Academics at Ulster University have called for a complete reform of the education system in Northern Ireland after a new report concluded that the current system is “unsustainable”.
In a comprehensive paper looking at how education is run, the report, published by the university’s Unesco Education Centre, said the influence of the church and politics had created a confused, bloated and ultimately costly system that is no longer fit for purpose without ambitious and radical reform.
The paper found that “vested interests of the churches and the traditional political blocs” had been major contributing factors to failures in the system.
It said the system has been left “divided, splintered and overly expensive”, and as a result has become “confusing and socially divisive”.
The damning assessment of how education is run in Northern Ireland said a fundamental review, as promised in the new Decade New Approach deal agreed in January 2020, must now be a priority
That review is not expected to begin before May, but it warned that the Department of Education needs to move away from the current system which is, in effect, bankrolling separation in education.
While the research has been conducted independently, its publication was partly funded by the Integrated Fund for Education.
It said previous attempts at reform, including the setting up of the Education Authority (EA) in 2014, had largely fallen short.
The Department of Education is responsible for at least eight other arms-length bodies as well as the EA.
These include the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI), the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).
There are also sectoral organisations for voluntary grammars, integrated, Irish-medium and controlled schools, as well as a Catholic Schools Trustee Service.
“It is not inconceivable that the proposal in the New Decade New Approach document to place a duty on the Department to ‘encourage and facilitate’ education through Ulster-Scots could lead to demands for the creation of Ulster-Scots schools and, ultimately, on the grounds of ensuring parity of investment with the Irish language, a further support body,” the university paper said.
“This proliferation of arm’s length bodies and sectoral bodies creates additional expenditure
“Each of these bodies supported by DE has separate sections for finance and human resources. Each has at least one administration building to service and maintain. Each has their own management structure and governing board. Each is provided with a direct budget for salaries and operational costs.”
Grants to these bodies cost the taxpayer almost £6m in 2018/19 alone, a figure expected to rise by 10% annually.
“It could be argued that the current configuration means that DE is, in effect, bankrolling the structural, ethnic separation of education,” the report said.
“It is, however, undeniable that the existing system for the administration of education in Northern Ireland presents a bewildering alphabetical word-storm of acronyms and initials.”
The researchers are now calling for an “ambitious and radical” transformation of Northern Ireland’s education system.
“History, politics and ecclesiastical interventions in educational policy have contributed to the development of a system in Northern Ireland that can largely be defined as being divided between state schools that reflect a British outlook and are underpinned by Protestant values, and faith-orientated Catholic schools that sustain a particular version of Gaelic-Irish identity,” the academics said.
“Appeasing and balancing the demands of these opposing denominational, cultural and national vested interests has contributed significantly to the creation of a system that is divided, splintered and consequently overly expensive
“Transformation will require, at some stage, that the historical legacy and enduring vested interests of the churches and the traditional political blocs are addressed.
“It needs also to start by tackling the organisational complexity that lies at the core of the system.
“There is a clear need to reduce duplication across the education system which meets the needs of all our children and young people and an ambitious and radical programme of change is required.