Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Minister needs to learn a lesson from failed model

Any Government policy that seeks to deny parental choice in education is doomed to failure, says John Hart

Advocates of comprehensive education, including the minister, John O’Dowd, often claim grammar schools admit pupils who achieve lower grades in entrance examinations.

Although the minister regularly makes this claim, with equal consistency he neglects to inform parents why schools do it. In fact, they are under a legal duty to fill their places — a legal duty imposed by his department.

However, the Belfast Telegraph’s research provides greater clarity. It shows that, through the rigour and effort provided by groups who organise examination processes, in the overwhelming number of cases schools are providing academic-focused education to those best suited towards it.

The system is working, although even its advocates recognise it’s not perfect and no system will be.

It is also worth noting that a small element of pupils recording entrance upon lower grades will actually be benefiting from the appeal system.

Academic selection is a legitimate choice for schools. In spite of a decrease in overall pupil numbers across Northern Ireland this year, we saw a real-terms increase in parents and pupils applying.

Any policy that seeks to undermine the key principle of parental choice in the face of such demand is destined to fail.

Proponents of comprehensive education claim academic selection distorts the curriculum. In welcoming the performance of P6 pupils in a recent maths, science and literacy study, the Governing Bodies Association noted the measurements were conducted when many pupils were preparing for transfer.

The minister joined us in welcoming the performance, but perhaps he should also re-examine his view that transfer assessments and their focus on the core skills of literacy and numeracy impact negatively upon education.

However, the most difficult questions for those seeking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ system are evidenced across the water. The comprehensive model has proven to be an abject failure in England and Wales. The department has equally failed to demonstrate how it would be any different in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, it is clear, with the diversification of education, the Westminster Government has recognised that one size does not actually fit all.

If it doesn’t raise standards, perhaps proponents seek refuge in arguments of equality and social mobility. The difficulty, again, is the facts.

A 2008 study examined the Top 100 most socially selective schools, finding that 91 of these were comprehensives. Selection by postcode and house price is a very flimsy argument for social mobility.

England and Wales are learning these lessons, but it appears DENI is determined to ‘un-learn’ them. The autonomy of free schools and academies developing in England has been at the heart of the voluntary grammar sector here for decades, but the reforms establishing the Education and Skills Authority currently being considered by the Assembly pose a real threat.

Similarly, listening to the needs of the top universities, the Westminster education minister is focusing on providing academically demanding subjects. At the same time, academic schools here are coming under an increased legal duty to dilute their core offering.

Challenges remain for the grammar sector. A single transfer system must be a priority.

A performance gap in outcomes within the system should be a concern for all and we must play our part in raising overall standards.

However, education has been polarised by the selection debate for so long that the department has lost sight of the need to target remedial policy-making where it is required.

That polarising effect means people engage in more emotive arguments. We can only avoid that by focusing on the facts — and today’s Belfast Telegraph findings are an important step.

John Hart is director of the Governing Bodies Association

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