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Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

7.28 pm

Lord Rooker rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 is to improve the education of every child in Northern Ireland by providing the legislative framework for a package of reforms. I have not come to the House tonight to move for the abolition of grammar schools.

This is a very important order for Northern Ireland. It is the culmination of many years of research, consultation and discussion at local level. The changes that it makes are home-grown solutions to Northern Ireland issues, not something being imposed externally. I say many years: it is at least six, possibly eight, the process having started in 1997-98. I was told some months ago that this is all the brainchild of Martin McGuinness; that is simply not true. The decisions that he made when he was Education Minister are irrelevant to the order.

Northern Ireland is often portrayed as having an excellent education system to rival any other. It is true that, at the top end of the achievement scale, more pupils leave school with good GCSEs and A-levels, but the overall performance figures for pupils on average are on a par with or slightly below those for England. Northern Ireland has one of the most unequal education systems in the world. It has the lowest proportion of working adults without a degree and the lowest rates of adult literacy in the United Kingdom. Such a system cannot be regarded in total as excellent.

The reality is that the current education system was designed for a different century and a different world. The reforms in the order retain and build on existing strengths, but introduce changes necessary to ensure that Northern Ireland has an education system fit for the 21st century. We cannot ignore the global economy. The nature of employment in Northern Ireland has changed. Heavy industry and large-scale manufacturing have all but disappeared to be replaced by smaller high-tech enterprises and service industries. There is increasing competition from India and China. The pace of change is accelerating. Northern Ireland must therefore adapt and be more innovative if it is to be able to compete successfully.

Education has a vital role in providing Northern Ireland with a workforce that is well educated and equipped with the knowledge and skills to secure Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. But the draft order does more than that.

Some people claim that the selective education system in Northern Ireland provides a ladder up for many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing them with opportunities that they would not otherwise get and rewarding merit rather than the ability to pay. The evidence shows that that is a myth. Why else would pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds be so severely unrepresented in grammar schools? It is not because they do not have the ability; it is because of the socially divisive nature of this selective system of

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education in Northern Ireland. The order will open up opportunities for all pupils. For the individual, it will shape provision in a way that enables all young people to fulfil their potential, rather than create an élite at the expense of the majority. It will be more flexible and innovative, capable of providing a wider range of opportunities to accommodate individual needs and interests. It will ensure that young people learn about the responsibilities as well as the rights of citizenship and the importance of tolerance and mutual understanding.

Broadly speaking, there are three key issues with which I shall deal—the curriculum, the entitlement framework and admissions—and, to a lesser extent, the issue of suspensions and expulsions, which is not central.

We have an academic style of curriculum that is not appropriate for all pupils and is overly prescriptive, leaving little room for teachers to adapt teaching to individual pupils' needs. The order introduces a revised and more flexible curriculum, which is less prescriptive in content, but with a sharper focus on the educational fundamentals, such as literacy and numeracy, that employers tell us they need. It includes a new foundation stage, similar to that which already applies in England, to provide a smoother transition from pre-school to formal education.

The revised curriculum has been extensively consulted on and has been welcomed by teachers. It will give back to Northern Ireland’s highly skilled teachers the opportunity to address pupils’ individual needs. It will lay a solid foundation for study at GCSE, A-level and beyond, developing young adults ready to take on the challenges that I mentioned of employment, training and higher education.

The second area is the entitlement framework. Current arrangements deny many young people an adequate choice of courses at GCSE and A-level. The order introduces an entitlement framework that will guarantee all pupils, irrespective of where they live or the school that they attend, access to a wide range of academic and applied courses. That entitlement will allow pupils to choose subjects that engage and motivate them, rather than be restricted to what is available within the school. The wider choice is planned to be provided through collaboration among schools and, importantly, with further education colleges, enabling resources, facilities and expertise to be used in the most effective way. It will be for schools to decide which of the wide array of accredited courses they want to offer.

There is another dimension to this, which I know your Lordships will welcome, as this House has taken a long and constructive interest in promoting integrated education in Northern Ireland. Delivering the entitlement framework will open opportunities for schools from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland to work with each other and with their local further education college to extend and enrich the number and type of courses available, and for young people to meet in joint classes. We see this as an exciting development and one which, over time,

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has the potential to break down or reduce the unhelpful barriers that still exist in Northern Ireland. The opportunities for joint provision will also be examined as part of the current review of the schools estate by Professor Sir George Bain.

I now come to admissions, which I know will be seen as the most controversial aspect of the order—the package; it is a package of the two issues to which I have already referred and admissions. Admissions concerns how pupils transfer between primary and post-primary education.

The current admission arrangements, which determine a child’s future at age 11 on the basis of two one-hour tests, are no longer relevant to today’s needs. They distort the primary school curriculum; those who can afford it can pay for extra coaching; and they constitute a high-stakes process that puts unacceptable pressure and anxiety on pupils, parents and, of course, teachers. The result is a system that leaves the majority of pupils being perceived, and perceiving themselves, as failures at the age of 11. Rather than providing a ladder out of disadvantage, there is a significant bias against the less well-off in the test results themselves, which is compounded later in public examinations.

Of course it is possible to quote examples—I expect that we shall hear some tonight—of personal experiences of how getting a grammar school place made a difference to the life chances of those from modest circumstances, but the current facts tell a different story. Only 7 per cent of those at grammar schools receive free school meals, compared to 28 per cent in other secondary schools. In some mainly Protestant schools, the figure is as low as 3 per cent. Far from bridging the social and economic divide, the present arrangements perpetuate it.

It is simply not right that a child’s future should be determined at age 11, nor is it right to segregate children into two discrete groups at that age. The Government are committed to ending academic selection in Northern Ireland and to a new system that involves parents choosing schools rather than schools selecting pupils.

I am always conscious when this case and other cases are put that the Minister concerned has usually been a beneficiary of the system that he or she seeks to change. I was not, I never sat the 11-plus; I had been off school for a year. However, I did sit a 13-plus and went to a secondary technical school in Birmingham. Those are my credentials, which are important, because otherwise your case can be partly undermined. It is perfectly good to go through a system and then say that it should be changed but, sometimes, people do not volunteer their personal experience. I think it right that I do.

The Government acknowledge the current process to restore devolution. Therefore the draft order now includes a provision that leaves the decision on academic selection to Northern Ireland politicians, provided they are up to the job of working together to restore the Assembly by 24 November. If the Assembly is restored by that date, a vote in the Assembly will be required to end academic selection. That is contained in Article 1(6) and (7). However, we cannot allow the

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uncertainty to continue indefinitely, and if the Assembly is not restored by that date, the provision ending academic selection after the 2008 tests will become effective immediately. These tests will take place in November for entry in 2009, so it will be 2010 before the new system starts. This is not a quick fix tomorrow; it is four years away.

Understandably, noble Lords will ask whether, if we are ending academic selection, we are also ending grammar schools. Contrary to what is alleged, I can rightly claim that I have not come here tonight to bury the grammar schools. Grammar schools will continue because the order will not end them. They will remain, and will continue to offer a largely academic curriculum, alongside the new specialist schools and schools offering a curriculum with a more technical or applied emphasis. We believe that parents are best placed to decide which of the various types of provision available best suits the needs of their children. In these circumstances, future transfer arrangements will be on the basis of informed parental choice. Parents will have a wide range of information about their child through the pupil profile and advice from the primary schools. They will also have information about what each post-primary school has to offer. If parents wish, they can have discussions with prospective post-primary schools and even let those schools see the pupil profile, although the schools cannot use the information in it exclusively to decide whom to admit.

The key point is that this will not be a high-stakes process. It recognises that children develop and mature at different rates and that their interests and aspirations change. No child will be labelled a failure at 11. Instead, as part of this package, which is not only about admissions but about the curriculum and the entitlement framework, the new arrangements will provide for key decisions about children’s future pathways to be made from age 14, when course choices are made. If schools are oversubscribed, they will decide whom to admit by applying admissions criteria which they have chosen from a menu of criteria prescribed by the Department of Education. These will include criteria such as siblings, feeder schools or the parish, which are already widely used by post-primary schools, with an appeal system, and will be partly in regulations. They must be widely consulted on, which they will be next year.

The new admissions arrangements will be fair, open and transparent. Fundamentally, they will ensure that no individuals or groups of pupils, such as those living in rural areas, will be disadvantaged. To suggest that they will result in postcode selection is blatant scaremongering. Nor is there any reason to suppose that they will lead to a dilution of the academic ethos of grammar schools. This is an important point. Grammar schools are an enormous percentage of the schools in Northern Ireland; they constitute a third of the schools and have 40 per cent of the pupils. This is completely different from the situation in England. However, the evidence is that a wider intake does not dilute the academic ethos of a school—we can see this in today’s figures—simply because of the drop in pupil numbers in Northern Ireland. There are 50,000 spare places in schools.

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The current statistics show that grammar schools in recent years have been admitting a much wider range of transfer grades than before, but this has not had a detrimental effect on their examination performance. According to the last figures I saw, for 2004-05, only two out of the 69 grammar schools had exclusively A-grade entrance, and 82 per cent had an intake that went as far as grades C and D. Today, 10 per cent of grammar school pupils are at C and D grades. The academic performance of grammar schools is not being diminished by having a wider intake, so no one can argue that there is a narrow, high academic intake of grade-A pupils. One only has to look at what is there today and see the results.

Some claim that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland oppose the changes, and I have no doubt that we will hear that claim tonight. It is somewhat disingenuous. The statistic most frequently quoted—I have seen it lots of times—is that 64 per cent of the replies to the household response forms in 2002 advocated the retention of academic selection. That was 64 per cent of the 16 per cent of the population who responded—hardly a majority. However, 57 per cent of the same parents in the same survey said that they wanted the transfer test abolished and the same criteria for all. Some 77 per cent of them wanted parental preference. The implication of those two figures is that they wanted a different type of test, but I understand that, since 1947, there have been 10 different types of test in Northern Ireland at 11-plus, each of which has lasted for about five years before they worked out that it was not fit for purpose and some new test came along.

7.45 pm

The issues involved are too complicated to be reduced to yes/no answers. The Assembly Education Committee acknowledged that when it advised the then Minister on consultation methods. This is sound advice. The reality is that there remains a wide diversity of views on this issue, and it is the Government’s duty to reach a decision in the best interests of all. That is what we have done. The Government should also give local politicians the opportunity finally to decide the matter if they are back at work by 24 November. It is in their hands. If it is the most important thing for the future of Northern Ireland, they will get the Assembly working, which is what they should be doing in the first place. There will be no excuse for buck-passing then.

Finally, I referred to suspensions and expulsions. From time to time, the normal sanctions for poor behaviour are not sufficient and it is necessary to suspend or, in some extreme cases, expel a pupil. Following consideration of responses to the consultation, the Government have decided to put on hold their plans for a common expelling authority. However, to secure greater consistency and fairness, all schools will be required to act in accordance with a common scheme for suspension and expulsion.

The draft order also contains a number of minor amendments to the education law, including amendments on behalf of the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

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I have set out what the education order will achieve. An amendment to the Motion, which will be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, would of course postpone these much-needed reforms to the education system in Northern Ireland. Manyof those reforms are closely aligned with the recommendations made in 2001 by the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, not Westminster. This committee was representative of all the main political parties in Northern Ireland. Approving the amendment to the Motion would deprive children of the opportunities recommended by that committee. In the draft order, these translate as revising the curriculum, which will provide the flexibility I mentioned to tailor teaching to individual pupils’ needs while still providing the basics, and cover the range of academic and vocational courses, which the entitlement framework provides, and the greater flexibility for pupils to change direction as they develop and mature, all of which helps to engage and motivate children to learn and raise standards for all. The Government believe that ending academic selection is in the best interests of all children in Northern Ireland. The process to restore the Assembly is in place, and the Government have therefore provided an opportunity for Northern Ireland politicians to vote on ending academic selection, but it cannot be delayed after 24 November.

The review has already gone on for over six years. I have lost count of the number of direct-rule Ministers who have been involved in this. Tony Worthington, my honourable friend in the other place, was one of the first Education Ministers after the Labour Government came to power in 1997. We cannot allow the uncertainty about the future to continue. Given what I have said, this is about much more than the narrow issue of academic selection. There is a knock-on effect when pupils change courses at 13 to 14, which sets the pattern for the rest of their courses, and there is the effect on primary schools. This is a package that includes the curriculum changes, the entitlement framework, and knocking off the narrow academic selection of the 11-plus.

To approve the amendment would be a retrograde step, so I hope that in due course the House will approve the Motion. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved.—(Lord Rooker.)

Lord Rogan rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “That” and insert “this House declines to approve the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 until the people of Northern Ireland have been given the opportunity to approve the proposals contained therein in a manner analogous to the procedures followed in regard to similar proposed changes in England”.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very proud to address your Lordships’ House tonight as the product of a grammar school education. I went to the Wallace High School, which is very much part of the community in Lisburn, County Antrim. That school takes boys and girls from every walk of life, and gives them a

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huge range of opportunities. It is certainly not a case of money or resources. It is about an educational ethos. There is a fundamental belief among the teachers that every pupil is capable of achieving his or her best. Many pupils went on to the Queen’s University, Belfast, and other highly regarded universities in Great Britain and Dublin. Many of us were the first in our families to go to university. We owed that opportunity to the schools which helped us to fulfil our potential. That is the secret of success of good schools, and so often it is grammar schools which have lead the way.

In Northern Ireland, grammar schools represent an enduring excellence in our state education system. By every measure, Northern Ireland grammar schools outperform all other schools in the Kingdom—maintained, specialist, fee-paying or academy. Pupils at grammar schools achieve better GCSE and A-level results, and provide more added value, to use current education jargon. Northern Ireland’s grammar schools are truly vehicles for social mobility. The fact that I am standing here tonight and addressing this House is proof of that.

When Labour—hardly traditionally supportive of grammar schools—was elected in 1997, it chose in England a totally different approach from that which it is now pursuing in Northern Ireland. It put in place legislation that would allow parents to hold ballots on the future of grammar schools in their area. A few campaigns were started. None has succeeded. Some would argue that the cost of such campaigns could have been used to better educational purposes. But it seems intuitively correct that regions or communities should decide what is best for their children. That is truly local democracy.

Grammar schools in Northern Ireland, unlike in England, educate almost half of the children in the Province, yet the Government are committed to making it unlawful to select pupils on the grounds of academic ability. No matter that the public in Northern Ireland want to keep their grammar schools or that standards will fall. What is their crime? It is to be delivering the excellence in education and the sort of superb schooling that every parent wants for their children.

I believe that the future of our education system lies in the need to remove as far as humanly possible the baleful influence of politicians. Politicians, driven by ideology alone, should not be allowed to wipe away an entire school structure. Schools should succeed or fail on one basis alone—the quality of the education that they provide to our children.

Following the publication of the Burns report into post-primary education in Northern Ireland in October 2001, the then Minister of Education in the devolved Administration at Stormont, Martin McGuinness, set in train a very involved consultation process on its recommendations. When just over half the responses had been returned to the department, he declared:

The results were published in October 2002. The responses from some quarter of a million Northern Ireland households—which equate, proportionately speaking, to responses from some 5 million households in

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England—included those from 162,000 parents and 21,000 teachers. It showed that 57 per cent of households, 58 per cent of parents and 64 per cent of teachers were in favour of abolishing the divisive 11-plus, yet 64 per cent of households, 63 per cent of parents and 62 per cent of teachers favoured the retention of some form of academic selection. Opinion on these issues was seen to cross both the class and religious divides. An independent “omnibus survey” of a random sample of the population, which was taken at the same time, confirmed those results. Moreover, the BBC survey in January 2004 and the Belfast Telegraph survey in September 2005, again with random samples, indicate remarkably consistent support for academic selection.

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