Belfast Telegraph

Strengthen our education system, don’t just wreck it

The Department of Education’s|viability audit must not be used|as a hit-list to target schools for closure, says Danny Kinahan

The role of vice-chair of the education committee at Stormont is a challenge, but one that I look forward to taking up. For such a small country, Northern Ireland has a truly world class education system which frequently achieves exceptional grades.

As I take my place on the committee, I have a number of areas which I want to focus on as priorities.

I believe in an education system which promotes excellence, encourages diversity and offers choice across all of the main sectors in Northern Ireland.

However that flexibility is not being recognised at the moment through Sinn Fein’s attempts to disestablish our education system one step at a time.

I want to see the post-primary transfer debate resolved once and for all. It is completely unacceptable that our young people are having to sit several exam papers, some of them being of a completely different nature to one another.

While my own preference and that of my party, the Ulster Unionist Party, is to see the retention of |academic selection, the current situation of unregulated tests is simply intolerable.

The principle at the heart of our thinking on the future of post-primary transfer is one centred on informed parental choice.

The fact that thousands of children continue to sit the transfer tests years after it was supposedly done away with, shows that a significant demand for that form of education remains.

Sinn Fein needs to adopt a more conciliatory approach and begin to work with the sector and with other political parties.

In our manifesto last year, we said that we wanted to see a single transfer test put in place for two years to allow time for an assessment process to be agreed which would finally replace the 11-Plus.

This would give the experts in the sector the time and space necessary to finally find a resolution to the post-primary transfer process.

Tackling educational underachievement is an incredibly complex issue.

I genuinely believe that, until the Department of Education recognises the challenge it faces, then Government here will never really get to the root of the problem.

In addition, I have long been aware of the problems in the provision of pre-school nursery places across Northern Ireland.

Effective early intervention is known to be able to deliver long-term benefits for children and parents yet aside from pre-school places, the Early Years Strategy was not referenced at all in the recent Programme for Government (PfG).

Stormont has been waiting on the Department of Education to produce the final Early Years Strategy for several years.

When in June 2010 the draft was published, it was so badly received by the stakeholders that the department quickly brought it back in-house for redrafting. It hasn’t been seen since.

Last September, the minister announced plans to take forward area planning, based on a viability audit of schools. The audit has come and gone with little new information coming forward.

I would have concerns however, that the minister and the department may try to use the cover of the audit to draw up a hit-list of schools for closure. That was not the purpose of the audit and it should never be the outcome of it.

Finally, shared education is a vital building-block of a shared future. Both I and the Ulster Unionist Party want to see the department building on the success of the shared education programme.

Danny Kinahan MLA is vice-chair of the Assembly’s education committee

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