Belfast Telegraph

Reform of our education system must be a priority

We cannot afford to continue running two parallel school systems with so many empty classrooms, says David McNarry

William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book, following his conquest of England, to create an inventory of what he owned so that he could exploit it to maximum effect. I believe we now need to do the same for our schools' estate.

Responding to questions I asked recently, the Education Minister said the significant reductions in his capital budget over the next four years would impact on his ability to deliver new school building projects. He told me also that the schools' maintenance backlog was now estimated at £306m. Add to this mix the 50,000 empty desks in our secondary schools, some 15% of total capacity, and you have a persuasive argument for full-scale restructuring of our schools.

What we need is not simply a more rational restructuring of education but a restructuring unhampered by the number of the current distinct school systems. The idea that we should have that number of systems is not defensible within the context of equality. If pupils are to be treated equally, this can only be done on a rational basis within a single state school system.

Recently, I asked the Education Minister if he had engaged with the Council of Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) on the development of integrated education. He said he had not but was willing to talk if the CCMS would raise the issue. This is too tentative an approach and is out of sync with Sinn Fein's normally driven and radical approach to social policy making.

The facts are persuasive. It costs Northern Ireland £300m each year to maintain the present sectoral education system. Of course, we need more than integrated education as it is practised at present. We need a restructuring which bases its rationale on the goal of community integration, irrespective of community background.

That is the road of economy, of better use of resources and of ending once and for all community divisions which so disfigure our society. That way we build a new Northern Ireland from the primary schools upwards. I welcome the intervention of the One School of Thought campaigners into this debate, but they enter it with baggage - they have a vested interest in integrated education.

I also don't want to see the formation of some sort of commission outside of the Assembly examining a package of proposals for the future of education. All that would do is give the Department of Education further time to delay changes. I do not think there is any more time to fritter away when considering the education of our children.

A good place to start would be a "domesday book" for our schools' estate. That would let us see what we have in terms of buildings, staffing and equipment. In the "doomsday situation" facing education, we have to reorganise and restructure what we have got in the most rational way possible, geared to enhanced delivery and investment between academic and vocational routes.

Equally, if 'every school is to be a good school' then we need to have a selection process between primary and post-primary education based on the concept of identifying the different skills sets which the individual pupil possesses and then tracking them to the most appropriate educational experience for them.

That must be a system which is based on equality between educational and vocational routes. Education in this country must equally value both these routes - the academic and the technical - to help create the basic effective building blocks for a flexible workforce which is important to economic recovery.

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