Belfast Telegraph

Education reform in Northern Ireland

By Peter Hain

This week, young people are starting a new year at schools and colleges across Northern Ireland. They are going into an education system that recognises the vital role it has to play in developing Northern Ireland's economy - a system undergoing a sea-change designed to help it fully play that role.

This week, young people are starting a new year at schools and colleges across Northern Ireland. They are going into an education system that recognises the vital role it has to play in developing Northern Ireland's economy - a system undergoing a sea-change designed to help it fully play that role.

Much has been written and said about the changes. At their core the changes are about investing in and harnessing the talents of every child, enabling them to reach their full potential, and, vitally for the private sector, ensuring Northern Ireland has the skills base it needs.

The current system does very well for some children, producing academically-focused high achievers. Business needs people like this.

But business also needs people with a developed entrepreneurial and creative flair, people with professional and technical skills that will add value to their companies and give them a competitive edge.

At a basic level, business needs people with good literacy and numeracy skills, people who can walk through the door and cope with the communication demands in any workplace.

The current system is not designed to produce enough of these people.

We know Northern Ireland's working age economic inactivity rate is the highest in the UK. People who are economically inactive are more than twice as likely to have no qualifications - the roots of this rest in their schooling.

The selective nature of the current system judges two-thirds of our potential workforce as failures at age 11. Of course, many children who don't pass the 11-plus go on to do well, but too many, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not.

This is a tragedy for them, and an economic disaster for Northern Ireland as a whole.

We are facing an economic threat from the emerging Asian economies on a scale which we have never seen. We cannot even begin to compete with them on cost.

To compete and survive we must be the innovators, out there at the cutting edge. To do this we must produce the best educated and best skilled people possible.

The revised curriculum, at the heart of the reforms, will enable Northern Ireland to produce this skills base.

It will focus on learning for life and work, embedding key skills into the curriculum. It will offer every 14-year-old access to a wide range of courses, from academic to professional to technical and creative specialisms.

Schools will work together with further education colleges, giving young people access to courses relevant to their interests and aspirations, providing a breadth of experience not currently available.

Grammar schools and their academic ethos will remain under the new arrangements and have a full and important role to play.

At the same time, we are also developing specialist schools across Northern Ireland that will become centres of excellence and expertise in particular curriculum areas, with key links to business and the wider community. Specialisms on offer in the first 12 include business and enterprise, ICT and science.

The changes in the education system are being backed with record investment. I am making sure this is going directly to classrooms where it is needed, and I am reforming administration to streamline bureaucracy and deal with empty desks.

Northern Ireland's new education system will ensure that a new skills base is developed, with young people leaving school already familiar with industry and skilled to meet the challenges of the 21st century global economy.

Countdown to northern ireland's educational revolution...

Independent Post Primary Review Body established, chaired by Gerry Burns.

September 2000

Independent Post Primary Review Body established, chaired by Gerry Burns.

October 2001

Review Body's Report "Education for the 21st Century" (Burns Report) published for consultation.

October 2002

Assembly Education Minister Martin McGuinness announces on his last day of office that final 11-plus tests will be held in 2004. Responses to Burns Report consultation process published.

April 2003

Post-Primary Review Working Group, chaired by Steve Costello, established to take account of responses to consultation on Burns Report and provide advice on options for future arrangements.

January 2004

Working Group advice published and accepted in full by direct rule Education Minister Jane Kennedy. Protests from grammar school lobby over scrapping of academic selection.

June 2004

Newly appointed Education Minister Barry Gardiner accepts CCEA recommendations for latter part of Key Stage 1 curriculum (ie years 3 and 4) and Key Stages 2-4.

January to June 2005

Consultation on new admissions arrangements to post-primary schools. Claims by grammar school lobby that Government is introducing "postcode lottery" for post-primary pupils.

April 2005

Mr Gardiner accepts CCEA recommendations for Foundation Stage curriculum.

June 2005

Initial guidance on Entitlement Framework issues to schools.

December 2005

Draft legislation for revised curriculum and new post-primary arrangements published for consultation.

March 2006

Northern Ireland's first 12 specialist schools announced.

July 2006

Legislation for revised curriculum and new post-primary arrangements approved by both Houses of Parliament.

September 2006

Secretary of State Peter Hain insists grammar schools and their academic ethos remain intact. Revised curriculum framework in place.

September 2007

Phased implementation of revised curriculum begins (all Key Stages). Pupil profile in place for year 5 pupils.

Autumn 2007

Final decisions on admissions regulations to post primary schools post-2008.

November 2008

Final 11-plus test takes place.

September 2009

Final year of curriculum roll-out begins ? all key stages. Pupil profile in place for years 1 to 12. Entitlement Framework becomes statutory requirement. New admissions arrangements operate for first cohort of pupils to transfer in September 2010 without academic selection.

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