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Open letter calls for school reform

A-list sign open letter for change

BY LINDSAY FERGUS

A demand has been made for a Patten-style commission to reform Northern Ireland's failing education system.

An A-list of business leaders, education figures, sportspeople and civic representatives have signed an open letter in today's Belfast Telegraph calling for the probe.

They include actress Joanna Lumley, snooker ace Dennis Taylor, hotelier Howard Hastings and Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union.

The letter demands an Education Commission be set up "to reach consensus on growing an education system fit for the 21st century".

The One School of Thought wants a commission established this Assembly term with proposals for change being made within a year.

Addressed to all members of the Assembly and the Executive, the document states that the commission should:

*Bring forward recommendations to resolve all the outstanding issues in education

*Ensuring that these recommendations shape a system fit for the 21st century in which all children learn and are taught together in their local area

It emerged last year that up to £300m could be saved every year by ending Northern Ireland's segregated schools system.

Not only are there tens of thousands of empty places in schools but there is a duplication of educational services because of segregated schooling.

As well as controlled and maintained schools, the problem grows even further when the grammar, integrated and Irish medium schools are added in.

Never before has there been such pressure on the education budget, which is facing a £300m shortfall by 2014/15.

Education Minister John O'Dowd, who is due to make an announcement on the schools' estate later this month, has already warned that schools will be closing.

Commenting on the calls for an Education Commission, Mr O'Dowd said: "Since taking office I have been clear on the need for a new strategic approach to planning the schools' estate on an area basis, and I will address this in my statement to the Assembly later this month.

"Education has already been reviewed in depth; it is now time for action."

However, the minister was more explicit in his response when he addressed the education committee in June when he said: "With respect to commissions, we could paper the Senate Chamber with reports on education.

"We are now the commission: the commission of the people, elected by the people to make decisions.

"We now have to make a decision on how we move forward with restructuring education.

"That is the challenge that faces us all. I expect, under this mandate, how we reshape education for the next 25 or 30 years to be addressed."

But Robin Wilson, chair of Platform for Change and one of the signatories of the letter, believes like with policing, our politicians have failed to address the challenges facing education.

He said: "As with the Patten Commission, set up to transform policing in Northern Ireland because it was impossible for the politicians to agree during the 1998 talks leading to the Belfast agreement, an independent commission is needed to break the logjam.

"Such a commission, as advocated by the Integrated Education Fund, could chart a course towards a normal system where every child attends a good, local school - the principle on which the best-performing system in Europe, that of Finland, runs."

First Minister Peter Robinson has also recommended that a commission should be set up to examine a way of being about integration in schools.

Speaking last October, he said: "Consideration should be given to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration and produce proposals to deal with some of the knotty issues such as religious education, school assembly devotions and the curriculum.

"The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society."

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