students in the working-class areas of Belfast, as well as by the Workers Educational Association and other adult education movements, which I got to know well.

Such organisations have lessons for many of us in the rest of the United Kingdom, especially in respect of inner city areas where such disparities of educational achievement exist, but the better way forward is to establish an educational system that does not end up with huge disparities for mature students. It is in that context that I think that the Government were correct—the Minister made a strong case built on the Burns report and the work of the devolved Assembly—that it was right to say at the start was that there would be no academic selection at 11, which can be divisive, and that they would abolish it as soon as was practicable, and work hard to establish how best to ensure that the transfer from primary to secondary education results in a society in Northern Ireland that is as little divided educationally as possible.

Of course, all of us in the House hope that a society will come about in Northern Ireland that is also as little divided as possible in any other way. This debate plays its small part in that wider political role as well.

3.16 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): I was not in the Assembly when my party and the others chose their election portfolios. Ministries are always a difficult matter. The old hands, such as the now Lord Kilclooney—an old hand and one of the few Unionists who were in government in the old Stormont Parliament—always go for finance first, as that has the purse strings. That may be right or wrong, but I would have argued for education as the top priority with farming second on the list. That is my personal preference, but I was not there at the time.

The Executive cannot be reformed in the foreseeable future because of the former Education Minister's continuation with an operational terrorist criminal organisation, but if and when it does come back with some sort of structure, I hope that my party and the Democratic Unionist party, which is represented on the

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Benches to my left, will try to get together next time around and take education as our priority. It is the one priority that we should take. It is the major challenge and has the most importance for the future prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland.

The administrative vandalism to which the motion refers was an act of vicious vindictiveness. It was the act of a man who is not interested in the long-term future of Northern Ireland. I hope that he never again has an opportunity to hold that portfolio, but what happened happened, and what happens under the law we must accept. The Minister, who is not now in the House, will have to make a decision in the near future about the uncertainty that is now in the minds of all parents. Parents who have a child at school in year 6 do not know what is going to happen. They do not know about the selection procedure or about how their children will proceed into secondary education. Children do not know whether they will go to grammar or secondary school, or whether there will be a new form of selection procedure.

That uncertainty must be ended. I hope that it will end by reflecting the views of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, and the greatest possible number across the teaching establishment, as well as the political establishment, including all the political parties in Northern Ireland. The Minister's decision does not have majority support from either the Protestant or the Catholic community in Northern Ireland.

I went to the Antrim grammar school prize giving last year, and was extremely proud. I saw increasing academic standards—a proud school, good staff and pupils who want to be part of that school. Just after I was elected, I went to Ballyclare high school and had a briefing there, and then to the senior civil servant in the North Eastern education and library board to ask for a rating of the schools in the constituency. He said, XWhen we bring in visitors from outside Northern Ireland, we take them to Ballyclare high to show them an excellent school, a state school performing well." As has been said, we do not have private schools. I say to the Government: do not destroy this excellence.

Defending grammar schools does not mean that we will lower standards for our secondary sector. I heard the expression of some views that should have died with the Labour party in the 1960s—a lot of old fashioned socialist clap-trap, the sort of language that made it sound as if going to a grammar school somehow means that a social stigma attaches to the secondary school that might be only a couple of hundred yards away. When I attended one of the best institutions in Northern Ireland, the Coleraine Academical institution, I did not find such a stigma with the secondary school next door. I do not find it in my constituency now. I do not find a social stigma attaching to the very fine pupils who go to secondary school.

Let us not try to re-fight an old class battle of the 1960s. Comprehensive education failed in this country and was a disaster economically. A few academics involved in the Burns report share the left-wing parentage of the failed academia of the 1960s. Let us not make that mistake. We have a good, strong system with high academic standards that is highly respected by the community. Do not destroy it.

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After making the strong point that we need a form of academic selection, let me turn to some related subjects. Whether it is Dickson or the American high school system, let us get the academic selection put in place so that parents and children, especially in year 6 but going back to years 5 and 4, have that uncertainty removed and we know what the transfer procedure will be from next year.

Two points on funding concern me. In this wide debate, I want to try to represent the concern within the primary sector. For historic reasons, going right back to the Education Acts of the 1940s, primary education in Northern Ireland has been the poor relation in funding terms of secondary education. On the mainland, in England and Wales, the amount in pounds per head spent on the secondary sector and on the primary sector is pretty even—within single percentage figures. In Northern Ireland the primary sector is very much the poor relation. As we all know, the overall budget is the problem on funding, but it is also the overall budget plus the allocation. I wish to make a plea on behalf of the primary school sector, which feels that it is often the poor relation of the secondary sector.

I move on to the problem of research. Years ago, I used to advise the Industrial Development Board, which is now Invest Northern Ireland. When it brings Japanese, Korean and American business men into Northern Ireland, our standard of education, our secondary education and our highly trained workforce feature right up high in the slides and presentations. That gives us a competitive edge in inward investment when there is so much competition in the United Kingdom between the regions. Let us not destroy that. Let us try to be conservative. If it is good, do not wreck it. Keep it there, because it is a selling point for Northern Ireland.

There is a point about research that I raised with the Secretary of State for Education last November. The underspend per head of population in Northern Ireland for the two universities, the university of Ulster and Queen's, is very low compared with that in England, Wales and Scotland. The matter needs to be considered by the Government. We need research linked into our universities, because that is how to get industry in and how to get good, modern, high-tech companies to come into Northern Ireland, where we have had considerable success in recent years.

In conclusion, I repeat to the Government: do not wreck it. We do not need an elected dictatorship in Northern Ireland telling us that it will destroy our grammar school system. We have a fine grammar school system, a fine secondary system and a fine primary system. There is a great deal of room for improvement and we want to take part in that. If the Government follow the action of the former Minister of Education, they will impose a comprehensive form of education in Northern Ireland that is not supported by the vast majority of the people, Protestant and Catholic, and that will destroy the grammar school system. I say to them: do not do it.

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