Picking up pace will let our pupils achieve full potential
Northern Ireland has the young people and the teachers to create a world-class education system, says John O'Dowd
Our education system in recent years has undergone a number of important changes. Every School a Good School: A Policy for School Improvement, launched in 2009, has been central to the work driven forward by me and my predecessor.
This policy focuses on ensuring every child has access to a world-class education. In 2006, only 53% of young people left school with the benchmark of five or more GCSEs at A*-C, including English and maths. By 2010, this figure had risen to 59%.
We are moving in the right direction, but progress is too slow. We need to increase the pace of change. How can we achieve this?
My statement to the Assembly last autumn, Putting Pupils First: Shaping our Future, set out a framework for action.
I made clear that we do not need new policies; rather, we needed to step up the pace of implementation of our existing work.
I want to create a network of strong, sustainable and outward-looking schools that are effectively led; pupil-focused; and deliver a broad, balanced and economically relevant curriculum.
I want improvements in leadership and governance at school level and in teaching and learning in our classrooms.
We know already that the best systems internationally are characterised by high-quality teaching and strong, effective leadership at school level.
But we also know, to quote a recent OECD report, that "successful ... countries also invest something else in their education systems: high expectations for all of their students. Schools and teachers in these systems do not allow struggling students to fail; they do not make them repeat a grade; they do not transfer them to other schools; nor do they group students into different classes based on ability."
Those are not my words, but we must learn from these countries' experiences.
I believe that, inherently, in our young people and teaching workforce, we have the raw material that will allow us to be one of the world's best education systems.
We are making progress. However, we must address the unacceptable impact that poverty and disadvantage has on educational attainment.
That is why the Executive's Programme for Government (PfG) will contain a specific commitment to increase significantly the proportions of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve at least five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
We know that achieving at this level not only unlocks the door to further and higher education and to well-paid and fulfilling jobs; it is also linked with better health and lower rates of offending.
We know that the best outcomes for all pupils can be seen in systems where school intakes are reflective of society; a shared education system with children from affluent and disadvantaged areas educated together.
Schools are adjusting to a wider range of academic ability, but not to a wider range of social backgrounds: on average, just 7% of pupils in our grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, compared with more than a quarter (27%) of pupils in non-selective schools.
We need to move away from academic selection and rejection.
I will continue to take action to improve how we plan our schools to ensure pupils achieve their full potential. I will also take action to promote a culture of high expectations for our young people and to encourage greater engagement between schools and the communities they serve. I invite others to join me.