Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Why Stormont is out to destroy our education system

The Education Bill currently working its way through the Assembly is a betrayal of our grammar schools, says Robert McCartney

The Education Bill now proceeding through the Assembly spells disaster for the future of our children if it becomes law. The reality of devolved government is that, regardless of future elections, the DUP and Sinn Fein will remain in perpetual control.

To do so, they have simply to agree on the sharing out of power between them and how to accommodate each other's interests.

At stake is the quality of future education of the community's children.

The true function of a school system is the education of children. It is not the advancement of political policy, or socialist ideology.

Yet this is the driving force behind the primacy which Sinn Fein affords to control of education.

The process has always been the same. First, you create a single school type that is subject to political control.

Secondly, you impose a child-centred progressive curriculum.

Thirdly, you enforce its strict observance by means of an inspectorate. And, finally, by excluding choice of school within the system, evidence of failure by comparison is eliminated.

The first three of these elements are already in place. The Education Bill, if enacted, will provide the basis for eliminating choice and, with it, the grammar schools.

Sinn Fein's efforts to destroy the grammar schools by abolishing the 11-Plus and undermining primary school preparation for it have failed.

For four years, the grammar schools have offered their own tests on a voluntary basis.

In the current year, 64% of children eligible to sit the test did so, confirming the fact that, since 2000, every public consultation has shown a broadly similar percentage of parents in favour of retaining selection.

The suggestion of the DUP's Mervyn Storey of a return to a new single test would be unworkable. The Catholic Church seems set on phasing out selection in its grammar schools, which could mean that its test might be withdrawn.

Unless the single test was the AQE, all the grammar schools could find themselves without any independent test, thus placing themselves at the mercy of the education minister.

In England, Michael Gove is trying to repair the catastrophic results of a system of non-selective, comprehensive education similar to that envisaged by minister O'Dowd.

Central to his reforms is the removal of political control over schools by local education authorities and returning financial and teaching autonomy to the schools themselves. Yet here the dead hand of political and bureaucratic control is written large in the Education Bill. Mr Gove's reforms include the ending of modular exams, which permitted repeated retakes, now limited to one and a return to a single end-of-year exam. Competition between examination boards will cease with each board limited to a single subject.

Northern Ireland has repeatedly produced the best results in the UK in GCSE and A-Level exams. Keeping in step with England has permitted comparison on a like-for-like basis.

It is unclear whether such comparison will continue, if the nature, form and content of the examinations set by the designated local examination board (CCEA) are different.

If so, then students from Northern Ireland may lose the favourable reputation they enjoy with the top English and Scottish universities, if they are seen as the product of easier exams.

The aim of Sinn Fein has always been to give Northern Ireland a discrete educational identity independent of England and more focused on the Republic of Ireland. A fracturing of the educational link with England is welcomed as a further weakening of the Union.

During the negotiations at St Andrews, which led to an about-turn by the DUP on sharing power with Sinn Fein, the DUP proclaimed its determination to preserve academic selection. This assertion was a central plank in its hard sell of that agreement.

In the meantime, Martin McGuinness had abolished the 11-Plus and Sinn Fein, with the backing of CCEA, under the leadership of Gavin Boyd, had put in place the revised curriculum for primary education which was designed to make it totally unsuitable as the basis for selection.

Surprisingly, the DUP has not only endorsed Mr Boyd as chief executive-in-waiting of the new Education and Skills Authority (ESA), but has appointed David Cargo, former chief executive of the Belfast Education and Library Board and a reputed supporter of comprehensive education, as the party's education adviser.

Why has the DUP effectively given its approval to the Education Bill creating ESA, with its powers of political control over education? Two words explain it: political barter. This is what is necessary to keep the Assembly on the road.

Why does the Education Bill pose such dangers for education? Because it places virtually the entire control of almost every aspect of education in a single centralised body, ESA.

Its board will include a chair plus eight political appointments and 12 members appointed by the minister, allegedly to represent the controlled and maintained sectors.

The voluntary schools will have no representation. Instead, future education will be centralised under the control of a giant, quasi-political quango accountable in reality only to Sinn Fein's minister O'Dowd.

Of equal puzzlement is the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which has emerged as a major opponent of selection. Catholic grammar schools have proved their worth as vehicles for upward social mobility.

To play a part in the destruction of centres of excellence like Lumen Christi, St Columb's, St Malachy's and St Dominic's is to participate in educational vandalism.

The Education Bill poses a danger not only to education, but in a wider sense to the economic wellbeing of the entire community.

At a recent meeting of business leaders organised by Invest NI, there was dismay about reforms that may endanger the levels of education, particularly in higher maths and physics.

Repeatedly, it was emphasised that Northern Ireland's most important attraction for investment and most important export was knowledge of the kind grammar schools provided.

The folly of England's past experiments with progressivist curricula and the decline of Britain's educational status internationally must not be repeated here.

The people and parents of Northern Ireland must make it clear to their political representatives that they are not prepared to endorse an exchange of the educational experience and wisdom gained by our grammar schools over centuries for the political control and ideology of a Sinn Fein minister.

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