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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Education (Northern Ireland)Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Miss Anne Begg
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Burrowes, Mr. David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
Clark, Greg (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Kennedy, Jane (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
Lazarowicz, Mark (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Todd, Mr. Mark (South Derbyshire) (Lab)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Mr. Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)
McCrea, Dr. William (South Antrim) (DUP)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Paisley, Rev. Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)
Robinson, Mrs. Iris (Strangford) (DUP)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 28 June 2006

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Draft Education (Northern Ireland)Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
A draft of the order was laid before the House on 12 June.
I begin, Miss Begg, by apologising for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who has responsibility for education in Northern Ireland while the devolved Administration is not sitting. She would usually take this order through the Committee, but she is unfortunately indisposed through ill health this week. As luck would have it, I was available and I shall take the order through the Committee on behalf of the Government. I look forward to a constructive and interesting debate with my right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members.
I welcome to the Committee my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) who held my post in a previous existence. According to my briefing notes, which I have spent the last couple of hours reading, she had some influence over the policy during her ministerial career.
Two key factors shape the reforms before the Committee: the interests of children and young people in Northern Ireland, and the interests of the Northern Ireland economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have taken great care and concern to ensure that the order meets the needs of both young people and the economy. In short, we must create a system that enables all our young people—and I do mean all of them, not just a minority—to achieve their potential and to ensure that we have a system of education in Northern Ireland that ensures that we have the skills to meet the needs of the economy in the future, not in the past.
We live in changing times. You will be aware, Miss Begg, that China, India, the far east and eastern Europe are now Northern Ireland’s major competitors and will become even more so in the future. The Northern Ireland economy is competing not just with Dublin and Liverpool but with skills and talents throughout the global economy. We need to ensure that the children and young people of Northern Ireland have the necessary skills for the future.
In addition, we have launched the extended schools programme to give wrap-around education throughout the school day, from before school begins and after it ends. The first specialist schools will be in operation from September this year to develop key curricular activities and to widen choice.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): It is delightful to see you in the Chair, Miss Begg.
The Minister mentioned costs. Will he kindly tell the Committee, for the benefit of every hon. Member, including those of his party, the overall cost of the new arrangements we are discussing?
Mr. Hanson: I will return to that matter later in my speech. I want to talk about the proposal before us. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that whatever the cost of the changes we are making, the Labour Government’s investment in education in Northern Ireland is dramatically increasing. The order continues the process of reform by putting in place a legislative framework to allow changes to be made to improve the system in Northern Ireland for children and young people.
It is my view and that of my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the existing system of post-primary education is failing the pupils and students of Northern Ireland, and its economy. As my hon. Friends will recognise from their constituencies, for many that failure begins at the age of 11. The Northern Ireland education system itself now identifies children at that age as failures, which results in many young people not achieving their full potential. Many, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—especially, if I may say so, from Protestant disadvantaged backgrounds—are not achieving their full potential.
In my view, the Northern Ireland economy cannot compete with the growing pressure from China, India, the far east and the emerging Asian economies generally if we waste the talent and skills of so many people. I do not deal with this issue daily, but I am acutely aware, having read the papers and heard the views being put forward by Members, that great controversy surrounds parts of this order. However, its provisions have been subject to extensive and wide-ranging consultation and they are—this may surprise my hon. Friends in particular—very much home-grown in origin; they are not just the tools and brainchild of direct rule Ministers.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): If there was this wonderful consultation, why, on the day the order was published, did 92 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland express absolute opposition to part of it? They may want to see changes to the 11-plus, but they are not against academic selection in the context of Northern Ireland. Why will my hon. Friend not admit that and say, “Nevertheless, we are going to ram through the order”?
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She gives me an opportunity to put on the record the fact that, as the consultation and the various processes have shown, there is widespread support among people and organisations in Northern Ireland for this order. Let me share with her, Miss Begg, some of its potential supporters. The majority of education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, the Northern Ireland council for Irish speaking schools, and the five main teaching unions all support the changes proposed in the order.
I could go on and as I am on my feet, I probably will. The Northern Ireland Catholic bishops support these proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, and his party support them. Members representing Sinn Fein in this House support them. Members of the Alliance party—the sister party of the Liberal Democrats—support them. The Progressive Unionist party supports them. The majority of voluntary and community interests that have responded to the consultation support them. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions supports them. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission supports them. And just in case the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) wishes to make some points later on, the CBI supports them. I simply say to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and others that a considerable body of opinion—it is not unanimous or universal, I accept—supports the proposals before the Committee.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister outline the percentage of teachers who oppose the proposals? In fact, 62 per cent. of all teachers oppose them. In the biggest consultation exercise, 62 per cent. of the population opposed them. Despite the requirement that this Government have laid down under the Belfast agreement, there is no cross-community support for this very important legislation, so the Government are in fact breaching the requirement that they demand of other legislation under the Belfast agreement.
Mr. Hanson: As I have indicated, according to the Department for Education—as I said earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston, is the Education Minister for Northern Ireland—the trade unions and the teaching unions support the proposals. I have to take account of that.
The draft order deals with a range of issues related to revision of the Northern Ireland curriculum, the entitlement framework and applied and general courses. There will be new arrangements for post-primary school admissions. Given that this is one of the bones of contention, let me take on the question of admissions and the related issues. The order introduces new admission arrangements for post-primary schools, and I know that if my hon. Friend were here today she would put that on the record for the Committee. Like her and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am of the firm view that there is no room in the education system for selection. I recognise that some members of the Committee and some parts of Northern Ireland society disagree with that view, but I put it on the record.
The impact of demography cannot be ignored. Pupil numbers are falling and the Government have been aware for a long time of the widening range of 11-plus grades being accepted into many grammar schools in Northern Ireland. Figures quoted in the Chamber this morning during Education questions, which were published today by the Belfast Telegraph, confirm the changing intake profile of grammar schools, with many schools admitting C2 and D grades. They also show different intake patterns in different areas, thereby illustrating the unfairness of the current arrangements. The Belfast Telegraph also quotes my hon. Friend—dare I call him that?—the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) as saying,
“I think the grammar schools lobby needs to sort this issue out if we want to have a strong case for keeping academic selection.”
I recognise that there are differing views in the Committee on these issues, but I simply put to its members, for their vote in due course, that in my view, the fundamental point at the heart of the debate is that children have an infinite variety of skills and talents, and that it is simply wrong to segregate them at age 11 into their future life patterns, based on their achievements and attainments in a test at that age. As a result of such an approach, the majority of pupils are regarded as failures at 11.
Let me provide a little local colour based on my own experience. I grew up on a council estate near my constituency. I passed the grammar school examination and out of 33 children in my class, I went to grammar school and the 32 others did not. I know what happened to those children: they did not get the investment in their education that they demanded and needed, and which their talents and skills deserved. I happened to do so. We have to look at the needs of all children in society—not just those who pass a test at the age of 11.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): If the Minister’s assertion is that people from a working-class background in Northern Ireland are substantially disadvantaged as a result of our education system, can he explain why Queen’s university, and the university of Ulster are in the top three universities in the United Kingdom for admitting students from a working-class background?
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Prepared 3 July 2006