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Secondary Education

Volume 887: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the reorganisation of secondary education and the future of the 11-plus examination in Northern Ireland.

It is well known that the United Kingdom Government have stated their intention of developing a fully comprehensive system of secondary education which is based upon ending selection at 11-plus or at any other stage. The comprehensive principle is now the generally accepted basis for secondary education in Great Britain.Since I came to Northern Ireland, one of the matters I have been studying is the Burges Report, or, to give it its official name, the Report of the Advisory Council for Education in Northern Ireland on Reorganisation of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland. The advisory council, after considering the operation of selection at 11-plus and outlining alternative ways in which a nonselective secondary system might be introduced, recommended—although not unanimously—that the 11-plus be eliminated through a restructuring of the educational system and asked that a declaration of intent to end the 11-plus in this way be made. The report did not recommend any particular non-selective arrangement as being suited to circumstances in Northern Ireland.Since the report was published the Department of Education has sought the views of a wide range of interested bodies and I am grateful for the serious consideration which those bodies have given to the various aspects of the report. Replies which have been received include a diversity of views, some for and others against the main recommendations.The Education and Library Boards have also been considering the report, and some boards have set up working parties to examine the implications of the abolition of selection for various parts of their areas.These activities, both at departmental and area board level, underline the importance of the report, and the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, which differs in significant ways from that in Great Britain, particularly in the size of secondary schools, the higher proportion of voluntary grammar schools and of the pupil population attending them.I am convinced of the advantages of comprehensive education and of the need to extend it from the primary to the secondary sectors but I realise that there are many features of schooling in Northern Ireland which require to be considered in this context. In addition there are clearly important practical problems including costs of reorganisation and of making optimum use of available resources which would warrant further in-depth study and I have decided that the time has come to take a major step forward in consideration of those problems. Bearing in mind that the Burges Report did not recommend the adoption of any particular system for the abolition of the 11-plus, I have arranged for a feasibility study to be carried out by the Senior Chief Inspector on behalf of the Department. This investigation will not be concerned with the theoretical arguments for and against reorganisation but with the actual practicalities and possibilities of its implementation within the present buildings and will examine various alternatives in the light of local circumstances.This does not mean that all other studies should now cease or that proposals which may be coming forward should be retarded. The investigation will, however, require the co-operation and good will of school authorities and others, and I feel sure that such a response will be forthcoming from all concerned.