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Northern Ireland Schools

Volume 124: debated on Friday 18 December 1987

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12.33 pm

On this the last day that the House will sit in 1987, it is salutary to look back on what has happened in the last 12 months. I shall confine my remarks to Northern Ireland, and I think with sorrow of all those who have been murdered or maimed by terrorists in the last 12 months. I make no distinction between the types of terrorists, and I certainly make no distinction between the victims on the basis of religion.

In the past 48 hours we have had to contemplate a mindless atrocity in Londonderry, when randomly placed bombs caused death, grief, destruction and injury to many, including children. The Enniskillen atrocity gained international headlines. It made a massive impact which aroused the anger of Protestants and Catholics throughout Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, particularly among the younger generation.

I do not want the marvellous spirit of good will to be dissipated, but that is all too easy in the heartrending situation in Northern Ireland. We must therefore call a halt to the present political stalemate, which generates despair, uncertainty and hatred.

As we look back today on the events of 1987, we must consider what can be achieved in the new year. No doubt there will be atrocities, death and destruction—all that the terrorists have to offer—but we should counter that with sensible proposals. The new year must be accepted as a year of challenge by us all. We should see what each of us can do to overcome the divisions in our community. Each of us should attempt to bridge the cruel divisions between Protestant and Catholic. Politicians must give a lead in that regard.

For many years I have fought against the religious apartheid that exists in our education system. It divides people in their formative years when they should be learning together, playing together, laughing together and, I suppose, but only occasionally, crying together. It is unbelievable that children are divided even at kindergarten. If they are sent to separate schools, it is inevitable that children at one school will regard as alien children of a different religion in another school. Such division is indefensible and infringes the inherent rights of the child.

So far I have not succeeded in ending that unnatural division, but I shall continue to advocate integration. I have also argued that teacher training colleges — the state college at Stranmillis and the Catholic colleges of St. Mary and St. Joseph — should be amalgamated and placed under the aegis of the university. The opposition won the day when I suggested that. The opportunity to bring teachers within a non-sectarian university atmosphere was missed.

The Minister who is to reply to the debate has proposed that Protestant and Catholic teachers spend part of their training in schools of the other tradition. It is a sensible proposal, and I cannot understand how anybody could object to it. It is only a modest step, but it could herald a new approach to the educational division in Northern Ireland. Once trainee teacher exchanges took root, the people involved might not want the process to stop at that, and we may yet witness the dismantling of the religious divide in education.

In the meantime, how else can we foster good community relations in schools? Schools which accept children of a religion which is not the majority religion should be encouraged and given financial incentives. Lagan college was established in 1981 with 28 pupils. It now has about 500, an equal number of whom are Protestant and Roman Catholic. I thank the Minister for the support that he has given that integrated school. Others have been established or are being established. Some are primary schools, and I believe that there are two secondary schools.

What else have the Government done? I should like to give an example of a major blunder. The Rudolf Steiner school in my constituency at Holywood prides itself of providing education for children of any or no religious denomination. The school was naturally appalled—as I was — to hear how it was described in a recent Government publication cumbersomely entitled:
"Religious Equality of Opportunity and Employment—Guide to Effective Practice".
In that publication, which was produced, not by the Department of Education, but by the Department of Economic Development, the school was described as a Protestant school. When the school protested, and I protested on its behalf, we were told that it had to be labelled as either Roman Catholic or Protestant. Thus—this is the reasoning behind the decision of the Department of Economic Development—a prospective employer can tell when an applicant for a job is Protestant or Roman Catholic.

The document was issued to about 40,000 employers. I protested to the Minister at the Department of Economic Development, and in reply he said:
"systems need to be put in place to identify the perceived religious affiliation (not the actual belief) of job applicants and of existing employees … the school would under the present system be reclassified as 'Not Known' when the list is revised and updated."
What bureaucratic nonsense. The religious affiliations of the school are well known. It is non-denominational, and I would have thought it simple for the Government to denote the school in their publication as "nondenominational". To do otherwise is to repudiate the tremendous effort made by the Rudolf Steiner school and its staff to make all its pupils aware of and sympathetic to others in the world, regardless of colour, creed or race. I demand that the Department of Economic Development send out a correction forthwith to all those who received the original misleading and damaging document.

I know that the Minister has committed himself to a vigorous programme for reconciliation within the present school system, and I praise him for his efforts to stimulate conserted action, but I shall leave it to him in his reply to set out the Department's strategy for community relations in schools. All the initiatives to bring about reconciliation must be designed to encourage pupils to realise that they live in a land which has a long, rich and varied history — which, despite religious and political differences, they all have much in common.

I do not merely desire better community relations to stop there. I see Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom, which, despite the occasional political crisis on the mainland, can be regarded as a nation of great toleration. I mentioned that in a debate only a short time ago. I would not limit the initiative to the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland schoolchildren must be faced with the fact that they are all young Europeans. It is in that context that we must bring them to face the realities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Many centuries ago, there was a famous school of learning at Bangor in my constituency. It welcomed students from all over Europe, and 1,300 years ago it was destroyed by the barbaric hordes who had already pulled the blanket of darkness over the rest of Europe. Students came to Bangor to learn there what they could not learn elsewhere in Europe.

Northern Ireland has always had a good education system. I was interested to read in the press that the Minister, on a visit to the famous Ulster folk and transport museum at Cultra in my constituency, saw a notice issued in November 1863 headed, "General Lesson", hanging in a reconstructed school house. I understand that the Minister commended the message and asked that it go out to all teachers. It is worth quoting, and I shall quote just two parts of it. I remind the House that "General Lesson" was issued in November 1863 and hung in all school houses in Ireland. It said:
"Christians should endeavour, as the Apostle Paul commands them, to live peaceably with all men, … even with those of a different religious persuasion.
Our saviour Christ, commanded his Disciples to love one another. He taught them to love even their enemies, to bless those that cursed them, and to pray for those who persecuted them. He himself prayed for his murderers."
That declaration has a relevant message for today. Does it not remind us of the fine words used by Mr. Gordon Wilson immediately after the Enniskillen atrocity, when his daughter and others were slaughtered, when he said that he forgave her murderers? Not all of us can aspire to such Christlike forgiveness. None the less, we must all strive to bring people together in Northern Ireland and to show that we can live together. If we cannot do that, the alternative is what the IRA says, that we die together. The message from the House, from all Unionists and Ulster politicians, must be that we should all live together.

There is no point in overlooking the sectarian slaughter. There is no advantage in trying to avoid mentioning the sectarian hatred that manifests itself from time to time. Divisions exist. We must do our best to heal the wounds that are there. The future belongs to the young people of Northern Ireland. Better community relations in schools in Northern Ireland will mean a better future for Northern Ireland. We all have a part to play, not least the Ulster politicians. Everyone, young and old, can help to bring the community together. It is an enormous task.

Northern Ireland is not the only part of the world where there are religious and political divisions in one form or another. In certain instances, those divisions are far worse than in Northern Ireland. Bad as the situation is, thank God the position there has not reached the level in the Lebanon and Sri Lanka. However, let us see what steps we can take to achieve consensus as far as it is humanly practicable. Let us also strive towards establishing some form of government in the Province that has the support of all reasonable and decent people in the community. By our example in 1988 and in the years thereafter we can encourage better community relations, not only among the young, but among all the people of Northern Ireland.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

The hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) has done the House a great service by allowing us to have a short debate on this important subject. I thank him for the kind personal comments that he made about me in my role as Education Minister.

The hon. Gentleman properly set the importance of this subject against the background of terrorist activity and killing, which we have seen for too many years in the Province, and which reflects the extreme edge of the divisions that characterise Northern Ireland society.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 1988 as the year of challenge. I wish that I had thought of that phrase. He will forgive me if I use it on other occasions after today. The challenge is the effort that the Government and everyone in the community must make to seek to improve community relations in Northern Ireland and to bring about greater harmony and reconciliation. No one should underestimate the difficulties or suppose that there are easy solutions.

I assure the House that the Government are fully committed to the task of improving community relations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has emphasised his intention of being directly and personally involved in helping to tackle Northern Ireland's community relations problems. For my part, as the Minister responsible for the newly established central community relations unit, and for the Department of Education, which has the major statutory role in Northern Ireland for community relations, I have emphasised my personal commitment to encouraging and supporting efforts directed at improving those relations, which fundamentally influence the quality of life in the Province. I make that commitment clear again today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the segregated system of education in Northern Ireland, under which Roman Catholic and Protestant children are educated in separate schools; not, I must add—and as the hon. Gentleman well knows—by legal requirement, but in practice. He mentioned the unfortunate omission of the Rudolf Steiner school from the Department of Economic Development publication. I say "omission", because it was in the publication, but in an inappropriate category and I regret that. I note the representations that the hon. Gentleman quite properly made on behalf of his constituents. I am happ to confirm to him today that Rudolf Steiner is a nondenominational school, and I accept his point and join him in stressing that that is part of the strength of that school.

I know that many people believe that the segregation that characterises Northern Ireland society and which starts in our schools could be ended if young people in Northern Ireland could be educated together and could meet during their school days and thereby understand each other better. I have much sympathy with that view. I also accept the sense of frustration experienced by some people who believe that faster progress could be made in setting up integrated schools.

I recently met representatives of the two major sponsoring bodies for integrated education in Northern Ireland, and I fully understand their aspirations. I assured them of my personal interest in their work and of the Government's willingness to give sympathetic consideration to proposals for integrated schools which can demonstrate viability and achieve appropriate educational standards.

It is Government policy that integrated education should be encouraged where there is local support for it. Fundamentally, parents have a statutory right to have children educated in accordance with their wishes, with the proviso that that must be compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and avoid unreasonable public expenditure. On the other hand, there can be no question of forcing integration on parents. However, where parents collectively indicate their desire for integrated education and have demonstrated that the demand is sufficient to justify the creation of a new grant-aided school, the Government have taken a generous line in providing support. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall continue that generosity of spirit, which is the necessary precursor of generous financial support. I note in passing the hon. Gentleman's interesting suggestion that financial incentives might have some part to play in seeking to move people together in schooling.

The best evidence for that is the growing number of integrated schools that have been established, of which three have now been recognised for grant aid— Lagan college, Hazelwood primary school and the Forge primary School. As the hon. Gentleman said, other proposals are under consideration and he will know that recently I met representatives of the governors of Hazelwood college. We agreed together that I would consider their application for grant-aid status in the first half of next year.

The proposals in the Education Reform Bill include an extension of parental choice of schools and of parental influence in the management of schools. I have already announced my policy in Northern Ireland on extending parental choice and my intention to introduce proposals for legislation in support of that policy. In terms of parental influence, the consultative paper for Northern Ireland that I expect to produce early next year, will include consideration of the parental choice and influence aspects of the Education Reform Bill against the background of our present divided educational system.

None the less, despite Government support and the enthusiasm of parents, the integrated education movement will touch only a small percentage of the school population. Even an increase on a scale undreamed of by the most ambitious advocate would leave the vast majority of this and succeeding generations in separate schools. That being the case, I have given the highest priority to supporting those measures that will encourage and provide support for contact and joint activities undertaken by schools and youth organisations on each side of the sectarian divide.

Central to the steady improvement of community relations is my Department's education for mutual understanding programme, which I have determined shall be a major priority in Northern Ireland schools, colleges and youth clubs. To complement that programme I recently initiated the cross-community contact scheme to encourage new contact programmes between schools, colleges and youth groups across the religious divide, and I have allocated £250,000 for each of the next three years to fund the new programme.

My aim is that an ever-increasing number of Protestant and Catholic children should have the opportunity to meet and co-operate in curricular and extracurricular activities. I am pleased to say that those programmes, and the funding for them, are in addition to the existing range of community relations activities organised by the education and library boards and by the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development.

The activities that have arisen from those initiatives take many forms, depending on local circumstances, but the fundamental characteristic of them all is that young people from across the religious divide agree on a common goal and come together on a regular basis to plan a common approach, to share the work in progress, to enjoy each other's company and to establish friendship. The ready response of Northern Ireland's teachers to community relations initiatives is particularly heartening. Clearly, they accept community relations as a part of their responsibility, and I can assure them that their efforts will receive all the support that f can give, through our education system, to the work of co-operation and reconciliation.

To assist teachers in these difficult and often—alas—uncharted areas, I asked the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development to give priority to the preparation and publication of a guideline on education for mutual understanding for teachers at primary and secondary levels, which will be published next year. In addition, all the members of the inspectorate have a responsibility to support and evaluate communiity relations projects throughout the education system. Recently I have had four inspectors deployed more directly on community relations work. They will spend an increasing amount of their time in promoting education for mutual understanding in schools and colleges. Already they have initiated a major development in primary schools.

I noted in particular the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the teacher training colleges. While he will not expect me this morning to go into debates that have been held in the past, and to review decisions that have already been made, I am very grateful to him for his support for the initiative that I announced recently. Much of the responsibility will rest on the assessment by teachers of the circumstances that exist in individual schools, and how they can best be exploited in support of community relations programmes.

As I have said, this is difficult territory, which requires a clear understanding of the objectives and an ability to translate them into a practical programme. Much effort has already gone into in-service training programmes, and that continues to be given priority. There is a need, however, for teachers in intitial training to be brought into contact — I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about this — and I have therefore recently asked the two colleges to produce a joint policy statement on education for mutual understanding, so that their student teachers will share a common comprehensive programme.

I should like to see Protestant and Catholic student teachers being brought together at their initial training stage, and then following up that cross-community contact by arranging some of their teaching practice in schools with a religious background different from their own. I want to see them grasp the nettle of encouraging Protestant teachers to learn some of the ethos of maintained schools, and to allow Roman Catholic teachers to gain some experience of what it is like in controlled schools. By their initial teacher training, young students should be provided with the practical reality of learning alongside those who may differ religiously and politically from themselves. If we can achieve that, we shall help to generate better community understanding and go some way towards helping to create a society in which the "them and us" syndrome is dispelled.

In addition to all those projects, I have recently enhanced the support given to the various voluntary bodies which are active in, and committed to, improving community relations in schools. Additional funds have been given to both the Corrymeela and the Columbanus communities, and to the joint work of the Protestant Council of Churches and the Catholic Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.

All too often good relationships between the two communities in Northern Ireland depend upon avoiding any issue that might be regarded as divisive. I believe that we should seek those areas of common ground that serve to bring our two communities together. We need to concentrate our minds on what we have in common, not always on those things that divide us. I believe that the voluntary bodies that have received support can help in that regard.

Alongside the improving educational standards and increasing parental choice and influence, nothing is more important in our schools than helping to promote community understanding and tolerance. That is our agenda for 1988, or, as the hon. Member for North Down said, it is our challenge. I can tell him and the House that I intend to pursue it vigorously. We owe that to ourselves and, even more, we owe it to our children.

I wish to end by quoting from the "General Lesson". I am intrigued and gratified that the paragraph that I have chosen to quote, and will quote again for emphasis, is that which the hon. Member for North Down has already read into the record. If it was true of our schools over 100 years ago, how much more true is it now that Christians should endeavour
"to live peaceably together with all men … . even with those of a different religious persuasion."?
Northern Ireland is a religious country with a signficant majority of people to whom their Christian faith is very important. I have quoted the challenge of the Apostle Paul. It is the challenge of common decency, and it is the challenge of 1988. I can assure the hon. Member for North Down that we aim to rise to that challenge and would be grateful for his help in seeking so to do.

I wish the hon. Member for North Down, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and other hon. Members in the House the compliments of the season.