HC Deb 13 April 1978 vol 947 cc1637-9
1. Mr. Townsend

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when the Government are to impose comprehensive education in Northern Ireland against the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

The Government's decision to eliminate selection at 11-plus, which was announced in June 1977, was taken after an intensive and exhaustive period of consultation. The decision was consistent with the recommendations of the Seventh Advisory Council for Education in Northern Ireland set up by the Government of Northern Ireland in March 1969 and which reported in October 1972. The Government do not believe that it would be helpful to set a rigid timetable for the restructuring of secondary education necessary to implement that decision but do not wish to see unnecessary delay. They have consistently made it clear that they attach more importance to getting reorganisation right than to doing it quickly.

Mr. Townsend

Is the Northern Ireland Office still unaware that a number of leading educationists have in recent years turned away from policies of going comprehensive at all costs and that a majority of teachers have always been against such policies? Are not the Government putting politics before education once again?

Mr. Carter

I am sorry to say that the hon. Member has got it almost 100 per cent. wrong. The recommendations upon which the Government are currently working were derived from a report commissioned by the last Minister for Education of the former Unionist Government, so I do not think that we could be considered to be prejudiced in this matter.

Mr. Flannery

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that both major political parties in our country—since the Tories changed their minds—are on record as being in favour of comprehensive education? Will my hon. Friend tell me by what strange alchemy the questioner can say that the wishes of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland—I do not know how the hon. Member has counted them—are against comprehensive education, which is a great progressive educational measure?

Mr. Carter

The present Government deal not in alchemy but in facts. The simple truth is that out of the reorganisation of secondary education in Northern Ireland, over 70 per cent. of children, as opposed to 30 per cent., over which some Opposition Members proclaim rights, will get a better education than they formerly would have done.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance that the reports of the three working committees that his Department has set up will be awaited before he takes any further steps in the reorganisation of education in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Carter

That was made quite clear at the outset. This is a voluntary effort on everyone's part. However, we set up three working parties in order to examine the practical difficulties involved. The reports will be made public before any final decisions are taken.

Mr. Litterick

Will my hon. Friend accept that Labour Members are solidly behind him in his efforts to introduce comprehensive education in Northern Ireland? However, can he also offer the House any information as to whether this move will afford some opportunity to progress towards desegregation of education in Ulster?

Mr. Carter

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, but, quite honestly, desegregation is not a part of these proposals, and the Government have always made that quite clear. However, where we can see some moves towards desegregation in education, the Government will openly give their support.

Mr. McCusker

Will the hon. Gentleman say what action his right hon. Friend envisages taking against the educational area boards which may defy his wish that they should implement comprehensive education? Does he consider that it may be necessary to bring forward legislation to force them to do so?

Mr. Carter

I think that that is looking on the black and pessimistic side. We would hope to move towards a position in which, voluntarily, everyone connected with education in Northern Ireland would support the Government's proposals.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the Secretary of State's tribute to the A-level achievement of Northern Ireland, superior to that of England and Wales? Why seek to destroy some 80 Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Methodist and other excellent grammar schools? Why force Northern Ireland to repeat Socialist blunders? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, among other representative bodies, the Association of Local Authorities, representing the 26 district councils, has overwhelmingly voted against compulsory comprehensivisation? Is he also aware that there are now some 15,000 people in the Ulster Parents Union determined to resist?

Mr. Carter

Instead of reading from a prepared brief, the hon. Gentleman should pay some attention to what is said. The truth is that the Ulster Unionist Government in Northern Ireland and their Minister of Education thought that there was room for change and improvement, and it is on that path that this Government are set.