Radical proposals for change put education at top of agenda

25th June 2010 at 01:00
The scars of conflict in Northern Ireland are never far from the surface, but education reform is forging a new future, reports Mark Langhammer

A more prosperous Northern Ireland, which has a population close to 1.7 million, depends on the success of its education system. There is an urgency to raise attainment across the board, improve equity and make the system run more efficiently.

The recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers' report, School Workforce Matters, shows that, while Northern Ireland significantly outperforms the rest of the UK in terms of A-level and top-end GCSE results, a long tail of under- achievement persists. The report points to 11,000 Northern Ireland children - 44 per cent - who left school in 2008-09 without achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths.

Against this backdrop, a radical agenda for change was proposed by Peter Hain, the then "direct rule" minister - a policy for sustainable schools, rationalisation of the schools estate, a revised curriculum, a focus on "learning for life and work", the introduction of a "pupil entitlement," a framework to facilitate inter-school learning partnerships, the end of transfer by academic selection, and a community-focused "extended schools" programme.

These reforms complemented a radical proposal to replace the five education and library boards with a single employing body, the Education and Skills Authority.

When devolution reappeared, after the October 2006 agreement at St Andrews, the new Education Minister, Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane, endorsed this agenda, putting an additional focus on equality and equity. Minister Ruane has implemented a school improvement policy, "Every School a Good School"; a literacy and numeracy strategy; a review of Irish-medium education; a review of special educational needs; an early years strategy; a review of schools funding; and a review of the education workforce.

So, how far have we got? A number of the initiatives have got off to a positive start. The revised curriculum at key stage1 has mitigated Northern Ireland's early school starting age by encouraging a play-based, active curriculum with more "learning by doing" and less pressure to start formal academic learning. The statutory element includes learning for life and work at key stages 3 and 4, but will be smaller than before.

The introduction of a pupil entitlement, compulsory from 2013, will include a broader range of both academic and "applied" course choices at KS3 and 4. Known colloquially as the "2427", this policy requires schools to offer 24 subject choices at age 14, or 27 choices at 16; a minimum of a third should be either "general" (academic) or "applied" (vocational).

In addition, efforts are being made to rationalise the school estate and create "sustainable schools" (minimum intake of 105 in a rural primary, 140 in an urban primary, 500 at the 11-16 stages and 100 in the post-16 years).

But progress is hampered by the design of devolution, which requires cross-community consent and a majority vote in each communal bloc to pass legislation.

Reform is happening in Northern Ireland, but in a piecemeal and fragmented way. As in Scotland and other parts of the UK, it will be contracting budgets and the need to deliver services more efficiently that will force the pace of reform.

Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland, spoke at yesterday's Centre for Scottish Public Policy's conference, of which The TESS was media sponsor.

GOOD, BAD AND UGLY

In Northern Ireland we have the good, the bad and the ugly in education.

Good is that 98 per cent of entrants attain two or more A-levels, with 64 per cent attaining 5-plus GCSEs at grades A*-C. Graduate numbers have doubled since 1995 to 155,000.

Bad is that 41.6 per cent of the workforce have achieved no qualifications whatsoever (UK average 18.9 per cent). We score below the OECD average in mathematical literacy, and some 25 per cent of the current working population are functionally illiterate.

Ugly is that education remains soured by sectarian, as well as social, segregation. Retaining academic selection, and the grammarsecondary divide, contributes to stark division. Only 6 per cent of the grammar intake is from disadvantaged backgrounds, a trend more marked in predominantly Protestant grammars. Research from the Office of First and Deputy First Minister concludes "the educational non-progressor was most likely to be a Protestant working class male".

The sectarian divide also costs, as management functions, administration and the running of teacher training institutions are duplicated.

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