Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Education system failing many pupils

T he results of the school league table published in this newspaper today confirms what we always knew - that our grammar schools produce much higher academic results than our secondary schools.

There are obvious reasons for that including the intake of more academically able pupils to grammar schools, the higher percentage of children from disadvantaged backgrounds attending secondary schools and the better resources available in grammars. But what is of concern is that the disparity in results between the two post-primary sectors should be so great. Of the 8,500 pupils who failed to obtain five good GCSEs, only 500 went to grammar schools.

Of course it has to be accepted that school league tables based solely on academic results are a crude measure of any institution's worth. The tables cannot reveal the sterling work carried out by teachers in secondary schools with pupils who lack the academic flair of their grammar school peers. Those teachers can argue with validity that they are often producing the best results possible, even if those results do not meet Government targets.

Yet it is evident that our education system is unbalanced. In the pursuit of academic excellence we do very well for a relatively limited number of children, but what about those whose talents lie in other directions?

Are they given sufficient encouragement and are their skills sufficiently honed to enable them to enter the workplace with confidence? The answer, often, it would sadly seem, is no. Employers constantly complain that school-leavers are not properly equipped for the jobs that are available.

The problem may well begin at primary school where too many pupils leave with very poor literacy and numeracy skills. Education Minister John O'Dowd is right to doubt the world-class status often attached to our education system, but can he retain the best of it whilst bringing up the standards in those areas where we fall short? In particular can he begin to create a worthwhile vocational curriculum to sit alongside the academic subjects, so that every pupil has the opportunity to maximise their talents and find a purpose after school?

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