HC Deb 30 June 2004 vol 423 cc265-7
1. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

How many representations he has received about the future of grammar schools in Northern Ireland. [180480]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Barry Gardiner)

As at 10.30 this morning, there were 65.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Will the Government reconsider their decision to abolish academic selection for grammar schools, given that it is clear that the majority are opposed to the change and that Northern Ireland has such an excellent educational record? Is it not genuinely strange for a Labour Government to introduce a scheme that will deprive able children from working-class homes of the opportunity to break through the system, and to replace it with a system of class segregation whereby wealthy people in wealthy areas will get the best education, while poor children living in poor areas will be stuck where they are? Does the Minister agree that a Labour Government should think again about that, because it is not fair and not right?

Mr. Gardiner

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's focus on children, because in the ongoing debate we often look at structures instead of standards and children's needs. I remind him, though, that two thirds of respondents to the Northern Ireland household survey clearly stated that they wanted an end to the 11-plus, or secondary transfer test, and a similar proportion said that they wanted some form of academic selection. I am surprised that we sometimes understand the word "selection" to mean segregation, because it is not. Children can be set appropriately in maths, French or history; but what on earth makes us think that because one is good at maths, one has to be good at history and French, too, or that because one is bad at one of those subjects, one is bad at all the others? There is no need to segregate children at the age of 11.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend share my sense of disappointment that the question has not been answered by the Minister who made the decision on selection in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which he is accountable under the watchful eye of the people of Northern Ireland? Does this snapshot of education in Northern Ireland misunderstand the complicated situation there?

Mr. Gardiner

Of course it would be better were these decisions taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but my hon. Friend will understand that the post-primary review was inaugurated by that Assembly, and in that sense we are carrying on its work.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

It has been clearly shown that our education system in Northern Ireland is socially inclusive, that a higher percentage of pupils gain university places than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and that standards of achievement in our secondary schools continue to improve. Will the Minister therefore tell the House why he seeks to destroy our grammar school system? The proposals were rejected by a majority of respondents in the widest consultation ever to take place in Northern Ireland. Why has no alternative to the existing transfer procedure been proposed; and why is the Minister helping to wreck an education system that has proved successful for all the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gardiner

We are not trying to do away with or abolish the grammar school system; that is clear. The hon. Gentleman focuses on the good things that the Northern Ireland education system has achieved, and he is right to do so. I pay tribute—as, no doubt, would he—to the teachers, students and parents who have contributed to those achievements. As he will know, however, 21 per cent. of all children in Northern Ireland leave secondary education without a single qualification at GCSE grades A to C, and 24 per cent. of young people aged 18 to 25 have no literacy or numeracy at skills level 2. That is why we need the entitlement framework and the proposals made by the post-primary working group.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con)

The Minister has voted in the past for parents in England to have a ballot before academic selection was ended in their locality. Why will not he allow a similar ballot to parents in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gardiner

Mr. Speaker, you will forgive our incredulity at the Tories' posing as the great protectors of the grammar school. Mrs. Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any other Secretary of State for Education. When will they learn that standards, not structures, matter in education? They do not care about grammar schools. Even now, they propose to take £1 billion out of our schools, including grammar schools, to pay for—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have shorter questions and shorter replies.

Mr. Lidington

The Minister was clearly embarrassed by his inability to justify the double standards that the Government apply to their policy on grammar schools in England and Northern Ireland. He made a great deal of the 11-plus and his objections to it. Why will not the Government consider seriously the alternative models of academic selection that the grammar school head teachers propose and which operate in countries such as Germany, which have academic selection without the 11-plus?

Mr. Gardiner

We are listening to all the proposals because we are in the consultation period. However, I emphasise that the review was initiated in the Assembly and that the household survey was subject to the widest consultation in Northern Ireland. We are determined to push the proposals because they originated from the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend make clear the comments of the Costello report about the educational benefits of the 11-plus?

Mr. Gardiner

Yes. I would welcome doing that. The report made it clear that there were no educational benefits to segregating children into academic and vocational routes at the age of 11. It also pointed out that it was wrong to presume that more able pupils should always follow an academic rather than a vocational route.