Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

School reform is too vital to leave just to politicians

A commission to help shape education policy is needed in spite of political opposition, argues Marie Cowan

I welcome the comments from Sinn Fein education spokesman Daithi McKay (Sepember 8); he suggests that MLAs are committed to making key decisions and to working in a mature way to resolve issues.

I would be glad to see the Executive take on board the message in the open letter on education published last week: that the inertia which has infected the education system in Northern Ireland must end.

It would be reassuring to be able to refute the remark I heard recently, that Stormont exists for process rather than action.

People with a range of experiences have put their names to a call for a body to be set up, independent of party politics, to examine the way we educate children.

We want recommendations which will bring us into a shared future with sound educational and social outcomes for all. That's aiming high, but surely each new generation deserves nothing less?

There is precedence - Stormont has announced a review of health provision, and our neighbours in Scotland and in the Republic have launched major reviews on education delivery.

We are not calling for a new quango - and definitely not for a project which would drag on, take money from taxpayers and put it into consultants' or lawyers' pockets.

Whilst it's not our job to dictate the manner of such a body, I would argue that the previous models can be improved upon; a commission on education would be taking evidence from stakeholders and, most importantly, would take into account local aspirations and local needs when looking at the overall pattern of provision. This commission could be set a strict time limit in which to research, report and recommend.

As for costs, can we really afford not to have a commission, considering the cost of continuing as we are? We have money wasted on empty desks, on bussing pupils past good local schools to buildings run by a different sectoral body. We have seen money spent on a feasibility study for a future campus at Lisanelly in Omagh, with no apparent appetite for the project from local schools and not a brick laid.

We saw the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) at a cost of £11m, and still it has not begun work. Nothing in ESA, as Mr McKay describes it, would address key issues; it does not, in his portrait, offer strong, strategic and shared leadership and collaborative planning. He cites the ESA as an efficiency measure but admits that the parties could not agree on its establishment.

The proposal for a commission does not deny the role and responsibilities of our elected politicians, but rather acknowledges the complexities and sensitivities involved in running education in Northern Ireland.

The Stormont Executive was elected to do a job, but in the face of stagnation, the electorate wants action.

The breadth of support for the open letter and subsequent One School of Thought campaign, shows how wider society wants to see our children offered a better chance to grow into mature, well-rounded citizens, fit for work and able to take their place in the community - a community which is broadening and offering new horizons all the time.

Daithi McKay's article ends with an acknowledgement that difficult decisions must be made - and economically these are particularly difficult times.

The danger is that decisions are made solely on an economic basis, whereas academic and social implications must be borne in mind.

I'm looking forward to the education minister's promised statement later this month, and I certainly welcome John O'Dowd's comment at the Sinn Fein ard fheis in Belfast - "No school and no sector regardless of their history will be able to stand alone in the delivery of education, nor should they be allowed to..."

We are now awaiting a plan for the future, and the collective will at Stormont to put it into action.

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