HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc491-2
2. Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the Government's policy with respect to the province's 11-plus system of education. [11968]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

Most areas of Northern Ireland have a selective system of secondary education. I have no plans to change the present system, which serves Northern Ireland well.

Mr. Brown

In view of that answer, does my hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland's selective system of education delivers one of the highest qualities of education in the United Kingdom? Does he further agree that there is a case for considering selection throughout the kingdom? Is he aware that I went to a secondary modern school, having failed my 11-plus, and that I was able to get to university after taking my O and A-levels at that secondary modern?

Mr. Ancram

As my hon. Friend knows and is right to remind us, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has already made it clear that our intention as a party and Government is to introduce increased selection in the rest of the United Kingdom. As Minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland, I can say that we have every right to be proud of the education system there which, as we know from yesterday's figures, produces at the top end of the GCSE scale 52 per cent. of pupils leaving with five or more GCSEs compared with 44 per cent. in England. Equally important at the lower end is the fact that 5 per cent. of Northern Ireland pupils leave secondary education without qualifications, compared with 8 per cent. in England. Those percentages speak for themselves in terms of the Northern Ireland system.

Rev. Martin Smyth

While I share the Secretary of State's confidence in our education system and appreciate that selection could come a year later, does he accept that some schools are surreptitiously avoiding the concept of selection? In terms of primary education, it is the controlled sector that is being endangered.

Mr. Ancram

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I should be grateful if he would let me know of specific instances of the avoidance of selection. The purpose of the Northern Ireland education system is to produce choice and part of that is to have a selective system so that parents can put their children forward for selection in the transfer test, as about 70 per cent. do. It is important to recognise that it is not only Northern Ireland parents who recognise the value of selective education. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who sits on the Opposition Front Bench, also recognises it for her children.

Mr. Worthington

Can the Minister assure an incoming Labour Government that there will be money to run the education system that he has described? It is already known that the education and library boards are heading for a deficit of millions of pounds. There was supposed to be £8 million in the budget for nursery provision. That has disappeared. Some £2 million was to be saved by the change in education and library boards. What has happened to that money? Is it in the budget? What will be the cost of incorporation of the further education colleges, on which the Government have already spent £1 million and have not passed the legislation? In area after area, such as in school transport, there are supposed to be savings. There are some great black holes in the Northern Ireland education budget. Will the Minister open the books and tell us what is happening?

Mr. Ancram

Savings will be made in almost every area that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—if he and other hon. Members support legislation that the Government intend to introduce. I look forward to hearing of his support when that occurs. I was interested to hear him ask whether money will be available, because I had understood that the shadow Chancellor had made it clear that the Government's announced spending figures would not be changed in the unlikely event of an incoming Labour Government. Once again, as Opposition spokesmen have so often made clear, there is a distinct gulf between the shadow Chancellor's statements and shadow Ministers' spending projections.