Skip to main content

New resolve to bridge the divides

Can radical reform of Northern Ireland's schools help the province move beyond its troubled sectarian past? And could Scotland provide the inspiration?

News article image

Can radical reform of Northern Ireland's schools help the province move beyond its troubled sectarian past? And could Scotland provide the inspiration?

Old habits die hard in Northern Ireland, where academic selection is the defining feature of schools. Aspirational parents clamour to get their offspring into "good" grammar schools come what may, and avoid a perceived trapdoor of secondaries populated by supposedly less able pupils.

So education minister John O'Dowd has set himself on a collision course by taking an aggressive stance against selection. In a society where change is often stymied by deep social divides, he is steeling himself for a backlash - with arguments forged in Scotland.

Entrance tests for grammar schools were abolished and ran for the last time in 2008, but grammars have persisted in running their own, unregulated tests - in effect, there are now dozens of different 11-plus exams. But Mr O'Dowd, of Sinn Fein, has threatened to discipline any primary schools prepping pupils for selection exams.

He did not mince his words earlier this year: "What they are in fact doing is corrupting the curriculum," he said. If a school was found to continually ignore the regulations it could face sanctions, even a tribunal.

There have been howls of protest, not least from the Democratic Unionist Party's Mervyn Storey, chair of the Northern Ireland assembly's education committee, who described Mr O'Dowd's threat as "deplorable" and insisted that academic selection would be around as long as schools and parents wanted it.

The 11-plus, even though it no longer exists officially, is hard-wired into successive generations' experience of school. Reasoned debate can become drowned out by rivals divided not only by views on academic selection, but centuries of Irish history.

Mr O'Dowd can sum up his response to the outcry in a word: Scotland. In interviews he repeatedly invokes an education system that, as he sees it, is thriving. When he came to Scotland in August, he told TESS, during a visit to Midothian's Lasswade High, of his determination to learn from his neighbours across the Irish Sea.

"My belief in ending academic selection is not about ending academic excellence - it's actually about improving chances for all," he said. "And it does happen elsewhere. It happens in our nearest neighbour, here in Scotland, and the sky didn't fall in - the education system here is actually improving all the time. There are innovations taking place which I think we can learn from."

He lauds the relationships in Scotland between nursery, primary and secondary sectors, and "seamless" transition of young people from stage to stage. He has been impressed, too, by Curriculum for Excellence: "My view of education is that it has to be about adding value to the young person who then goes out to be a valuable member of society, and I see that within Curriculum for Excellence. There's that emphasis on the individual's ability to learn and teaching to the needs of the individual."

Mr O'Dowd is closely following changes to exams and qualifications, and met with Scottish Qualifications Authority officials as well as education secretary Michael Russell. He said officials would be travelling regularly to Scotland for "an ongoing conversation between ourselves and the Scottish administration".

Northern Ireland's education system is routinely described by British national newspapers as "world class". Its GCSE and A-level results are consistently better than England and Wales - although this year it relinquished top spot to England for A* grades - it performs well in international tests and graduate numbers have more than doubled in the past 15 years.

But scratch the surface and all is not well. The high- performing top end hides a "long tail" of underachievement, and some recent developments and political and social changes have revealed the true depth of the problems.

They range from the structural (too many schools, not enough money and thousands of empty desks) to the academic (many schools failing to meet GCSE targets and thousands of young people leaving without qualifications). Most experts accept that fundamental changes are needed.

After the drawn-out turmoil of the Troubles, and a decade of stop-start devolution, politicians are only now starting to get to grips with a system that still has deep sectarian and social fissures.

Academic segregation exists on a scale not seen in Scotland since the 1960s. The dominance of selective grammars - three in every 10 secondaries - is striking. And many parents, complaining about the pressure put on children by sitting multiple tests set by individual schools, crave a return to a single, nationally regulated test.

There is a huge disparity between the sectors. Some 94 per cent of grammar pupils gained five good GCSEs (A*-C grades including maths and English) last year, compared with 36 per cent in non-grammars.

And, as pupil rolls fall, grammars are increasingly accepting lower- achieving pupils to keep their numbers up. Emigration is all too common in Northern Ireland and the population is shrinking. This is having a drastic effect on the viability and performance of neighbouring secondary moderns, where the majority of children end up.

Caroline Karayiannis is principal of Movilla High in Newtownards, County Down, a 400-pupil secondary. The school is underachieving and undersubscribed and its future is uncertain.

"There is a huge amount of competition locally and it's really hard to make parents see us as a viable option for their child," says Mrs Karayiannis. "Whereas in the past the grammars were oversubscribed and we picked up a lot of able pupils who couldn't get into their parents' first or second preference, now there are fewer pupils in the system and the grammars are picking up more of those second and even third preferences."

Many pupils who enter Movilla have low literacy and numeracy levels. Last year only 22 per cent gained five good GCSEs, compared with 98 per cent at the nearby Regent House Grammar.

Mrs Karayiannis thinks the system is unfair. "If a child enters school with a reading age four years below their chronological age, we work hard to help them succeed," she says. "If they gain a D grade in a GCSE that's a huge achievement.

"A grammar might take a 12-year-old with a reading age of 12 and get them a C. You have to ask whether grammar schools are moving their pupils on by the same amount.

Movilla measures success not by exam grades but by what pupils are doing three years after they leave - a high percentage go on to further education, employment or training - but the system does not allow sophisticated comparisons, says Mrs Karayiannis.

In a period of falling rolls, grammar schools are full to capacity and secondary moderns are "bearing the brunt", says Tony Gallagher, professor of education and pro vice-chancellor at Queen's University Belfast. "Schools that are already disadvantaged are having further problems piled on top of them. Clearly, there's still a huge task ahead."

In June, the country's Catholic bishops promised to phase out academic selection in their sector. Their proposals call for all Catholic grammar schools to admit no more than 75 per cent of pupils through academic selection by 2014-15.

But Andy Brown, a teacher of 19 years and former president of the ATL education union, says giving up grammars completely will not come easily. "People in Northern Ireland have been asked to let go of a lot of things in recent years and to accept a lot of changes, and grammar schools are so embedded in our educational culture it's going to be difficult," he says. "We have come so far and jettisoned a lot of our old prejudices and we need to keep moving forward."

The Troubles have left a lasting legacy. While communities are coming together as never before, education is still split along religious lines. About 4,000 children attend a denominational playgroup and more than 65,000 teenagers are in segregated secondary education, according to Department of Education Northern Ireland (Deni) figures. The division has led to a duplication of schools that is unsustainable with a falling birth rate and less cash to go around.

"We have one of the most socially divided, segregated systems anywhere in the world," says Mark Langhammer, director of education union ATL Northern Ireland. "It's not just a ProtestantCatholic thing. We have too many schools and too many sectors."

Professor Gallagher agrees: "If you can think of a way of dividing kids we do it - religion, Irish- medium schools, single-sex schools, grammar schools, on ability and social background. There is a very complicated set of barriers and silos in the system."

In March a Deni audit identified 538 schools in some form of difficulty, whether educationally, financially or with pupil numbers: 46.5 per cent of primary schools, 83.8 per cent of secondary moderns, and 35 per cent of grammars. Some 13 secondary schools and two primaries failed on all three measures.

The findings were a "wake-up call", says Mr O'Dowd, who has written to authorities asking how they will improve. School closures have not been ruled out.

Last November, the government published the long-awaited report of a literacy and numeracy taskforce set up in 2008. It said that many teachers and school leaders were underperforming, and urged "swift action" to tackle the poor teaching found in one-fifth of primary schools and more than a quarter of post- primary lessons.

"Students are being sacrificed by a system that isn't working properly. Too many of our schools are looking backwards," says literacy and numeracy taskforce leader Sir Robert Salisbury, who has headed schools in Bradford, Hull and Doncaster.

Comparisons between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK can be drawn from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In the 2009 Pisa tests, Northern Ireland came second to Scotland in the three measures of reading, maths and science, but its overall performance fell in comparison to 2006.

"There's a huge pattern of variability among secondary schools especially, mediated partly by the gender and denominational status of the school and social background," says Professor Gallagher. "People focus on the bits that get good performance, but it's shocking that 20 per cent of kids leave school with the equivalent of one GCSE. That's been a persistent problem for many years."

"We are in many senses a fledgling democracy," says Mr O'Dowd. "Only in the past couple of years have we got our hands on the wheels of power. We are struggling to rebuild a society. I and my predecessors have always said we need to make drastic changes.

"I think we now have a stable executive and ministers are in the position to make difficult decisions that have not been made before."

Plans are in place for systemic improvements. The overarching school improvement policy, Every School a Good School, was launched in 2009. It says that successful schools should be child-centred, have high-quality teaching and learning, have effective leadership and be connected to their communities.

There is plenty of terminology flying about that would be familiar to Scottish teachers. Mark McHenry, 30, is a teacher at Rowandale Integrated Primary School in County Down, but trained at the University of the West of Scotland and has taught in Glasgow. He feels that Northern Ireland is following in the tracks of Curriculum for Excellence; his high-quality Scottish training and CPD, particularly in areas such as cooperative learning, active learning and outdoor education, is proving extremely useful, he says.

But for some the teacher autonomy promised by CfE is not what they see in Northern Ireland. "The teaching unions have started to perceive it as a very top-down, command-and-control, data-driven performance system," says Mr Langhammer. "We are hearing the same language you would in England about failing schools and teachers. We worry that it is introducing a `name and shame' culture, which we think is taking us away from teaching as a reflective profession."

This feeling extends to the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). Two teaching unions, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation and the Ulster Teachers' Union, are engaged in a long-running policy of non-cooperation with ETI. Their members are instructed not to hand over any documents or data to the inspectorate, and if an inspector walks into their classroom they must stop teaching.

But the government is unapologetic. "I don't want to see a top-down system evolving, but I think it is only right and proper the government is aware of the state of play within its schools on a regular basis," says Mr O'Dowd. "I think it is only right and proper that the department is regularly updated. It is not a case of watching over teachers, but making sure they have the resources to deliver, that our policies are working and life opportunities are being enhanced by those (policies).

"The vast majority of teachers are highly motivated individuals who work very well. But you will always have people who require further support. The small group who aren't delivering have to be identified as quickly as possible."

Despite the recent bad headlines, a mood of optimism prevails. Teaching is still seen as a desirable career, teachers are generally held in high esteem and there is a widespread belief that education still matters.

"We have an incredibly dedicated teaching cohort who are committed to giving the children the very best that they can and not the status quo. These people are not going to let education fall by the wayside," says Mrs Karayiannis.

And most promisingly of all, political agreement has finally been reached on the establishment of an all- encompassing Education and Skills Authority. The new body will take over the running of schools from the five existing Library and Education Boards - whose inconsistent approach to education policy and school improvement has long been a source of concern - and from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. It will also be the single employing authority for all staff. The minister wants the new body to be up and running by April.

Teachers are happy that they have a say in educational policy matters as part of the Strategic Planning and Policy Development Forum, which is made up of representatives from trade unions, education organisations and Deni. They also seem to be in favour of Mr O'Dowd's appointment and the actions he has taken.

But that goodwill will count for nothing if he does not get to grips with the problems plaguing schools - and quickly. At a time of unprecedented change for Northern Ireland's education system, it urgently needs the kind of strong political leadership and focus it has lacked in the past decade - and the eyes of those in power will turn frequently to Scotland.

Historical change

The experience of a Northern Irish schooling can be more nuanced than is sometimes depicted.

Sean Huddleston, 34, a Renfrewshire history teacher who grew up in Northern Ireland, failed the 11-plus but says: "This never really affected my academic progress too much."

He ended up doing A levels at Belfast Further Education College, which had the advantage over school of drawing people from lots of different social and religious backgrounds.

He suggests that Northern Irish education is not uniformly more backward, and may at times be more mature: "I actually think being a history teacher back home could be more straightforward than in Scotland in some ways," he says. "Scottish schools, for example, treat teaching Irish history as almost taboo - very few schools teach the Irish wars of independence option at Higher level. I've always sensed that there is a great fear of teaching Irish history in Scotland for fear of `teaching sectarianism'."

Who's in charge?

The complicated education system in Northern Ireland includes several different types of school under the control of management committees, which also employ teachers.

Controlled (nursery, primary, special, secondary and grammar) schools are managed by their board of governors. The employing authorities are the five Education and Library Boards.

Maintained (nursery, primary, special and secondary) schools are under the management of the board of governors. The employing authority is the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

Voluntary (grammar) and integrated (primary and secondary) schools are under the management of a board of governors.

  • 322,891 - Number of pupils in all Northern Ireland's schools in 2011-12 - 14,465 fewer than in 2004-05
  • 31,210 - Number of schools in 2011-12
  • 23% - Proportion of primary and secondary pupils entitled to free school meals in 2011-12
  • 4,000 - Children attending a denominational playgroup
  • 65,000 - Teenagers in segregated secondary schools
  • 538 - Schools in difficulty educationally, financially or with pupil numbers: 46.5% of primaries, 83.8% of secondary moderns, and 35% per cent of grammars
  • 83.8% - The proportion of secondary moderns in difficulty educationally, financially or with pupil numbers.

    Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

    It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you