HC Deb 27 February 1997 vol 291 cc417-8
3. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the per capita expenditure on education in the current year; what was the equivalent figure in May 1979; and if he will make a statement. [16362]

Mr. Ancram

Expenditure on education per head of population is £846 in 1996–97. In 1979–80, the equivalent figure was £254, or £665 at 1996–97 prices.

Mr. Greenway

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those figures are a matter for congratulation? Does he further agree that the continuing excellence of education in Northern Ireland owes a great deal to the fact that schools there never gave up proper selection, as the Labour party has sought to do? Labour has constantly opposed selection and Labour Members cannot be trusted when they say that they are eschewing their permanent opposition to it. Whatever they say on education, they cannot be believed in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales or anywhere else.

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks and I agree with him. Given the education system in Northern Ireland, the results reflect favourably in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, 52 per cent. of pupils gain five or more GCSEs at grade C and above, while the figure for Great Britain is some 45 per cent. The same pattern emerges in respect of A-levels. In Northern Ireland, 87 per cent. of pupils achieve at least two A-levels compared with 77 per cent. in England. The figures reflect very well on Northern Ireland's education system. Although a selective system produces good results at the top end of the scale, we must make sure that the low achievers are also well served. The number of pupils leaving school without qualifications in Northern Ireland has dropped considerably and is now below the level for Great Britain.

Mr. Beggs

The figures quoted by the Minister to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) sound well and probably read well to those who do not understand the extreme financial pressure on principals and school governors in medium-sized primary schools and secondary schools which do not receive additional funds through the raising school standards initiatives or which have their funding distorted by the targeting social need fund. May I put it to the Minister that there is something seriously wrong when large sums are flowing to grammar schools under targeting social need? We are annoyed by that. While we condemn the 60 attacks on our schools last year, we are concerned that our pupils are being penalised and punished because of the wanton vandalism and terrorism that the Government have failed to control by improving security measures. When will we have a system of fair and equal distribution of funding to all our children in all our schools in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ancram

We try as far as possible to reflect the needs within Northern Ireland's education in the formulas by which allocations are made. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not disagree that in the raising school standards initiative we are identifying particular schools where there have been low rates of achievement and specifically addressing funds to those schools.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the formulas and I know where he is coming from on that. The actual allocation to individual schools under TSN has been to a large extent on the basis of the number of free school meal take-ups. I have now asked the boards to look at the assessments that were recently put in place as another equally valid measure of deprivation and need within a particular school in educational terms. The assessments have only just been put in place and we shall have to see how they work in order to use them effectively.

My purpose is to use the scarce funds that are available because of the security situation in the fairest way in an attempt to achieve the best education in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would wish to pay tribute to the excellent work of everyone involved in education in Northern Ireland for keeping normality in the schools and excellence throughout the system. Getting away from security matters for once, will he tell the House what is being done about information technology in schools in Northern Ireland? Are pupils being introduced to the Internet? Are schools getting the computers that they need and are they building the experience that they will need for future employment?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for moving us away from the security situation. I pay tribute to all those who work in education in Northern Ireland for the way in which they have managed to maintain a high quality of education and provided stability for the children in the recent difficult years. Within available resources, we are anxious for information technology to be introduced to as many schools as possible. The current pattern is varied: some schools are very advanced in their IT provision and some are not. It is encouraging that the universities are beginning to explore the use of new technology in education in a way that will benefit schools and further education colleges in the longer term.

Mr. Worthington

When the Minister allocated money to schools this year, what calculation did he make of the number of teachers who would lose their jobs and the impact of that on the pupil-teacher ratio? Is it true that he still does not know how many teachers lost their jobs last year as a consequence of his budget decisions? Why does he not know the consequences of his actions?

Mr. Ancram

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the pupil-teacher ratio in Northern Ireland is better than in Great Britain. We take some pride in that. The boards have to decide their financial plans. Until those plans are before us, we cannot make an exact assessment. In my guidance to the boards, I have always tried to ensure that classroom provision is maintained, even if that has meant some difficult cuts in other areas such as youth provision, libraries and, as I announced on Tuesday, a smaller than usual capital programme. I have skewed the priorities to ensure that provision in the classroom remains at the top of the list, because that is the key to education.