Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Minister gets things moving – but in the wrong direction

The Education Bill is riddled with contradictions. Unless it is rewritten it promises problems for years to come, says William Young

It is accepted by most of the education community that, for an area the size of Northern Ireland, the education and library boards should be amalgamated into a single education authority – so long as areas are still protected with regard to local provision.

However, a single education authority, with the possibility of considerable savings and greater efficiency, is very different from the bureaucratic powerhouse which is being proposed by the introduction of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA).

I have three main areas of concern with regard to the Education Bill about ESA. My first is finance.

A lot of public money has been spent on ESA, even though this body has yet to be established. It seems there will also have to be extra spending on ESA to set it up.

We have seen parts of the education system expand dramatically, notably CCEA, along with much waste from failed initiatives. So are we confident that money will be saved under ESA? Or will it all go the way of most large powerful, centralised public bodies?

The minister and the department wish command and control from the centre. The voluntary schools know that devolving powers and finance to schools has been successful for years.

My second concern is about the democratic principle. Both the Catholic trustees and the transferors representing controlled schools have positions on the proposed board of ESA. The startling omission is the voluntary grammar sector.

Why has this sector been ignored? Or is this right being held back as a bargaining chip, or a sop?

My third concern centres round the unfettered control which will be given to the minister and his department by the legislation. The draft legislation fails to reconcile the inherent contradiction between provisions stating that ESA would be the sole employer of staff, while simultaneously providing the existing functions of boards of governors of voluntary grammar schools to remain unaffected; it removes the employment powers of voluntary grammar schools and fundamentally weakens their ability to manage their own affairs.

This desire to control the freedom of the voluntary grammar sector is for ideological reasons.

On October 11, the minister said that no school, post-ESA, will be able to plan on its own in terms of the future.

The Bill, as it stands, has many loopholes and contradictions, for example about management of staff, employment schemes and area-planning. Unless it is rewritten to produce a less bureaucratic structure, we shall be left with problems for years to come.

We have much here to celebrate and to cherish, which should not be surrendered to the level of control threatened in this Bill: high academic standards at primary and post-primary level, social mobility higher than the rest of the UK and a greatly enhanced proportion of pupils to sit the tests at 11, due to strong parental demand.

Those who believe in grammar schools and selection and in the freedom of schools to look after their own affairs should pay close attention to the words of our education minister when he said: "The range of reforms I have set in motion, including area planning, the entitlement framework, the review of the common funding formula and the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority, will all make a contribution to moving our education system forwards and make it a truly world-class system.

"It is not the stated purpose of area planning, or indeed any of these reforms individually, to bring academic selection to an end, but in this changing educational landscape academic selection will become increasingly irrelevant."

An unchanged Bill, coupled with these "reforms" of the minister, will certainly move things forward. But in what direction? And at what cost?

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