Belfast Telegraph

Together we can offer our children the best start in life

The education minister deserves credit for tackling academic underachievement and falling pupil numbers, says Jim Clarke

The title of the statement on the 'next steps' for education delivered yesterday by the minister, John O'Dowd, sets the tone. Putting Pupils First: Shaping Our Future puts the priority firmly with our children and young people.

Mr O'Dowd states: "We must prioritise the needs of children over institutions; that it is the needs of all our young people that are to the fore." The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools welcomes the direction and the pace which the statement indicates in positioning our education system to deliver the skills necessary for an emerging, productive 21st century economy and an inclusive society.

This is about meeting the needs of young people for tomorrow. It emphasises 'our' future.

Our young people are the future for all of us. Education cannot any longer be an end in itself, so it is important that the anticipated Programme for Government (PfG) places education firmly at the centre of growing our economy.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is essential that the Department of Education focuses on preventing failure by putting in place the strategies to address it at the point of identification. Again, the minister has clearly signalled this by his reference to finalising the Special Educational Needs and Early Years strategies to create a radical and coherent set of policies "to address the root causes when pupils are not achieving to their full potential".

Let's be clear: there are hard messages here, but what we all need to acknowledge is the fact that the realities are being addressed. Too many surplus places means fewer schools. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools welcomes the intention by the minister to tackle educational underachievement and falling pupil numbers against significant reductions in the money going directly to schools.

This work needs to be carried out in the context of policies such as sustainable schools and full implementation of the Entitlement Framework, as well as taking into consideration area-based planning.

This will include 'sharing' to facilitate access by pupils from all schools and the wider community to facilities and expertise in any school.

Important work is almost complete in the Catholic-managed sector by the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) post-primary review team to address many of the issues that have been highlighted by the minister. This work is consistent with many of these proposals.

In spite of challenging times ahead, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools believes it is vital the available budget focuses on raising standards and ensuring that the curriculum is relevant, motivating and accessible to all - including our most-able students.

While the council wholeheartedly agrees with the minister that no pupil should lose out due to poor educational provision, it believes that, in those schools which are demographically and financially viable, factors such as poor leadership and lack of collaboration need to be addressed through action by governors and employing authorities.

It is vital that all of us, but especially governors and principals, respond to the minister's challenge by showing the leadership already evident in many schools to create whatever opportunities there are to give every child access to a high-quality education which prepares them to be productive and active contributors to a 21st century Northern Ireland.

We have some excellent teachers in our schools and some excellent schools. Let us encourage them to spread their professional expertise within their own school and then to other schools in their area.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools fully supports the concept of inter-dependent schools by developing inter-dependent working to raise standards throughout our system. By putting pupils first and celebrating them as our greatest resource, we are creating the most positive driver for change.

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