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Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

Volume 684: debated on Monday 10 July 2006

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 is to improve the education of every child in Northern Ireland by providing the legislative framework for a package of reforms. I have not come to the House tonight to move for the abolition of grammar schools.

This is a very important order for Northern Ireland. It is the culmination of many years of research, consultation and discussion at local level. The changes that it makes are home-grown solutions to Northern Ireland issues, not something being imposed externally. I say many years: it is at least six, possibly eight, the process having started in 1997-98. I was told some months ago that this is all the brainchild of Martin McGuinness; that is simply not true. The decisions that he made when he was Education Minister are irrelevant to the order.

Northern Ireland is often portrayed as having an excellent education system to rival any other. It is true that, at the top end of the achievement scale, more pupils leave school with good GCSEs and A-levels, but the overall performance figures for pupils on average are on a par with or slightly below those for England. Northern Ireland has one of the most unequal education systems in the world. It has the lowest proportion of working adults without a degree and the lowest rates of adult literacy in the United Kingdom. Such a system cannot be regarded in total as excellent.

The reality is that the current education system was designed for a different century and a different world. The reforms in the order retain and build on existing strengths, but introduce changes necessary to ensure that Northern Ireland has an education system fit for the 21st century. We cannot ignore the global economy. The nature of employment in Northern Ireland has changed. Heavy industry and large-scale manufacturing have all but disappeared to be replaced by smaller high-tech enterprises and service industries. There is increasing competition from India and China. The pace of change is accelerating. Northern Ireland must therefore adapt and be more innovative if it is to be able to compete successfully.

Education has a vital role in providing Northern Ireland with a workforce that is well educated and equipped with the knowledge and skills to secure Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. But the draft order does more than that.

Some people claim that the selective education system in Northern Ireland provides a ladder up for many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing them with opportunities that they would not otherwise get and rewarding merit rather than the ability to pay. The evidence shows that that is a myth. Why else would pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds be so severely unrepresented in grammar schools? It is not because they do not have the ability; it is because of the socially divisive nature of this selective system of education in Northern Ireland. The order will open up opportunities for all pupils. For the individual, it will shape provision in a way that enables all young people to fulfil their potential, rather than create an élite at the expense of the majority. It will be more flexible and innovative, capable of providing a wider range of opportunities to accommodate individual needs and interests. It will ensure that young people learn about the responsibilities as well as the rights of citizenship and the importance of tolerance and mutual understanding.

Broadly speaking, there are three key issues with which I shall deal—the curriculum, the entitlement framework and admissions—and, to a lesser extent, the issue of suspensions and expulsions, which is not central.

We have an academic style of curriculum that is not appropriate for all pupils and is overly prescriptive, leaving little room for teachers to adapt teaching to individual pupils' needs. The order introduces a revised and more flexible curriculum, which is less prescriptive in content, but with a sharper focus on the educational fundamentals, such as literacy and numeracy, that employers tell us they need. It includes a new foundation stage, similar to that which already applies in England, to provide a smoother transition from pre-school to formal education.

The revised curriculum has been extensively consulted on and has been welcomed by teachers. It will give back to Northern Ireland’s highly skilled teachers the opportunity to address pupils’ individual needs. It will lay a solid foundation for study at GCSE, A-level and beyond, developing young adults ready to take on the challenges that I mentioned of employment, training and higher education.

The second area is the entitlement framework. Current arrangements deny many young people an adequate choice of courses at GCSE and A-level. The order introduces an entitlement framework that will guarantee all pupils, irrespective of where they live or the school that they attend, access to a wide range of academic and applied courses. That entitlement will allow pupils to choose subjects that engage and motivate them, rather than be restricted to what is available within the school. The wider choice is planned to be provided through collaboration among schools and, importantly, with further education colleges, enabling resources, facilities and expertise to be used in the most effective way. It will be for schools to decide which of the wide array of accredited courses they want to offer.

There is another dimension to this, which I know your Lordships will welcome, as this House has taken a long and constructive interest in promoting integrated education in Northern Ireland. Delivering the entitlement framework will open opportunities for schools from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland to work with each other and with their local further education college to extend and enrich the number and type of courses available, and for young people to meet in joint classes. We see this as an exciting development and one which, over time, has the potential to break down or reduce the unhelpful barriers that still exist in Northern Ireland. The opportunities for joint provision will also be examined as part of the current review of the schools estate by Professor Sir George Bain.

I now come to admissions, which I know will be seen as the most controversial aspect of the order—the package; it is a package of the two issues to which I have already referred and admissions. Admissions concerns how pupils transfer between primary and post-primary education.

The current admission arrangements, which determine a child’s future at age 11 on the basis of two one-hour tests, are no longer relevant to today’s needs. They distort the primary school curriculum; those who can afford it can pay for extra coaching; and they constitute a high-stakes process that puts unacceptable pressure and anxiety on pupils, parents and, of course, teachers. The result is a system that leaves the majority of pupils being perceived, and perceiving themselves, as failures at the age of 11. Rather than providing a ladder out of disadvantage, there is a significant bias against the less well-off in the test results themselves, which is compounded later in public examinations.

Of course it is possible to quote examples—I expect that we shall hear some tonight—of personal experiences of how getting a grammar school place made a difference to the life chances of those from modest circumstances, but the current facts tell a different story. Only 7 per cent of those at grammar schools receive free school meals, compared to 28 per cent in other secondary schools. In some mainly Protestant schools, the figure is as low as 3 per cent. Far from bridging the social and economic divide, the present arrangements perpetuate it.

It is simply not right that a child’s future should be determined at age 11, nor is it right to segregate children into two discrete groups at that age. The Government are committed to ending academic selection in Northern Ireland and to a new system that involves parents choosing schools rather than schools selecting pupils.

I am always conscious when this case and other cases are put that the Minister concerned has usually been a beneficiary of the system that he or she seeks to change. I was not, I never sat the 11-plus; I had been off school for a year. However, I did sit a 13-plus and went to a secondary technical school in Birmingham. Those are my credentials, which are important, because otherwise your case can be partly undermined. It is perfectly good to go through a system and then say that it should be changed but, sometimes, people do not volunteer their personal experience. I think it right that I do.

The Government acknowledge the current process to restore devolution. Therefore the draft order now includes a provision that leaves the decision on academic selection to Northern Ireland politicians, provided they are up to the job of working together to restore the Assembly by 24 November. If the Assembly is restored by that date, a vote in the Assembly will be required to end academic selection. That is contained in Article 1(6) and (7). However, we cannot allow the uncertainty to continue indefinitely, and if the Assembly is not restored by that date, the provision ending academic selection after the 2008 tests will become effective immediately. These tests will take place in November for entry in 2009, so it will be 2010 before the new system starts. This is not a quick fix tomorrow; it is four years away.

Understandably, noble Lords will ask whether, if we are ending academic selection, we are also ending grammar schools. Contrary to what is alleged, I can rightly claim that I have not come here tonight to bury the grammar schools. Grammar schools will continue because the order will not end them. They will remain, and will continue to offer a largely academic curriculum, alongside the new specialist schools and schools offering a curriculum with a more technical or applied emphasis. We believe that parents are best placed to decide which of the various types of provision available best suits the needs of their children. In these circumstances, future transfer arrangements will be on the basis of informed parental choice. Parents will have a wide range of information about their child through the pupil profile and advice from the primary schools. They will also have information about what each post-primary school has to offer. If parents wish, they can have discussions with prospective post-primary schools and even let those schools see the pupil profile, although the schools cannot use the information in it exclusively to decide whom to admit.

The key point is that this will not be a high-stakes process. It recognises that children develop and mature at different rates and that their interests and aspirations change. No child will be labelled a failure at 11. Instead, as part of this package, which is not only about admissions but about the curriculum and the entitlement framework, the new arrangements will provide for key decisions about children’s future pathways to be made from age 14, when course choices are made. If schools are oversubscribed, they will decide whom to admit by applying admissions criteria which they have chosen from a menu of criteria prescribed by the Department of Education. These will include criteria such as siblings, feeder schools or the parish, which are already widely used by post-primary schools, with an appeal system, and will be partly in regulations. They must be widely consulted on, which they will be next year.

The new admissions arrangements will be fair, open and transparent. Fundamentally, they will ensure that no individuals or groups of pupils, such as those living in rural areas, will be disadvantaged. To suggest that they will result in postcode selection is blatant scaremongering. Nor is there any reason to suppose that they will lead to a dilution of the academic ethos of grammar schools. This is an important point. Grammar schools are an enormous percentage of the schools in Northern Ireland; they constitute a third of the schools and have 40 per cent of the pupils. This is completely different from the situation in England. However, the evidence is that a wider intake does not dilute the academic ethos of a school—we can see this in today’s figures—simply because of the drop in pupil numbers in Northern Ireland. There are 50,000 spare places in schools.

The current statistics show that grammar schools in recent years have been admitting a much wider range of transfer grades than before, but this has not had a detrimental effect on their examination performance. According to the last figures I saw, for 2004-05, only two out of the 69 grammar schools had exclusively A-grade entrance, and 82 per cent had an intake that went as far as grades C and D. Today, 10 per cent of grammar school pupils are at C and D grades. The academic performance of grammar schools is not being diminished by having a wider intake, so no one can argue that there is a narrow, high academic intake of grade-A pupils. One only has to look at what is there today and see the results.

Some claim that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland oppose the changes, and I have no doubt that we will hear that claim tonight. It is somewhat disingenuous. The statistic most frequently quoted—I have seen it lots of times—is that 64 per cent of the replies to the household response forms in 2002 advocated the retention of academic selection. That was 64 per cent of the 16 per cent of the population who responded—hardly a majority. However, 57 per cent of the same parents in the same survey said that they wanted the transfer test abolished and the same criteria for all. Some 77 per cent of them wanted parental preference. The implication of those two figures is that they wanted a different type of test, but I understand that, since 1947, there have been 10 different types of test in Northern Ireland at 11-plus, each of which has lasted for about five years before they worked out that it was not fit for purpose and some new test came along.

The issues involved are too complicated to be reduced to yes/no answers. The Assembly Education Committee acknowledged that when it advised the then Minister on consultation methods. This is sound advice. The reality is that there remains a wide diversity of views on this issue, and it is the Government’s duty to reach a decision in the best interests of all. That is what we have done. The Government should also give local politicians the opportunity finally to decide the matter if they are back at work by 24 November. It is in their hands. If it is the most important thing for the future of Northern Ireland, they will get the Assembly working, which is what they should be doing in the first place. There will be no excuse for buck-passing then.

Finally, I referred to suspensions and expulsions. From time to time, the normal sanctions for poor behaviour are not sufficient and it is necessary to suspend or, in some extreme cases, expel a pupil. Following consideration of responses to the consultation, the Government have decided to put on hold their plans for a common expelling authority. However, to secure greater consistency and fairness, all schools will be required to act in accordance with a common scheme for suspension and expulsion.

The draft order also contains a number of minor amendments to the education law, including amendments on behalf of the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

I have set out what the education order will achieve. An amendment to the Motion, which will be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, would of course postpone these much-needed reforms to the education system in Northern Ireland. Manyof those reforms are closely aligned with the recommendations made in 2001 by the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, not Westminster. This committee was representative of all the main political parties in Northern Ireland. Approving the amendment to the Motion would deprive children of the opportunities recommended by that committee. In the draft order, these translate as revising the curriculum, which will provide the flexibility I mentioned to tailor teaching to individual pupils’ needs while still providing the basics, and cover the range of academic and vocational courses, which the entitlement framework provides, and the greater flexibility for pupils to change direction as they develop and mature, all of which helps to engage and motivate children to learn and raise standards for all. The Government believe that ending academic selection is in the best interests of all children in Northern Ireland. The process to restore the Assembly is in place, and the Government have therefore provided an opportunity for Northern Ireland politicians to vote on ending academic selection, but it cannot be delayed after 24 November.

The review has already gone on for over six years. I have lost count of the number of direct-rule Ministers who have been involved in this. Tony Worthington, my honourable friend in the other place, was one of the first Education Ministers after the Labour Government came to power in 1997. We cannot allow the uncertainty about the future to continue. Given what I have said, this is about much more than the narrow issue of academic selection. There is a knock-on effect when pupils change courses at 13 to 14, which sets the pattern for the rest of their courses, and there is the effect on primary schools. This is a package that includes the curriculum changes, the entitlement framework, and knocking off the narrow academic selection of the 11-plus.

To approve the amendment would be a retrograde step, so I hope that in due course the House will approve the Motion. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved.—(Lord Rooker.)

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “That” and insert “this House declines to approve the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 until the people of Northern Ireland have been given the opportunity to approve the proposals contained therein in a manner analogous to the procedures followed in regard to similar proposed changes in England”.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very proud to address your Lordships’ House tonight as the product of a grammar school education. I went to the Wallace High School, which is very much part of the community in Lisburn, County Antrim. That school takes boys and girls from every walk of life, and gives them a huge range of opportunities. It is certainly not a case of money or resources. It is about an educational ethos. There is a fundamental belief among the teachers that every pupil is capable of achieving his or her best. Many pupils went on to the Queen’s University, Belfast, and other highly regarded universities in Great Britain and Dublin. Many of us were the first in our families to go to university. We owed that opportunity to the schools which helped us to fulfil our potential. That is the secret of success of good schools, and so often it is grammar schools which have lead the way.

In Northern Ireland, grammar schools represent an enduring excellence in our state education system. By every measure, Northern Ireland grammar schools outperform all other schools in the Kingdom—maintained, specialist, fee-paying or academy. Pupils at grammar schools achieve better GCSE and A-level results, and provide more added value, to use current education jargon. Northern Ireland’s grammar schools are truly vehicles for social mobility. The fact that I am standing here tonight and addressing this House is proof of that.

When Labour—hardly traditionally supportive of grammar schools—was elected in 1997, it chose in England a totally different approach from that which it is now pursuing in Northern Ireland. It put in place legislation that would allow parents to hold ballots on the future of grammar schools in their area. A few campaigns were started. None has succeeded. Some would argue that the cost of such campaigns could have been used to better educational purposes. But it seems intuitively correct that regions or communities should decide what is best for their children. That is truly local democracy.

Grammar schools in Northern Ireland, unlike in England, educate almost half of the children in the Province, yet the Government are committed to making it unlawful to select pupils on the grounds of academic ability. No matter that the public in Northern Ireland want to keep their grammar schools or that standards will fall. What is their crime? It is to be delivering the excellence in education and the sort of superb schooling that every parent wants for their children.

I believe that the future of our education system lies in the need to remove as far as humanly possible the baleful influence of politicians. Politicians, driven by ideology alone, should not be allowed to wipe away an entire school structure. Schools should succeed or fail on one basis alone—the quality of the education that they provide to our children.

Following the publication of the Burns report into post-primary education in Northern Ireland in October 2001, the then Minister of Education in the devolved Administration at Stormont, Martin McGuinness, set in train a very involved consultation process on its recommendations. When just over half the responses had been returned to the department, he declared:

“I have 100,000 responses sitting in my Department and those are the people that count”.

The results were published in October 2002. The responses from some quarter of a million Northern Ireland households—which equate, proportionately speaking, to responses from some 5 million households in England—included those from 162,000 parents and 21,000 teachers. It showed that 57 per cent of households, 58 per cent of parents and 64 per cent of teachers were in favour of abolishing the divisive 11-plus, yet 64 per cent of households, 63 per cent of parents and 62 per cent of teachers favoured the retention of some form of academic selection. Opinion on these issues was seen to cross both the class and religious divides. An independent “omnibus survey” of a random sample of the population, which was taken at the same time, confirmed those results. Moreover, the BBC survey in January 2004 and the Belfast Telegraph survey in September 2005, again with random samples, indicate remarkably consistent support for academic selection.

In December 2005, Ms Angela Smith, the then Minister with responsibility for education, published the draft order and simultaneously released the results of a consultation on admissions arrangements which was completed six months ago. While the figures do not appear in the document, the Minister admitted that at least 90 per cent of the responses to the consultation supported academic selection. The Government therefore have deliberately chosen to ignore the outcome of every public consultation and test of opinion on the issue over a period of more than three years and instead seek to impose a policy against the will of the people.

At no time have the people of Northern Ireland had an opportunity to influence the pattern of education reform through their elected representatives. A majority of locally elected politicians oppose this order, which would not pass if our local Assembly were functioning. There are obviously different perspectives on why the Northern Ireland Assembly is not functioning, but it is safe to say that it would be inconceivable for a Government, having promised the people their say, to impose such huge changes in any other part of the United Kingdom against the will of the people and a majority of elected representatives in that area.

In England, the issue is handled with great sensitivity, as highlighted by a statement by the Department for Education and Skills. It states:

“Where selection exists, the government believes in local decision-making as to whether it should continue and has put in place mechanisms to allow this to happen”.

I simply say to noble Lords that the Government have no argument on why they have accorded this right to the people of England while denying it to the people of Northern Ireland. I therefore ask for your support on this amendment. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “That” and insert “this House declines to approve the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 until the people of Northern Ireland have been given the opportunity to approve the proposals contained therein in a manner analogous to the procedures followed in regard to similar proposed changes in England”.—(Lord Rogan.)

My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. First, I thank the Minister for laying the Government’s case before us in his customary manner—very clear and very precise. For once, on Northern Ireland business, there are many things in the Minister’s opening statement with which I do not agree. It is rare that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I disagree over fundamental matters concerning Northern Ireland. My main dissent concerns admissions and academic selection. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has made clear, this issue has been around a long time. I believe, and I am cynical enough to think, that we are debating it in this manner today, with a possible Division ahead, only because the right honourable Peter Hain, the Secretary of State, has said that he wants this as a tool for negotiation to force the parties together or else to hand a present to the last Minister of Education in the Stormont Assembly.

During the progress of the Education and Inspections Bill, the Government have rightly declared and defended a commitment to supporting high standards in schools. We fully support them in this and hope that they will see it through to the end. They have already seen off an attempt from their Back Benches to abolish all academic selection by 2009, and instead, as has already been said, are giving parents the choice, through a ballot, over whether their school remains selective or not.

That is the right way to do it: to focus on the achievements of each individual school and its relationship with the community it serves. Why then are they not pursuing the same well judged policy in Northern Ireland? This order will abolish academic selection forcibly, and yet it is being promoted by the same Government who voted against the Back-Bench amendment—their own Back-Bench amendment—I mentioned earlier in the Education and Inspections Bill. Although it has been heartening to see the Government rise above old political knee-jerk ideology in the education Bill, it is the more discouraging to see them return to the same discredited theories when they legislate for Northern Ireland.

Why is this the case? The same arguments work equally well, if not better, when related to Northern Ireland. The schools system in Northern Ireland has shown itself more than capable of producing not just equal results to England and Wales, but better. In 2003-04 some 60 per cent of all pupils in Northern Ireland achieved five or more GCSEs at grade C or above. The system is clearly capable of maintaining those educational high standards. In another place, the Government explained that they are worried not only about allowing capable students to excel themselves, but are also concerned to ensure that no child is allowed to drop out of the system in the pursuit of higher grades for others. This must always be guarded against, yet the figures show that here again the Northern Irish system is better at doing this than that of England and Wales. Some 3 per cent of Northern Irish children fail to get any GCSEs above grade C, and while that is of course still too high, it is better than the 4 per cent in England and the worrying 7 per cent in Wales.

The existing system in Northern Ireland does not fail children, either in providing a good education for as many as possible or in allowing students to achieve a high standard. Why are we risking the system with summary execution? If the Government are really concerned about the 3 per cent of children who fail to get any GCSEs above grade C, would they not be better off looking at the continuing culture of organised crime and paramilitarism in the poorest areas of Northern Ireland than attacking a system that has served Northern Irish communities well despite incredible odds? It is both counterproductive and hypocritical.

We know that for years children in many families in Northern Ireland have been deprived of a proper and fair education, and those standards have been poor with a high rate of illiteracy, especially in the Shankill Road. But those of us who have been there—and I have accompanied the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, and others in the past to see the schools on the so-called Peace Line—have seen the appalling challenge parents face in trying to get their children to school at all, let alone that of teachers trying to teach the children. For more than 20 to 30 years they did not know whether a bomb was going to come through the window. That is why there is a divide in the standard of education in Northern Ireland. That is why so many children in the poorer areas have not had a chance to receive a fine education. We tried very hard to put a part of the University of Ulster in Springvale at the back of the Shankill, and I backed that proposal hard with the millennium group and others. The Government refused it: not enough money.

It is not just the contents of this order that Members on these Benches oppose, it is the very nature of how it is being imposed. The Government’s summary of responses to the consultation of this order lists those who support the prohibition on academic selection. But hidden away near the end, they are forced to admit that it was opposed by the majority of the public. Public feeling towards academic selection has been the subject of so many consultations and reviews that it is extraordinary that the Government still seem to be in doubt about it. The Household Response consultation in 2002 showed that 64 per cent of the public support academic selection, more than twice the number who oppose it. We have already heard about a poll by the Belfast Telegraph last year which showed that two-thirds of the public support academic selection, and yet another poll taken in February this year showed over 90 per cent support for it.

To go ahead with something which is clearly so unwelcome and so sensitive in an undemocratic way to a large, if not a majority, swathe of those who will have to suffer the consequences is arrogant in the extreme. The Government showed clearly their commitment to being a “listening Government” when the then Education Minister, Angela Smith, was reported in the Belfast Telegraph as dismissing the consultation response with the words, “not a referendum”. It appears that the Government have no interest in listening to the public unless they say the right thing. One might wonder why on earth they bothered having the consultations at all.

As a nod to the concept of democracy, the Government have conceded a proviso that the power to ban academic selection in the order will not come into force if the devolved institutions are restored on 24 November. That is something we fought for in this House and argued with the Government in the corridors. But they think that they are turning it to their own benefit: they are going to use it as a sledgehammer to hit the unionists with in order to force them back into government with Sinn Fein. But if that does not happen, the ban will automatically come in the day after. Continuing with the ban after conceding this proviso is extraordinary. The Government are simply engaged in a crude exercise to blackmail unionists into a power-sharing Government. “Form a Government with Sinn Fein by 24 November”, they say, “or the ban on academic selection comes into force the day after”. They should know by now that the people of Ulster do not yield to bullying.

My Lords, I support the order and oppose the amendment proposed bythe noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I thank the Minister for setting out the proposals in this order. It is a very difficult issue and I know that views are sincerely held. But there are two desires: one is to make certain that there is no selection in secondary education. It is a desire of the Government and that of Members on these Benches. The second desire is to have devolved decision-making. Given that there are 20 minutes left for debate, I have to say that this is not the way to discuss the merits of comprehensive education and the whole business of secondary education provision in Northern Ireland. There has to be a better way of dealing with major issues like this.

It should be dealt with in Stormont, of course. The new Stormont Government were set up by the Good Friday agreement in 1998 and supported by a referendum on 23 May, which is now more than eight years ago. Considerable efforts have been made to get it up and running by 24 November, but if that date sees no success, during the eight and a half years since the agreement the Assembly will have functioned properly for only two-and-a-half years. Devolution would give Northern Ireland the opportunity to create successes or, in my view, to make mistakes. But we are without devolution at present and the issue is whether difficult or controversial decisions be made now.

The order delivers a neat way of going forward. On the one hand would be the ending of the 11-plus. It appears that the test in itself has few friends. One suggestion is to bring in a child-friendly form of selection, which perhaps is not that controversial, but the major element is ending selection unless it is stopped by a new Stormont Assembly. I have been opposed to selective schools all my life and happily it is Liberal Democrat policy, but if the Assembly is restored, that is the opportunity and challenge of devolution.

Who is in favour of selection? The people in favour of it are those closely associated with grammar schools and two of the political parties, the UUP and the DUP. As always, no one is shouting the odds for the preservation of secondary modern schools—we have not had that for the past 30 or 40 years in England. Who is supporting the comprehensive schools? It appears to be many of the educational professionals, many of the unions and many of the political groups—Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the PUP Alliance. What is proposed is a unionist solution because comprehensive education is the norm in England, Scotland and Wales. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, refers only to the change in the rump of grammar schools that are left in England, not to the totality of schools.

If devolution is re-established, it will be a major success. If that happens and the comprehensive education argument fails, many staunch supporters of educational change will need to campaign, and I wish them well if that happens. If devolution is not re-established, selection will cease, but, sadly, devolution could be years and years away.

We have been invited to talk about our personal experience; mine is quite strange. I attended a primary school in Yorkshire and sat the 11-plus in February 1953. I can even remember some of the questions. In April 1953, the whole of my intake was sent off to the secondary modern school because we were to be replaced by four or five year-olds. When we got to the secondary modern school, the staff did not know what to do with us—they had not had a group of primary school pupils in their final year—so they called us “remove”. In May 1953, I was stood in the assembly hall when the results were announced by the head teacher of that school—the headmaster we called him in those days—and he read out the names. Happily mine was one of them, but I saw in that place the reaction to the change that was going to affect lives. I went from that assembly into a class and the woman who was teaching that class said, “I’ve listened to what the head said in the hall and anyone who is any good is going”. What a thing to say to those young children. Now whether or not that should have been said, that is what happens when you have selection. My Lords, support the order.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him a question. He wishes to abolish grammar schools in Northern Ireland—that is a position to take—so why is it that he has not supported policies to abolish grammar schools which are run by Liberal councils and which have been run by them in the past? Is it now the Liberal policy to abolish those grammar schools in England?

My Lords, we have devolution in England in terms of those serving in local government. I have no notice of this in any specific local authority. I know what I did in the 25 years that I served as a local councillor and I know what successes I achieved in those circumstances.

My Lords, before the debate continues, perhaps I may draw to your Lordships’ notice that this debate is not strictly time limited. However, dinner-hour business normally takes about an hour in order to comply with the other business of the House. I have been asked to draw that to your attention; the answer is in your Lordships’ hands.

My Lords, I oppose the amendment of my noble friend Lord Rogan but not because I do not understand his intention in moving it. It would be great if this issue could be left to our own Northern Ireland Assembly, and I speak as one who truly believes in the Assembly. Indeed, during the referendum I actively campaigned for a yes vote. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who is in his place, for his courage and foresight in the work that he and his party did at that time.

But, in opposing the amendment, my fear is that the education question could be set back for a very long time. Some of the information that has been sent out opposing the education order states that cross-community support would not be given. Meanwhile, the education of children and young people in Northern Ireland is simply put on the back burner—for how long, no one knows. I ask your Lordships to oppose the amendment.

My Lords, I start by declaring two interests: first, I am the proud product of a Northern Ireland grammar school; secondly, and perhaps more relevantly, I was the Minister who brought the last major education reform order for Northern Ireland to the House when the Minister and I were Members of another place. He will recall that that education order protected the grammar schools and established the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. The Catholic bishops, who were as concerned as I was about standards in some of the maintained schools in the Catholic tradition, wanted stronger powers to raise standards in those schools, and Parliament gave them those powers.

The order introduced a new curriculum and a cross-community aspect to that curriculum. I was interested in what the Minister said about flexibility. What he actually meant was that the focus of that new curriculum is to be diluted. That is not in the educational interests of Northern Ireland’s children. The order also set up new curriculum and examination authorities precisely to drive ahead the quality of education for all the children of Northern Ireland and, if I may be permitted a personal comment, it also included the one piece of legislation of which, in 11 and a half years as a Minister, I am most proud: it put the option of integrated education on the statute book. There was one integrated school in Northern Ireland when that order was brought forward; today there are 50 or so, going on 60. That is a consequence of the far-sighted decision-making of this House. I remind the Minister that his party voted against that reform order.

The Minister has referred to entitlement in the context of it being a whole new exciting dimension, where schools in Northern Ireland, by implication, for the first time will be able to work together, to collaborate and, on the wonderful horizon, to collaborate with further education colleges. The Minister does not appear to be aware that that has been going on in Northern Ireland for years and years—and it does not need an education reform order today to put it in place.

However, I take some comfort from the fact that in the 1970s, the previous Labour Government also decided to abolish grammar schools and put comprehensive education in place. When we took office in 1979, there had been no delivery. It seems to be a constant theme of Labour Governments. I hope that history will repeat itself.

The Minister said something that I would not have been surprised to hear from his right honourable friend the Secretary of State. But I would have expected better of the Minister; he knows that I hold him in high regard, and have done so for many years. He said—and I quote him as accurately as my memory will permit—that if education was the most important thing in Northern Ireland, devolution would be back in place by the middle of November.

I was one of only two Ministers who served in Northern Ireland for more than six years, and I bore the brunt of the attempts by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum to kill me and my colleagues and to disrupt democratic government. This Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—implied that if education is the most important thing, devolution will be back in place. He and I know, and the House knows, that security, democratic government and accountability are all more important to all the people of Northern Ireland than is education. As a former Education Minister in Northern Ireland and a product of the system—I am a graduate of the primary university in Northern Ireland—I think I can speak with some authority, having borne the brunt and been the first Minister who started the peace process in the Province.

Incidentally, speaking of the peace process, the Government keep on using the Good Friday agreement as a reason for introducing policy. I remind the Minister that this piece of legislation would fail to meet the terms of the Good Friday agreement because the agreement requires that on contentious issues—which this is—there must be overwhelming support from both sides of the community. This legislation fails to meet the terms of the Good Friday agreement. It is educational dumbing down, if not something worse. I am sorry that the Government are using intimidatory tactics. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, on his speech and I, for one, will support the amendment.

My Lords, I wanted to ask the Minister a question before he sat down, but he sat down too quickly. He will understand that many of us here tonight are neither enthusiasts for the 11-plus nor against it. Some of us are concerned rather with consistency between the education system here and the education system we have the power to impose on Northern Ireland.

I recognise that grammar schools in Northern Ireland are a very different kettle of fish from grammar schools in the UK, where they are a minority. But the Minister mentioned the new specialist schools. They are not a minority in this country; they have become the majority. We are passing through this House a Bill which will give such schools the right to recruit up to 10 per cent of their intake on aptitude, but in the order, aptitude and ability are bracketed together as equally taboo. Can the Minister clarify whether, as a result of the order, specialist schools in Northern Ireland will therefore be treated differently from those in the UK?

My Lords, I have been at Westminster for the past 23 years, and here I have sought to uphold democracy. For 23 years before that I was a school teacher—I was a school principal for 16 of those years. This Order in Council is the negation of 46 years of my life and the destruction of the very principles of democracy that we in this House have been charged to defend.

I have the greatest respect for the Minister; it gives me no pleasure to say that he is no longer in Northern Ireland. I have sympathy with him in so far as he has been briefed to present his case based on one wrong premise after another. Bluntly, his case is wrong; if the premise is wrong, the argument is wrong and the conclusion is inevitably wrong.

The Government have allotted us 60 minutes in which to dismantle and destroy an educational tradition that has been a bulwark against poverty and ignorance and withstood the ravages of more than30 years of terrorism. That happened despite a parents’ petition that was, on Thursday last, presented in another place by Kate Hoey MP; despite a pupils’ petition—I have it in my hand—with several thousand signatures from an active group Pupils for Choice; and despite a public opinion poll on this order in the Belfast Telegraph where 90 per cent voted against. Is this rea1ly democracy at work? Are we going to sanction such educational vandalism that flies in direct opposition to parents representing the present, to pupils who signal the future and the experience of people such as Kate Hoey and me who have been past beneficiaries?

Do a Government who fail to consult, carry out any infrastructural audit or produce costings have any right to your Lordships’ support? Let me quantify that. On 30 June last year, in answer to a Written Question, I was told:

“It is not proposed that any such audit take place”.—[Official Report, 30/06/05; col. WA 45.]

On 30 November, I was told:

“It is not possible to assess the associated costs at this stage, but the position will be kept under review as new arrangements are developed”.—[Official Report, 30/11/06; col. WA 45.]

On 7 March this year I was told that,

“the Costello report, was not published for consultation”.—[Official Report, 7/03/06; col. WA 119-20.]

With planning and foresight of that calibre, is it any wonder that our troops in Afghanistan are under strength and ill equipped; that rapists and murderers are released from prison and back on to our streets and we do not know who they are or where they come from? Are we wise to trust a Government like this with our children's toys, let alone their futures?

This is about education for generations to come, about opportunity and social mobility. How can any Government be so pitifully naïve or callously undemocratic? How could we democrats justify such perversity? We have been told that what is proposed here today is, apparently, so trivial that it can be accepted here and now on the basis of 60 minutes’ debate and then repudiated on 24 November next if the Northern Ireland Assembly is, by then, up and running. No, my Lords, you are not dreaming; you are simply sharing my nightmare.

Should children be part of a coercive tactic designed to force a devolved arrangement on Northern Ireland? That is what the Government tell us they intend. Let us forget our impatience and frustration with the Assembly. I am an eager devolutionist—I always have been—but as a teacher and a democrat I cannot ever sanction children being sacrificed in the front line. This Order in Council will inevitably militate against the poor and will deprive the neediest of opportunity and the chance to achieve. Is that the value we put on democracy?

Democracy is ever a tender plant. As parliamentarians we must shelter it against abuse. Children are our hope for the future. They are tender plants too and it would be so wrong to allow them to be used as political pawns as this Order in Council would do. Tonight, democracy is on trial. I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Rogan.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I have received literature from different organisations and individuals, including Members of your Lordships' House, seeking my support for their particular stance on this issue. The measure before us this evening has been influenced by the report of an 11-strong working group led by the chairperson of the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, which was set up to provide advice on options for future arrangements for post-primary education. There has been much debate on this issue over several years, but little agreement on the way forward, with some widely diverging views being held, particularly, as we have heard tonight, on academic selection.

The working group’s unanimous view was that a clear and early decision on the future direction of post-primary education in Northern Ireland was needed. The working group also took the view that the interests of the pupils should be paramount, and considered that while high-achieving pupils perform well, the system was failing too many other pupils. As a result of its review, the working group concluded that the status quo was not an option, not least because changes already taking place for demographic reasons were having, and would continue to have, a great impact on future provision. By the end of the decade it is projected that the number of pupils in post-primary schools will have fallen by some 8 per cent or 12,600 pupils. By 2040, it is projected that the 11 to 18-age population will have fallen by a quarter.

There is already substantial over-capacity in the post-primary school estate, and in 2002 32 such schools had fewer than 300 pupils. Popular schools, including grammar schools, are likely to continue to fill to capacity, despite overall pupil numbers steadily declining, resulting in an increased number of small schools. Indeed, grammar schools are already admitting a wider-ability range of pupils, with an increasing number of pupils having the lower transfer grades C and D, which raises questions about the appropriateness of the curriculum being offered in the light of the broader range of ability of pupils in these schools.

On the other side of the coin, a smaller proportion of pupils will transfer into non-grammar schools. The figure is, I think, about 60 per cent non-grammar to40 per cent grammar, leading to an even greater concentration of socially and educationally disadvantaged pupils in non-grammar schools and an increase in the number of schools with low enrolments, raising serious questions about their future viability. Small post-primary schools cannot provide their pupils with the same level of curriculum choice as larger schools, to the disadvantage of the pupils concerned. In such a situation, pupils’ choices are constrained by what is available, rather than enabling them to take courses that are relevant to their needs and aptitudes—and, indeed, as shown by the 2002 skills monitoring survey, relevant to the needs of employers as well.

The working group proposed that schools to which pupils aged 11 should transfer should offer a broad general education, together with extension courses to widen and develop interests and which also reflect a school’s particular emphasis and ethos. At age 14 and beyond, schools would offer a wider variety of learning routes, whether in-house or in collaboration with other schools, the further education sector or other providers. The working group considered that age 14 was the earliest point at which major decisions involving greater choice for parents and pupils about the most appropriate learning routes or pathways should begin to be taken, whether vocational or academic or a mixture of both.

I believe that the working group on whose report the draft order is based made a compelling case for change—change based not on closing grammar schools, which would no doubt largely maintain an academic rather than a vocational ethos, but on an increasing choice of curriculum and courses in post-primary education to meet the differing needs of pupils and the needs of employers; change based on recognising and addressing the adverse impact of democratic movements and change on schools and pupils alike; change based on recognising the pressures, unfairness and distortions on so many pupils and the primary school curriculum of the transfer test and academic selection; and, as the working group stated quite clearly, change on which positive decisions are needed now.

My Lords, I am resplendent in wearing my honoured tie from the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, known as Inst. We have four Peers in the House today, showing what a good standard of education we have. Let me say straight away that I am not an educationalist. Noble Lords have heard from other noble Lords and fellow countrymen about how difficult this education order is, and I shall not be any different in my criticism of it. Forgive me if I repeat some of the points already made.

Interestingly enough, I am not criticising the Government for producing this order, but I am blaming them for a lack of knowledge and understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland, particularly in its schools. One has to go through over 30 years of violence to realise how well the education system coped with the mayhem, murder and violence. It is remarkable that schooling continued as efficiently as it did under such aggravating circumstances. There are a few things that the Government just do not understand but, principally, Government are supposed to operate by consensus, and the people of Northern Ireland do not want a change in their educational system, which has worked so well for so many years. My school was founded in 1810, and has an unblemished record of providing some of the best brains in Northern Ireland, which extended right through the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to this day. My former head boy was the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, and he is here this evening.

We are all grateful for the wonderful education we had, which is down to the system. I am not going to get into any religious discussions, but I want to point out that the schools which are under threat in this order obtain their pupils from a complete cross-section of the community in Northern Ireland. We recently met with the heads of Belfast Royal Academy; Lumen Christi College, Derry; and the Royal School, Dungannon. They all agreed on the unfairness of the proposed order. That is something the Government should understand.

For countless years the standard of education in Northern Ireland has been higher than that in Great Britain, and that continues to be the case. Discipline in Northern Ireland schools is much better, the teaching staff are much more compatible with the job, and a vast number of them have worked their entire professional life teaching in those schools that are now under threat. I could talk about the hundreds of letters that have been received by myself and my colleagues and about the many opinion polls that have been conducted, but my fellow Ulstermen will doubtless have made the same points in this debate.

I can talk about the document issued in June 2006 for a proposal for a draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order, prepared by Maria Eagle MP, the Minister with responsibility for education. She says in the foreword:

“All the responses were carefully considered”.

Thirty-nine amendments were discussed, of which two were agreed to. One was to allow Irish to be taught as a modern language and the other dealt with expulsions, both of which I support. What kind of a one-sided document is this, and what kind of a statement is it that says:

“I took particular account of the weight of arguments”?

That is just not correct. Very little account has been taken.

Your Lordships are going completely against the people, the educators and the teachers of Northern Ireland. This is a case where the absence of local government shows the vacuum that exists. I will only say in the strongest possible terms that the people do not want this, the pupils do not want it and neither do we. I urge the Government to drop it. In conclusion, I am proud to have been educated in a grammar school in Northern Ireland, and I hope that in the future many pupils will be able to say the same. I support the amendment.

My Lords, if I may, I will raise an issue on the order itself. This is the only opportunity one will have to do so in this debate. This issue echoes a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, whom I commend for his introduction, when Secretary of State, of the notion of integrated education. Integrated education offers a hope and a way forward for Northern Ireland of singular, proven merit. I would be grateful if, in summing up, the Minister would make reference to Article 6 of the order, which prescribes the broad curriculum content for every grant-aided school. That includes eight areas of learning.

I would particularly appreciate it if the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, would look at column 1 of Part III of Schedule 1 and see there that it refers to “local citizenship” and “personal development” as being two of the areas of learning that every curriculum should deal with. If the Northern Ireland Assembly is not back in action by the end of November, and if the Government therefore exercise powers directly in terms of subsidiary regulation under this order, will he ensure that the directions then given take full account of the unique benefits and advantages that local citizenship and personal development offer? I should declare an interest as I was involved professionally as a lawyer in setting up the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.

Having heard the debate, I realise that if you are a poor old Englishman, commenting on selection in Northern Ireland education is a bit like walking into a lion’s den, but I cannot resist making some quick points. First, nobody has referred to the fact that the five teachers’ unions in Northern Ireland support the measure strongly. It seems to me that that is extremely powerful evidence. Secondly, has anybody done a survey or attempted to do any research into the educational background of the men of violence in Northern Ireland? I would be amazed if there was not a correlation between violence and those who have gone to schools for those who failed the 11-plus. Thirdly, I understand the pride of the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Steinberg, in the grammar schools they attended. I absolutely sympathise with somebody, particularly from a working class background, who has been lifted out of a rather dreary prospect in life by dint of going to a grammar school. That is perfectly understandable. None the less, surely one has to face the fact that those grammar schools are privileged in the most powerful way—in the ability of the pupils who attend them. I suggest that is a much more potent privilege than any financial privilege.

Nobody has yet referred in this debate to the failures—the majority of children in Northern Ireland who do not get to a grammar school. Nobody has said a word about them, the schools they go to or the quality of those schools. However, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to that very briefly. I suggest that to ignore that majority because of the success of the minority is not good enough. How could one not expect grammar schools to be wonderful and to have better results on the basis of their selection? It is rather like an army that puts all the best soldiers into one regiment. It will fight better than the others. It is like a hospital that corralled all the best doctors—it would be better. I believe strongly that the ideal of educational egalitarianism is fundamental to a good society. I bow to the intimate knowledge of their province of noble Lords who come from Northern Ireland, but I urge them to give a thought to that. Nobody has referred to it.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, referred to parents favouring some form of selection. I believe that I have quoted him correctly. I favour some form of selection. I went to a state primary, passed the 11-plus and was then sent to an independent school—a highly privileged school. None the less I sent my children to a comprehensive, of which I was a governor. A good comprehensive has some form of selection—streaming. It does not constitute the dramatic and damaging trauma of failing or passing an 11-plus examination. I make those comments because, if I may say so, the debate so far has been rather dominated—

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he asked about the educational abilities of those involved in terrorism. I can tell him that, like himself, Gerry Adams passed the 11-plus.

My Lords, I knew that Gerry Adams had passed the 11-plus. It is pretty apparent that Gerry Adams is a smart fellow. I am talking about the run-of-the-mill men of violence. I would be very surprised indeed if they had all passed the 11-plus. It seems manifestly obvious that they did not, and that part of the baggage they carry comprises failure. That is all I wanted to say.

My Lords, I shall intervene very briefly. It is with a sense of dismay that we are being called on to vote on a matter of Northern Ireland. I do not want to.

I want to make one point to the Minister, and you may say that it is not relevant to the order. I know the Government care very much about the disadvantaged and those who do not succeed at school but it has been a scandal of our comprehensive system that year in, year out, and still today, we fail 20 per cent of our young people and they leave school at 16 functionally illiterate and innumerate. It is to our shame. The best thing the Government can do to help the education of Northern Ireland is address that problem. It can only be addressed by resource, and big resource, and it will be the best investment for Northern Ireland the Government could ever make.

My Lords, I do not propose to answer all the points as it would take too long and I sought to cover a lot of them in my opening remarks, so it would be repetition. I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken. There have been one or two quite specific questions which I can answer more or less as a yes or no. The answer to the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, is no. I do not seek to elaborate on that.

I will emphasise one thing. There were not many schools mentioned—the Royal Belfast Academical Institution was one. It is a well respected boys’ grammar school. Twenty per cent of the pupils get C and D grades. No one is arguing that it is not a good school with an academic ethos. In other words, the intake is totally different from what it would have been when Members of your Lordships’ House were younger boys.

Also, just to clear up any doubt, I hope that my remarks referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, are not taken out of context. They certainly were not meant in that way. I do not compare myself as a direct rule Minister to direct rule Ministers 10, 15 and 20 years ago. The pressures on us are nothing like what they were. I fully understand that and in no way was I seeking to demean the fact that security, rule of law and respect for the law are fundamental to a decent society. Without that, Northern Ireland will not be a decent society. It is not a normal civic society today. Some elements are missing. We are seeking to put those building blocks in place.

It is still the fact that Northern Ireland has fewer graduates at work than anywhere in the UK. This is probably because we are creating the graduates and they are exporting themselves because they do not want to live and work in a society that has been created by has-been politicians who have not actually got together to work. They export themselves to the UK and around the world. I am talking about graduates working in Northern Ireland, not creating graduates. It is a fact that adult literacy rates are poor anyway in the UK. It just so happens that in Northern Ireland they are poorer than anywhere else.

On the point that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, made, I do not have the figures in front of me but I remember seeing them in the early days and speaking to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, about them. I am not a Northern Ireland Minister any more, and anyway I was not the Education Minister, but the fact is, I was sitting with my colleagues discussing these issues. Some of the educational attainment among Protestant working-class boys is a damned disgrace. It was quite clear the Protestant working class was not being represented by working-class Protestants. They were being represented by people who were not pushing for those extra resources. That is the only way this could have been brought about. It is a really serious issue and I suspect that the point that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made is probably answered by low educational attainment, but these spivs and crooks certainly know how to manipulate the legal system for extortion. They can add up pounds, shillings and pence, if I can put it in that way. They know how to do blackmail and smuggling. They are not thick and stupid. They may not have an academic qualification but I do not think that is the criterion that one can use to measure this.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, asked me a specific question; of course, if the order fails, the provision he asks about will not come in anyway. But, Article 6(1)(c) provides an assurance that we have a continued commitment to integrated education. Regarding the point raised by the noble Lord, the curriculum framework will include citizenship and give particular emphasis to encouraging that aspect.

Finally, it is with some sadness that I point out—and the record can be checked—that at no time during the speech given by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, did the words “curriculum” or “entitlement framework” cross his lips. I think that that was very sad.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this evening’s debate. I have listened with care and attention to the Minister and I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.