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14 Jan 2003 : Column 595—continued

3.38 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): May I begin by thanking all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this debate? I am quite satisfied that our party took the right decision in bringing this matter before the House; this debate vindicates that decision completely. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) at the outset of his speech, when he referred to the recent outrages at Holy Cross, Wheatfield and Currie schools, coming as they do after the disturbances that we have had over the last year in the cockpit of north Belfast, which has seen some of the worst violence of the last 30 years. Riven as it is by sectarian divisions, it is also the area of Belfast that has been most affected by the disappearance of the engineering industry that had given the area much of its culture, and the consequent disappearance of what had been the normal career path for most people who lived there. This has contributed to the violence and to the recent disturbances. Improving the quality of the schools in north and west Belfast is crucial to improving matters generally. Work in the schools that we have mentioned is therefore important.

There is a sense of déjà vu about the debate. We have held many discussions in Northern Ireland about the Burns report and the shape of post-primary education over the years. It is understandable that Labour Members spoke in the context of their experience and the arguments in which they had been involved in England in the past 20 to 40 years. They may not appreciate that there are differences in Northern Ireland, and that it is wrong simply to compare the position in Northern Ireland with that in England. That struck me especially when I listened to the contribution of the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). In

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socio-economic terms, society is much more egalitarian in Northern Ireland than in England. We have political divisions and quite acute religious and sectarian divisions, but our society is much more socio-economically egalitarian.

The greater equality is due to the current education system. Some hon. Members supported comprehensive education in England 30 or 40 years ago because they perceived it as a method of curing social divisions and a means of social engineering. It would produce the opposite result in Northern Ireland, where the more egalitarian society that they want already exists. The introduction of comprehensive schools would drive existing schools out of the state system. They would go private in ways that would reinforce and worsen the sectarian divisions. We must bear that in mind. Following the so-called comprehensive route and imitating events in England of 40 years ago would be a social disaster in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) referred to the economic consequences, which would be equally significant.

The hon. Member for Bury, North and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) constantly referred to selection at 11. We are not considering that. A large part of Northern Ireland, especially my constituency, where the Dickson plan operates, uses a much more mixed approach. The age of 14 is as important—if not more so—as others. The Dickson plan works well, especially for those in the academic stream. Until recently, it did not work so well for those in the non-academic sector. That is one of the great weaknesses of the education system in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist party has repeatedly introduced proposals to try to enhance secondary and technical education. We appreciate that that is the challenge, and that we need to level up, not down. We must retain the excellence, but tackle the weaknesses. One method is to examine parity of funding and status with a view to attracting finance. The differences in the financial structures of grammar and secondary schools should be considered and changed. That is a matter not simply of funding but of schools' ability to deal with their position. We want such matters to be examined. Parity of esteem is not an idle phrase.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North—I must tackle that bad habit—in his criticism of the Minister's approach. It is essential to understand that the decision of the former Minister of Education in the last few minutes of devolution would not have been made without the prospect of suspension. The Northern Ireland Executive would never have made such a decision and the Assembly would not have approved it. The Minister of Education knew that his proposals on the Burns report were not going anywhere as far as the Assembly and Executive were concerned. That is the reason for the delay. If I had more time, I would explain the structures that we adopted for decision making in the Executive. They would have ensured that the decision could not be effected. Suspension led to the decision. In our motion, we use the term Xadministrative vandalism", and those words were deliberately chosen.

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The Minister should not regard the decision as democratically legitimate, because it is not.

Mr. Quentin Davies rose—

Mr. Trimble: I am sorry—I would like to pursue this matter further, but we are short of time and I must give the Minister the opportunity to reply. Because this important decision is not democratically legitimate—indeed, I wonder even about its legality—and because it was taken without something else being put in its place, I very much doubt whether it would have survived a judicial review.

Before I leave the points made by the Minister, I want to refer to a matter that I touched on in replying to the hon. Member for Bury, North. One thing that we did in respect of student finance of which I am particularly proud was to introduce grants for further education. I was greatly disappointed to hear from the Minister that, so far, only 400 of them have been taken up. That is partly because of a certain reluctance within the education system to market them and to bring them to people's attention. We took a very deliberate decision to treat people in further education in the same way as those in higher education. We appreciate the importance of the skills developed in further education both in social terms, and to those who are pursuing that particular course in life. We cannot improve that sector and parity of esteem in the way we would like unless similar support is provided.

I do not want to spend too much time on the selection issue, which has been dealt with comprehensively. I agree with the Minister's observations on the comments made in yesterday's press by the northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation. He has adopted a must unhelpful approach, and I was amused to learn that, in making those comments, he began by attacking political opportunism, only to proceed to engage in a bit of such opportunism himself. He should keep out of politics and leave the political decisions to those with a mandate, rather than attempting through the threat of union action to determine the decisions that Governments take. To do so is wholly wrong, and we do not want that bad form of trade unionism to recur.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned the integrated sector, and as he knew before today, I intended to raise that issue myself. It is perhaps not always appreciated here in England that integrated education is in fact a great lost opportunity in Northern Ireland. That lost opportunity occurred not 40 years ago but 80 years ago, when the first Unionist Government proposed the introduction of a single compulsory integrated education system in Northern Ireland. It was Lord Craigavon who tried to introduce that system, in 1924, but unfortunately he was unable to do so because of the combined opposition of all the Churches. Had he been successful, the history of the past 80 years would have been quite different.

Integrated education is not a new idea, therefore, and I was a bit disappointed that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred purely to the integrated

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education movement. I know that it includes a lot of well-meaning people, but they comprise just one particular movement, and there is more to integrated education than them. Some of the difficulties that people have with the integrated education movement concern issues such as accountability and creating yet another education sector. We already have too many such sectors: in addition to the controlled and maintained and the Irish medium sectors, we would then have the integrated sector. We need to look at these administrative structures more closely, and to encourage more of the integration that happens naturally. Many of the schools that are not in the integrated education movement are in fact integrated. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will know from personal experience that major grammar schools in Northern Ireland that are thought of as Protestant schools have significant Catholic enrolment, and would qualify as integrated. I do not want to speak only about grammar schools in Belfast. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), the Catholic St. Columbanus secondary school at Ballyholme near Bangor has a Protestant enrolment of nearly 50 per cent. The school's ethos and quality mean that people go there as a matter of choice. There exists a significant integrated sector that is not recognised in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. We need to be more comprehensive in regard to such matters.

I was disappointed that no member of the Social Democratic and Labour party contributed to the debate. I recognise that that means that the party does not have to say something on the question of education. There may be reasons for that, and I hope that the House will forgive me for indulging myself by saying that someone once remarked that the distinction between the SDLP and Sinn Fein was that SDLP was composed of people who passed the 11-plus.

It is puzzling that the SDLP should have adopted a somewhat hostile approach to academic selection, given that opinion poll evidence shows that it is the most middle-class party in Northern Ireland, in terms of electoral support. Its members may find it difficult to come here and adopt a position that is contrary to the interests of most of the party's voters. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that there is a substantial number of Catholic grammar schools. I do not want to do a head count, but they may outnumber the grammar schools that are considered Protestant. Those schools have a view, as do the people who represent them.

The proposition is simple: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Certain sectors in education in Northern Ireland need to be improved, especially on the secondary side. Also, certain geographical areas have massive social problems that need to be addressed. Education is an important component, but not the only one. We need to look at a variety of social issues.

I was pleased that the north Belfast community project began to look at those matters, and it is a great disappointment that we have been interrupted in our follow-through to that project. It was an example of an approach—integrated in a different sense—that needs

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to be adopted in respect of areas where huge social problems are tied to lack of attainment in schools. The problem is one for society and not just for schools, and that is where our focus must be.

The Government are responsible for education in Northern Ireland. They could do a tremendous amount of damage, or they could help reinforce some of the good things that we were trying to do. I hope that they choose wisely.

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