Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Catholic grammars to set exam

There will be an entrance exam on November 21st next to select children for the vast majority of Catholic Grammars according to the Catholic Heads Association. Twenty eight leading grammars have said they will use the exam based on English and Maths papers and more are expected to follow in the coming days.

This bring to three the total number of different exams children could face to get a grammar place. A true sign that deregulation has failed and that the Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane MLA, is now presiding over a slowly unfolding crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Monday, 30 March 2009

SDLP and UUP respond to Bishops' statement

Thanks to Pete at Slugger we can bring you the SDLP and UUP responses to today's statement.

Catholic Commission issues statement

Ten years after the Good Friday Agreement a Sinn Fein Minister has delivered the ultimate act of educational segregation and division with the effective creation of a Catholic 11plus and a Protestant 11plus.

The BBC reports that The Commission for Catholic Education has given the go-ahead for Catholic grammar schools in Northern Ireland to set entrance exams.
However, it has also restated its position that academic selection of any kind should end by 2012.
Some Catholic grammar schools have said they will set entrance exams in the absence of an official test. The commission said that in the absence of a regulated system of transfer, academic test may be appropriate in the short-term, particularly for those post-primary schools which are oversubscribed.

NICCE chairman Bishop Donal McKeown said: “This is a clear statement from the Catholic trustees that academic selection at age 11 has no place in a modern education system.”
The commission stressed that Catholic schools which opt to use the tests must ensure they do not discriminate against any child, avoid a multiplicity of tests and should be used for only a limited period of time.

The church has been trying to keep the support of Catholic parents who want their children to go to a grammar school but who could choose to leave the sector and apply for non-denominational grammar schools instead.

Today’s decision is an honest act on behalf of the Catholic Commission to show some leadership on this issue. It will however do nothing to prevent the inevitable chaos which will now ensue. It is a dark day for politics and a total indictment of Caitriona Ruane’s stewardship as Education Minister.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Bishops expected to make statement on Monday

The Catholic Bishops are expected to make a statement on the future of transfer next Monday. The Bishops have strongly favoured a non-selective system and are not believed to be about to change their mind. There is however major concern about the crisis which has been triggered by the Minister's unilateral decision to introduce a deregulated system. I would not be surprised if the working group calls for an interim state exam for a year or two whilst a long term resolution is found.

Many senior educationalists now believe it is time for the sector to reach agreement on the way forward. Politics has clearly failed and others are going to have to step in and make an effort to provide a road map out of this mess.

One thing for sure. The true extent of this crisis will not hit home to many of our MLA's until next year when parents realise the flaws of a deregulated system and demand action to fix it. Things may get an awful lot worse before they get better.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

SDLP outlines compromise proposals

SDLP's Education spokesperson, Dominic Bradley MLA, outlines the party's views on breaking the deadlock in the Assembly on transfer.

Thanks to Pete Baker at Slugger for the YouTube link.

Monday, 23 March 2009

SDLP seeks to break deadlock

The SDLP is proposing an interim CCEA test and the establishment of a new educator led working group to break the deadlock in the current education crisis. The Party has tabled an amendment to an Alliance Party motion which will be debated in the Assembly on Tuesday.

The amended motion reads:

That this Assembly notes that schools may choose to use an examination as part of their entry criteria under the Minister of Education’s 2010 guidelines; calls on the Minister of Education to ensure the provision of a CCEA test, as she previously proposed, for a maximum period of two years; believes that no school should be allowed to admit its full year 8 pupil quota using the outcomes of that test alone or using any other test; recommends also admission criteria outlined in the Minister’s document transfer 2010 and welcomes the first criterion as a means of ensuring all schools help to tackle social deprivation; and further calls on the Minister of Education to set up a new educator-led working group tasked with building a sustainable consensus on non-selective transfer whose recommendations the Executive and the Assembly would use as the basis for legally binding regulations from 2011 at the latest.

This move will be welcomed by educators and parents who have been placed in an impossible situation since the Minister's unilateral decision to end the 11plus without having any replacement system in place. It will be intersting to see how the other parties react to what appears to be a genuine attempt to show some leadership on this issue.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Ruane is Alice in Wonderland

I have just listened to Ministerial Question Time in The Northern Ireland Assembly with Caitriona Ruane MLA.

During her answers she claimed that the primary curriculum will not be distorted this year because of the ending of the 11plus and that children across the North will NOT spend time in the coming academic year preparing for a test.

This is an unbelievable statement and plainly misleading. True, there will be no state exam but fact is there is already the AQE exam and there will most likely be a Catholic sector exam to select children for grammar schools.

In fact the situation is potentially worse then at any point in the past as children may well have to sit a "Catholic 11plus" and a "Protestant 11plus". All deregulated.

How long will this Assembly let this Minister continue to live like Alice in Wonderland?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

It's creativity stupid

If you are interested in education you will be interested in this vodcast of a TED talk Sir Ken Robinson gave in California about creativity in education. His opening gambit is to point out that my little Clara, age four and in her first year in school will retire sometime around 2070....

I want to thank Paul Smyth for the link.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Education Minister rejects selection proposals

The BBC reports today that the education minister has rejected calls to allow a temporary replacement for the controversial 11-plus exam.

At a special session of the assembly's Education committee on Tuesday, Caitriona Ruane stood by her decision to cancel plans for an interim test.

She had been lobbied by parents' groups and politicians who want an official academic test to run for a few years.

They argued an official test would avoid the likelihood of unregulated tests by the grammar schools.

Mrs Ruane warnd: "Any test operating outside such legislative support is a legal minefield as those within some grammar schools who are proposing this approach are now finding out."
Chairman of the committee Mervyn Storey accused the minister of threatening schools and teachers.

He told the minister her tenure would be judged for "bringing about confusion, division and further segregation".

Ms Ruane said she was disappointed that the committee had failed to send her their own proposals and that its members could not reach consensus.
She denied threatening schools but said a small number were "blocking change".

The final 11-plus was held in Northern Ireland schools last November.

Many Catholic grammar schools have announced they will set independent tests, while more than 30 state schools say they will continue to use academic selection against Ms Ruane's wishes.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Education for all- the Finnish example.

I'm fortunate enough to belong to a very small, select and privileged group; despite coming from a working-class background (and primary school), I managed to obtain entry to a state-sector grammar school via the trauma of the 11 Plus examination. Those who are presently fighting on behalf of my old grammar school would probably hold myself (and my brother and sisters) up as examples of the essentially egalitarian nature of selection-based education. But back to my first sentence, the key word is that "despite"; "despite" my father being at the time a “mere” fitter we were given the opportunity to benefit from a grammar school education, an opportunity denied to the vast majority of my peers. Out of my year of sixty children in my primary school, a grand total of five managed to push themselves, by hook or by crook, into a grammar school- the remaining 91.5% disappeared into the academic darkhole that was our local secondary.

I’m convinced that I “succeeded” where the vast majority of others “failed”, due to being fortunate enough to possess two very motivated parents who were determined to ensure their offspring would, unlike them, have the opportunity to reach their full intellectual potential. Don’t get my wrong, I’ll always be very grateful for the material and more abstract sacrifices they made to ensure that potential would have a chance of being reached, but the plain fact remains- whilst 20% or so of our children have benefited greatly from our present system, the large majority have not.

"Ah, but look at the comparisons", says the all-powerful grammar school lobby- "look at how our grammar schools compare with the comprehensives in England". During this debate we’ve been usually looking at comparisons which are, excuse the pun, selective. Try comparing the top 20% of comprehensives in England with our grammars, compare the number of teenagers from say the Shankill managing to achieve a place at university with their peers from similar areas in England...selective comparison can really be so subjective, but if you really want to put the cat amongst the pigeons, why not compare the results obtained in Finland with those obtained here?

Until the age of 16 Finland operates a non-selective education system. High emphasis is placed on that all-important word "motivation" I mentioned earlier- motivated teachers, students and parents. The same curriculum is taught to all pupils. Individual Finnish students' results did not vary a great deal and all schools generally have similar scores. And yet at the age of 15 (ie a year before the streaming into vocational and academic takes place) comfortably the highest results in Europe are achieved in the Finnish system.

Could such a system work here? Of course it could, given the right conditions. Those conditions would include the acceptance of the underlying principle that all kids should be given the opportunity to reach their potential and more concretely, a competent, efficient, focused and open-minded educational and political establishment that are prepared to put differences aside in order to achieve that first condition. But competence and efficiency, in particular, are qualities which seem to be a bit scarce on the ground at the minute.

Crisis deepens

The Minister's decision to allow a deregulated system has plunged the education system into further crisis today with news that Teachers Unions may refuse to prepare children for independent exams.

Also writing in today's Irish News, Bishop Donal McKeown says it is time now for some collective leadership and the Irish News Editorial call for a political initiative to provide some leadership on this issue.

This needs to happen soon if a bad situation is not to get an awful lot worse.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Minister to declare war on the grammar sector

The Irish News (subs needed) reports today that the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane is set to punish grammar schools that go ahead with selection tests by restricting funding to them and forcing them to accept only the very best results.

The newspaper reports on the merits of this move and argues that it would put it up to the grammar sector to focus on their academic ethos whilst proving popular with the secondary sector because it will lead to more funding for those schools.

What the article does not address is the fact that this is just making a very bad situation worse.

Firstly by taking such a step the Minister would be copper fastening a selective process at eleven, the one thing she clams she wants to remove. It could also have effect of creating a two speed education system with grammars allowing 'paid for' places effectively turning them into semi-private schools whilst the secondary sector relies wholly on public funding.

What we need is political leadership on this issue not kite flying and leaking to the press from those who support the Minister and the grammar lobby.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Minister answers Assembly Questions

The Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane, answered MLA's questions in the Assembly yesterday. Alan McParland MLA (UUP) and Dominic Bradley MLA (SDLP) attempt to get the Minister clarify what steps she intends to take to move out of the present crisis.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Selection at 14

In the Craigavon two-tier system pupils automatically transfer from primary to junior high school at age 11 without any need for a selective test. At age 14 about a third of the pupils are selected to attend senior high grammar schools on the basis of their school work. The rest either go to a senior high secondary school (in the controlled sector) or stay in the junior high schools (in the maintained sector). A research study in 1998 (for which I was a co-author) was carried out to examine whether the two-tier system provided a systemic alternative to selection at 11. We were also asked to examine whether it provided a better experience for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, but concluded that it did not. Our main conclusion was that the two-tier system did not provide a systemic alternative. At its origin the intention had been that the two-tier arrangements would grow with the development of Craigavon into Northern Ireland’s second city. Of course the city never developed and so the two-tier arrangements never became a full-blown system. Our evidence suggested that it was very porous in that parents could try to make best use of what was on offer through it, or send their children to nearby grammar schools: the small size of the two-tier system meant that parents could have a second or even third ‘bite at the cherry’ and this, we felt, was one of the reasons why parents locally liked the system. There was also evidence that some of the junior high schools operated very rigid streaming arrangements and we pointed to some of the negative consequences of this system.

At the time the 1998 study was published the Southern Education and Library Board was critical of its conclusions and suggested that it has overlooked significant advantages in the arrangements. A later study (2007) carried out for the Board by a group which included the principals of the schools in the system was also critical of the 1998 study, but recognized that there were some weaknesses in the process used to identify pupils for the senior high grammar schools. Among the strengths of the system they highlighted were the close relationships between the primary, junior high and senior high schools, fairer selection arrangements with less negative impact on the school curriculum and, it was claimed, good GCSE and GCE results.

The Burns and Costello Reports both concluded that age 11 years should remain as the most common point of transfer and did not favour a systemic shift to selection at 14. However, under the Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum 14 will become the key decision point for pupils: up to that age they will be following a largely statutory curriculum, but the enhanced flexibility in the Revised Curriculum will provide pupils with significant choice on the pathway they will follow post-14. This is one of the factors which has prompted many to suggest that 14 should be the main decision point in education, as opposed to the blunderbuss approach involved in the use of an omnibus test at age 10/11 years. This would not involve a simple shift from a ‘fork-in-the-road’ at 11 to a ‘fork-in-the-road’ at 14. At 14 pupils will have access to a wider range of options, particularly if schools maintain distinctiveness in their expertise and curricular offering, even though some will continue to set hurdles for entry to particular pathways (as already happens to some extent at 14, for entry to GCSE, and at 16, for entry to GCE). If schools work collaboratively, sharing expertise, then it will become possible, for the first time, to offer the same wide range of options to all pupils.

A future built on excellence and equity

Equity and excellence are surely the twin foundations on which to build a world class education system.

Dr Simon Field, a Belfast man, now a policy expert at the OECD, published an interesting report last year entitled "No More Failures, Ten Steps to Equity in Education". The report draws on the experiences across the OECD countries and makes ten specific recommendations for equity in education.

They are:

1- Limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection.
2- Manage school choice so as to contain the risks of equity.
3- In upper secondary education, provide attractive alternatives, remove dead ends and prevent dropout.
4- Offer second chance to gain from education.

5- Identify and provide systemic help to those who fall behind at school and reduce year repetition.
6- Strengthen the links between school and home to help disadvantaged parents help their children to learn.
7- Respond to diversity and provide for the successful inclusion of migrants and minorities within mainstream education.

8- Provide strong education for all, giving priority to early childhood provision and basic schooling.
9- Direct resources to students and regions with the greatest need.
10- Set concrete targets for more equity, particularly related to low schools dropout and attainment.

The report expands on all of these drawing on a massive amount of international data. It makes a compelling argument for investing in equity and links that investment to excellence at all levels. Throughout its 150 pages the importance of intervention to support parents and children from disadvantaged backgrounds is stressed again and again.

What is obvious from the expedience elsewhere around the world, our system has failed and the current deregulated system makes a bad situation potentially catastrophic.

Earlier in the week I suggested some common principles around which discussions could be held between politicians interested in finding a solution. BBC Radio Ulster had an interesting documentary about this issue yesterday. One theme ran through the interviews with parents, teachers and experts like Tony Gallagher who blogs here. Everyone agrees we are in the worst place possible. They all seemed in favour of initiatives to support greater equity across our education system and all shared a desire for excellence in education, be it primary or secondary, academic or vocational.

The challenge is to engage in a positive and informed debate around shared principles such as these and to draw on the work of experts like our own Simon Field.

I'll blog again on some of the report's specific recommendations and on the experience in Finland which went through its own change process in recent years.

In the meantime I hope this offers some food for thought for our policymakers.

The future of Catholic education?

The Catholic Church has been regularly criticized for its lukewarm attitude to integrated education. In particular, the Church authorities have always made clear their opposition to transformation, that is, the right in legislation for parents to vote to change a school to integrated status. In consequence only controlled schools have transformed since 1989. The argument the Catholic authorities have always advanced against transformation is that a school belongs to a community, not to a particular group of parents, and that therefore it is wrong for the interests of a particular group to over-ride the interests of a wider community. Now, whether you accept this argument or not, it suddenly seems weaker. In the impasse over the future of academic selection some Catholic grammar schools have announced their intention to continue selecting on the basis of tests and many more are expected to follow. This is despite the clear acceptance by the Catholic Bishops of the need for an end to academic selection at 11 on social justice grounds. In an attempt to restore some coherence to the Catholic sector, the Bishops have asked a group of secondary and grammar principals to seek agreement on a way forward. If they fail and some or most of the Catholic grammar schools go their own way, then we may be witnessing the end of the Catholic education system in any meaningful sense of the term.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Not all about IQ

Some of you may have watched an interesting programme last night on the significance of IQ as a factor in personal and professional success. I found the documentary fascinating, principally because it made some very similar points to those stressed in Malcolm Gladwell's recent book 'Outliers'. Two of Gladwell's preoccupations in this work are the significance of 'cultivated development' and the limited importance of IQ. He draws on an incredible study that identified the children with the highest IQ in America and tracked their professional and personal development throughout their life. The study's principal investigator was convinced that he had identified future Nobel laureates, supreme court judges and presidents. In fact he had - in the early part of the study. They had been filtered out, discarded and untracked - because their IQ wasn't high enough. As Gladwell asserts - potential to achieve is not just about IQ or some theoretical measure of it at a random point in time. It's about opportunities and challenges: stimulating minds and building understanding. I urge you to read the book, because in many ways it represents a passionate argument for resourcing all children's access to the best possible education at every level. We all know the phrase 'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance', and in NI we have paid an enormous price for arbitrary assessment and rejected potential.

We have an immense opportunity to design and develop a potential enhancing system of education for all our children. In simple terms there is a business case: in an economy which is undergoing seismic shock, we need to grasp every opportunity we have. We cannot afford the human wastage of that young potential. There are deeply held feelings on all sides - we are right to want excellence but we need it for all. Otherwise we make the same mistake as the principal investigator of the IQ study in the US, who just missed the wood for the trees.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Selection isn't the only way to get good grades

I am sick of hearing the mantra that Northern Irelands Education system is the gold standard and that any changes will be for the worse.

I worked in the non-selective education system in England for 8 years. Sometimes it was tough but it was always rewarding and my students of a whole range of abilities received good grades across the board . I taught English, one of the core subjects, in an area with a real social mix. Many of my students got all As and I am still in contact with some who went on to study at Oxford and Cambridge. I am extremely proud of the fact that two of ex-students in the one year group came first and second respectively in English Literature in Cambridge University, one is now studying at Princeton. Both were educated in the non-selective system the whole way through their education.

I am equally proud of the profoundly dyslexic students whom I taught, who really struggled in their English, but because they received excellent learning support from the special needs department, gained good GCSEs in English and attended University. They would never have got so far as a grammar school but were no less “academic” than their contemporaries.

There were also the GNVQ or vocational students who struggled to get a C grade in English, but after a few attempts managed to do so. This is of course the basic requirement for many jobs. And some for whom a D or an E was a real achievement.

All these students were taught together, ate together in the canteen, played sport together and socialised together. Yet they were streamed for their academic subjects to ensure they learned at the pace they needed and got the support they were entitled to . There was a genuine spirit of community and little elitism.

In Northern Ireland we may well get excellent grades at our top end but our treatment of the remainder is abysmal. Defined at 11 as less academic. Separated on class lines as much as on academic ability. Some of the worst literacy rates in Europe at the bottom end.

We can do better for our children than this it just takes a little imagination. This week a close friend’s son has refused to go back to school after his 11 plus result because he was too embarrassed. This 11 year old child received a C1 a very respectable grade, but he knows at the age of 11 that only an A or B1 is good enough to get into the same school as his sister and move with the majority of his year into his grammar school of choice. He feels that he has failed and no amount of encouragement from his parents can convince him other wise.

A way forward?

As the anger over last week's announcement by the Minister subsides and the reality of a privatised and totally deregulated system dawns on us all, it is surely time for some political leadership on this issue.

The Church Leader's initiative provides the basis on which to build. Surely it is time for the SDLP and the UUP to sit down together and consider how they can further develop the cleric's thinking and provide parents, pupils and teachers with some reassurance that local politicians can agree a way forward on this issue.

There are a series of principles which could be discussed and which might form the basis of some common ground. Amongst them could be:
  • Agreement that 14 is a better age at which to exercise pupil and parental choice about possible transfer for the final four years of education;
  • Agreement to further develop thinking about a collegiate based system;
  • Agreement to guarantee parents and pupils access faith based education;
  • Agreement that an early intervention strategy should be developed to support children from deprived socio economic backgrounds during primary and early second level education;
  • Agreement to consider and draw on international best practice when developing these proposals;
  • Agreement that the system must be based on a commitment to social equity and educational excellence at every level;
  • Agreement that the change programme would be rolled out over at least a five year period, allowing up to ten years for any institutional realignments to take place;
  • Agreement that an interim regulated system should be introduced immediately.

These are just some preliminary personal thoughts.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Results day - failure

So, results day. Not for us thank god, but good news for many people they we know- including the son of a neighbour and the children of good friends. But, I imagine, a fairly devastating day for many. I'm one of the many people who find the whole transfer test thing difficult, if only because I went through it myself and faced the horrible sinking feeling of a G (when a G was the lowest grade you could get). I well remember the corrosive feeling of failure, of knowing that you weren't good enough, and spending the next ten years trying to prove you were. That happened literally ten years later when I was the only one in my year of grammar school graduates who got a first class honours degree. I remember my own elation and my fathers tears. That bloody menace of the 11plus hurt him too.

But here we are. And just when I thought the thing was finished, thanks to the incompetence of Ruane and the intransigence of those who refuse to understand that the transfer as it sits is a stupendous waste of talent, my 8 year old P5 boy is set to face the same nonsense.

In a few weeks I'll to into a room, probably very nervous, to do my PhD viva. Me, my draft thesis, and my G. I'm so glad my examiners only see me and a hundred thousand words.

Results day - let us know

If you or your child have received results this morning and have any questions or comments to make please feel free to do so here.

We would love to hear from you.

Burns 'deeply regrets' impasse

It's results day and many families will be digesting the last set of 11plus results ever to arrive on a door mat. Next year's pupils have a much more uncertain future with the possibility that many children will have to sit multiple exams in different schools.

Kathryn Torney in the Belfast Telegraph reports on the continued uncertainty and Professor Tony Gallagher's call for compromise first published on this blog.

Gerry Burns, who is Pro-Chancellor of the University of Ulster and chaired a group in 2001 that published a report on the future of the 11-plus and post-primary education, has also said he deeply regrets the continuing row over the future of selection in Northern Ireland.

His, Burns Report, played a big part in Martin McGuinness's decision to do away with the test during his tenure as Education Minister in 2001.

According to the Newsletter, Mr Burns stopped short of direct criticism of Education Minister Caitriona Ruane's role in the current morass, but admits the whole affair has been badly managed.

Mr Burns said his report was aimed at redressing the social problem of disadvantaged children not making it into grammar schools – and the 11-plus was part of that problem.

He said he still stands behind the report and its conclusions but regrets that education has become a political football.

"It's all now in the realm of politics, which is a world I am not familiar with, but I deeply, deeply regret the confrontation that has developed," said Mr Burns.

"One couldn't help but be critical of the way things have developed.

"People in Northern Ireland don't like to be confronted – and when you do that, you will not achieve a great deal.

"I still feel there is room for consensus, I still hope there is – otherwise, people worried about their kids, what do they do?

"Primary teachers are also being forgotten in all of this and they are a very important part of the whole system.

"I just hope there is still some room for compromise."

Thursday, 5 February 2009

A personal view ...

I have just had two years of 11+.  My daughter is now in Year 8 and my son, like thousands of others, will find out his grade on Saturday.  We're not making much of a fuss, but we're well aware that for him, Saturday's result is a very big deal.  My son is 10, and thinks if he doesn't get an A or B1 grade, then he has 'failed'.  

This is one of the reasons I was delighted the 11+ was on the way out.  These children are too young for this pressure and don't understand that this exam does not determine their future. Far from escaping the pressure however, my 9 year old is probably even more concerned, because she has heard that the new exams are going to be even harder ... that's the exams that as far as I know, I'm supposed to be paying for.  

I am very frustrated as a parent trying to support my children at a time that is difficult enough for them.  I believed that this would be something of a priority for our elected representatives. The current situation is a complete mess - and despite looking for some kind of clarification,  no-one can give clear answers because no-one has clear answers. 

I agree entirely with Patricia Lewsley on this ... if ever there was a case for child-centred policy making this is it - yet there is little evidence of it.  There's a mountain of work to be done and 7 months before the new P7 children start their final year.  Unbelievable. 

We need compromise, not confrontation

Catriona Ruane is, justifiably, taking a lot of flak for the current chaotic state of affairs in education. She has been unable to broker a compromise, save offering the grammar lobby what they perceived as little more than a stay of execution, rather than a genuine alternative. However, she is not the only one at fault in the current mess. The DUP has stuck, rigidly, to its mantra that they got a guarantee at St Andrews that selection would be kept and they have equally rigidly clung to the position that this must be selection at 11, despite the overwhelming weight of evidence on the negative consequences of this. For practically all of the period since St Andrews they have been as obdurate as Ruane in refusing to talk about any alternative to their own position. Much the same position has been taken by the pro-selection lobby groups, most of whom say they accept the need for some change, but then spend most of their time opposing any offered change, while stringing out discussion interminably.

There was a significant chink of light towards the end of last year. Some people from grammar and secondary schools worked to identify a possible compromise based on differentiation at 14. Under the revised curriculum, age 14 is the point at which pupils will make choices about their future pathways and therefore provides a natural point at which schools might provide diverse offerings. Even better, if schools work collaboratively then the same, wide range of curricular options can be available, for the first time, to all pupils across Northern Ireland. This option has been on the table for a while, but largely on the basis that pupils should be free to make informed choice at 14 on the basis of ‘election’, rather than ‘selection’ by the schools. The clear rationale for this, of course, is that while virtually everyone agrees that we need equal status to the various topics available in education, a genuine test of equal status is that we do not need to place barriers to entry into some routes. However, despite the undoubted merits of this proposal, and the significant initiative taken by those who developed it, the main pro-selection lobby group refused to consider it.

Nevertheless, it is clear that many in the grammar schools were and are sceptical that a system of election was practical. For this reason, a further element of a possible compromise is that schools could choose to set specific hurdles for entry to particular programmes. In many senses, in fact, this is already what happens in many schools when pupils make choices at 14 for GCSEs or 16 for A Levels. If formalising this in a collaborative network provides some schools with the confidence that they can maintain diverse offerings, then it is probably a condition worth accepting.

However, despite the undoubted merits of this compromise proposal, and the significant initiative taken by those who developed it, the main pro-selection lobby group refused to consider it. They cannot be allowed to block discussion or progress.

But what about the immediate situation? The main political parties appear to be willing to wait until the other side blinks, but while that might make for good political theatre, it plays with the future of a generation of children and should not be seen by anyone as a ‘price worth paying’ either for ‘change’ or ‘no change’. The practical option for the present is to continue with selection for two, perhaps three years, to give time to agree mechanisms to make differentiation at 14 work. In that period the proportion entering grammar schools should be capped, as one of the absurdities of the present period is that grammar schools are becoming more comprehensive, in ability terms, while remaining as socially selective as ever – the secondary schools, in fact, are carrying the entire burden of falling rolls.

How many pupils should go into the grammar schools? Who knows – only those who cling to the belief that it is possible to make a distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ children can answer that question, but I would dearly love to know the rationale for any answer that is provided. The last time quotas for entry to grammar schools operated they were set at 27% - in the current system that would include pupils who achieved a grade A or B1 on the old transfer tests. Absent any sound rationale for an alternative level, this seems to me to be an appropriate cap on grammar entry. And the arrangements should be simplified – if there is a test then give the top performing 27% a grade A and the rest a grade B, and allow grammar schools only to accept pupils with a grade A. If nothing else this will provide a period of much-needed stability for the secondary schools as the discussions on a compromise solution proceeds.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Where to from here?

We are back at square one in every possible way following Minister Ruane's statement to the Assembly yesterday. By allowing a free for all she has effectively returned Northern Ireland to the place it was at before the 1947 Education Act. Then it was money that talked and children from affluent homes had a huge advantage over those from working class backgrounds.

The 11 plus was the ticket into education for many working class Catholics and Protestants in the 50's, 60's and 70's. Nobody disputes that the world has moved on and that the 11 plus no longer serves the purpose it was meant to. That is why all the parties in the Assembly agreed that it should go. Where they differ is on what replaces it.

Several months ago the four main churches came together to propose a way forward which might be capable of commanding political support but was also based on sound thinking.

In their statement the clerics said primary school children were picking up on their parents confusion about what would happen when the 11-plus ends.

“It is clear that there are strong yet unreconciled convictions about the best system of education for the future. Each viewpoint seems to cancel out the other and, in the absence of consensus, we risk heading to an abyss of unregulated arrangements.”

Calling on politicians to do the job they are being paid to do, the statement continued:

“We ask our politicians, and others, to stand back from established positions and to create the space necessary so that, through dialogue between those with different outlooks, the best way forward may be found for all children.”

That we find ourselves in this place is a tragedy of unspeakable terms. In Tim McGarry’s words at the end of BBC Hearts and Minds in November; “Sarah Palin is the only person in the world who makes Caitriona Ruane look like a competent politician.”

My son is one of 30,000 P5 and P6 students now in educational limbo. They deserve better from their Minister and from the Executive. These millennium kids were born into great optimism and hope, the promise of new North with a shared future.

Children's Commissioner expresses concern

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children has expressed her fear that children will suffer increased anxiety as a result of the school transfer chaos.

The Commissioner said that both sides of the transfer debate have become embroiled in a argument that has left pupils and parents confused over what was the best way to transfer to post-primary education.

“Parents want the best possible schooling for the children, and pupils want the school were they will be happiest.”

Ms Lewsley said there was a small window of opportunity to resolve the confusion.

“I urge both sides to remember that this debate is about children’s education. They have enough anxiety transferring to the ‘big’ school without the current situation adding to it.

“I am not going to say which side is the best option for children, but I urge all concerned to ask children what they want.

“The best people to ask are the children who have recently experienced the transfer and who are about to transfer can help this process.

Ms Lewsley said she would be writing to the Minister urging her to consult with children over her current proposals.

Are you worried about Ms Ruane?


This is a non partisan blog for anyone interested in finding a solution to the current education impasse in Northern Ireland.

It provides a forum for parents, teachers and policy makers who want to find a solution to the 700 day stand off involving the Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane MLA, and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We also hope to provide information to parents who are worried about their children's future or have questions about the implications of the Minister's statement yesterday. It would be great to hear also from pupils.

As a starting point could I suggest our policy makers sit down with the Church Leaders to discuss the proposals they tabled some months ago.

If you would like to contribute to this blog please contact me.