Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Is the John O’Dowd formula working?

After one year in the job, Education Minister John O’Dowd is quizzed by Lindsay Fergus on the catalysts for change in schools policy

John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O’Dowd has launched a strongly- worded attack on grammar schools for using academic selection to bolster pupil numbers.

And he has revealed that he will be reviewing the number of grammar school places controlled by the Department of Education.

The minister has accused Northern Ireland’s 68 grammar schools of using academic selection as a clever marketing device — at the expense of non-selective schools.

In an interview with The Belfast Telegraph, the minister said: “The more you look at the criteria used by the grammar schools, the more it is clear that academic selection is not a core issue for them, because if it was then they would be knocking on my door saying, ‘Minister, we want you to reduce our numbers to ensure that we only take in ‘academically gifted’ — in their eyes — children.

“They are not doing that. The vast majority of our grammar schools take in all abilities and none.

“Academic selection is a red herring. It's a clever marketing device used by a number of our schools to attract pupils, sometimes at the expense of their neighbouring schools.”

And Mr O’Dowd, a firm opponent of academic selection, has re-issued appeals to grammar schools to open their doors to all pupils.

“I have never proposed closing down grammar schools but what I have always said about grammar schools is that they should open up, they should play their part in their education community, they should play their part in their area and that is the way it should move forward,” he said.

Under area plans released two weeks ago, there are proposals to merge at least seven grammar schools with non-selective schools and merge four into two.

Mr O’Dowd warned: “I would appeal to all schools, particularly any grammar schools who think they can step back from area planning and think it has nothing to do with them, to think about that again because no school standing on its own can be sustainable going into the future.

“Nothing ever stays the same in politics or anything else.”

In his review of grammar school places, Mr O’Dowd has the power to reduce the number of pupil places available or increase them.

By cutting places he would make grammar schools more academically elite but push more pupils into the non-selective sector. That, in turn, would mean more money for secondary schools which are funded on a per-pupil basis.

However, if he increased pupil numbers he could force grammar schools to take in a wider range of abilities.

He said: “A number of our grammar schools showed stress in the viability audits and in terms of enrolment practices or numbers, none of those things should be taken for granted. I am looking at different options and proposals around the way forward for school numbers, how we manage school enrolment numbers etc.”

Undoubtedly it will be viewed as another attack on the grammar sector.

The department came in for criticism after a number of grammar schools were identified as failing academically in viability audits ordered by the minister in September.

Area plans were also labelled as an attack on the grammar sector.

Although there are 85,000 empty desks in the education system, few if any of them are in the grammar sector because under the current system grammar schools must accept every pupil who applies for a place until they fill their quota, allowing some top schools to admit D-grade students.

But it also has a knock-on effect on non-selective schools, which because of a decline in birth rates are enrolling less pupils and therefore receiving less funding.

There are 216 post-primary schools in Northern Ireland of which 68 are grammar. Grammar schools educate 43% of post primary pupils, up from 40% a decade ago.

Single body to replace our five education boards should finally be ready to take over in April

By Lindsay Fergus

A single body to run Northern Ireland’s education system should be up and running by April 2013 after winning the support of the First and deputy First Ministers.

The Educational and Skills Authority (ESA) — which will replace the five education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools — has been rubberstamped by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness after six years of hiccups. Also going into ESA will be the Staff Commission and Youth Council.

Although it still has to come before the Executive in September and be passed by the Assembly, that is now merely a formality after securing the backing of both Sinn Fein and the DUP.

The ministers said in a joint statement last night: “The discussions on the content of the ESA bill have been successfully concluded and the bill will be brought to the next meeting of the Executive in order to commence its legislative passage in the Assembly.”

Once ESA is signed off officially, the education and library boards as well as CCMS will cease to exist, their functions being taken on by the long-awaited new single education authority.

ESA has been promised to streamline bureaucracy and save up to £20m per year. Its other key function will be to raise educational standards.

Gavin Boyd (right), the former chief executive of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment will head ESA.

It has been a long and arduous journey for ESA which had been due to be operational in 2008 and then 2010, but failed to win political agreement.

Education Minister John |O’Dowd has welcomed the move. “We have successfully concluded our discussions on ESA and it will now be presented to the Executive at the first meeting in September,” he said.

“We are confident now that we will see a smooth passage of the bill through both the Executive and the Assembly. We are confident we will be able to have ESA in place by April 1, 2013.”

He paid tribute to the education boards that have been significantly run down over the last number of years in preparation for ESA.

“The board staff have gone above and beyond the call of duty on many occasions to ensure that education is delivered on the ground and we deeply appreciate the work they have done,” he added.

“The boards will merge into ESA and ESA will start taking shape and moving forward.”

According to Mr |O’Dowd, ESA will honour the heads of agreement that were drawn up by OFMDFM last year.

That means ESA will also be the single employing authority of all staff in all grant-aided schools with the role of the board of governors being enshrined in legislation.

Sectoral support bodies will also be established for the controlled and maintained sector.

Mr O’Dowd stated: “The heads of the agreement are the basis upon which the bill has been drawn up.

“OFMDFM are happy that all sides have honoured the heads of agreement and we are going to move on.

“In coalition governments, nobody gets everything they want but I do believe throughout these discussions there has always been a focus on how we improve the educational outcomes for all our young people.

“Politics can be very frustrating at times but we are happy now that we have concluded the discussions.”

Group set up to challenge segregation

By Lindsay Fergus

A review of how Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren can be educated together is to get under way after the education minister appointed a Shared Education Advisory Group.

Belfast Telegraph can reveal that three educationalists have agreed to sit on the panel, which will report back to John O’Dowd by February 1.

Queen’s University academic Professor Paul Connolly, former unionist MLA Dawn Purvis and retired principal of St Patrick’s College PJ O’Grady are to look at the advancement of shared education from pre-school to post-primary.

The minister has asked them to gather evidence on:

  • Preferences of learners and parents in relation to shared education;
  • The effectiveness and value for money of existing approaches, and of best practice, locally and internationally;
  • Any barriers to the advancement of shared education;
  • And how the advancement of shared education might address issues such as ethos and identity.

The minister came in for criticism because of the lack of cross-sector sharing proposals for schools in the area plans.

Segregation in our education system — through the duplication of services and resources — is costing hundreds of millions of pounds, according to economists.

However, Mr O’Dowd said he can only move at the pace of communities, schools and parents when it comes to shared education.

“Shared education may present as a different project in different areas — it may not be integrated education as in the integrated education movement.

“There may be different formats for shared education where schools and communities are comfortable to do it but people have to move outside their comfort zones to make this successful,” he explained.

He continued: “I think there is an opportunity within area planning for shared education.

“I will certainly be looking at the final proposals through that prism — where are the opportunities for shared education? Have they been taken? Could they have gone further?”

Mr O’Dowd explained that he wants the Shared Education Advisory Group to “challenge me as minister on the way forward for shared education”.

He said: “I would like to see it being groundbreaking when it presents an informative report to society and opinion-makers on the way forward for shared education.”

But Mr O’Dowd admits that while a shared future is laid out in the Programme for Government, we are a long way from achieving that goal.

“I suspect our society is at the stage where we are really only at the start of this debate,” he said.

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