HC Deb 26 May 2004 vol 421 cc1555-6
4. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)

If he will give financial assistance to the development of exchange programmes between schools in Northern Ireland and (a)the UK mainland and (b)the Irish Republic. [174924]

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

This year, my Department has provided financial assistance of £275,000 for a number of exchange programmes with schools in both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. I pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the teachers who have organised those exchanges. Both teachers and pupils have found the programmes to be of enormous benefit to the learning experience and my Department is currently exploring ways of extending exchange opportunities with both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Chris Ruane

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Last year in my constituency, Mr. Alun Jones, the head of Ysgol Dewi Sant—a Welsh-medium school—tried to organise an exchange with a Gaelic-speaking school in the north. He asked me if I could access funding, but try as I might, I could find no funding for that visit. Does my hon. Friend agree that school exchange visits are a valuable way of breaking down barriers and prejudice, and that funds should be made available for school exchange visits between the north and the UK mainland?

Mr. Gardiner

I entirely endorse those remarks. Language is important—tábnactach ĺ an teanga. It is good that those schools have had the opportunity to make that exchange.

When it was inaugurated, the east-west programme involved just Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but it has been extended to allow exchanges between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic and Northern Ireland. Although it is in its infancy, increasing money is being put into that, which I hope my hon. Friend will be able to access.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

Will not the exchanges with the mainland reveal to pupils' parents a shocking disparity of treatment? If the status of a selective school is to change on the mainland, there will be a ballot. In the Province, it is being done by ministerial fiat, in the face of the express wishes of the people.

Mr. Gardiner

This was supposed to be a question about education exchanges. The hon. Gentleman has given us an education in an exchange of questions. However, on the issue of the Costello report, it is the express wish of two thirds of the population in Northern Ireland, as estimated in the household survey, that the 11-plus should be abolished, and that is what we propose to do.

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