HL Deb 24 February 1998 vol 586 cc618-34

7.37 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will use all possible endeavours to promote integrated education in Northern Ireland as a contribution to better mutual understanding and improved community relations.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad that the House has found time for this short debate on the Question that I have tabled. In anticipation I thank those of your Lordships who have put down their names to speak in this debate. Since tabling the Question—I claim no connection, although if there was one I should welcome it—the Minister of State responsible for Education in Northern Ireland, Mr. Tony Worthington, made two very positive announcements on 11th February on the question of integrated education in the Province. First, he spoke about a revision of the viability level for integrated schools from 100 to 80, making it easier for schools who wish to apply for integrated status to qualify. It is worth noting that the previous Government moved the goal posts from 60 to 100. Therefore, although 80 represents progress, some of us would like to see the level moving down again to 60. The second announcement of the Minister of State was that a new working group would be set up. Sometimes I believe that New Labour's answer to the problem of unemployment is working groups. At any rate we have yet another working group which is to consider, first, the question of transformation from existing schools to integrated status; and, secondly, capital and recurrent funding needs. I am glad to hear this. I suspect that a good number of the issues are ultimately, as so often in government, matters of funding. The third question is how to make the move without damaging existing schools. I am sure that that is well worth while, and it slightly changes the complexion of the debate.

Having said that, there are some issues to be raised which perhaps the working group should take on board. This House has a particularly distinguished role on the question of integrated education. As long ago as 1831, Lord Stanley proposed a national school system for Ireland as a whole. His idea was that there should be schools which catered for both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Unhappily, the Churches were unable to agree and there were therefore two state sectors in Ireland. It is interesting to speculate how different history might have been had Lord Stanley been successful in prevailing on the Churches at that time to agree to integrated education.

In 1920 Lord Londonderry, who was the first Minister of Education in Northern Ireland, again attempted to establish integrated schools. He was defeated and sectarianism, or at least the wish to preserve religious integrity, triumphed.

Then in 1978 Lord Dunleath—much missed in the context of the 1978 Northern Ireland Education Bill, later Act, in which the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, from whom we shall hear later, played such a leading part in another place—established a mechanism for transformation to integrated status. Unhappily there was no takeup, or very low takeup, and Lagan College was a response by parents to that in 1981 as a new school. I have visited it myself, as have other noble Lords. It is a most impressive establishment and now has 970 pupils. It is not just mixed in terms of the composition of the pupils, but also in terms of the staff.

Moving on from history to the current situation, it is important to note that the drive for integrated education is, as it should be—as it was with Lagan College—parent-led. It is a matter for parents. It should be noted that a recent Rowntree opinion poll showed that no less than 69 per cent. of parents in Northern Ireland preferred the concept of integrated education to that of a single religious basis. It might be said that that is just an opinion poll, but when pressed in that poll as to whether they really wanted it and were prepared to make personal sacrifices and commitment, still no less than 30 per cent. were prepared to put themselves out to enjoy for their children the benefits of integrated education.

So 30 per cent. really want that sort of education for their children, and yet only 2.5 per cent. of the children in Northern Ireland attend integrated schools. Eight thousand five hundred out of 350,000 actually achieve this. It is not one in three, but one in 40 where there is at least 40 per cent. of either religious persuasion in school and where staffing is also mixed.

Even if only one in 40 receives a fully integrated education, you may say yes, but there must be some blurring of the edges, because only another three more are taught with any pupils from the other religious persuasion present in their school. Effectively, for 90 per cent. of the pupils in Northern Ireland, there is still complete segregation on religious lines.

Integrated schools have generally been established—bravely and with difficulty—by parents. Thirty-seven have now been created. We ought to pay tribute to the enlightened role of philanthropist foundations—notably the Rowntree Trust and the Nuffield Foundation—which have given so generously to help get integrated education off the ground more effectively in Northern Ireland.

Government funding, if it comes at all, comes later, and it is often uncomfortable and difficult for parents to get integrated education going. There is a myth that it happens only in leafy suburbs, that it is an exclusively middle-class interest. That could not be further from the truth. There are 13 schools in Northern Ireland which conduct all their teaching in Portakabins; 11 of those are integrated schools. These are not privileged havens; they are schools, against some odds, establishing a non-sectarian pattern of education.

Last year there were 1,000 pupils who were unable to get the place they wanted. If the opinion polls are any indication, there are tens of thousands more who would go to an integrated school if there was one accessible and available.

I wonder if it is necessary to make the case for integrated education? I cannot put it better than the Prime Minister who, when he visited Hazelwood integrated college just before Christmas, said that integrated education can foster the flame of hope while crucially providing an excellent education. You do not have to be a seer or a social scientist to realise that segregation reinforces stereotypes and that integration promotes mutual understanding.

That is why integrated education should have a higher priority with the Government than the one they have assigned to it, although I do welcome the progress made in recent weeks and months. A recent survey of students at Queen's showed that only 12 per cent. of them had personal friends from what I will call the other side—a horrifying statistic as regards the leading university of the Province. Only 12 per cent. of highly-educated young people said that they had friends from the other religious persuasion.

However, an equivalent survey of graduates from Lagan College—now established since 1981 as an integrated school—showed among pupils there of much the same age that no less than 44 per cent. of them had close friends from the other side of the religious divide. I find it small wonder that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995 urged the British Government to make more provision for integrated education.

So what should we do? The Government's main emphasis has been on transformation, i.e. changing existing schools. It is cheaper, it is less disruptive—I can see the arguments for transformation—but does it work? It needs massive awareness and culture change. The relatively few transformations have all so far been from the controlled, that is the Protestant, sector. Attitudes are changing in the Catholic hierarchy. They need to change because not one single Roman Catholic school has so far sought to transform its status.

I would ask the Minister two questions. First, will the Government take steps to ensure that parents in general, but particularly in Catholic schools, are aware of their right to opt for transformation? Secondly, will the Government encourage the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools to transfer some of their schools into integrated schools? That would be a very positive contribution by the Catholic hierarchy to the settlement that we all so desperately want in Northern Ireland. If it worked it would be a new start to promote greater flexibility on this subject, rather than helping to entrench sectarian stereotypes. At the end of the day, transformation can only go so far. What we need are new integrated schools.

Just before Christmas the Minister rejected three new schools seeking integrated status because they did not come up to the numbers requirement—Oakwood Primary School, Ulidia and Strangford Colleges. Parents from those schools will be in London on Thursday to present a petition to the Prime Minister. I hope they get a positive answer. Strangford has 68 pupils currently being taught in mobile classrooms and is funded by the Peace and Reconciliation Fund. It should be brought within the integrated sector. Will the Government approve these schools?

The peace process, if it is to work, has to be much more than a perpetual bargain between two sides. We have to break down the barriers rather than entrenching them. If we are to have the civil society of which members have talked, it will need the sort of pluralism that integrated education offers and the chance for people to relate to each other as citizens.

I would pay tribute to all who are working so hard for integrated education. Using the Prime Minister's words, the Government should do more to keep the flame of hope alive and let it burn more brightly.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the initiative that he has taken to give the House the opportunity to consider this important matter. I was grateful to him also for the kind reference he made to the Bill which I took through the other place 20 years' ago: 20 years in the context of Irish history is a short time indeed. I shall explain why I pursued that Bill. It was at the request of a small group of people in Ireland called All Children Together. I thought that I had to accept its request because of the history of my constituency—and history matters enormously in Northern Ireland.

The most distinguished person ever to live in my constituency was Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. The House will not need me to give it a history lesson. Members of the House can see some evidence of his existence in the little plaque on the floor in Westminster Hall. He presented a threat to Parliament by his activities in Ireland. Those activities in Ireland involved also plantation. My constituent, if he had still been alive, might have been responsible for taking there some of the Scottish Calvinists—a tough people, hard in their opinions, and rigid in their approaches, personified today, I think, by the Reverend Dr. Ian Paisley whose ancestors may have been taken to Northern Ireland by the person who formerly lived in my constituency.

There was then the Marquess of Rockingham who was Prime Minister in the 18th century. He was a very decent man. He was succeeded by one of the Earl Fitzwilliams. They were progressive Whigs. Some noble Lords may feel that they represent the same tradition, but I think that that rests on this side of the House today. Earl Fitzwilliam was appointed briefly as the Minister responsible for Ireland. He was a relatively young man. He saw the consequences of the oppressive legislation which prevented the Catholic community from enjoying opportunity. The most appalling persecutions were enshrined in legislation at that time, and obviously the effect of that approach is still felt today.

That is why I said at the beginning of my remarks that 20 years is but a flea bite. We have also to understand the consequences of the economic arrangements which deprived the substantial Catholic community in the northern part of Ireland of any opportunity to equal advantages which the Protestant faith provided. It gave better opportunity for a job; a better opportunity for a decent house; and a better opportunity for a Protestant to be elected to a local authority with fewer votes than a Catholic required, as a result of the ward arrangements and such matters. Against that enormous embittering arrangement, there is no wonder that there is the sectarian divide.

It is right, as the noble Lord said, that we should have a working party to look at the matter, because we have to try to structure things in such a way that history will at least demonstrate that this generation is concerned to remedy the evils and faults of the past one. I can well see the advantage—as I said I pursued the Bill—in having integrated education, but that is not, and cannot be, at least within a measurable time, the answer. I looked at my own constituency again at that time.

I live almost across the road from the local comprehensive school in Wath-upon-Dearne. It is a good comprehensive school for 11 to 18 year-olds; 200 yards to the south of that school is the Pope Pius secondary school. That is a good Catholic school. There I saw develop in the 1960s and 1970s a most cordial relationship between those two schools. One was for 11 to 16 year-olds, and the other for 11 to 18 year-olds. The advantages and facilities at one school were frequently enjoyed by the other. Often, youngsters leaving the Catholic school at 16 came down the road to the sixth form. We had a splendid relationship, which exists today.

One of the reasons for that cordial relationship was that the Catholic school had an extremely good headmaster called Martin Walsh, who is now retired but still alive. I knew him well when I was a schoolmaster in the area. He and the headmaster of the comprehensive school, the late Dr. Safell, ensured that we had a relationship of cordiality and co-operation. While it may not be possible to ensure that integrated schools are developed to cover the whole of Northern Ireland, we should at least ensure that the Catholic and the Protestant Church authorities encourage the schools to be free to bring people together, even if it is not in an integrated situation. There are so many ways in which schools can co-operate, as the experience in Wath-upon-Dearne demonstrated.

I hope that in the next few months or couple of years Mr. Worthington, my noble friend Lord Dubs and their colleagues, serving in the Northern Ireland Office, will seek to promote that degree of cordiality and co-operation which would be of profound advantage. I do not believe—my experience in 1978 demonstrates it—that we can look for dramatic change overnight. The corrosive effect of Ulster history would militate against that. That is not an excuse for inaction. It is therefore reasonable to progress.

I understand one difficulty which the noble Lord may not have considered with regard to the consideration given by the department towards integrated schools. Children have to be taught. There is sometimes a temptation to use children for educational experimentation. The department has to be satisfied that if an integrated school is to be developed and approved, then that school has to ensure that the education provided for the pupils will be up to the standards of other schools. If children are to be taught in small numbers, in unsatisfactory accommodation, then the range of subjects available to them may not be adequate, and the quality of education that they are to receive may properly be questioned.

Integrated schools for the sake of integration, which puts at risk the quality of education that children receive, may not be the answer. It may he part of the answer. Until we achieve the cordiality and co-operation which is achieved in many parts of England, we shall be throwing away part of the opportunity and obligation. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. He has done the House a service by providing this opportunity this evening. I hope that the wisdom he has offered the House will receive considerable attention, not just in the department but in the counties of the north of Ireland.

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I must start with an apology. Regrettably, I will have to leave before the end of the debate as I am hosting a dinner downstairs. I fear that my noble friend Lord Brabazon is having difficulty dissembling as a woman in PR. I shall read with care the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and the Minister.

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for bringing forward this subject for debate. The recent progress which pleases him must be due in part to his tenacity, from which I suffered for three and a half years. I suffered it willingly because I was supported. It is important that we talk about this matter today, because, with the daily crises, we must not forget the long-term future of Northern Ireland.

I took part for three years in discussions on the teachers' pay review in England. I remember vividly sitting in Nottingham and being told by 15 teachers that all the best people had left teaching. The temptation to say, "I can see that", was enormous. Then I arrived in Northern Ireland where teaching was still a profession. The parents respected teachers. That makes an enormous difference to the quality of education that pupils can expect.

I fear that in Northern Ireland the down side is that not going to university is regarded as failure. That is an issue which integrated education may well help. There is still a belief that success is to become a lawyer or a civil servant and not an entrepreneur, but if anything is needed in Northern Ireland it is more entrepreneurs to protect the economy. Therefore, I support the way in which people work together.

Integrated education, both philosophically and practically, is ideal. But it cannot be available in a vacuum. Money has to come from somewhere. Parents are involved and the economics stand-up. We know that and I hear that progress is being made. Nor do I believe that one should throw the baby out with the bath water. There are some good single community schools in Northern Ireland, in both communities. I was fortunate. For two consecutive years I took a daughter to work from each community school. The excellence in both schools was totally comparable. We moved forward well. I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, that good schools share activities—sports, business and sixth-form meetings. Young Enterprise works across the board with great success and with a spirit which flourishes. We can build on that.

However, some schools in separate communities have academic excellence. However, they are closed shops and make the masonic movement look like "The Archers" village cricket team! It might be interesting to examine academic research to see where the appointments go from those schools. It is an issue which integrated education needs to tackle.

Another benefit is the integration of girls. That is not always the case in Northern Ireland. But integration needs money, as does all education. More money is required at the chalk face, on buildings, and less on administration. Northern Ireland has 1.5 million people, but so do many local education areas in England with one unitary body. I am sure that other noble Lords are more expert on that.

I wish to make a special plea for the protection of rural education. I have an increasing anxiety about the depopulation of the countryside in Northern Ireland. Families must be able to stay and education must be available for them. I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture is in his place. I wonder whether looking after future generations already based there—I refer to the hill farmers—is slipping in importance against exotic European funded schemes which after four years will create a job per annum. An integrated education would be ideal in keeping families who want to stay there.

Never has it been more important to discuss education. When the recession arrives which I fear will come Northern Ireland will suffer more quickly and more severely than the rest of the UK. It will not be helped by its land neighbour's entry into the common currency. Northern Ireland has built on the quality of its people; that is the only variable which an economy has. If the people are educated, they can take on the world. I have been privileged to travel and watch them do that. It is important that the investment and strategy for the future is not pushed off course by political day to day events, however painful. I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing this matter to the attention of your Lordships.

8.4 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham for raising this important matter. I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, for the part he played 20 years ago in sponsoring the education Bill in another place. The Bill started its life in your Lordships' House and was sponsored by my sadly missed friend, Lord Dunleath. He played an extraordinary part in Northern Ireland politics. It is interesting to examine some of the comments he made because it is 20 years this month since the Bill had its Third Reading in your Lordships' House. It was February, 1978.

Like my noble friend, Lord Dunleath referred to opinion polls. They showed even at that time that approximately 70 per cent. of parents wanted to send their children to schools which were not segregated. That was one of the reasons which stimulated him to bring the Bill forward. Twenty years later, only 3 or 4 per cent. of children are educated together and still some 70 per cent. of parents want their children to he educated in that context.

That is not because parents have not made their views clear. That is why I was greatly disturbed when sitting in your Lordships' Gallery in another place in January to hear the Minister, Mr. Worthington, say that if parents want such a thing they should not vaguely say so but should engage themselves in a campaign. Some of those parents have been involved in a campaign, committing themselves to great personal sacrifice, for more than a quarter of a century. They have taken enormous personal and financial risks in doing so. Indeed, some have had a very rough time.

The situation in Northern Ireland is different from that which exists here. For example, when we debated the parades legislation I heard some people say, "We have processions on this side of the water". They are nothing like those in Northern Ireland. I heard the noble Lord talking about a Protestant and a Catholic school not far from each other and such developments are welcome. But in Northern Ireland, 90 per cent. of more people live in areas which are 90 per cent. or more Protestant or Catholic. It is increasingly difficult for young people growing up together to be able to build relationships with Catholic children if they are Protestants or with Protestant children if they are Catholics, even if they want to.

We find that in many aspects of life in Northern Ireland—in housing, education, employment practices, culture, sport and the arts. It is because our community has developed almost under a form of apartheid, and that is seen no more clearly than in the context of education. Let us be clear that vested interests keep it that way. The party now in Government should have no difficulty in recognising the problems which vested interests can cause when trying to maintain a status quo which people wish to change. When one of my predecessors, as leader of the Alliance Party, John Cushnahan, decided to send his children to an integrated school he found that the Catholic Church was not prepared to allow his children to have all the rights and privileges of the Church. That is an example of the opposition which came from vested interests.

Let us be clear that when real attempts are made to change the situation people will run up against all kinds of problems. When Lord Londonderry, as the Minister for Education, tried to make changes, he found himself running up against such problems. He was not the only Minister for Education to find himself doing so. When the former Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, Sir Brian Mawhinney, tried to make changes, he ran into problems with vested interests not only outside his department, but inside, too. I and my predecessors have frequently found that great pressure has had to be exerted to ensure that integrated schools have any possibility of surviving because there are vested interests which want to maintain the situation.

It is deeply frustrating when people speak of wanting things to be better because we know in our hearts that that is not always so. We are familiar hearing on the airwaves people who say that they want peace and that they are greatly committed to that. Yet we know that some of those people, by the actions of their colleagues, have a peace strategy that is used as a weapon, not a tool to produce reconciliation. Similarly, sometimes people say that integrated education is a priority. But when they do not see any action we beg the question as to whether it is more than just froth.

Many said on the question of employment that we must be sure to have important, robust and fair employment legislation because we are not prepared to say, "Ah well, things will grow to be better if only we have a benign view of the matter." I believe that the same is true of integrated education.

I am not for a moment suggesting that we should do what our American cousins have done in the field of education—bussing children backwards and forwards all over the place. We should not force people to accept a form of integration which they do not want. But the truth is that there are parents who do want integrated education—50, 60 and 70 per cent. or more. But how can they have the benefit of such education if it is not available and provided?

How does one go about setting up such a school? One must take all the risks. There are all the pressures coming from within one's own community because many people do not want to see such a thing happening. That is because there are vested interests who maintain their power within the community by holding onto their children at the earliest stages and inculcating in them a view that it is better for them to stay separate. What happens if you are a parent in a mixed marriage, and there is now a very high percentage of those? Where do you send your children? It is not easy to find a place where they can be educated together with their brothers and sisters in another part of the community.

The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, said that 20 years is but a flea bite in the history of Northern Ireland. It may be so. Looking around your Lordships' House, it may even be a bit of a flea bite in your Lordships' House for some of its incumbents. But it is almost half my lifetime and it is too long to see no real progress being made on this matter. The requirements and desires of parents are not really receiving the necessary recognition.

Of course it is the case that in schools more largely composed of one community than another, advances are being made. I was delighted this past Sunday, in attending the family service at Campbell College in East Belfast, which is largely although not exclusively a Protestant school, to see that the president or headmaster of St. Malachy's College—one of the leading Catholic educationists in Northern Ireland—was conducting the service for the first time. That is good. It is progress. But it is not enough.

I see significant amounts of money coming from the European Union for peace and reconciliation. I have to ask the Minister why it is that that money more easily finds its way into the support of community enterprises which look only to one community. I find it frustrating that it is used more for reconciliation within one half of the community than between the two halves of our divided community. Why is it that there seems so little appetite in the Department of Education to use that European funding for one of the best means of bringing peace and reconciliation?

I want to return to what Lord Dunleath said in February 1978, 20 years ago, in your Lordships' House. He said that in, aspiring towards our goal of reconciliation and an end to sectarianism in Northern Ireland, we are going to make it; we are going to get there; we shall do it. We are determined to do it. Let there be no doubt about that whatsoever. It may not happen immediately, perhaps not next year or the year after, perhaps not in my lifetime. and how prescient that was, but we are going to make it because we are determined to do it.—[Official Report, 16/2/78; col. 1527.] I came to your Lordships' House directly from the talks in Belfast. There is a pressure and commitment by the two governments and all parties within those talks to see a political settlement, not within years or even within months but within weeks. There is a determination to do that. But our society will still be deeply divided. Unless the matrix is provided in integrated education and co-operation across the educational field, then that society will not become integrated and that political settlement will have within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Lord Londonderry saw integrated education as the way to ensure that the division in Northern Ireland would be healed. The failure to espouse his principles in the 1920s led to the problems of the 1960s and 1970s. Let us take the warning and not fall again.

8.14 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for permitting me to speak in the gap and I shall be brief. I speak as a Roman Catholic in a personal capacity but also with relatives in Northern Ireland.

There is no doubt that the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church at the onset of the integrated schools arrangements was less than enthusiastic. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, gave some examples which are regrettably true. There was also a very real concern that funds would be diverted to middle-class neighbourhoods from the very needy and deprived schools.

As a result the integrated scheme got off to a very discouraging start. But—and this is the point I wish to make—I have it on very good authority that there is now much greater understanding and appreciation of the integrated schools ideal on the part of the Roman Catholic Church and with it respect for parental authority.

I hope that the Minister will be encouraged by that and also by the Church's strong support for the Education for Mutual Understanding Programme—the other EMU. That should give the Minister great encouragement in his dialogue with all interested parties.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I begin by saying what a joy it is to see my noble friend Lady Denton back speaking from our Benches so that we are able to share in her wisdom and the wide, hands-on experience she gained in Northern Ireland.

It is not the first time that this subject has been debated in your Lordships' House and I am quite certain that it will not be the last. But it is a very important subject and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for giving us this opportunity.

The debate takes place at a time of controversial change for Northern Ireland education, involving the funding and organisation of schools. We shall be debating soon a draft education order which makes sweeping changes.

I am sure that all noble Lords agree that the old separation of Northern Ireland children at school as well as at home and everywhere else has had a very damaging effect on relationships and has made its own contribution to the troubles of the Province. However, I gather that in recent years a great deal has been done to break down that segregation in different ways. Integrated schools are part of that breaking down of barriers but only part. We must not forget that, for example, the scouts, guides and many other groups have played a part too, both formally and informally, and we welcome all those efforts.

The Conservative government supported integrated schools where they were viable and the numbers have increased. But it must be a matter of parental choice, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, explained. It is government's responsibility to make available provision and to encourage the trend, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, so vividly told us. But it would be wrong to suppose that only the schools officially listed as integrated have pupils from the different traditions. The majority of schools in the Province are open to all and many are non-denominational. In general terms I am told that the Catholic schools are the only block which are officially organised and designated as one group. But a Catholic school cited in a recent debate in Grand Committee in another place had 45 per cent. Protestant pupils.

That makes me cautious about ideas for giving financial advantages to schools officially designated as integrated. The Motion asks the Government to use all possible endeavours to promote integrated schools but that should not include financial discrimination against existing schools

It would be helpful to know from the Minister how many schools at present fulfil the criteria for integrated status, although not officially recognised as such. I understand that a school can now be recognised as integrated if it has 10 per cent. of pupils not from the dominant religion. On that basis a large number of schools could apparently pass the test, but I wonder just how many. In any case, there will continue to be many schools not officially designated as integrated. It is important that their pupils also build up an understanding of children from other backgrounds.

Integration of schools on an official basis should not therefore be allowed to build up into a new dogma of its own. There seems to be already much educational dogma about in the Northern Ireland Office. I gather the Government want to do away with the direct grant schools and put them all under the Education and Library Boards. Given that DENI will still have to approve plans, funding and so on, I doubt whether that will save money on bureaucracy.

The most dogmatic aspect is the attack on the preparatory schools. Labour seems to want to drive pupils into the state sector regardless of the cost, reducing parental choice and cutting into the grammar school system. The Minister of Education originally proposed cutting their grant in half now, and eliminating it altogether later. He has been persuaded by the row that that caused to cut the grant by only a quarter so far but he has, however, refused to say whether Labour still intends to cut it further soon and eliminate the grant entirely later. That attitude is calculated to weaken preparatory schools both financially and through uncertainty. It will force pupils out of established schools and into the wholly-funded sector without saving taxpayers' money.

In the face of such a dogmatic approach to education management by Labour in Northern Ireland it is good to be able to endorse integration, but we need to be sure that the quality of the existing schools does not suffer in the process. Northern Ireland has a high reputation for educational achievement. That reputation has been difficult to gain and to sustain. It is a particularly precious asset, given the bad reputation which the Province has for other reasons. The high quality of Northern Ireland education has assisted the drive for inward investment and jobs. When unemployment is rising—as it is in the Province at present—it is essential not to damage the quality of education or even (most importantly) to be thought to be doing so.

8.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Demon. It is a great pleasure to see her here this evening and in such good form. She portrayed clearly her knowledge of Northern Ireland, and her commitment to it and to its people came out loud and strong. I hope that we shall see her here frequently in the future. The Government acknowledge that integrated schools have an important contribution to make towards improved community relations in Northern Ireland and we are committed to support and facilitate the further development of the integrated sector.

I should like to set out briefly Her Majesty's Government's approach. There are three basic principles which underpin and determine policy in the development of new schools: parental choice, to which the noble Lord. Lord Holme, referred, viability (or educational effectiveness) and affordability. Of prime importance is parental choice. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the law requires every school to be open to any pupil regardless of religious belief. The current, largely segregated, school system in Northern Ireland is an expression of parental choice and the Government will not disregard parental wishes by seeking to impose integration. To attempt to do so would be counter-productive and could actually do more harm than good to community relations in the Province. Equally, parents have a right to integrated schooling for their children if that is their wish and the Government are wholly committed to meeting demand where this is clearly viable, and is affordable.

In addressing the question of the potential viability of new school proposals, there is a duty on the Government also to ensure that any associated expenditure will be both reasonable and affordable. Noble Lords are only too aware of the demands on the public purse. Northern Ireland cannot be exempt from the need to contain public expenditure within sensible limits. Integrated education policy must have proper regard to this. Parents' right to choose how their children should be educated cannot be unfettered and it behoves the Government to ensure that new schools are justified, are likely to be viable in the long term, and will not impact unreasonably on existing schools or public expenditure. To assist in this process the Government have set a number of criteria which new schools have to meet in order to qualify for grant aid. They are necessary to ensure that schools will be sufficiently robust from the outset to merit the substantial investment of public funds. At the same time, if change is to be achieved, some investment is necessary. The Government have committed significant resources to facilitate the development of the integrated sector. Perhaps I may return to this point later.

I should like to pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the parents, teachers, school governors and others in Northern Ireland who have been instrumental in promoting, establishing and maintaining integrated schools. Without their vision and enterprise the significant progress which has been made would not have been possible.

Integrated schools, whether new or transformed, have a real contribution to make to developing better understanding between the two main traditions in Northern Ireland. However, this does not mean that the Government regard non-integrated schools as somehow sectarian. Many schools have been very active in developing cross-community initiatives and all schools must, as part of the statutory curriculum, teach the themes of education for mutual understanding and cultural heritage. Their influence extends to all parts of the community and the entire school system has an important role in helping to improve and cement community relations.

Perhaps I could now focus on the real progress which has been made by the integrated sector in recent years. In 1989 there were just 10 schools—eight primary and two secondary—which were regarded as integrated. These had a total enrolment of 2,500 pupils. Today there are 33 grant-aided integrated schools, 11 of which are secondary, spread throughout the Province, with a combined enrolment of over 8,000 pupils. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that these are not simply in middle class areas but cover all kinds of areas across Northern Ireland.

> Perhaps I could highlight some key features of that expansion. It has been entirely driven by parental demand. Pupil numbers have increased threefold. Only 2 per cent. of total pupil numbers, however, attend integrated schools. Growth has been mainly through the establishment of completely new schools: nine primary and eight secondary. Only six of the 33 schools, five primary and one secondary, have been established through the transformation route.

This overall expansion, mainly via the new school route, has not been without cost. Over £32 million has been invested in integrated school capital development since 1990/91, and a further £43 million is committed over the next three years. This represents some 20 per cent. of the total capital resources available to the education service, for a sector which has 2 per cent. of the school population. By any standards this is a substantial level of capital expenditure and is clear evidence of the Government's support for integrated schools. However, it has had a knock-on effect within the capital programme for the education service and has limited the Government's ability to address the capital needs of other schools. There are over 100 high priority building schemes in the school capital planning lists with a total cost of over £350 million.

In view of the rising cost of integrated school development, the Government have sought to shift the emphasis away from the creation of expensive new schools—in circumstances where there is already surplus capacity in the school estate—to the transformation of existing schools to integrated status. This route to integration has particular advantages. It is the fastest and most cost-effective means of meeting demand. It avoids creating more surplus places in the schools estate. Moreover, because it is less costly and potentially damaging to existing schools, it attracts less criticism from other sectors.

Last year, the Department of Education issued a policy document entitled Integrated Education—A Framework for Transformation.The framework has two main objectives: to raise awareness of, and encourage interest in, integrated status among parents and schools and how this could be achieved; and to stimulate dialogue and co-operation between Education and Library Boards, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and other school interests. As a follow up to the response generated by the framework document, the department will soon issue detailed guidelines which are designed specifically to guide and assist schools actively seeking integrated status. In that connection, resources of £300,000 per year have been set aside to assist schools with some start-up costs associated with transformation.

There is increasing evidence that this shift in emphasis is working. In the past year alone nine schools applied to change to integrated status—seven of these have been conditionally approved and, if these are confirmed in September 1998, that will increase the availability of integrated school places by almost 30 per cent. That represents by far the largest increase in the integrated sector in a single year. For all these reasons transformation is now the Government's preferred route for the future development of the integrated sector.

I am sure noble Lords will agree that much is being done to respond to parental demand for integrated education. Good progress has been made but we are not complacent. Additional measures announced recently serve to reinforce the Government's commitment to the development of the sector.

First, following a review by my honourable friend Tony Worthington, Minister for Education, the viability criteria for new secondary schools have been reduced from an initial intake of 100 pupils to 80 pupils. That point was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. That means that the minimum, long-term enrolment expected of secondary schools has also been reduced from 500 to 400 pupils.

In addition, the Government have announced their intention to set up a working party which will examine ways to encourage more schools to transform to integrated status; the present capital and recurrent funding arrangements for new integrated schools; and ways to encourage further integrated school development without damaging existing integrated schools. Finally, and significantly, the Department of Education has commissioned a major research project, which will be partly funded by the European Union peace and reconciliation programme, to assess the impact of integrated schooling—and other school based initiatives—on attitudes, mutual understanding and improved community relations.

A number of detailed comments were made to which, if time allows, I shall endeavour to reply. I am not sure that I agree with the 90 per cent. statistic given by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, there are many more schools which are not integrated but which have a mixed enrolment and play a significant part in improving community relations.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, has a point when he talks about 30 per cent. of parents wanting integrated education. Certainly, if that is the case, the Government will respond to parental demand where such schools can be shown to be viable. He asked whether parents will be made aware of the right to transfer to integrated schools. The answer is yes. All schools have been made aware of the opportunities and assistance available for transformation, which have been publicised in the media. As regards Catholic maintained schools, it is for the board of governors and parents of those schools to decide on any such transformation. The noble Lord also mentioned Oakwood and some other independent schools. Those schools have not been approved to date as they have not met the required viability criteria and other requirements for grant aid. If they decide to seek approval for next year their proposals will be considered on their merits.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Hardy that existing schools are involved in cross-community activities, including education for mutual understanding and cultural heritage in the curriculum. I pay tribute to the noble Lord's long-standing efforts to increase their effectiveness and the size of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, referred to the dangers of depopulation in rural areas and the part that education would play there. It is a very important point, and one which influences government policy across a whole range of departments in Northern Ireland. She also asked about the possibility of one education authority for administration in Northern Ireland. The Government have decided not to pursue the rationalisation of the five education and library boards at this stage. Rather, the boards are being encouraged to operate on a co-operative basis to secure efficiencies in administrative costs.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, talked about vested interests. Indeed, yes. In my remarks I also referred to the opportunities that there are for parents if they are finding difficulties and the Government's wish to encourage them. I do not believe that peace and reconciliation money has been applied to only one community. Indeed, almost £1 million was allocated to Malone integrated college in 1997 from the EU peace programme funds. That represented about 10 per cent. of the funds available to education from that particular source.

The Government cannot impose integrated education. The Government see their duty as to encourage and facilitate but not to impose. Therefore there has to be a positive feeling on the part of parents that that is their particular wish.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, referred to other areas of education. I have neither the time to answer, nor do I feel it appropriate in the context of this particular debate. However, the noble Baroness asked how many schools qualify for integrated status. That information is not available because some schools cannot be categorised in that way. Schools which wish to transform can be approved if at least 10 per cent. of the first-year intake is from the minority religion, which was a point that she made.

Much has been done, and will continue to be done, by government to encourage and assist the development of integrated education. I hope I have demonstrated the Government's commitment and the fact that we are doing a great deal. I believe that more integrated education will be the characteristic of Northern Ireland over the next few years.