HC Deb 23 July 1987 vol 120 cc473-4
4. Mr. Harris

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he intends to give parents greater choice in deciding which school their children should attend.

Dr. Mawhinney

New arrangements for the transfer of pupils from primary to secondary schools were announced on 7 April. Under these new arrangements, from September 1988 parents will be free, within a selective system, to send their children to the secondary school of their choice, subject only to the physical capacity of the school and any special arrangements which may have to be made to protect a limited number of small schools serving relatively isolated communities.

Mr. Harris

I welcome my hon. Friend's reply as a clear sign that the Government are committed to increasing parental choice in all parts of the United Kingdom. Does his answer mean that he will no longer be deciding attendance quotas for indvidual schools?

Dr. Mawhinney

That is exactly what it means — subject to the physical capacity of the school. I saw no justification for my deciding the individual allocation quota for a school when there were parents who wished to send their children to that school but who, because of my edict, were not able to do so.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the Minister accept that we are not giving proper choice if we subsidise bus fares for people who travel past good schools to go to other schools, and at the same time close secondary schools in working-class inner Belfast?

Dr. Mawhinney

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are 20,000 surplus school places in Northern Ireland. The Government have been encouraging the education and library boards to pursue a policy of rationalisation over some years, so that more money will be made available for educating the children. It does not make sense to spend money on half-empty schools when it could be better spent on books and education facilities for the children.

Mr. Alton

Is it the Government's policy to encourage integrated education? Why does it take so long for schools that are based on the integrated principle to achieve grant-aided status, particularly Hazelwood college in north Belfast? Having begun life last September with only 17 pupils, it now has 150 enrolled for the next academic year. Why has the Minister still not given the college grant-aided status?

Dr. Mawhinney

It is the Government's policy to encourage integrated education, if that is what the parents wish, and they have taken several steps to encourage that principle. I do not accept that there is undue delay in the giving of grant-aided status to integrated schools, because I must be satisfied, first, that all those in the area who might be affected by the setting-up of a school have ample opportunity to express their views for my consideration. Secondly, I must be satisfied that when we commit public funds to a school it has a viable future, otherwise I would be subject to the criticism by hon. Members that I was wasting taxpayers' money.

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