COMMITTEE FOR EDUCATION
Review of Post-Primary Education
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
THURSDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2001
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Mr K Robinson
Mr J Martin ) Western Education and Library Board
Mr J Fitzsimons ) South Eastern Education and Library Board
Mr D Cargo ) Belfast Education and Library Board
Mr G Topping ) North Eastern Education and Library Board
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to welcome on behalf of the Committee Mr Martin from the Western Education and Library Board, Mr Cargo from the Belfast Education and Library Board, Mr Fitzsimons from the South Eastern Education and Library Board and Mr Topping from the North Eastern Education and Library Board. The witnesses will speak about the main points of their submissions, and will then answer questions from Members. We look forward to a useful exchange of views.
I remind Members that this is public session, which will be reported by Hansard. Today's minutes of evidence will form part of the Education Committee's overall submission to Mr Gerry Burns's Review Body.
Thank you for the invitation to address the Committee. We thought that it would be helpful, for the record, to read our covering letter, which sets out the background and the context in which we wish to make our comments.
It is important to emphasise at the beginning that each of the boards is an independent body with defined statutory responsibilities for its own area. Each board has, therefore, prepared its own response, taking into account the individual circumstances in each area. The Committee invited us to prepare a common submission. For that reason, we attempted to collate the common features of the boards' responses, and our paper outlines those. We want to emphasise, however, that a collective response such as this cannot reflect the complexity of all the issues involved. That was why we sent the Committee, in addition, copies of the individual responses.
We considered it important to re-emphasise the concluding statement in the Gallagher and Smith report, although it has been repeated many times. It forms the background against which the whole debate should take place. It says that
"A debate that simply revolves around school structures may unduly narrow the terms of the discussion, encourage the inaccurate view that significant problems are easily solved and lose sight of the broader purposes of education. The starting point for discussion ought to be the social, educational and economic objectives young people should achieve from their educational experience. Then the education structure that seems best placed to provide these ends can be determined."
I emphasise the importance of that last point.
We also felt that it was important to take account of the socio-economic context and of the wider context in which the education system will be required to operate in the 21st century. Although this debate is about post-primary education, we felt that the post-primary phase could not be considered in isolation but as an integral part of a lifelong formative process, through which every individual should be enabled to develop his or her talents to the full and to realise his or her creative potential.
Those points were in our covering letter, but there are a few others. The first is that we attempted to collate the boards' responses which were produced in a very short time. The debate is evolving, therefore the responses cannot be regarded as representing our definitive positions.
The context in which the debate is to take place is vitally important. How children learn, how the brain works, the centrality of the learner are key issues in the debate. The pace of change, globalisation and the implications of the technological revolution are also important issues. We tried to focus on the centrality of the learner, and we felt that it was important to promote debate in our own areas on learning in the twenty-first century because it is only when we have reached agreement on that issue that we can provide the structures that will allow learning to take place.
The Committee will want to question us on various elements, now that we have provided you with the background to our submission.
Thank you. Members will have questions to ask; I shall start. How difficult was it for the education and library boards to rattle out something to which they could all put their signature?
Each board - each contributor to the debate - had difficulty with producing a response. It is a complex issue, and a lot of minds have wrestled with it. Given that each board has 35 members, it is difficult to get consensus. However, the degree of consensus reached in each board around key issues in the report has been impressive. In particular, there was a great deal of agreement on the context of change, the difficulties surrounding the present selective system, and the need to tackle that issue.
When we collated our responses, we focused on the issues on which we felt that there was commonality. Because we focused on key principles, that consensus is reflected in this paper. As the debate proceeds, people will see that the boards, who are, we think, reflecting, as best they can, the views that have been expressed, have a great many views in common in relation to certain issues. Other issues may be more difficult, but what we sent to the Committee represents a common view of the key principles that should inform the debate.
I want to ask each of you for your view on the most appropriate post-primary selection system for your own area. I am not trying to divide you; I just want to know how difficult the issue is from each board's perspective. That would be of interest to the Committee.
I shall elaborate on what Mr Martin has said. It was quite difficult getting consensus in our board. It was easy to get consensus on the principles, on the context and on the present system. The difficulty arose from the question of how we should replace that system, to make the education service more responsive to the needs of the individual child.
Our board gave two different reactions in our response. The first was that we would like to see the present system replaced with a non-selective system, and that was the majority view. The timescale that was available to us meant that we were unable to discuss what would replace it. That is important; we had only a couple of months over Christmas, so it was difficult to move beyond getting a consensus.
There was a minority view that the current selection system should be replaced with one similar to the German model, which is a different form of selection. My understanding of the German system is that it involves parents, teachers and the individual child.
It might be useful if I picked up some of the issues that Mr Martin raised, as Mr Topping did. My board was keen to pick up on the paragraph from the Gallagher and Smith report that Mr Martin read out. It deals with the need to be clear about purpose. As the Committee will note, the Belfast Education and Library Board has produced an interim response. Part of the reason for that is that we are still consulting.
The Committee will be aware that Belfast's urban environment is somewhat different to other board areas. There is a large number of schools of varying kinds with no natural catchment area sitting adjacent to each other. In some ways, parents and children in the city already have a much wider choice than young people in other areas of the Province. That is a strength of the current system, but it can create a difficulty when it comes to reaching a consensus, because there are very well developed models for integrated schools, Irish-medium schools, voluntary schools and non-selective schools. There is a wide range of high quality provision in the area. The Board believes that any process of change must be an evolutionary one that reflects the needs of the young people in a changing city.
Therefore, we should go back and ask what the key purposes of education in the twenty-first century are. We need to build in the concept that the learner will make the key decisions about his or her learning. This is a different approach to that taken by others, but it works for the board at the minute. It is also starting to generate a debate that will finish with a degree of consensus, although we are unsure about how much consensus there will be. We hope to have a better feel for that answer at the end of next month after the consultation exercise. At that stage, it will be possible to make a further response to the Review Body, outlining the level of consensus.
In our response, we state that there are fundamental issues that we need to sort out. First, who exercises choice and who is in control of it? Schools are obviously in control of choice in the current system. The paper suggests that we might move to a situation where young people are in control of their own learning and the choices that they can make - that has implications. Secondly, there is a challenge for all of us to develop an inclusive system in a pluralist society. Board members are keen to explore that issue with everyone. Finally, what achievements are we trying to measure in the context of lifelong learning? I emphasise what Mr Martin said; there is a danger that we will focus on one transition point in a life-long process. There are other major transition points, all of which are important: between pre-school and early years; from secondary-level education to tertiary-level education; and from education to the world of work. The board was eager to explore the concept of transition. That puts the transfer debate into a more holistic context. That is important. There is a danger that fiddling with just one part of the structure will not develop the system or enable it to evolve in a holistic way to the benefit of the young people. That is the current position of our board. It seems to be developing the debate and achieving a degree of consensus.
The Western Board, like Mr Cargo's, did not focus on structures. We felt that if we could get the key principles and objectives right, in the context set out in the last paragraph of the Gallagher and Smith Report, the structures would not present a great difficulty. Our report enjoyed almost unanimous support; there was just one dissenting voice. We agreed that there should be transfer at the age of 11 without selection, a core curriculum at Key Stage 3 and a core curriculum with a variety of pathways at Key Stage 4. It is important to recognise the variety of learning styles and levels of intelligence. Parity of esteem between the sectors misleadingly called "academic" and "vocational" is necessary, and that esteem should cover the whole range of intelligence levels.
We were also conscious that the board was responsible for a predominantly rural area albeit one that contained some urban areas. We felt that if we could get the principles right, we would be able to develop structures that would take account of the strengths of existing provision and provide for the needs of the individual learner. We are conscious that there is a major transition going on in the maintained sector in Strabane. That will be flexible enough to suit any outcome. There are also serious discussions taking place in the controlled sector in Omagh about a different way forward. Such models can be considered, and we will eventually come up with a varied provision. Although it may be delivered through different structures, such provision will ensure a common entitlement for each pupil that will be transferable, regardless of where an individual pupil lives.
We reached total consensus in our submission. To achieve that, we went with board members and principals to visit schools in Scotland and Wales, as well as Craigavon. We also brought someone in to talk about the Germany system. We saw advantages and disadvantages in the other systems, and we were doubtful whether they could be fitted into the Northern Ireland context. However, we agreed that the current system of selection at the age of 11 should be abolished as soon as possible. We said that that should happen no later than 2003. We realised that the extent of the review would determine whether that date was acceptable, but we felt that a date should be established for the abolition of the current selection system.
The present system is flawed, and it has an adverse impact on the psychological, emotional and developmental needs of children. Any new system should determine what we want to do, before we put a structure in place. We need to work out what type of education system we want, and this debate gives us the opportunity to look more widely at the issue. We want to reduce the long tail of failure among children leaving our schools system, but we realise that, to achieve that, we also have to attend to early years education and concentrate on that.
We have to ensure that the curriculum offered from year 1 to year 10 - Key Stages 2 and 3 - is appropriate to the needs of the children. There should be a common curriculum. At that stage children should be helped to make choices. We need to develop an education system that is appropriate to their aptitudes and abilities and to their career aspirations. The review of the curriculum by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment presents an opportunity for that. That review needs to be completed before any decision is made about the future structure of education. From year 11 onwards, there should be a range of opportunities for young people to pursue academic or vocational education, or a combination of both. If, for example, young people want to excel in the arts or sport, there should be a specialist provision to allow them to develop those skills.
Tests should no longer be age-related. One of the things that we saw and liked in the Scottish system was that assessment took place at the point of readiness. People do not go forward for a driving test until there is a reasonable chance that they will pass it. Too many youngsters in schools go in for tests that everyone knows they will fail. That is de-motivating. Education and learning must be enjoyable, so there must be success. Education cannot be a system in which children fail continually. There should also be a credit accumulation and transfer system. Children will do particular studies and then change to something else. They should get credit for what they have done and be able to carry that with them wherever they go.
Whatever we do in the future, we need to keep what is good in our education system. It is only when we go abroad that we realise that there are many positive aspects in our education system. We can agree that there are good principles and values. However, this is the beginning of a debate on education. It is the first opportunity in Northern Ireland to debate the type of education that we want for our children. We should not shortcut or curtail it, nor arrive at solutions that do not meet our needs.
The presentation was a significant one. Looking at what the Gallagher and Smith report said about the socio-economic agenda and at what is happening, I wonder whether the debate is moving too fast towards the idea that structures must be devised. Has someone already decided on a structure that will be the future of education.
Mr Martin's initial point was that we have not fully thought out our objectives for the beginning of the twenty-first century. We have not taken into account questions about how people learn. The debate is moving too fast. We have already proceeded into a debate on structures, about whether it should be one or the other. That is what the debate is about.
Chief executives should provide leadership and try to slow things up. We should look at what we are trying to achieve, because we could arrive at a situation that is worse than the present one. We seem to be imposing a new set of structures without having thoroughly thought about no parent or child will forgive us if we end up with a system that does not deliver better. Is anyone looking at how we can do better than we are doing at the moment? I am delighted to hear that people are starting to widen their horizons.
Mr Gibson said that we were moving too fast. If we look around us, the rate of change in the world in which we operate is exponential; it is quite unbelievable. Technological capabilities will have an effect on the learning process. Young and old will be able to learn anywhere, anytime, and that will have an important knock-on effect on the education process. We must be careful about where we are going. At the same time, we cannot put a debate such as this on the long finger. We need to make sure that our debate is well informed about the needs of children, but we are in danger of being left behind if we postpone the conclusion to the debate for three or four years. I do not believe that we have moved towards a debate on structures. We believe that we must get the other things right, we cannot delay attempts to get the basic principles right.
It has been assumed that the provider of education will be the state, which has been the provider for the past hundred years. That may not be the case in this fast-moving IT world. Will structures not become irrelevant?
Mr Gibson has pointed out a real danger. We need to get it right and not just get it out; the important thing is getting it right. That is not to say that we should not have the debate. However, the developments that are taking place - particularly in ICT - are massive, and they will have a significant impact on how we deliver education. The North Eastern Board believes - probably all four of us believe - that we need to be flexible about the solution that is reached. A solution for, say, Omagh may not be the solution for Ballymena; a solution for Belfast may not be a solution for Coleraine. We need to be flexible. What is important to find is what works, improves our system and encourages higher levels of achievement.
I shall pick up on the issue of providers. Currently, all our Boards are exploring the whole concept of alternative provision for 14 to 19-year-olds. NVQs are delivered off-site to increasing numbers of young people, in partnership with industry or other training organisations. Ultimately, those will have an impact on the shape of the education system.
At the moment, all five boards are considering the possibility of establishing a Northern Ireland virtual school for young people who are not currently attending any institution. Over the next five years, we will see a range of alternative models for delivering lifelong learning. All our debates show that it is important for us not to jump immediately into a simplistic debate about structures - important as that is - and that we take a holistic view. Ultimately, we need an education service that delivers excellence and allows us to contribute to the economic well-being and future development of Northern Ireland.
Mrs E Bell:
I was pleased by what I read in the synopsis and the submissions. It is correct that there should be flexibility. The education system has changed a great deal from when the 11-plus was simply a matter of selection. With all the different types of school we must get the basic principles right.
We have all examined different school systems. We have also been to Germany to do so. However, what hit us - I was going to say impressed - more than anything was how German children depend on the principal's report from their Grundschule or primary school - their elementary school - to go on to their respective second levels. That selection takes place at about 10, and the children enter classes of about 30. How would that translate here? As Mr Fitzsimons said, we have strengths in our system, with high standards of academic attainment. How can we keep that, but also address the long tail of low achievement in all areas? Will that also be in the boards' submissions?
We have certainly examined the German system, where much is left to the choice of parents on the advice of the principal. However, there is parity of esteem in Germany between vocational and academic education. We do not have that.
We must recognise the strengths of our present education system. We have some brilliant teachers. Admittedly, some teachers are tired, but many are highly committed. However, we have problems with the relevance of the curriculum for many young people. We need to recognise also that boys and girls develop at a different rate. They reach maturity at different times - some people say boys never mature, but that is frivolous. There is a serious point about levels of maturity. Assessment and progression should not necessarily take place according to age but should be a matter of ability, maturity and aptitude.
Most people have different learning preferences, and we must accept that some learn by listening and others by reading or doing. Many people fall into the last category. Mr Cargo referred to alternative provision, and we find that some young people do not learn in a school context. However, an industrial situation that delivers some of the learning can be just as effective.
The matter is urgent. Many young people are failing, and system cannot cope. There must be change. Demographic trends are changing and pupil enrolment is falling. Mixed-ability pupil groups go to grammar school. In our board area, 50% of children went to grammar schools last year. That does not mean that they all got 'A's, but they went to grammar schools. Change is happening, anyway, but we must control it. Most importantly, we cannot change just part of the system. If we change the middle, but fail to do anything about early years or further and higher education we will only be tinkering. The danger is that we could end up with a bit of a mishmash.
You mentioned that you looked at the German and Scottish systems. Was there any reason for not examining the Irish system? They have a fast growing economy that needs considerable flexibility. We will need flexibility to deal with a competitive economy. Our workforce needs may not be met locally in the years ahead, and we may have to look to Europe. With regard to the curriculum, certain industries may claim that we are not delivering the skills. In Germany, the academic schools do not emphasise the need for new-age learning. Instead, they provide the academic learning that we have always used and simply dealt with other issues as they came up. Are there any weaknesses in the present review?
Each of the boards has links with the vocational education committees in the South of Ireland. We have regular meetings with them. We are attracted by the transition year, in which prior to doing Leaving Certificate, students take a year out for personal and social development, placement in industry or project work, such as working with social services. If it is done well - that depends on the co-ordinator - it is a tremendous opportunity for young people to mature, to think about their future and improve their motivation. In some schools, it has a dramatic effect on results in Leaving Certificate. However, we did not examine practice in the Republic.
We are aware of the high educational achievement in the South, but there is the issue of early school leaving. The South of Ireland faces the same problem with a long tail of low achievers. Their structures are not coping with that. As with all other systems, theirs has strengths and weaknesses.
We do not want to comment on whether there are any weaknesses in the review group. However, there are people there with wide experience of other systems. The review group intends to take a detailed look at other systems, so as to reach conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses. Although they have not necessarily come to any conclusions, their examination of such matters - including the practices across the border - will guide and inform them.
Are there gaps in the review itself, rather than just in the group?
Comparators are useful for informing other education systems. To re-emphasise Mr Martin's point, every system has its strengths and weaknesses. The Belfast Education and Library Board is keen to develop a system that works for the young people in the city. In doing so, there are issues such as the high rates of teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, low achievement, and absenteeism. At the other end of the spectrum there is a demand for higher levels of achievement from those considered to be accelerated learners - including those at the other end of the spectrum. We must examine the needs of our young people in the context of the environment in which they live. It is important that young people are part of the debate, because they have a better picture of this issue than we do. We have experience of the past and are bringing our experience of that past to this issue. When you talk to 16 to 17 year olds, many of them have an interesting insight regarding their futures, and the sort of futures that they need to develop. That is an important aspect for us to take on board.
As regards possible gaps in the review - and this is not a criticism of Mr Burns or his review body - it is argued that what is under consideration has now moved on.
From the way the debate has started it looks as if it needs to expand to other areas such as nursery education and further and higher education. Does anybody have a view on that? We are not being critical. Please understand that the Committee is not conducting a witch-hunt on Gerry Burns or the Review Body. We are simply asking if the debate has moved on so much that it has outgrown the review's original constraints?
That is what we have been saying. The review is a good thing. It is absolutely essential that we start a review of the entire education system, and this presents the opportunity for doing so. You can be quite pragmatic or you can devise structures and thus create mayhem. There must be a wide debate on education, and I think it has started. People are starting to talk about education in ways they have never talked about it before.
An opportunity exists to get it right, and the process is there to make it right. The problem is that a balance must be struck on how long it will take to achieve that, bearing in mind that a tranche of young people will leave the education system being regarded as failures and without having a happy experience of it. We owe it to them to get it right as quickly as possible, but not at the expense of creating mayhem or ending up with a system that is worse than the current one. There must be an improvement.
One thing that definitely comes out of the Belfast Education and Library Board's response - and perhaps from all our responses - is that early years are the foundation of education for young people. If you think about the education system in a lifetime context, the period between nought to six-years-old is one area in which we do not have a practice under-pinned by an education philosophy.
Our philosophy has got to be to prepare children for education in the years prior to school. That has been absent from the debate to date. From a Belfast perspective, I see many children arriving in school at the age of five almost destined to fail. We suggest that the nought to six-year-old age ranges should be viewed as a key foundation period in which young children can develop core skills and start to take control of their learning. There would also be transition pathways and they could be based on a range of models. That is one possible way forward which is based on a sound education philosophy, and that is important. We are all saying that whatever is done must be based on a sound education philosophy that incorporates the needs of our young people.
I want to add two other points. First, at the moment there is a danger that the upper-end of the education system is being dictated to by higher education. What happens in higher education, the admissions procedure et cetera dictates what happens at the upper-end of secondary education. Therefore, we cannot look at the post-primary sector without looking at what comes before and - to some degree - what comes after. Otherwise it is a flawed exercise.
Secondly, society often tends to think of the education service as the sole provider and the only way that education can be delivered. If you look at some of the other systems, for example, Ireland and in particular Germany, you will find that there is a partnership there. It is almost like a social contract, especially among business, industry and the education service. We seem to receive a kind of critical analysis from business that says "We do not like what we get from schools." However, the partnership has not been fully developed here. One outcome I want to see from this debate is a partnership, with business and industry playing a vital role that enhances educational opportunities for young people.
Mr K Robinson:
This has been a very calm and collected conversation. The tone around the table today has been most helpful. Many of the thoughts that we have formed as individuals and as a Committee have been reinforced by what you have said this morning. We raised the issue of the totality of education with the Minister on his last appearance before the Committee.
Mr Martin has already mentioned the social, educational and economic outcomes. I am concerned that education appeared towards the bottom of the list rather than at the top. We also spoke earlier about the socio-economic context and at that point I was becoming anxious that the business fraternity was driving the debate. However, as the discussion moved on I became happier that it was going in the right direction.
You referred to vocational education and the German system. Where education is concerned, we are very good at labelling. What do you mean by "vocational" education? Some Committee members visited Schleswig-Holstein and Bavaria recently. Each German Land has a different system. Where did you go, and did you see the same systems or something different?
We did not visit any of the German systems. A lecturer gave us a presentation on the German system but he did not deal with any specific system. He said there were variables and that much depended on choice. As far as we were concerned, that was the key word: choice. The choice was between institutions that offered different education pathways and parity of esteem. In the Northern Ireland context, vocational education is seen as inferior to the academic system. We should think of vocational education in a much wider context. The word "professional" might be more appropriate. A vocational education means preparing people for all jobs, not just for trades or for labouring work. Vocational training exists for accountants, solicitors, managers, and this is the wider vocational aspect. That is every child's entitlement.
Mr K Robinson:
Our problem is that that may not be the public perception of vocational education.
This is a problem and something needs to change. If you apply the German system to Northern Ireland, people think there is a hierarchy of esteem between vocational and academic. It is important to redefine what is meant by "vocational". There is a language problem and terminology and definitions need to change.
I would like to emphasise that point. At a recent meeting of the consultative education forum, when people were talking about academic and vocational, the words actually meant different things for different people. We need to change the framework within which this debate is being conducted, because when "vocational" and "academic" are mentioned in Northern Ireland, we are referring to a split in education that goes back to the mid-twentieth century. In crude terms, grammar schools were seen as academic and non-grammar schools (secondary schools) were seen as vocational. That system was devised against the backdrop of an industrial model, where a small percentage of high-flyers became managers and so on, and the remainder went on to be manual workers. One danger in the present debate is that we are still trying to devise an education system within that old framework instead of moving into the new knowledge-based economy where there are no longer as many manual workers.
Mr S Wilson:
Our discussion on the nature of education has been very useful. However, we still need to make hard choices because we cannot stop the educational clock now and start it up again in two or three years' time when we have resolved these issues. I feel your submission showed a lack of willingness to tackle some of the very hard choices which immediately face us.
You have avoided the question as to whether some type of selection process is inevitable, be it from an academic or vocational standpoint. There will always be schools that are under-subscribed or over-subscribed be it for historical reasons or because of their location.
If a school is over-subscribed, how will the selection process take place among those who wish to attend? Will academic criteria be used? Will it be done on a first-come, first-served basis? Will it be by parental choice? We cannot run away from the question of selection, and having searched through your papers I am still at a loss as to how you intend to facilitate it.
Secondly, we have talked about the needs of young people. Do you believe that there will have to be specialisms within the structures that emerge? If so, what specialisms will be provided, and how will young people opt for them? It will not be possible to provide those specialisms within the same school buildings because as far as those are concerned we are not starting off with a blank sheet of paper. How will people choose those specialisms, or be chosen for them?
There are a lot of important points for you, gentlemen.
They are important points, and difficult ones. This is a crunch issue and it will emerge at some point in the future.
We have not provided answers to the questions because we cannot do so at this time. The debate is presently about the key principles that will get us to that point. When we get there we will not shrink from the hard choices that will have to be made. A variety of provisions will emerge. However, the solution for the Western Education and Library Board may be different from that for the Belfast Board. Indeed, the solution for one part of the Western Board - the predominantly rural part - may be quite different to that for another part, which may be largely urban in nature. However, key common principles and entitlements will provide the framework enabling us to tackle these tough decisions.
In Strabane, the issue is being tackled within the maintained sector, and in Omagh, there is a debate ongoing within the controlled sector. We can tackle this issue and I think we will succeed.
One thing we are envisaging is that up to about age 14 there will be a common core - a common curriculum or framework. After that age, there will be a series of options, and young people and their parents will be in a better position to make informed choices at that stage. This will not avoid the difficult issue of selection criteria, and I know that in our joint submission we have mentioned some possibilities, such as geographical location, sibling relationship, et cetera. Those will resolve some of the selection issues but not all.
Surely pupil preference and good careers information are the keys. I think that all of us have stressed in our papers the increasing importance of people being guided in their choice so that the variety of talents and specialisms they have can be developed. It is likely that there will be a great deal of self-selection on the basis of good careers information and advice. It will not resolve all the issues surrounding selection but it will go a long way towards resolving some of them.
It depends where you start from in this debate. If you start from the position where it is the schools who choose their pupils then you will end up with a process through which you ensure that they choose equitably. That is what the current system does. Whatever we think about the selection test - and we all have views about the nature of the test - we do have a system that equitably allocates people within the process.
If on the other hand you start with individuals making choice a different set of issues arise. There are challenges for all of us in this room. There are also challenges for how schools meet pupil need rather than pupils meeting school needs. We are talking about moving to a system where young learners are put at the heart of the choice. Therefore, the system needs to evolve and satisfy that choice. It does not necessarily have to be a lottery or a case of not having that choice. If you start with meeting needs you have to tailor the system to meet those needs.
Mr S Wilson:
It is fine to say that in the confines of this room where we are discussing these things rationally. However, you know that there are some schools in Belfast which are four or five times over subscribed, and there are others that cannot get enough people to fill their first year intake. With the best will in the world, careers advice and talking calmly to parents will not overcome that imbalance. It forces you to look at a means of selection, and we cannot run away from that.
Or it moves you to look at our existing provision because that over-provision is not simply in one sector. That oversubscription is in the integrated sector and in some schools in the grammar sector but others are undersubscribed. It is also in some of the non-selective sector. Some schools are currently oversubscribed. The challenge for politicians is how to handle choice and inclusion. That is a major concern if you look at the needs of our society and how we develop that. We are looking to see if the current provisions are the most appropriate. In the city we now have now four schools in group one status. That means we are radically reappraising what is currently on offer, and are providing something that will meet the needs of young people and give them a choice. There are ways in which we can evolve the system that will sidestep the either/or scenario that you are setting in front of us. However, people need to be prepared to consider moving into a range of alternative formats.
Your paper mentions that an unfortunate side effect of selection is disparity of esteem. I think this is at the centre of it. A solution will be found if that area is tackled. Will ending selection stop disparity of esteem? Mr Martin talked about possible solutions emerging in Strabane, and we hope that that will be one way of delivering parity of esteem. I want to hear all of your views about that. Are schools, or schools systems, in your areas going to put in place a different structure which will allow pupils to move from a school, which in the past was perceived as academic, to another, which was perceived as vocational.
If children cannot move about from one to the other, as they, their parents, and teachers consider suitable, then we are not going to end up with a system that delivers true parity of esteem. We can talk about all the other important things - early years, education and other route ways of delivering NVQ's - but essentially this debate is about tackling unfairness and inequality and putting in parity of esteem. Do you think that structures could emerge in your areas that will allow that to happen, or do you think that at the end of the day somebody is going to have to put a structure in place which will make sure it happens?
We would feel that present structures certainly tend to lead to a lack of parity of esteem. Secondary schools feel that they do not enjoy the same esteem because of the present selective structures. I do not think that change of structures alone will lead to parity of esteem, because there are key things within schools that will be necessary; one is the quality of leadership, which is going to be vital; the second is the range of provision meeting the needs of the individual. Those are a couple of elements that will need to be addressed in a big way in order to provide parity of esteem between schools.
It is a key issue in the sense that we want to give all our young people equality of opportunity. That does not mean to say that they all have to get the same, but we want to ensure that there is excellence in the system for all. There are a number of interdependencies, and Mr Martin has mentioned a couple of them. Open enrolment has led to a system where there is a pecking order of schools. That has obviously meant that parents perceive schools in different ways in different areas. Undoubtedly, it means that some schools are at the top of the order and others are at the bottom. That is not fair for children. Funding is an issue, and there is also the ethos of the school We hear quite often about the moral and spiritual ethos of a school, but there is also an ethos in the school as to what it is actually delivering in relation to specialisms. In our Board area we would be very interested in going down the route to develop specialisms in schools to give children an opportunity to develop their own particular expertise.
Those are the kind of issues that we are into when we talk about parity of esteem, so we cannot just change the structure and hope that everything will be right, we need to change a number of other areas because they are all interdependent.
We also need to recognise that change is happening whether we like it or not. The population is decreasing. Access to grammar school places, for example, for children who are below 'A' and 'B' grades is increasing. We have schools now - and Mr Topping referred to the popularity of schools - where numbers are declining because of open enrolment and we spend a lot of money busing people all over the place. We have to examine our resources and that may mean investing in schools so if we are talking about parents making choices, real choices are there and they are of equal status.
There is an issue about perception. If people believe that the curriculum in one school is inferior to another, that creates an issue. There is also the matter of the education that we offer to young people. Is it too academic? Should there be a balance between the higher vocational and academic? Clearly, that is so. There is a big issue about what we are going to do for children, as well as the status, accommodation and view that people in the community have about the school.
If we are honest, some of the choices about schools are made on social grounds.
I apologise for not being here for your presentation. Some of my questions relate to what I have heard since I came in. I might therefore repeat what has already been asked.
While this issue has been solely about selection, it has now opened up into a wider debate. I agree with Mr Cargo that selection cannot be looked at in isolation. Many of us talk about pre-nursery education but it has to go further back than that because it is not just about the children themselves. Many of the children going to school at 5 years old - whom we would term underachievers before they started school - have parents who have gone through the system. What role do you see them playing? We under-utilise our older people, our grandparents. Even if they only have the skills of life to pass on, they do never get the opportunity to do so.
What should we be offering teachers, as regards flexibility, that they are not being offered now? I am thinking about specialisms, particularly in the area of special needs.
'Strategy 2010' - and somebody touched on it - mentioned our new knowledge-based economy. How do you make a connection between education and industry, or the wider economy, those bodies are not even communicating with each other?
Department of Education officials have said that even if we go for the scrapping of selection it will be two years before it goes. Sadly, people think we will have it scrapped by September next year. Further to that, even after we have taken it away in two years time, it will take at least five years before some sensible system is put in place. Our perceptions of the system before and after we went to Germany were totally different.
Regarding what Mr Fitzsimons said about vocational education, the German systems contained a vocational stream that was about apprenticeships - which we thought related to mechanics, bricklayers and joiners. It actually concerned banking and insurance. So there is a big difference.
Everyone will agree that parents are very important. If you look at education in the context of lifelong learning, a circle is completed. Lifelong learning at that third age, that of our parents and grandparents, is actually about linking back into learning processes. It allows them to be more effective partners in the learning process of the early years.
The problem is that we have not completed that circle. We are attacking the development of education piecemeal. What we need to do - and it is starting to happen - is to tie down that early years provision, underpin it with a sound education philosophy and start tying in that third-age, and the parents, in a learning process where there is active learning. Active learning is taking place with the development of the education of their own children or grandchildren.
Mr K Robinson:
That brings us back to alternative suppliers of education. There are many agencies, including district councils, tapping into that. That area really needs to be developed.
As regards early years education, there is a whole plethora of providers, and many of them are doing exciting things. However we are dissipating our energies because there is no coherence. As regards business, I will give you two examples. The debate is less of a megaphone one than it used to be.
In Belfast, we are doing a best value review of literacy and we took a submission from the Confederation of British Industry. They gave us a very good submission but it tended towards "You're not producing children for us". We then engaged in a debate. They were challenging us but we were also challenging them. The outcome was that the individual from the CBI said that they would like to be involved in the continuing debate.
Moreover we are now beginning to see new models emerge. Certainly, NIE and Northern Bank are involved in collaborative and pro-active models where they are actually participating in learning through programmes such as "Time to Read, Time to Count".
We are engaging in the partnership that Mr Topping talked about rather than sitting on either side of the debate. We need to continue to close that gap, and there are models around in which that is happening in a much more active way than happened in the past, again around NVQ.
Business is willing to get involved but we have to do a lot of work in helping that process. We have a project in the north Down area, where business is delivering part of A levels and also GNVQs. In order to accomplish that involvement there is a lot of work in preparing business. There also has to be a lot of trust on the part of the teacher, so as not to revisit that or do it again. There is a big issue there, but there are models of good practice beginning. It is easy to say let the business deliver the curriculum. There is a big gap and resources may need to be placed to help it happen, but it is an interesting development.
If localised systems are implemented, are there not quality issues or implications as a result of that?
We have not tackled the structure issue in the detail that some members would be pushing us towards and we have not examined the issue in the depth that would be required to give an answer. However if you look again at our submissions you will see that we are saying that there should be an entitlement curriculum for every child, regardless of where that child lives.
While there may be variations in structures, if the purpose of those structures or institutions at each stage is to deliver the "entitlement curriculum" appropriate to that age, it should not matter where a child lives. I will have to be careful with the caveats as Mr Fitzsimons mentioned. Children will have entitlement to the core curriculum regardless of where they are, so that should not be an issue.
I think we will eventually end up with individual education plans for each child. How and where these plans are delivered will depend upon a number of things; accessibility, and ability of children to travel or to have access through IT. There will be an obligation to have an educational plan that would be signed off and it would be the responsibility of an education authority or a school to deliver that. That is a new concept, quite different from the old stereotype models in which everyone went to the same school. We are moving into a new scenario.
We may use the same schools that the children currently go to. We are already trying that with some children at the moment. When the children go to a school, it may have access to resources through IT or by clustering with other schools and sharing resources. One of the big problems that we have at the moment, which we all know about, is the choice that young people have to make, particularly at Key Stage 4. Those choices are currently limited by what the school has on offer and by the tradition of the school.
We are moving into a new age where the equality agenda will come in, where children will say "I want to do that". The question is, "How do you provide access for that?"
We need to be careful about the bureaucracy attached to some of the issues. I have no doubt that there will be some kind of contract between schools and parents; between education authorities and parents, or maybe even between the State and parents, so that parents will be entitled to a certain kind of education for their children. How that education will be delivered is another matter, because there are so many different models that could be used to deliver education. It is an exciting time, and we are back to, 'must have flexibility'. We must harness all the resources of the community to educate our children and not just leave it all to teachers for five to six hours a day in the classroom.
Thank you very much for attending the Committee session today. Your contributions were most useful.
22 February 2001 / Menu