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14 Jan 2003 : Column 591—continued

3.25 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I have only a few minutes, so I shall be swift.

My constituency is in Scotland, so it might seem that I would not have much to say about education in Northern Ireland. However, I spent a short while

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running a small but fairly diverse education service in Northern Ireland, and I did a couple of higher degrees while I was at it, so I got to know the Northern Ireland education system fairly well.

Some strong points have been made from both sides during the debate. The main points that I can raise in the time available relate to selection and the method of transfer between primary and secondary education, and the whole business of grammar schools and how to correlate them with grammar schools in England. We have none in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) received short shrift from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) when he mentioned pass rates. The pass rate referred to was 93 per cent. in Northern Ireland obtaining two A-levels at A to E, which is not the case. The point that my hon. Friend was trying to make was simply that that is the proportion of people who sit A-levels.

Mr. Brady: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman with the correct figures. As a proportion of the 18-year-old population, the appropriate figures are, for those obtaining two or more A-levels in 1999 to 2000: in England 30 per cent.; in Wales 27 per cent.; and in Northern Ireland 37.7 per cent. Again, the Northern Ireland system is delivering better results.

Mr. Joyce: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but the point made earlier confused overall attainment with the degree of selectivity. One could have a pass rate of 100 per cent., but it would not tell us anything about the people who did not sit the exam. That is different from the way in which we express GCSE figures, which gross up the whole cohort.

Mr. Brady: Perhaps I did not express myself clearly. This is even more compelling evidence. The figures I gave a moment ago are as a percentage of the total 18-year-old population, so there is a very significant improvement in performance in Northern Ireland compared with England.

Mr. Joyce: I would not necessarily disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I simply wanted to amplify the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East for which he got fairly short shrift.

In Northern Ireland, the figures are slightly higher and have certainly improved because there is greater selectivity. In England, by contrast, there is a modest level of grammar school education. Another difference is that English grammar schools, particularly in Sutton in Surrey, for example, operate in a very different ecology. Surprisingly, the local secondaries perform at a level not far below that of the grammar schools. The latter, however, tend to perform better academically in England—I understand that this does not happen in Northern Ireland—because GNVQ and vocational figures are included in secondary school results. There is therefore a school ecology, as it were, in which everyone is getting comparable results. However, the grammar school system that has evolved in certain English counties has produced a more diverse education than exists in Northern Ireland where, I believe, a fairly conservative, old-fashioned structure has been preserved. By contrast, some of the best grammar school practice in England is forward looking and progressive.

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I accept what one or two Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), said about the comprehensive system in the 1970s. There is quite a lot of room, to say the least, for more diversity and choice based on aptitude testing. There is an important distinction to be made between raw and crude academic testing and sound, valid academic testing at the age of 11 that involves complex and sophisticated tests based on specific aptitudes. The latter gives parents a choice about the kind of school their children may attend, including, perhaps, sports or art-oriented schools. That philosophy is increasingly predominant in English education and should be naturally predominant in Northern Ireland too, even though it would have different origins.

Many Opposition Members nodded their agreement with the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). If we strip grammar schools out of the system and do not replace them with anything, people will simply opt for the private sector. Nationally, about 7 per cent. of kids are in private schools, but in Edinburgh the figure is about 20 per cent., which shows what happens when a fairly affluent group of people in a well-off city comes up against a non-differentiated system that does not provide choice. Grammar schools, or what they should evolve into, provide that choice.

I am pushed for time, so I shall cut my comments short. Opposition Members, including those who are diametrically opposite, bemoaned the potential loss of academic excellence if grammar schools disappear. That argument misses the point that grammar schools in England are evolving in a diverse ecology and have maintained academic excellence alongside schools that have managed to develop new specialisms. That is the dominant philosophy in education in England, and ought to be in Ireland too.

3.32 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I welcome our debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland, and am glad of the opportunity to take part in it. I shall keep my remarks brief and deal with several general matters.

First, I join the Minister who, in her opening remarks, mentioned recent events in my constituency at the Holy Cross girls primary school, Wheatfield primary school and Currie primary school. Members will be aware that, whatever our arguments on the future of our education system, the first priority is the safety and well-being of all our children, as well as staff and parents going to school. It is right that the House should put on record its outrage at events not just at Holy Cross, but also at Wheatfield school and Currie school, as well other schools across north Belfast that have suffered terribly in recent years. Some schools rightly feel that their plight has been overlooked in favour of others that have received more media attention. I therefore welcome the Minister's remarks. I wish that Sinn Fein, in its comments on those events, would declare its responsibility, rather than trying to avoid it and placing the blame for the attacks, particularly at Currie and Wheatfield, on the loyalist community, as that is deeply resented.

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The main thrust of my remarks concerns academic selection and Martin McGuiness's last-minute, last-gasp decision, which reminded me of the last-gasp decisions made by the outgoing President Clinton, when he rushed to pardon a host of dubious characters. There was a last-minute rush by the outgoing Education Minister to push through his decision to abolish the 11-plus at the very last moment, in breach of his commitment to Assembly Members that no such decision would be taken without its first coming back to the Assembly for consideration and decision. Those who argue that pursuing that course and simply adopting the former Minister's decision is simply advancing what was already agreed by the last devolved Administration are wrong. In fact, no such decision was made by that Administration—a decision was made by one Minister, which points to a flaw in the devolved system.

Speaking as an ex-Minister in the devolved Administration, I have some experience of this, and sometimes I have to say that it has worked to my advantage. The reality is, however, that Ministers are unaccountable and, in this case, the Minister of State has adopted a decision that did not have the backing of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The decision was in breach of the undertaking given by Martin McGuinness to the Assembly.

I have to agree with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). She attended a very good school, the Belfast royal academy, which I had the pleasure of visiting the other day and meeting the headmaster. He would be delighted with the comments that a pupil of that school has made today in the House, because he would entirely agree with what she said about academic selection.

There is no reason for the Minister to have adopted this decision, and no reason for there to be a rush to abolish the 11-plus, particularly when we recall that no decision has been taken on its replacement. The sensible thing to do would be to take our time, look at what should replace the 11-plus—if it is to be abolished—and then make the decision, so that parents, staff, pupils and everybody else in the education system would know exactly where they were. It would have been easy simply to say, XLook, this last-minute decision by the former Education Minister is not going to stand. We are going to maintain the status quo." There would then have been no upset whatsoever. The decision by the Minister in this House has plunged the education system into chaos because people are uncertain about what is happening.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dodds: I would love to give way, but my time is very limited.

The decision should have been taken to maintain the status quo. I am reminded of the rush to abolish the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Without knowing what the final outcome of the House of Lords reform will be, the Government have proceeded with the first stage. In Northern Ireland, they have rushed to abolish the 11-plus with no idea at all—or certainly not one that they have shared with the people of Northern Ireland—of what its replacement is to be. I have often

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heard it said, particularly by Ministers, that we cannot advance the argument for the abolition or replacement of something without having a viable alternative. Northern Ireland politicians are lectured all the time on the need to put forward an alternative. In this case the Government are saying, XLet's abolish the 11-plus system, but don't ask us what the alternative is. We will come up with that as we go along." That is not a satisfactory, logical or sensible way to proceed.

The Government have not adopted this approach in relation to other matters emanating from the devolved Administration. For example, I had some responsibility for Housing Executive rent increases—a settled policy—but the new direct rule Minister has decided to increase Housing Executive rents by inflation plus 1 per cent., in breach of the previous settled policy of the devolved Administration that they should increase only by the rate of inflation each year. The idea that the Government are simply following on from the previous decision of the devolved Administration needs to be focused on. It is wrong to argue that that is happening. The Assembly did not have the opportunity to debate this matter following the decision announced by Martin McGuinness, and the Minister should reflect carefully on the comments of Northern Ireland Members today. He should recognise what they have been saying: you don't fix something that ain't broke. Northern Ireland has the finest education system anywhere in the United Kingdom, and that should be preserved and enhanced, not destroyed.

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