Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Dear Caitriona, you need to put us out of this transfer misery

When I directed my Open Letter to you last autumn, your troubles were just starting. "Maybe you will be forced to admit," I wrote, "that you cannot meet your deadline, that your purist goal - no selection at all - is just too much to grasp, in too short a time, at too great a price.

"I hope I'm wrong and that somehow you will manage to achieve cross-community support for whatever you have in mind. The omens, as the clock ticks on for you, do not look good."

Well, that was October 2007. This is March 2008, and as you know, many people in Northern Ireland, be they teachers, parents, or the media, feel you are little further forward. They are giving you a hard time yet it must be said that you have certainly shown bottle, even a touch of the lady-is-not-for-turning Thatcher spirit. No surrender. No going back. No selection, definitely no selection. Your message could not be clearer.

It must be an exhausting experience at the moment to be in the Department of Education. To be a party to your purist dream. To be striving to catch all those balls you have tossed with such abandon into the air over Stormont. Or to be struggling to find enough hours in a civil servant's working day to meet your incredibly ambitious requirements. With that in mind, I have tried to look dispassionately at the evidence to date and it boils down to three significant statements which you have made.

The first came in December when you set out your broad vision. The second on January 31 when you faced hostile questions from the Stormont education committee. Finally, only 10 days ago, you were expected to announce detailed plans but instead rounded on the media and your critics.

Having taken the trouble to read these statements I think they do give some idea of your goals in more detail than those critics suggest. However, having a goal is very different from knowing how to achieve it and the suspicion remains that you cannot meet the tight timescale ahead of you.

It is hardly unreasonable to suggest, as many are doing, that you should be giving answers at this late stage rather than still raising more questions of your own in your reform process. For example, you posed a series of questions to the Stormont education committee only a month ago. How do we match children to the appropriate method of teaching? How do we ensure every child has an equal chance? How do we use what information is available about a child from his or her primary school pupil profile to determine the child's post-primary needs? Good questions. But what is worrying the people who are writing to this newspaper or texting and phoning the TV and radio stations, is the fact that they too are asking these questions and hearing no answers from you.

You say geographic, family and community ties will determine which post-primary schools accept which children at the age of 11. But how precisely will that work efficiently and effectively in practice?

You hint that the differing cultures and ethos of such schools can be absorbed in the new arrangements. But how will that be done? Different schools, grammar and secondary alike, also have strengths and weaknesses in their teaching resources. That poses another unanswered question.

What is the lead time required to hire new teachers, retrain others or generally re-organise schools to take more pupils with different educational needs? You acknowledge also that there are schools which will not fit your model. You seem to accept that the transition might take longer for them. Do you mean that some schools will be given additional time to adjust? How much time? Which schools? What happens when the entire 11-plus year is transferred to post-primary education? How will the schools determine who sits beside whom? Are you saying that a child with Cambridge potential should share a desk with a child with very different vocational qualities? How do you see these children coping with their obvious differences? And how can teachers pace their programmes for learning to suit the vastly varying spread of 11-year-old minds? What price no selection at 11, if post-primary teachers still feel the need to stream children at that age on the basis of their academic abilities? The questions keep mounting and surprisingly, you seem to be asking a lot of them yourself. Questions. Questions. But still we wait for the Caitriona Ruane answers and solutions?

In fairness to you, I do think you have won the argument that 11 is too young an age to select children for post-primary education and you are also correct in identifying 14 as a more appropriate year of decision in a young person's development.

Many people also concur with you that something needs to be done about the 12,000 children who leave school without adequate attainment in English and maths.

The question is whether your new system will make any appreciable difference? Only time will tell, but the experience of comprehensive education in Great Britain is hardly a confidence builder.

All in all your purist dream still seems a nigh on impossible task to achieve in the proposed time-scale. Even if every school principal rolled over and agreed with you, the mechanics of change, for buildings, teachers and the curriculum seems mind-boggling and likely to eat up time and money.

Too much to grasp? In too short a time? At too great a price? The deadline for decisions is upon you. Some might say that's a trap you have set for yourself. The next few weeks should tell us whether you are caught in it.

Yours, Ed

Belfast Telegraph


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