Ten education experts today issued a hard-hitting message to Caitriona Ruane calling on her to sort out the school transfer crisis.
In opinion articles written for today’s Belfast Telegraph, they each give their view on how the impasse affecting thousands of children could be resolved.
All of them insist that action must be taken by our politicians to find agreement on a way forward.
This supports the Belfast Telegraph’s Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign which has already been backed so far by the signatures of over 7,000 people.
We will deliver the first batch of petitions to members of Stormont’s education committee on Saturday, December 5.
PROFESSOR ALAN SMITH, UNIVERSITY OF ULSTER
Time to move away from ideological debates
It is difficult to believe that after 10 years our political representatives have not agreed a way forward.
In the past 10 years grammar school intakes have changed significantly — there are only five grammar schools that exclusively accept only Grade A. A few even have more Grade Ds than Grade As.
Grammar schools are drawing more able pupils away from secondary schools but children from working class and disadvantaged backgrounds still have less access to grammar schools.
It may be time to move away from ideological debates and present our school leaders with the practical challenges. Unregulated selection tests are not the answer.
For grammar school principals there are challenges of how to maintain numbers, but not at the expense of secondary schools, and how to open the doors to children from a broader range of social backgrounds.
For secondary school principals the challenges are to identify what will be needed to change parents’ perceptions whilst ensuring that all children will continue to achieve to the best of their ability.
If the politicians are not up to it, then maybe it is time for school leaders to address these issues through school development plans and securing resources from government to implement change.
REV IAN ELLIS, SECRETARY TO THE CHURCH OF IRELAND BOARD OF EDUCATION NI
It should be possible to end high stakes test at 11
Theview of the TRC is that reform is necessary and that it should be possible with vision and consensus to move away from a high stakes test at age 11 to a focus on age 14 as a pathway decision point.
In November 2008 the education spokespersons for the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Catholic Church, called for all parties to agree to an interim arrangement so that time could be created to look at possible options.
The churches pointed to one such option — the work of a group of educationalists representing a wide range of views on transfer who shared ideas for a new way forward. These proposals would lead to the disappearance of academic selection at age 11 and the use of criteria to access certain courses and pathways at the age of 14 which could include amongst others, academic criteria.
It is disappointing that no political agreement on the transfer issue has been possible and we have reached our current impasse. The TRC believes an agreed way forward must be found — this will take time and require politicians and others to stand back from established positions.
Rev Ellis is also Secretary to the Transferor Representatives’ Council
JOANNE STUART, CHAIRMAN OF THE INSTITUTE OF DIRECTORS NORTHERN IRELAND
Young deserve more than point-scoring squabbling
What business is concerned about is that the output of the education system should provide young people with the skills and knowledge that will fit them for the workplace — whatever the workplace looks like now or in the future.
We need a workforce that is willing to work, equipped with the basic numeracy and literacy any job requires, committed to learning throughout their working life and flexible enough in attitude to adapt to what is required of them.
Whether that workforce comes through an education system that is based on academic selection is immaterial. What matters is that the education provision is top class.
That is the real issue that our politicians should be addressing — how do we make sure that regardless of the school, all children achieve their potential and develop the skills that will give them the best career opportunities.
It is not the role of the business community to sort out the issue of school transfer; that is a job for our politicians. Our young people deserve better than the squabbling and point-scoring that are the hallmarks of the current debate on education.
Our MLAs have to face the fact they hold the future of Northern Ireland in their hands and it is time for them to make tough decisions.
NOREEN CAMPBELL, CEO NORTHERN IRELAND COUNCIL FOR INTEGRATED EDUCATION
I do not see any justification for selection
I feel very strongly about the debate around transfer. It has centred on selection and that has completely skewed the debate.
This has created fear and uncertainly and lead to a missed opportunity for the public to be involved in a debate about the whole system.
Parents need to be reassured that all schools follow the same curriculum and do the same exams.
Grammar schools need to accept that the days of academic selection are gone and that they are schools publicly funded for the area they serve.
I think it is shameful that parents feel under pressure to pay for tuition and admissions fees to put their children through new tests that are not necessary. We should have a fairer system and I do not see any justification for selection. Every child has to be given the opportunity to develop to their highest potential.
Our schools show that comprehensive education can work. Some children in our schools were deemed failures at 11 and have gone on to achieve first class degrees.
I admire Education Minister Caitriona Ruane’s courage in tackling a very difficult issue but I think the management of it could have been done differently.
TREVOR CARSON, DIRECTOR OF LEARNING AND SKILLS DEVELOPMENT AGENCY
FE colleges need to be included in the debate
Whilst it is disappointing that our local politicians cannot agree on the way forward regarding transfer arrangements for entry into post primary education, it is important not to lose sight of the equally if not more important recommendations emanating from the Costello Report.
With a reducing school population it is vital that each young person receives the appropriate skills development for them so that they can take their place in and contribute to a successful Northern Ireland economy as we come out of the recession.
What has unfortunately been lost is the requirement to deliver the Curriculum Entitlement Framework (access for all pupils to a broad range of subjects).
Effective area planning that has a genuine involvement of all six regional further education colleges needs to be discussed in the same breath as transfer arrangements.
The current ad hoc arrangements are not in the best interests of young people going into the post primary sector.
PROFESSOR TONY GALLAGHER, HEAD OF SCHOOL OF EDUCATION AT QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY
Some form of selection at 14 could be way forward
A decade of debate has produced no consensus, only a self-interested battle of wills between the Minister and the grammar lobby in which the only losers are our children. The chaos must not be allowed to continue.
St Andrews means responsibility for re-establishing a regulated system rests with the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Can we end the injustice of early, high stakes selection and preserve the academic traditions of the grammar schools?
Some form of selection at age 14 fits with the revised Northern Ireland Curriculum and with collaboration in area learning communities. It can advance the goal of making every school a good school, and give every child genuine curriculum choice and a guarantee of a high quality education.
If the politicians don’t buy this, then let them take no more than three years to come up with an alternative agreed solution and, in the interim, establish a simplified system of selection at 11 which restricts grammar schools to grade A pupils only.
This will give all schools the stability they need to educate our children, while our elected representatives face their responsibility to prove that shared government can in fact work.
PATRICIA LEWSLEY, NI COMMISIONER FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
We forget that it’s about children and their futures
There are two questions we need to ask. Who is affected the most by the current transfer situation? And why are key decision-makers not working together to find a solution that is in the best interests of our children?
Too often we forget that this is about children and their futures. It is clear the transfer situation is having a very detrimental impact on children. It is time to get a system in place which values children — and does not harm them.
I am undertaking a major piece of work to listen directly to the experiences of Primary 7 pupils, parents and teachers who are being affected by the transfer process.
Last week I met 90 Primary 7 children. Many felt they had no choice but to sit transfer tests to get into the school of their choice. Others not sitting tests were concerned about whether the selection criteria used would be fair.
Our political representatives must do all they can to find agreement on the way forward, to make sure that we are not in this same situation next year.
MARK LANGHAMMER, DIRECTOR OF ASSOCIATION OF TEACHERS AND LECTURERS NI
Socially balanced intakes would improve system
It’s too late this year, but an agreed system is imperative. An unregulated free-for-all is no basis to proceed.
The educationalists’ ‘14+’ compromise, endorsed by the four main churches and by the ATL should be resurrected and reconsidered.
Where the minister has got it right, through the Free School Meals admissions criterion, is to encourage social balance.
Fewer and larger schools, as recommended by former chancellor George Bain, would also help.
Socially balanced intakes are internationally proven key determinants in improved systemic educational performance.
Selective systems do not cause socially imbalanced intakes, but do exacerbate social division. Intakes in predominantly Protestant schools are starkly imbalanced, with results following form.
Eighty five percent of differentials in education performance arise from factors outside school — factors like parental involvement, community culture, but mostly social class.
So schools matter — but only a bit.
Early selection, like it or not, has evolved into a class issue.
The long term answer lies outside schools or the Education Department — in wage compression and radical shortening of income differentials in society.
As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s recent research — The Spirit Level — demonstrates, equal societies are healthier, happier, better educated and more economically productive.
More equal works.
BARONESS MAY BLOOD, CAMPAIGN CHAIR OF THE INTEGRATED EDUCATION FUND
Real priority is need for more investment in schools
Every parent wants the best education possible for their children and, in the opinion of some parents, grammar schools are the only schools that can deliver a good education.
This perception has many middle-class parents having their children tutored for exams to secure places in grammar schools.
A recent statistic on the number of children receiving free school meals who are sitting the new AQE entrance exam is 5%.
This compares with an average of 30% of children receiving free school meals at secondary schools.
These social and economic barriers make it difficult for children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to enter grammar schools.
Put simply, this is selection by wealth.
Within the Greater Shankill area and in many socially disadvantaged areas throughout Northern Ireland the current debate on academic selection is not really a very relevant issue.
The real priority is the need for more investment in schools, educational standards and special initiatives to tackle poor literacy and numeracy standards.
Integrated colleges have consistently delivered excellent exam results at GCSE and A-level.
More importantly integrated schools educate children of all academic abilities, social backgrounds and indeed special needs together, enriching the education experience and preparing our children for the real world, not for the world of the select few.
Baroness Blood is also a Belfast community worker
PIP JAFFA, PARENTS ADVICE CENTRE
Parents want equal opportunities for youngsters
As the Parenting Forum NI, with a large membership of parents and organisations working with parents, we facilitate opportunities for parents to voice their opinions.
On the issue of their children transferring from primary to post primary education, parents have been very articulate and vocal about their wishes.
Given that there has been a protracted period of uncertainty and that parents have found information has been both sparse and confusing, parents want to see a resolution which will address their concerns.
Parents want to see a process which is easily understood, is transparent, fair, and gives all children equal opportunity in education.
When it comes to selection of a school, they want a system whereby they are able to exercise real choice.
As the Parenting Forum has been and still is in constant dialogue with parents on this matter, an approach was made to Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley.
She has responded by setting up, along with the Parenting Forum, a parents reference group for parents of P7 children whose views she will gather during the next seven months.
The culmination of this consultation will be a report.
Any parent interested in being part of that group can contact Pauline@pachelp.org