A noticeable and alarming feature of the current education debate has been the absence of any meaningful consideration of the public schooling system and what as a society our expectations in relation to such should be.
A key strength of our schooling system is that it is a public schooling system embracing 99% of schools. Contrast this with, for example, Victoria in Australia, where the public schooling system includes only up to 60% of schools, the rest being private, etc.
Therefore, legitimately, it can be claimed that a key obligation resting on us who work within the education system is to contribute to the key strategic objectives of the public education system and not to detract from the capacity of others to do likewise.
Any public schooling system worthy of the title should have as its central aim high quality education for all children, irrespective of their social, economic, religious backgrounds which meets the needs of individuals, communities and the economy.
- believe that what has become known as deregulation (the intention of many schools within the grammar community to set their own entrance tests) threatens to undermine this key aim. In short, deregulation will have outcomes at variance with what we are entitled to expect from our public schooling system and with what Northern Ireland plc needs.
- With deregulation, we can suppose a public schooling system which will:
- Be even more divided, contentious, litigious and disconnected than ever before;
- Perpetuate via the intended tests an outdated mindset by which human worth is assessed;
- Deflate to a degree never before realised the hopes and aspirations of so many pupils and their families;
- Determine educational and life opportunities solely on performances in one high stakes educational test designed for no purpose other than to determine if the children in question are ‘right’ for that institution.
Clearly we are in danger of remaining stuck in an educational rut – traversing and navigating the same educational patterns of 25 years ago. Yet the world has changed. Our society has changed. The challenges we confront have changed. The expectations of our public schooling system have changed. And yet with impending deregulation we continue to define the educational challenges within a selective/non-selective paradigm and live with the consequences of so doing.
Perhaps the most negative consequence of deregulation, given its fracturing of our public schooling community along anachronistic fissures that many educational systems have long since discarded, is to compromise the capacity of the education community to restructure education vastly different from previous arrangements. For this is a task which only the education community (thinking corporately and acting collaboratively) can both lead and realise.
Important strands of reform in our schooling system are already under way and positive progress has been made. The language and concepts which underpin these reforms are collaborative, corporate and inclusive:
- As a result of the revised curriculum and entitlement framework, we can realise an educational entitlement aimed at ensuring the growth and development of all pupils aligned, more appropriately to societal, including economic, needs;
- As a result of the emergence and development of area learning communities, we can cultivate an educational service culture predicated on meeting the needs of all children within a community through collaborative rather than singular provision;
- As a result of extended schools, we can realise a joined up approach to individual and societal well-being, predicated on cross agency action coordinated/ cohered at community level;
- As a result of specialist schools, we are developing school leaders and communities committed to meeting the educational needs not just of their own pupils but those of pupils in partner schools.
Set against this backcloth, the bounded stand-alone school which seeks to cater for a particular kind of pupil looks increasingly out of place and yet this is the paradigm which deregulation threatens to further embed and reinforce within a schooling system crying out for vision, leadership and action based on collective and corporate togetherness.
Any meaningful consideration of the public schooling system and the challenges and opportunities of the reform journey already underway would cast doubt on the wisdom of many grammar schools, in the absence of an agreed way forward on the transfer issue, to go their own way and set their own entrance requirements.
Too much is at stake for institutional priorities to take precedence over the public good.