HC Deb 20 April 1989 vol 151 cc450-2
6. Mr. Allen

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will examine the potential for the phasing out of denominational based schools in Northern Ireland and the impact of such a measure on the attitudes towards each other of Catholic and Protestant children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

As part of the proposed education reforms in Northern Ireland the Government are taking steps to facilitate the creation of integrated schools should parents so choose. But there is no question of the Government imposing integrated education or of denying the rights of those parents who wish to have a denominationally based education for their children.

Mr. Allen

Does the Minister agree that one way to achieve a long-term solution to some of the problems in Northern Ireland is through the hearts of its children and young people, by doing away with much of the religious-based education system there, and will he consider putting additional resources into a more secular system of education? Will the opting-out proposals in the Education Reform Act aggravate rather than assist such a solution?

Mr. Mawhinney

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but those who choose a denominationally based education, which in Northern Ireland is predominantly a Catholic education, amount to almost half the pupils and schools in the Province, where parents have the right to choose, just as they do in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government also believe, as is reflected in our education reform proposals, that parents should have the right to choose integrated education.

In terms of the new curriculum, as the hon. Gentleman may know, we are also introducing courses in education for mutual understanding and cultural heritage. We have introduced a cross-contact scheme to enable schools from different parts of the community to work together and learn more about each other. In all those ways we are seeking to meet some of the concerns which the hon. Gentleman legitimately expresses.

Mr. Mallon

Will the Minister accept that in my constituency, one very good school, St. Patrick's high school, Keady, has more than 20 mobile classrooms? May we have an assurance that that school will be considered for capital expenditure and expansion quickly, so that the children who are being educated in those mobile classrooms may be integrated into the rest of the school?

Dr. Mawhinney

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all schools that have proposals developed to an extent where it is possible for work to proceed are seriously considered each year in terms of the capital programme. He has welcomed the fact that in the last three years we have had a capital programme in Northern Ireland of about £75 million. There are demands on the budget which exceed our ability to meet them but we give careful consideration to all schools and their needs in determining our priorities for capital expenditure.

Mr. Harry Barnes

Could not a start to integrated education be made in teacher training colleges, where, presumably, parental choice is not such an important consideration?

Dr. Mawhinney

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and he will know that some years ago there was a review of teacher training in Northern Ireland which resulted in the status quo being maintained. He will also be interested to know that I have been having discussions with the two teacher training colleges to encourage them at least to combine more effectively in the training of teachers for education for mutual understanding, and I hope that we may be able to build on that initiative.

Rev. Ian Paisley

To put his answer into perspective, will the Minister give the exact number of Roman Catholic and Protestant schools receiving Government grant?

Dr. Mawhinney

There are 466 primary schools and 118 secondary schools under Catholic management, all of which receive grants from my Department. There are seven Free Presbyterian schools in Northern Ireland, and when the hon. Member asked me a similar question some time ago, I said that I was not aware that any of those schools had sought funding from my Department. I made it clear to him subsequently that if he wished to come and talk to me about possible funding for those schools, I would be happy to see him. That remains the position.

Mr. Maginnis

I agree with the Minister that any phasing out of denominational schools would be seen as an attack on the wishes of, mainly, the Roman Catholic community who wish to have children educated within the ethos of the Catholic Church. But has not the Minister made a fundamental error in the way in which he has sought to bring about integrated education in Northern Ireland by selecting from both the state and the maintained sector a select, privileged and exclusive few who are now being financed at an overgenerous rate to integrate them? Would it not have been better to point out that state schools are there to provide for all children in Northern Ireland, and have encouraged proper evolution in terms of integrated education?

Dr. Mawhinney

In law, all Northern Ireland schools —not just state schools—are open to any pupil wishing to attend them. However, until the education reform proposals were implemented, parents who wished to send their children to state schools and those who wanted to send their children to Catholic schools received all the Government money that was available. Parents who wanted the choice to send their children to schools where they could be integrated in the same classroom as children of a different religion received none of the taxpayers' money. The Government firmly believe that parents have as much right to make a choice in respect of integrated schools as they do in respect of state or Catholic schools.