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Without revision minister will fail his education test

This is a critical time in the development of education policy in Northern Ireland. In a key statement to the Assembly in September 2011, the education minister, John O'Dowd noted: "We have too many schools and the current pattern of provision is neither educationally viable, nor financially sustainable."

This resulted in viability audits to identify those schools which were evidencing 'stress', judged by data on enrolments, education performance and financial criteria.

The five education and library boards published post-primary schools draft area plans for public consultation in July. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the plans until October 26. By the end of the year, final area plans will be published and work will begin on shaping the future schools estate.

At the launch of the draft area plans, the minister noted: "I want to hear from pupils, parents and the wider community before making my final deliberations on the boards' proposals."

I took the opportunity to observe a series of public meetings, co-ordinated by community organisations and third-sector bodies, devised to widen the debate beyond the official, mechanistic format of consultation.

The aim was to provide a platform for open debate, which was independently facilitated. I make no claim that the events were a representative sample of wider society, but it is worthwhile examining the general mood of the meetings.

In spite of calls by the minister for "realistic, innovative and creative solutions" to the problems facing education, people at the community meetings argued that managing authorities are resisting significant changes.

One participant captured the sense that there was a "poverty of aspiration" about reform and a lack of radical thought with existing vested interests limiting any vision of a more shared system in the future.

The education providers responded that a divided education system is a symptom, not a cause, of a segregated society.

They suggested parents should be able to choose faith-based education and also asserted that schools are open to pupils of all backgrounds.

The 2011/12 education statistics for primary schools fail to substantiate this claim: controlled primary schools attract 5.4% Catholic pupils and Maintained Schools have less than 1% Protestant pupils.

Participants also argued education providers appear to have pre-conceived ideas about future reform: large single-identity urban schools. While this might offer a neat administrative solution, it does not reflect the specific local needs of parents and communities.

Closing rural schools could sound the death-knell for the surrounding community, or result in the flight of either the Catholic, or Protestant, population, leading to further demographic segregation.

The creation of larger, urban-based schools will inevitably lead to bussing, which impacts negatively on children's learning ability and raises questions about access equality to education.

Where is the evidence from education providers that large, urban-based single-identity schools secure better education and reconciliation outcomes? The consultation events took place before the draft area plans were released, but their publication has done little to assuage fears expressed by participants.

The planning exercise has been carried out within two sectoral blocs - the boards planning for the Controlled sector and the Commission for Catholic Education outlining changes for the Maintained sector.

The result is a cut-and-paste vision, which reinforces pre-existing ethno-religious boundaries.

Now is the time for the voice of parents, pupils, teachers and governors to be heard in this debate. Do we have an effective mechanism for this to happen, or will the process continue to be dominated by top-down vested interests?