Thursday, 5 February 2009

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.

1 comment:

  1. This blog reflects yet another conflict of interest for educationalists posing as "concerned parents". Professor Tony Gallagher has advised, been paid and reported for the Department of Education (the government body responsible for the current education chaos) from the outset of the current attempt to impose comprehensive education against the will of parents and pupils.

    For the only non-political parental blog addressing parental rights see

    Imitation is said to be a form of flattery but
    “Deception is a cruel act... It often has many players on different stages that corrode the soul.”
    Donna Favors, Member of the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Institute, 1955

    Close to the bone Tony?


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