Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Opportune time to overhaul education

Northern Ireland's education system is often, but wrongly, described as among the best in the UK. That reputation is based almost entirely on the high academic achievement in the grammar school sector.

The overall standard of the system - based on three core criteria of quality of education, stability of enrolment and financial viability - is far from perfect. Indeed, as Education Minister John O'Dowd, admits, the picture is serious and gives cause for concern to a lot of parents throughout the province.

There is no room for complacency after this audit of the school estate. The figures are clear - 47% of primary schools are failing in one or more category; so too are 84% of secondary schools and 35% of grammar schools. It is evident beyond rebuttal that many schools will have to close or merge and that some communities will be left without a school. That will happen because of falling pupil numbers or mounting debts. It should also happen because of falling education standards.

A dispassionate outsider coming here and looking at the results of this audit would come to one very obvious conclusion. Northern Ireland can no longer afford twin parallel education systems. This is a clarion call for shared education, maximising the use of scarce resources and providing the best and widest educational experience for all pupils. The minister says he wants to improve educational outcomes for pupils. This is his opportunity.

Sadly, however, his many fine words do not include the key phrase of shared education. He shows no sign of grasping that political nettle which, ultimately, would probably result in the least upheaval within the schools system. If Mr O'Dowd were to take this bold step he could leave a great legacy to future generations of schoolchildren by creating a sustainable and high quality education system unlike the present creaking and failing one. Without the proper framework the system can only be patched piecemeal and that is simply not good enough.

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