HL Deb 26 January 2004 vol 656 cc1-3WS
Baroness Amos

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Education in Northern Ireland has made the following Ministerial Statement:

The Government are today publishing the report from the working group, chaired by Mr Steve Costello, which was asked to provide advice about new post-primary arrangements in Northern Ireland. Copies of the report are being placed in the Library. As part of its remit, the working group was asked to take account of the responses to the extensive consultation on the Burns report, including the diversity of views on academic selection.

The working group's advice has been carefully considered. The review of post-primary education has been ongoing for over five years. The uncertainty about the shape of post-primary education must be ended. The Government believe that the advice provides a sound basis for moving forward and have accepted the recommendations in full.

Many Northern Ireland schools enjoy a high reputation, but the current transfer and post-primary arrangements have significant weaknesses. They do well for some pupils but not for others, and there are inequalities of access. These issues must be addressed.

The key concept of the new arrangements is an entitlement framework to guarantee access for all pupils to a wide range of academic and vocational course options. This will directly address the current disparity of access to courses and, for the first time, secure a proportion of provision as being vocational. It will complement the revised statutory curriculum being proposed by the CCEA and will provide increasing choice and flexibility as pupils mature. Extensive collaboration among schools and with FE colleges will be required in order to secure the full range of provision in each locality.

The working group advised that any alternative selection arrangements would be no less problematical than the current arrangements; that it is educationally unsound to select pupils at age 11; that 11 is too early to commit pupils to particular pathways; and that it is unsound to believe that the more able should follow only academic courses. Academic selection will end and new transfer arrangements will be based on informed parental and pupil choice. An academic route will remain available, but pupils and parents will choose this pathway rather than being selected for it.

Ending the transfer tests immediately would create a huge demand for places in popular schools and it will be necessary to create the conditions for new arrangements to work. The entitlement framework and the associated collaboration arrangements will need to be in place. The pupil profile, being developed by the CCEA will also need to be in place to give parents the information to help them to make informed decisions, and new admissions criteria will be required to determine admissions where schools are oversubscribed. The group recommended that further work is required to determine those criteria and the Government will be taking this forward immediately.

To provide the time to create the conditions to end the tests, the working group recommended that the last tests should be held in Autumn 2008. The Government have accepted this advice.

The Government are not specifying what types of schools will exist under future arrangements. Any school offering access to the entitlement framework has a place in the new arrangements. These could include new school types such as specialist schools able to respond to local opportunities and needs. Schools where the curricular emphasis is on academic courses will continue to exist provided they meet the entitlement framework, including access to a range of vocational courses as well as academic courses.

Implementation will involve schools and FE colleges working together to develop arrangements for their area. Support will be provided to help them through this process and to facilitate local discussion and decision-making. Officials will be taking forward consideration of related policy issues such as school transport, open enrolment and the arrangements for school funding. This work, and the work on admissions criteria, will provide opportunities for consultation with education partners and others on the detailed aspects of the proposals.

The Government believe the working group has charted a way forward which deserves the widest support. It is a new and bold approach to guarantee access to an educational entitlement for every pupil irrespective of their background or circumstances, where they live, or the school they attend. It will impact on all schools and the Government will be working in partnership with the education sector to tailor the post-primary arrangements to meet the specific needs of Northern Ireland.

Pupils need to be prepared for life and work in a modern technological world and a global economic market where the pace of change is accelerating. The Government's decisions today create the conditions to take this forward, to raise standards for all pupils and provide the world-class education they rightly deserve.