Belfast Telegraph

Caitriona Ruane: Why school reforms are in interest of all children

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane responds to comments that her policies will be detrimental to the curriculum, and explains how reforms will effect positive change across the community

In a recent opinion article in the Belfast Telegraph Robert McCartney commented on a number of important |issues in education. Unfortunately, most of his arguments are flawed and it is important that a response is made.

I applaud the wonderful successes in many of our schools and I want to build on these. I recognise and value the important work done by principals, teachers and other school staff supporting our children and young people.

These successes however, hide a shocking level of underachievement. Internationally recognised performance indicators show not only that we have a huge gap between the top achievers and those failed by the system, but that we are steadily slipping down the international league table. How can we build a society that is based on equality, when after 12 years of compulsory education, around 12,000 of our young people do not achieve the necessary skills in English and maths. This is the first key step on the ladder to employment or further and higher education.

Some groups of children and young people are losing out |because of these inequalities. In working-class communities, 44% of Protestant males and 41% of Catholic males leave school without five good GCSEs. Young |people who have a disability, or are from ethnic or Traveller communities also suffer inequalities in |education.

These are real problems that have become accepted over the years. It has been too easy for these and other children to |become totally disillusioned and to fall out of education. That cannot continue. The evidence shows we need radical reform. We |cannot build a strong economy to benefit every section of our community if access to educational opportunity is not equally available to all in the community.

Across both primary and post-primary schools we are in the |second year of the introduction of the revised curriculum. This revised curriculum, which takes account of the rapidly changing world around us, was introduced after a long consultation with our teachers. It aims to ensure that all our young people will be well prepared to meet the challenges of our society and economy in the 21st century.

The revised curriculum has a strong focus on reading, writing and maths, which are vital to the progress of children throughout their education. Teachers and pupils have told me how enthusiastic they are about the revised curriculum because it helps develop skills as well as promote knowledge. In addition, it gives teachers more flexibility over how they |deliver the curriculum to meet the needs of children. We have recently distributed leaflets to all parents explaining how the |revised curriculum affects the education of their children.

The revised curriculum will be a key policy in my programme of progressive reforms that support my school improvement policy. These reforms include a strategy to raise standards in numeracy and literacy. I will not accept the current situation where 4,500 children leave primary school without adequate literacy and numeracy skills; a review of education for children with additional needs; a review of education for children from the Traveller community and a review of Irish-medium education. These are not stand alone policies, but interlinked to modernise education for all |children.

The establishment of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) will be the most fundamental |reform of education administration, for more than a generation. I have now introduced the first stage of the necessary legislation in the Assembly to put ESA in place from 1 January 2010. The creation of a single Authority replacing nine existing education organisations will streamline the administration of education, enabling me to direct additional funding to schools, where it will make a real difference. The role of the ESA will be to deliver my policies in support of the Executive’s Programme for Government.

It will plan, support and challenge education provision. A key priority will be to deliver equality and raise standards for all |children and young people. Schools will be supported and encouraged to deliver the best |education possible for their pupils. ESA will ensure schools have the training, support and resources |required for success.

Because I believe that local democratic accountability is vital for an important service such as education, I have decided that the majority of members of the ESA should be local councillors. ESA will be a single, but decentralised organisation, with a strong local presence and a real focus on local delivery. Local committees will help to identify and respond to local educational needs.

ESA will be accountable to the Department of Education and through me, as Minister of Education, to the Assembly. This will be a fully accountable public body, delivering results for our entire community.

I have embarked on a range of reforms and a modernisation |programme designed to give every child the best possible start in life. One of these reforms is of the outdated system by which children transfer from primary to post-primary schools.

The Transfer Test has now been taken by primary school pupils for the last time. It is now almost |impossible to find anyone who thinks the Transfer Test was a good idea. So why did we subject 10-year-old children to such stress for so long? Why was the educational future of so many dependent on two one-hour high pressure tests? Tests that labelled as failures those not reaching a certain grade and denied access to certain schools.

A test that sees 95% of |children from Malone Road primary schools who sit the 11-plus transfer to grammar schools, compared to 26% from the Shankill and 22% from New Lodge, owes more to social selection than academic ability.

This is the true postcode lottery in education.

We do not need to subject |10- year-old children to selection tests to put them on an educational route that is best for them. A Test that sees children leave a |primary school to go to multiple post-primary schools. We need to keep families together and keep communities together.

The vast majority of education systems around the world manage to transfer children without any form of academic selection and produce excellent results. Why can we not learn from the experiences of Europe and the |Americas?

It is widely accepted that 14 is a more appropriate age to decide on educational pathways when our young people currently choose their examination subjects. At 14 they can be matched to educational provision that best meets their needs and abilities, whether that is academic, vocational or a combination of both.

I recognise that some schools may need time to adjust to an |education system without academic selection.

That is why I have offered compromise and my proposals allow for a three year transition to an |education system where children transfer on the basis of non-academic admissions criteria that are familiar to schools and |parents.

I strongly support academic |excellence and am working to make every school a good school, capable of delivering the highest quality opportunities for every child, from their very first day in school.

My programme of education reforms will deliver an education system that is based on equality, is modern, effective and responsive to the needs of our children and young people.

Belfast Telegraph


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