HC Deb 28 October 1998 vol 318 cc323-4
4. Mr. Phil Hope (Corby):

What steps her Department has taken to ensure high educational standards in Northern Ireland. [54764]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

Educational standards have improved substantially in recent years, but they could be higher still. The school improvement programme and a number of other initiatives, including a reduction in class sizes for the youngest pupils and the expansion of pre-school education, have been introduced to ensure that standards continue to improve.

Mr. Hope

Does my hon. Friend agree that educational standards and, probably as important, wider community development would be greatly enhanced if we could promote integrated education much more widely in Northern Ireland? Can he assure me that every effort is being made by the Government to promote the transformation of schools into integrated schools so that many more of our children in Northern Ireland can grow up in an atmosphere and culture of co-operation and learning across the religious divide?

Mr. Murphy

I agree with my hon. Friend. Integrated education provides an opportunity for young people in Northern Ireland to be educated in a unique way. I am glad to tell the House that there are now 40 such integrated schools in Northern Ireland. We have also set up a co-ordinating group to improve the further development of those schools and we intend to spend a further £30 million in the next three years on integrated education in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Minister agree that the provision of a pre-school place for every child whose parents seek one will eventually increase the achievement of children at primary and post-primary level? Does he further agree that greater collaboration between grammar schools, secondary schools and colleges on local education provision could enhance standards? Does he agree that there is now a unique opportunity under the Labour Government for secondary schools to embark on providing lifelong learning for the whole of the communities that are served by them, thereby raising standards for every individual?

Mr. Murphy

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Much of what he has said is the policy of my party. Across the board—from pre-school to further education—the Government are committed to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. We are ensuring that there are 2,200 extra pre-school places from September. That is the largest increase ever. We have spent £50 million extra in Northern Ireland on education. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's questions. I agree with every point that he has made.

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