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Post-Primary Education

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2006

The Government believe that significant reforms are needed to ensure that every young person is equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to make a positive contribution to society and the economy in the 21st century. The vital changes required are included in the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which will be debated in Committee later today.

What impact will the full reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or not as the case may be, have on the review and its subsequent implementation?

As my hon. Friend knows, the order will put an end to the transfer test—the 11-plus—and introduce new admission arrangements that will preserve academic excellence, but also give an opportunity that is currently denied to others to raise their skills and improve their opportunities. The article on academic selection in the order will come into effect after midnight on 24 November if restoration of the Assembly and devolved Government has not occurred. If it has occurred, it will be for the Assembly to decide what policy will follow the end of the transfer test that the order will otherwise bring into effect.

I note that the Minister says that the changes that will be debated today are significant. They will change forever the face of education in Northern Ireland, and for the worse. They are opposed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland, they have been voted against in this House by the whole Northern Ireland Office ministerial team, and they are now being used as a crude form of political blackmail. Does not he feel in any way embarrassed about that inconsistency, and the crude way in which these provisions are being used to try to blackmail people politically into entering into government with Sinn Fein? Will he—

Order. I think that the Secretary of State knows that the hon. Gentleman is displeased about this matter.

You are absolutely correct, Mr. Speaker; the hon. Gentleman has often expressed his vehement displeasure to me, as have his colleagues. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman, who has properly taken a close and expert interest in education policy, that this reform comes after a long period of consultation, after independent advice, and after huge support within the education profession and among many communities right across Northern Ireland. Let me also remind him of a survey in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, which shows that many grammar schools in Northern Ireland

“have accepted pupils with C2 and D grades”

for the next academic year. It says that the statistics

“raise serious questions about the need for a long-running campaign to preserve academic selection in Northern Ireland.”

The hon. Gentleman himself is quoted as saying:

“The grammar school lobby needs to sort this out if we want to have a strong case for keeping academic selection.”

In other words, falling school rolls are forcing this change anyway. We want to ensure that everybody gets new skills.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about blackmail, he asked me to put this decision into the Assembly, and that is precisely what I have done. If he wants to restore devolved self-government by 24 November, he and his colleagues can help to shape the new admissions policy.

The Secretary of State will be aware that under the education order to be debated today, academic ability and aptitude testing must not be taken into account for admission to secondary provision. Is he aware of the fear in the rural community that lack of proximity to secondary provision will create a postcode selection process, to the detriment of our excellent rural schools—leading to their decline, and that of the rural community? What action does he intend to take to ensure that that is not a primary criterion for admission to secondary provision, and to safeguard the rural schools and community in that respect?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the overall policy. He makes an important point about rural schools and the argument that there might be a postcode lottery. That is why consultation is now under way. If restoration occurs, it will be for the Assembly and the devolved Executive to carry out the admissions arrangements and the pupil profile configuration after abolition of the 11-plus. That will give schools the protection that he desires. However, I tell him, as I told the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), that falling rolls, with 50,000 empty desks in schools, rising to 80,000, mean that there must be radical reform in education and school provision right across Northern Ireland; otherwise, standards will not be where they should be, and will fall.

The Secretary of State is intent on ramming through the House a policy of prohibiting by law academic selection in Northern Ireland, although just over a month ago, he personally went into the Lobby here to defeat a measure that would have had a comparable effect in terms of selection in England. How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly justify a Government policy that rests on such flagrant double standards?

Because, quite simply, it does not. On double standards, I shall quote what the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), told sixth-formers in Basildon on 9 January 2006:

“I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”

If the hon. Gentleman is consistent with his leader’s policies, and if those policies are being developed and spread consistently across the UK, he should support the order. By the way, grammar school excellence will be preserved under the new policy; grammar schools are becoming increasingly more open in their selection, for the reasons described by the Belfast Telegraph this morning.

I am happy to stand by my leader’s and my party’s policy of defending our grammar schools where they have public support, whether that is in Northern Ireland or in my constituency in Buckinghamshire. The Secretary of State is committed to a Government policy that, in respect of England, gives parents in a particular area the power to determine whether academic selection continues. If the Secretary of State has confidence that his policy is in the interests of children in Northern Ireland, why does he not have the confidence to rely on the judgment and votes of parents, as he does in England?

I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman, and I repeat, that if the Assembly is restored by 24 November, locally elected politicians can take the decision. I would have thought that he welcomed that. As he knows, and as the Belfast Telegraph survey confirms this morning, the truth is that grammar schools will be retained, along with the excellence for which they are known. The real problem that the hon. Gentleman fails to address is that Northern Ireland’s education system has been failing those of average and below-average achievement. We need to address that; this policy will do so.