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Caitriona Ruane: Giving all pupils a fair chance is real test

Education is a subject that everyone has an opinion on. An opinion that is usually based on their own experiences or those of their children or close relations.

A popular view is that we have a world class education system because it produces higher results than schools in England or Wales.

While the statistics do show some impressive examination results I would suggest that our education system is not world class, because for too long a substantial number of young people at the other end of the scale have been ignored. Around 12,000 young people leave school each year with poor literacy and numeracy skills. That cannot continue.

Our educational outcomes in reading and mathematics, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are average compared to other areas in the study and our relative performance appears to be falling in recent years.

I recently met with the Education Minister for Poland, who explained how his country removed academic selection several years ago and they are already seeing improvements in educational standards for all children.

A similar picture emerged in Finland where selection was abolished 30 years ago. Finland is currently the top performing country in the PISA tables.

In both Poland and Finland opponents of the changes predicted confusion and chaos.

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These fears have been shown to be unfounded as both countries have clearly shown selection is not necessary to achieve high standards in education.

Another worrying factor in our educational performance is the wide gap between the two ends of the scale in our education system.

We need to reduce this gap and make quality education available to all. Transfer 2010 is Department of Education policy and if post-primary schools follow the policy, then all children will have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

There is no need for any form of high stakes testing of children to enable them to obtain the education to which they are entitled.

I recognise and applaud the hard work done by pupils, teachers and parents to achieve good examination results. These are important to help our young people plan their future, whether that is to continue in education or move into employment.

The current worldwide recession highlights the importance of ensuring young people have the skills to help them find and sustain employment.

To help them develop those essential skills we need to have an education system based on equality that helps every child achieve to their fullest potential.

I have met with leaders from all sectors of our community and share their view that our education system needs to be capable of producing young people who have good communication skills and are articulate, confident and creative so they can find employment to support their family and community.

I strongly believe that every child deserves a fair chance from our education system. Education has the power to transform people's lives.

We have too many communities who have suffered generations of disadvantage compounded by an education system that has ignored them.

That is why I am driving a programme of reforms where raising standards in schools is a key priority.

We have just completed a series of three conferences attended by more than 800 principals from right across the north.

We updated the principals on how we will support them to ensure our children and young people have access to the best educational opportunities.

Principals shared with others the good practices they have developed in their schools to strengthen leadership and raise standards.

I believe in early intervention. That is why we are developing an early years strategy to cover the important transition from the home through pre-school settings to primary school.

It will ensure a solid framework is in place for early childhood, to prepare children for life at school and beyond.

To build on a good start, children need the best possible transition to formal schooling. The Foundation Stage of the revised curriculum for years 1 and 2 will help develop confident children, engaged in learning. Of course this needs to be backed by resources and I have secured £32m over three years to support the Foundation Stage of the curriculum.

The recently published report from the Chief Inspector of schools showed that one fifth of children do not attain the standards in literacy and numeracy expected for their age by the time they leave primary school.

This has obvious impacts on the rest of their education and our aim is that the focus on early years will turn this around.

A contributing factor to this is the damaging effect the Transfer Test had on our primary-aged children. For those that opted in to the test, preparation narrowed much of the P6 and P7 curriculum.

Those opting out of the test were often marginalised. This created inequalities in access to the standard of education that all children are entitled to, not just a select minority. This division of children cannot be allowed to continue.

In post-primary schools, as we move away from selecting pupils based on high stakes tests we can ensure every child has access to the school that best meets their needs and abilities.

We have many examples across the north of high performing non-selective schools producing young people who are high achievers, not just in academic areas, but in vocational studies, sport and the arts. Young people who are well prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The establishment of the Education and Skills Authority in January 2010 will see a major reform of the administration of education. The ESA will take on the functions and responsibilities of the Education and Library Boards and other education organisations, and will have a key role in raising standards in schools in every sector. The ESA will support school improvement and challenge when necessary to ensure children receive the best education. We will shortly be publishing “Every School a Good School”, our new school improvement policy.

I want every young person to have access to high-quality education in settings characterised by strong leadership and excellent teaching.

Settings which have strong links to the local community and involve parents in the education and wellbeing of their children.

This is a time of major reform in education. It is a time of challenge to all to work together to ensure the best interests of our children and young people are at the forefront of all our policies and decisions.

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