Last week, I set out for the Assembly new proposals on how children should transfer from primary to post-primary schools. I added further detail earlier this week, and I will report further progress to the Assembly in the New Year. We have now under way a much-needed debate on the future of our education system. It is not a narrow debate about retaining an antiquated system designed in 1947, but a genuine debate about making our education system fit for the 21st century.
The unfortunate reality of our current education system is that it is failing our children. The facts can no longer be ignored. 4,000 young people leave school every year after 12 years of compulsory education without basic reading, writing or maths skills, 1,100 children left school just last year without one GCSE, and a staggering 12,000, nearly half of the entire student population left without English and maths GCSE Grade A*-C.
Today, there are 50,000 empty desks in our classroom and this number is expected to climb to more than 80,000.
Our current education system was designed more than 60 years ago; it has not kept pace with changes in society and in particular the diverse educational needs of our children.
It has created a two-tiered system that divided families and communities, and branded children at the tender age of 10 failures.
No matter how selectively the figures showing academic selection are presented, the cold reality is that the system delivered for the minority and ultimately failed the majority.
In comparison with educational standards in our neighbouring island, our system does not compare well.
This week I had the opportunity to visit Scotland, which enjoys an education system admired around the world based on non-selective criteria, mirroring some our finest schools here which do not reject the ability of any child yet still produce excellent results.
Surely in 2007 we can collectively develop a sophisticated dynamic educational model that is reflective of the world we live in, equips all our children, not just the selective few with the qualification and skills they need for the 21st century.
Every parent rightly wants their child to go to the school which best suits their needs. We can do this by retaining and improving what is best in the system, and by developing new pathways suited to the talents, abilities and aspirations of all our children.
Our challenge is to develop a joined-up system encompassing the very best in pre-school, primary and post-primary including our FE colleges and universities, if they are to be ready to meet the economic challenges ahead. The blue and white collar world is gone, and with it the primary rationale for a two-tiered post-primary system.
The need for a reformed education system cannot be denied and the time for change is now. The key element of my proposals was around how and when children would transfer from primary to post-primary schools without the 11-plus.
The last 11-plus will be held in November 2008 for children starting post-primary schools in September 2009. Children starting post-primary schools in September 2010 will do so under the new arrangements, based largely on family, community and geographical criteria. Currently, pre-schools, primary schools and many post-primary schools already use these criteria, so many parents will already be familiar with them.
These new arrangements will also extend to grammar schools. Some schools may require time to adjust and I will work with them on that. The door is open for discussion. I am confident that in September 2010 we will successfully match children to the correct post-primary place. We will do this through effectively managing the current spare capacity in the system and working with post-primary schools in all sectors to ensure this happens.
From 2013, the key age will be 14. The young person, in conjunction with parents, school teachers and careers professionals, will elect their educational pathway. This may be academic, vocational, or a combination of both. For some, this may involve staying at the same school.
Others may move to a different school to allow them to specialise in particular subjects. Schools may also collaborate to offer a wider range of subjects.
The development of area based planning will design each area's educational provision to ensure it has the capacity to match young people to suitable provision.
There are several models of school structures possible and the best fit for each area will ensure the educational needs of young people are met. Area-based planning criteria will be decided through a consultation process which I am delighted to say has already begun.
Academic excellence will be at the heart of the new system. We have some world class schools and will continue to have these, but I must reiterate it will not be at the expense of an underclass of schools. We will match our children and young people to the educational provision that best meets their needs.
By working together, everyone interested in our children and young people can help reform our outdated education system. It is important to build a consensus and I have already met with many educationalists, teachers, principals, parents, students, trade unions and key stakeholders in the education system, I will continue to consult with them. It is important that as many views as possible are heard, not just the loudest.
We can build a system that produces creative, articulate young people who can confidently take their place in our global community. My proposals offer us a roadmap to get there.
Our collective challenge is to build a modern, dynamic, flexible system fit for purpose in the 21st century, that places equality for all our children at its core, a system that delivers not for the few, but for all children, because, after all, they are our future.