To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Government's policy towards integrated education, in the light of the education reform document he recently published.
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the plans to implement his Department's support for integrated education.
It has been the Government's long-standing policy to support viable proposals for the creation of integrated schools in Northern Ireland. We have now sought to give further opportunity for the expression of parental wishes and new impetus to the development of integrated education through our proposals for grant-maintained integrated schools.
I welcome my hon. Friend's answer, but will he confirm yet again that policies that lead to integrated education are probably the most beneficial long-term initiatives that the Government can take? Will he also assure the House that such policies will not be imposed by the Government, but will be brought about by patiently getting the co-operation and good will of all the communities in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I can confirm the Government's commitment to the expansion of integrated education in Northern Ireland and give my hon. Friend the assurance that the proposals in the consultation paper in no sense reflect a determination to impose integrated education. Rather, they provide an option for parents to choose if they so wish.
I congratulate the Minister on a brave initiative. It is a worthwhile step towards bringing about harmony and long-term development of the community in Northern Ireland. May I recall to him the report in the Belfast Telegraph of 25 February, which said that accommodation, equipment and book supplies at integrated schools are inadequate? Will the Minister say whether that can now be rectified?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for his continued support for the concept of integrated education in Northern Ireland. The allocation of funds to integrated schools that receive funds from my Department is on the same basis as that for the funds that are made available to other schools in the Province. There is no discrimination in resource allocation.
The Minister is aware of the campaign that I have waged for 20 years to end the sectarian divide in education in Northern Ireland [Interruption.] Will we have to wait another 20 years or more before we see an end to it? I know that the SDLP disagrees with my wish to see the bringing together of Protestant and Roman Catholic young children. Is it right that the taxpayer should have to pay for two separate systems of education that cruelly divide the children and waste taxpayers' money?
I am sorry that some hon. Members on the Opposition Benches laughed when the hon. Gentleman mentioned his very creditable campaign over many years to promote the concept of integrated education. The people of the Province owe him a great debt for doing that. I make it clear that the number of integrated schools that will emerge from the proposals is not a matter for me. In the first instance it is a matter for the House and the other place to determine by legislation. When that legislation is in place, it will be a matter for the parents. The Government are seeking to facilitate those parents who would like to have their children educated in the same classroom as children from the other side of the community. That is an important commitment by the Government. We are rightly pleased to offer it to the people of the Province, and we do it with conviction.
The Minister talks about greater parental choice and about integrating schools. Will he bear in mind that the geographical distribution of schools in Northern Ireland reflects the geographical distribution of the pupils who attend those schools? As soon as he starts interfering with the pool of pupils, that could have very severe and unforeseen effects on the viability of many schools, especially in the more sparsely populated rural areas. Will the Minister carefully bear that in mind?
Of course I shall bear that in mind, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not interfering. I am facilitating those parents who may choose to have their children educated in this way. That is a very important distinction. It is absolutely right that integrated education, certainly in the foreseeable future, is not the answer to the problems of the Province. Because of the housing arrangements that the hon. Gentleman mentions, it would be difficult to see integrated schools developing in many areas of the Province in the immediate future. I recognise that fact, and I also recognise that some rural schools in isolated areas will need some protection. He will know that, as a matter of policy, the Department has already made it clear that it will offer protection to schools in rural and isolated areas. Having said all that, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he still does not advance any reason why parents should not be given the option of integrated education if they wish to follow it.
In view of the overwhelming number of complaints that were received about lack of time for consultation prior to the introduction of the Education Reform Bill in England and Wales, will the Minister please explain how he can contemplate 41 school days as sufficient time for consultation on a document which, in his own words, will change the nature of education in Northern Irish schools well into the next century?
First, it gives me pleasure to welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. We look forward to working with her in future.The hon. Lady will know that a two-month consultation period was made available in England and Wales. She will also know that I not only made available a two-month consultation period, but, because the paper was launched at the beginning of the Easter school holidays, added a further three weeks for consultation. The hon. Lady will also bear in mind that the proposals—or at least many of them—have not come as a great surprise to the people of Northern Ireland. They have been widely debated over months as progress has been made on the Bill in the House. For all those reasons, I believe that the consultation time was perfectly adequate.