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Secondary Schools

Volume 210: debated on Thursday 25 June 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the structure of the secondary school system in Northern Ireland.

The secondary system of education in most areas of Northern Ireland operates on the basis of selection at 11-plus. It is very popular, and there are no plans to change it at the moment.

Does my hon. Friend agree that among the many excellent aspects of life in Northern Ireland is the quality of its secondary education? Is not it a fact that Northern Ireland has the lowest level of illiteracy, the highest number of A-level results and one of the lowest level of truancy in the United Kingdom? Does not that show that if some form of selection were returned to the rest of the United Kingdom—as might well happen under the Government's new proposals—it would be very good for children in the rest of Britain?

I shall restrict my comments to Northern Ireland and confirm many of the statistics that my hon. Friend mentioned: 30 per cent. of Northern Ireland school leavers achieve at least one A-level, compared to 24 per cent. in England; 75 per cent. of those leaving the grammar schools do so with at least one A-level; 41 per cent. of all Northern Ireland school leavers achieve at least five good GCSE grades, compared to 37 per cent. in England, and finally, 52 per cent. of all school leavers in Northern Ireland go on to further or higher education, compared to 37 per cent. in England.

However, I warn my hon. Friend that the selection system is not all rosy, for the simple reason that in Northern Ireland, 15 per cent. of children leave school without any qualifications, compared to 8 per cent. in England—although that 15 per cent. is well below the 27 per cent. of only 10 years ago. That is the issue on which we must concentrate.

The Minister will be aware that parents make comparisons between grammar schools and secondary schools in Northern Ireland. Will he continue to seek adequate funding for secondary schools and ensure that their accommodation and equipment are sufficient to deliver the national curriculum? Will he also seek the support of other departments in the Northern Ireland Office and enlist their help so that they can deal sensitively with areas such as Rathcoole in my constituency, where secondary schools are being rationalised?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that under the education reform capital programme substantial moneys are already being spent exactly as he requests. In the three years to March 1992, more than £45 million has been spent to deliver the common curriculum requirements, and a further £57 million is to be spent over the next three years.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's worries about Rathcoole. I have received representations from him, for which I am grateful. I can assure him that there will be great sensitivity. My Department has already had preliminary discussions with the North Eastern education and library board about the rationalisation of secondary school provision in the area. The final proposals will, of course, be subject to the normal provisions.

In the context of his supplementary answer, will my hon. Friend confirm that the proportion of those leaving school without any qualifications in Northern Ireland has been falling more rapidly in recent years than in Great Britain?

I can confirm that, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I said that 27 per cent. of children leaving school in Northern Ireland in 1979–80 left with no qualifications. We can imagine what idle hands can be turned to. The figure now is 15 per cent., which represents rapid progress—and that progress was especially marked in Northern Ireland under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke).

The Minister will be aware that the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 introduced open enrolment provisions which made it illegal for an integrated school to use criteria which allowed it to maintain a balance. If that is not changed, and integrated schools are forced to accept whatever enrolments are made, regardless of the religious balance which would result, they will not be able to be what is generally described as genuinely integrated. I understand that the Windmill integrated school in Dungannon has been placed in that position, with the education board forcing it to accept children so that the balance would be upset. The school has refused, which has led to legal action being taken against it. Is the Minister aware of that position? If so, how does he intend to ensure that the integrated schools ideal in Northern Ireland is maintained?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am indeed aware of the problem, but it is a problem which was established within the legislation in the first place. The subject must be reconsidered. I cannot say exactly how, so I cannot answer the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but the matter is being actively considered at this moment. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's interest, and I look forward to any further advice that he may offer.