Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Robert McCartney: Black mark against reforms

Teaching reforms proposed by Education Minister Caitriona Ruane will lead to more local children being disadvantaged, argues Robert McCartney QC



Minister Ruane in her recent opinion piece first alleges that my comments on the education debacle are flawed and then offers what purports to be a response. If readers then expected a rational analysis of my views demonstrating their failings, disappointment was to be their lot.

What the Education Minister produced was a mish-mash of unsupported assertion, political puff and an emotional appeal to class prejudice.

All of the above were wrapped up in an insubstantial claim that her reform package heralds a golden age when children of all classes and abilities will enjoy a world class education that will produce an equality of results, which is a totally Marxist idea that even the Russians have since rejected. This baseless claim, peddled by so-called educational progressives will provide via the ‘revised curriculum’, a repeat of the disastrous results seen in England, where 40% of 11 year olds leave primary school unable to read to a minimum standard. These reforms are ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘teacher-led’.

Teachers are no longer to be teachers, but simply facilitators. The Minister’s reforms are aimed at removing not only the means of selection but the principle as well.

Despite the expenditure of £40m aimed at improving literacy and numeracy, no improvement could be determined by Parliament’s Audit Committee. Educational failure is not decided by a selection process at age 11, the seeds of it are often sown the day a child enters primary school and it is at that stage that the minister’s reforms will prove most harmful. Minister Ruane’s ‘revised curriculum’ is based on an experiment carried out on primary school children in north Belfast between 2000 and 2006.

This experiment was a failure as the results demonstrated that the children subjected to it performed significantly worse than a comparison group.

This experiment was the product of the NI Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment whose director, Gavin Boyd, is to be head of the new centralised body ESA.

The Revised Curriculum and the ‘child-centred’ education which it reflects have failed both in the United States and the United Kingdom with its worst effects visited upon children from deprived areas.

Minister Ruane claims that the Revised Curriculum provides more flexibility to teachers as to how they deliver the curriculum.

Yet it was this very flexibility in the employment of a variety of teaching to read methods that was condemned in the Rose Report commissioned by the Labour government to report on the problem of literacy in England. It confirmed that children should be taught by using ‘synthetic phonics’, a method which had virtually eradicated illiteracy in some of the most deprived areas in Scotland.

All respected research concluded that using this method at the earliest age was of particular benefit for disadvantaged children.

Yet Minister Ruane’s Revised Curriculum will do the opposite by delaying the formal teaching of reading until age 7 and permitting flexibility at the vital early stage.

Many parents are already complaining about their children’s slow progress in reading but an ‘official’ assessment of the Revised Curriculum’s effectiveness will not be available until 2020.

In claiming that 4,500 children leave primary school without adequate literacy and numeracy skills, Minister Ruane seems unaware that this confirms that academic selection is not the cause of the smaller number of children from deprived areas getting to grammar schools. The real causes are threefold.

First, parents who have low educational aspiration for their children, second, a failure to utilise the best teaching methods in many primary schools and, third, the fact that many parents in these areas do not even enter their children for the transfer test. The average test entry provincewide is some 70% while in some of the areas mentioned by the minister, like north Belfast, it is only 15%. Put simply, if a child is not in, it cannot win a place.

The results from the north Belfast primary schools subjected to the ‘enriched curriculum’ demonstrates not educational enrichment, but educational poverty. Minister Ruane makes the extraordinary claim that it is now almost impossible to find anyone who thinks that a transfer test is a good idea. What world does she inhabit? Some 64% of parents consulted by Martin McGuinness voted to retain selection, as did 62% of teachers. What they wanted was a less stressful and more reliable form of testing, not its abolition. Since the Revised Curriculum, which was specifically designed as ‘the Trojan Horse’ that would make testing impossible, it is no surprise that a ‘pupil profile’ to allot children to schools suitable to their ability has proved unobtainable.

Parents and teachers want a process that informs them how each child performs in relation to its peers.

Both were severely critical of a pilot profile scheme that provided bland and meaningless generalities.

In plain language parents wanted reports on tests that told them the relative merits of their children in specific subject terms.

Now that the pupil profile has proved unworkable Minister Ruane makes the unfounded claim in December 2008 that: “It was never intended that either the Pupil Profile or the annual reporting proposals would be used in informing decisions on transfer from primary to post primary school.”

Yet the Minister for Education Angela Smith in December 2004 said: “Transfer Tests will be held in 2008.”

Future transfer arrangements will be based on parents’ choice. To help them, parents will have information about their child’s progress in a PUPIL PROFILE advice from the primary school and access to advice from post primary schools”.

The truth is that the proposed scheme of Pupil Profile to match pupils to suitable schools having proved impossible to produce, Minister Ruane is now simply denying that such was ever its purpose.

In fact, Gavin Boyd and co in CCEA appear to have admitted after four years that as an alternative to testing, the Pupil Profile is a complete failure.

Fresh from this failure, Minister Ruane now intends to put in place an Education and Skills Authority headed by Gavin Boyd with the most Stalinist powers over every aspect of education.

His track record of anti-selection opinion accords fully with the minister’s, so a ‘Yes Minister’ policy can be expected.

The DUP intends to put down amendments to the ESA proposals, so perhaps it will now declare an intention to veto the Bill if its amendments are not accepted or is the preservation of office to be more important than pre-election pledges made to parents.

Minister Ruane’s consultations display one glaring omission — a failure to consult not just teachers or their trade unions but the parents of the children affected by her ‘revised curriculum’.

Perhaps she remembers that 64% of them when consulted by her predecessor were in favour of the principle of selection which her curriculum is intended to abolish. Unfortunately for those parents, it will be 2020 before the results of her reforms can be assessed, by which time it will be too late for thousands of their children and Minister Ruane will have found pastures new.

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