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Joint Educational Projects

Volume 124: debated on Thursday 10 December 1987

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4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make available more resources to enable schools from different religious backgrounds to undertake joint educational projects; and if he will make a statement.

I have no plans to make further resources available. On 14 September I announced the availability of an extra f200,000 for new initiatives in cross-community contacts. The scheme, which is directed at young people under the age of 19, has already encouraged those working in this field to submit 65 applications for grant from the special fund.

I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in welcoming the previous decision and hoping that the future will see more resources allocated. Already too many children grow up in an atmosphere of prejudice in Northern Ireland and become fuel and recruits for terrorist organisations. If the problems of Northern Ireland are to be solved, is it not necessary to find ways to increase contact between young people in that troubled Province?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and I entirely endorse the sentiments that he has expressed. It is important that we should find ways to bring the people of the Province together, to foster their relationships and understanding of their differences, and to ensure that those differences do not become points of division later in life.

Does the Minister accept that in answer to the previous question he may have uncon-sciously given a wrong impression—

It will indeed relate to the question, but I must put on record that the tertiary—

Does the Minister accept that joint community education imposes tremendous responsibility on the voluntary schools system to teach even civics, which would allow us to move together as people and as a nation, rather than have two separate identities? Will he acknowledge that the separation and division are at that level of education rather than at the tertiary level, as implied earlier?

I certainly endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said. If I gave any impression in an answer given from the Dispatch Box that there is division at the tertiary level, that is quite untrue and it was not my intention. I do not think that I gave that impression, but if I did it was not intended.

Part of the reason for the project in secondary schools is to explore ways in which schoolchildren from the two communities can be brought together to carry out joint projects, so that they will have an opportunity to learn together and about each other. The idea is that the absence of money should not hinder the bringing together of our young people in special projects.

Is it not time to end the religious apartheid in education in Northern Ireland? Both education systems, which are supported by the taxpayer, divide youngsters from the earliest age, even from kindergarten, when they should be learning to live and play together and getting to know each other, so that Northern Ireland will have a future.

There will be much support for the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and I take careful note of what he has said.

I welcome what the Minister has said and his speech on the establishment of the community relations unit, but what progress has been made to assist Hazelwood college? Does he agree that integrated education should be actively promoted, especially in his discussions with members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy?

I have had a meeting with representatives of the governors of Hazelwood college in the past few days. We have agreed jointly that I will reach a decision on their application to become grant-aided in the first half of next year. That decision is acceptable to the governors and to me. It will give them an opportunity in the meantime to increase numbers in the school.

With regard to integrated education, the Government see a role—perhaps even a marginally increased role—for integrated schools in the Province. It is not part of my responsibility or intention to do anything that would make the development of integrated education within the law and the constraints that we all know apply more difficult than it is at the moment.

Will the Minister bear in mind that when the project got off the ground in Enniskillen the parents were kept completely in the dark? The children were told that they were having a holiday and no parents were consulted. As the Roman Catholic Church runs its own schools in Northern Ireland, will the Minister give a categorical assurance to the Protestant community that there will be consultation with the parents of all Protestant children and that they will have the right to say yes or no to any such project, just as the Roman Catholic Church has already said no to integrated education?

I am not quite sure to what specific event the hon. Gentleman is referring. I want to make it clear that the scheme is entirely voluntary. People are invited to apply for money for projects if they wish to do so. The initiative does not lie with me. I am not forcing anyone to do anything, and I am not applying pressure. I am responding to what I identify as demand in the community for people to be allowed to come together and to do things together. That is good, and I am willing to finance it for the future of Northern Ireland. There is no sense in which anyone is being allowed to exercise a veto. It will be for the schools, parents and pupils to decide for themselves.

We are all pleased to hear the Minister say that he wants to bring both communities together and to provide finance for that. How does he square that with the view of the Department of Education, as expressed in a letter to a constituent of mine on 22 October.

"there is no need in Northern Ireland for teachers who specialise in Multicultural Education."
That is the view of the Department of Education. Is it the Government's view? If not, what steps do the Government intend to bring forward to reverse that policy decision?

The hon. Gentleman has a slight semantic difficulty. There is no great need for teachers in multicultural education in Northern Ireland because 'we do not have a multicultural society in the sense in which that term is understood in England. Society in Northern Ireland is divided on religious grounds. The policy of the Department of Education is of education for mutual understanding. As hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will be aware, I have been increasing pressure on training schools in the matter of education for mutual understanding in general. I believe that it is very difficult for teachers to teach about the other community if they have no experience of that other community. We are strongly and firmly committed to education for mutual understanding, but we do not have a multicultural society in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that apartheid in education does not exist in Northern Ireland, but that there is the exercise of parental choice? Does he also agree that the voluntary sector embraces both the Catholic and Protestant community and state schools? Does he accept that there is ample opportunity for inter-religious communicational projects between schools if proper encouragement is given, and will he ensure that his Department encourages such intercourse in the immediate future?

The hon. Gentleman will know that last April I announced that a new policy on parental choice would come into effect in our schools in September 1988. This has been widely welcomed, not least by parents, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his additional support.

As for bringing people together, the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that, at the educational level aimed at the under-19s, the Government have much increased their determination to try to achieve that very desirable goal. I should be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's help, and that of his hon. Friends and other right hon. and hon. Members in Northern Ireland, in doing what they can to encourage our young people to spend more time contacting one another, and less time drifting apart and causing social or perhaps other and worse problems in the future.