Is Education the Number One Priority for Unionism this Election?

Education, Education, Education. There have been 3 Assembly Executives elected since 1998. At each juncture, a unionist First Minister was elected and subsequently under d’Hondt a unionist was given first choice of available ministries. Each time control of the Education ministry fell to a Sinn Fein MLA – whether they were the 4th, or the 2nd, largest party. If SF should emerge the largest in the executive post May elections, they may well opt once again for the Education post.

Since 1998, this department has overseen the scrapping of the 11 plus standard entrance examinations (to be replaced by many alternative & confusing standards), the setting up of the Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta body to extend the reach of Irish-medium schools and the emergence of a male Protestant educational underclass.

But are there signs of a shift in emphasis among unionist politicians? Last week, both main unionist parties came out with messages that appear to show a major change in policy is being discussed. The UUP’s message on an education priority in it’s election manifesto came a day after Arlene Foster refused to commit to the Finance department as first choice for her party post May election.

The DUP for it’s part have apparently been reading a ‘surprising level of pressure on the doorsteps about the situation in education’. This being backed up by a newspaper poll Saturday which put Education above Health in voter priorities for the first time. 

What has brought matters to a head?

We have been living in a post 11+ limbo since 2008. It’s not that then, even though the UUP mention seeking an alternative to the current vacuum in their manifesto and don’t forget there is a large nationalist vote that wants unified selection brought back into their schools (another reason for those conservative Catholics looking to back the DUP as largest unionist party perhaps?).

What this year has seen however is the amalgamation of another 2 state schools in the First Minister’s home county – bringing 5 state secondary schools there down to two since Sinn Fein took over the running of education. Such drastic cuts have not gone unnoticed in a community that survived what many see as a campaign of ethnic cleansing along the border during the troubles. The fair conclusion being that closing state schools along the border reduces the number of young families content to live there, thus having a disproportionate effect on the border unionist community.

All this too while the disproportionate funding of Gaelscoileanna on the basis of a somewhat vague European directive on minority language education shows no sign of abating. The DUP call this statutory advantage. Worse, this year has seen these Irish-only schools very visible in uncritical displays of support for the republican rebellion anniversary. Irish language proponents do not accept the criticism of those who would categorise such schools as something akin to nationalist madrassas, often citing their apparent apolitical outlook.

But that betrays events which Nelson McCausland has viewed as “endorsing and affirming an Irish republican perspective on the 1916 rebels”, before concluding wryly “it’s easy to understand why Sinn Fein is so enthusiastic about Irish-medium schools.” Perplexed unionists may well be asking how such school programmes fit into the shared system we were meant to be gradually working towards.

All of these concerns and initiatives are largely moot of course if neither party is in the education minister’s position after the election. But assuming a unionist First Minister is achieved, why would that not be the case? There are many who find it difficult to look beyond the idea of the Finance post as one of overarching importance in the assembly. But in the consociational form of regional government we currently possess, where each department is run as a minister’s own personal fiefdom, how true is that notion?

The Finance portfolio itself is relatively small fry. It receives less than 1% of our regional rates, while education has the second biggest share at just under 19%.

Sinn Fein brinkmanship over the last executive budget threatened at one point to bring down the entire operation and it was only after another all hands Stormont EGM did everyone decide to agree to central government rationalisation. During this time the Finance minister was effectively powerless in getting any other department to sacrifice part of their own service to make Sammy Wilson’s job a bit easier.

There is precedent too for change. The UUP in 1998 did not take the Finance position. Reg Empey went for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The nominally left wing SDLP promptly took finance and nothing remarkably socialist seemed to occur amongst any of the departments throughout that term of office.

Will unionists seek a post spring clear out of the education department? As detailed, there are many areas for reform. Both the DUP and the UUP have highlighted it in many plans and on many stands. Perhaps it’s time for the winner to step forward and begin to implement their vision rather than imagine it.

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  • Sam Maguire

    Where’s the evidence that “there is a large nationalist vote that wants unified selection brought back into their schools “?

    And to suggest that ” the emergence of a male Protestant educational underclass” has come about since 1998 is utterly ludicrous. Just because people have started paying attention to the problem now that the traditional working class ‘Protestant’ industries are gone doesn’t make it true.

  • csb

    The supposed “statutory advantage” of Irish-medium schools also applies to integrated schools, and this derives not from Europe but from the Good Friday Agreement.

    The Irish-medium sector is still growing while English-medium is contracting. So of course different resources will be put into each sector if they’re going to be treated equitably. The Irish-medium sector has much more kids with free schools meal entitlements than any other sector, and that creates challenges that need to be tackled.

    The Irish-medium sector also has the most amount of kids still stuck in prefabs, an issue that needs tackled too and that led one Belfast school to organise a protest at Stormont against the education ministry under SF. Another Irish-medium school took a successful court case against the department under SF and when they tried to drag their heels after that judgement the school community started a campaign that got it sorted.

    The point being that the Irish-medium sector is in hock to nobody and has a history of campaigning for recognition and challenging whoever tries to infringe on their rights, whether that be a British direct rule minister or a Sinn Féin minister, and they’re not going to lie down and accept any regressive action – regardless of who’s in power come May.

  • Scots Anorak

    There is a good deal of embarrassing nonsense written about Irish-language schools, most of it providing further proof, if any were necessary, that people who do not speak to their neighbours can hardly pretend to know them. Yes, such schools usually start small, as in most cases it is not possible to start every year group at once. That does not mean that increased numbers of IM schools are evidence of bias; rather, they probably reflect a combination of demographic and social change.

    Based on the communications of the IM school attended by my son, it is chronically short of funds, and the biggest problem that it faces is the extreme poverty of some of the children’s families, something unfortunately likely to get worse under the current Westminster Government.

    I see no evidence that the curriculum inculcates any particular political ethos. In translation, the homework would be familiar to each of us, no matter what our background. In any case, I wonder how much scope there would be for indoctrination at primary level (nearly all IM schools being primaries). My own impression of NI is that political identity comes not from one’s school but from one’s classmates, and that would apply just as much to all the other types of schools. My son’s school, incidentally, has children with parents from England, Scotland, France, Germany, Turkey and Africa, to name only those that I am aware of.

    Most academics, by the way, ascribe the existence of a “male Protestant educational underclass” to deeply ingrained social rather than educational factors. One way to tackle the problem would be to move away from academic selection. I might also add that, though NI’s grammar schools do produce good A-level results, allowing for external socio-economic factors IM education produces better results than its English equivalent right across the spectrum of abilities, including in unexpected subjects such as maths.

    Perhaps the author could answer the following questions:

    Why is it all right for children to attend Welsh- and Gaelic-medium schools in Wales and Scotland, but not for children to attend IM schools in NI?

    If there is soon to be a Catholic majority in NI, so that maintenance of the Union depends on Catholic votes, is it a good idea continually to criticise those who wish to pursue an Irish ethnic identity?

    Is it really acceptable behaviour on the part of Arlene Foster, Nelson McCausland and others to sign up for a return to devolution and its related ministerial pay packet based on the express understanding that there would be support and a strategy for Irish but then to turn around and say that those things will never happen?

    As for the madrassa comment — so wrong at every level — I think you’ll find that Christians in the Middle East attend madrassas too. It happens to be the Arabic word for “school”.

  • Jollyraj

    “The fair conclusion being that closing state schools along the border reduces the number of young families content to live there, thus having a disproportionate effect on the border unionist community.”

    Something that has been a fairly transparent aspect of SF policy in Fermanagh to the locals for quite some time.

  • Granni Trixie

    At best I would like to think that ALL political parties see that people are calling out for something to correct the current unsatisfactory system of selection. Who dares – and gets it right- wins voters round for future elections (including myself).
    Leading up to elections it is good to see too that so many parties are stating they favour integrated education. Making IE the default would do away with waste and lend itself to reforming selection system.
    That said, please don’t let it be the UUP who get Education ministry. I say this having listened to Mike Nesbitt on Nolan talking about the UUPs education plans in their manifesto. They propose a system of assessing children by their primary school teachers from year 1 – yes P1! Though Nesbitt defended the idea I do not think it is educationally sound plus it would necessitate teachers and their Unions getting onboard something highly unlikely/unworkable.
    Let me make it clear that I am open to considering the case for assessing pupils in their last few years of primary school but shudder at the likely impact on children’s learning, not to mention their happiness, should they have to be assessed from P1. It would focus/narrow the curriculum and impact negatively on the culture of the school.
    Compare this to other models for transferring – such as in a part of the South of England which I know of where children pass to secondary level from primary on basis of where they live and having siblings currently at the school (if oversubscribed possibly they have a ballot system after this assessment). Once in the secondary school they are then put in sets for key subjects so its not totally mixed ability (extremely hard to teach). There is flexibility therefore to move children around if appropriate as the years progress. There must be countless models like this from which to take ideas.
    Plus we are at a good point for educational change in NI when numbers of pupils are down and the school estate is larger than required. If there is one thing research shows helps underachievers (or any child) to success its keeping down the numbers in class. As the link between home and school is also well established as a factor in how children fail or succeed then it is essential a reform of the selection system is part of a joined up approach.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “If there is soon to be a Catholic majority in NI, so that maintenance of the Union depends on Catholic votes, is it a good idea continually to criticise those who wish to pursue an Irish ethnic identity?”

    Good luck on getting an answer for that one Scotty, that’s been one of my pet rants for yonks…

  • Skibo

    I for one hope that whoever gets the educational brief, they do not bring back the 11+. This was and always has been a rod to beat low performers. How do you raise the spirit of a child branded a failure?
    That a child should be labelled a success or failure at the age of 11 is a disgrace. Children should move direct from primary to secondary school and selection should be based around the age of 13 or 14.
    The tests currently run are more about Grammar schools keeping up numbers.
    Are Grammar schools afraid they cannot teach lower performing children?
    I have noticed after putting a number of children through the educational process that some schools are more interested in their own success rates than that of the child.
    If any other political party had instigated the removal of the 11+ there would not have been the same uproar. Unfortunately all that SF do is looked on as a stepping stone to Nationalist ascendency over their Unionist neighbours. I see it however as a method of raising the overall success rate of all children.

  • Gingray

    County Fermanagh, as per the 2011 census, had 6,401 children aged 6-13 (current secondary school age). 3,934 (62%) declared as Catholic, 2,204 (34%) Protestant and 263 (4%) other. Roll back 30 years and the age profile of those aged 36-43 is a total of 6,961, with 4,172 Catholic (60%), 2,571 Protestant (37%) and 218 Other (3%). Then a further 30 years, with Fermanaghs 66-73 year olds, of whom there are 4,012. 2,087, or 52%, are Catholic, 1,848 Protestant 46% with the remaining 2% other.

    It would be interesting to see a Unionist Minister try to make a case for sustainable education in Fermanagh by opening more state schools against a declining population AND a lower birth rate than 30 years ago.

  • Gingray

    As Arlene said in the UTV debate, symbology is very important to her and the DUP. To that end, will they really let SF have Finance?

    This talk of Education is merely a ploy to entice SF into taking Education again, leaving the DUP free to take Economy as well as Finance. Unionist politicians have failed their community around Education, failing to place as much importance on it as Nationalists. Don’t see this changing!

  • On the fence!

    But you can’t just bin the 11+, that’s what has created the mess. It’s like if I asked you to add 2+2, that’s simple, it’s 4. But if I said, the answer is 4, what’s the sum? Well then there are an infinite number of ways to get there and who’s to say which one is right. Sinn Fein started with an answer, scrap the 11+, and they’ve all been arguing since as to how you should end up with that answer. Whereas if they’d put a sound system in place which ended up with a different answer, then the 11+ could have drifted off in to oblivion with few mourning it’s demise.

    As for the rising popularity of it as an issue. Well as such it doesn’t affect me directly, both weans now in higher education, both done the 11+, both got in to the grammar stream of an integrated school as a result. However, you always know someone, either friends or family, who are now having a much more stressful time with the new tests than we did with the old 11+ and it really is an absolutely shameful situation which has gone on for far too long already.

  • Gingray

    How would IE work? I am all in favour of it, but are you talking about making all existing schools integrated, or opening up new ones and closing old ones?

    This will be great in places like North and South Belfast, but not so much in East and West. Same for North Down and West Tyrone. Thus is it purely a rebranding exercise?

    Would there be taking on board of best practice that say Catholic schools currently do, which never gets a mention tbh, or could we see a lowering of standards as experts are sidelined for being too much on one side or another?

    Like SF talking about a UI, unless a proper plan is proposed there is little chance of success, and it is immaterial who the Minister is. We need all the parties to sit down and sort it out as an issue of more importance to the past.

  • r mccay

    Handy hint: when discussing education it’s probably a not a good idea to reference Nelson – a man who would have creationism in the curriculum if he could.

  • Stephen Elliott

    Never mind the Irish medium schools – just a red rag to knee jerk unionists There is an even greater deal of embarrassing nonsense written about education in general mainly by those who have accepted the changes introduced by SF education ministers without so much as a whimper of protest or alternative offering. Now in the mouth of another useless Assembly election the DUP & UUP profess concern. If they had not been so lazy, ill-informed and patronisingly smug the people on the doorsteps wouldn’t be shoving their failure to represent the best interests of their children down their throats.
    There is no “crisis” over transfer testing – it has run smoothly, fairly and efficiently for almost a decade outside the control and influence of politicians and CCEA. The stain surrounding transfer remains on those schools, State & Catholic, which introduced and continue to practice the scouge of dualling, (requiring pupils to take five tests) for which there is no accurate method of equating.
    Nesbitt & Weir are an embarrassment to unionism.

  • Saint Etienne

    Isn’t that the point? The chilling effects of 30 years of sectarian strife on the border minority community is being used against it, and all the while Irish language activists avail of a similar reasoning to protect relative over investment in their own sectional interests.

  • Surveyor

    But don’t the Irish language schools operate on a non religious basis? From the website it states “Irish-medium schools welcome children from all faiths and backgrounds.”

  • Saint Etienne

    With respect, the issue discussed isn’t your view of McCausland’s religious beliefs – there is little doubt ordinary unionists share his discontent with the current structural imbalances in education that allows such events to occur. The issue is whether either unionist party capable of occupying the Education post actually intend to do so if that’s how things play out.

  • Saint Etienne

    Did you read the post? If so, can you tell us how attending the likes of an Irish Republican members bar to put on a play re-enacting the Dublin rebellion is likely to welcome children from ‘all faiths and backgrounds’?

  • Saint Etienne

    Given that, would you vote based on who appears to mean business on education?

  • Granni Trixie

    I agree with you re the necessity for ‘proper planning’. Fortunately bodies which have been developing IE (NICIE and IEF, see websites) are very experienced and knowledgeable and therefore a resource. There have been much learning over the years for instance from pilots to transform schools opting to become integrated (extremely difficult but indeed not impossible) and as IE is more about values and culture than physical infrastructure, there is potential for adapting the present system.
    Some decades ago I remember too feasibility studies into the setting up in the holy grail of WB – think it concluded it was not a goer. But bearing in mind that some people travel from WB to I. schools there is probably an appetite.
    Time and time again the movement has been stymied by lack of resources and will to implement policy. The background to this is that in the past an integrated school had to show viability for several years before being adopted by statutory authorities. Local parental support is key in the seminal stage but so were charitable bodies which paid for running costs (charities based in England,Germany,USA).
    Should all or most of the parties be committed enough to show leadership for the expansion of IE I have no doubt that the bones of realistic plans are already in place.

  • Granni Trixie

    Would you not agree that Finance is so much more than a prestigious symbol – it is the powerhouse of resources?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Good points Gingray.
    Unfortunately most discussions regarding IE get smothered right away with people trying to polarise the topic e.g. it’ll be framed as a means to end ALL Catholic education and ergo sectarian.

    This would be daft anyay, why would you want to ‘integrate’ (for example) St Pat’s Maghera?

    I don’t see why it isn’t possible to bring in a couple of Swiss educational big-wigs and some accountants and let them come up with a skeleton plan of mergers e.g. Magherafelt (it has something like 9 or 10 schools).

    Once they’ve produced the bones of a plan it could then be fleshed out by adding things like Gaelic sports and Irish (optional, of course) to these newly merged schools.

    Again, in the case of Magherafelt one could see the merger of St Pius, the high school and the integrated school (and maybe the primary schools too? Two of them are opposite each other on the same street…) with excess assets being sold off
    So, we can save money and the option for people to go to the Catholic schools if they fancy a more religious setting remains intact.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    A friend of mine and I were discussing this a year or so ago.

    We were both 11+ ‘failures’ yet I don’t recall ANYONE ever seeing themselves as a failure or being told that they were a failure by anyone, not even by pupils from the schools were the ‘successes’ went to.

    Fast forward some decades and I find that my friend has retrospectively viewed himself ( AND myself and our contemporaries) as people who were ‘dumped’ out of the road, expected by others to rot or wither.

    He (the friend) is a Dr of Political philosophy (and lectures in it) and I am an engineer.

    Neither of us withered nor rotted and I wonder how much of this chat has been manufactured by those of a more left-wing leaning?

    He orbits lefty circles and mine are a bit more righty (but not goose-steppy) and though we both went through the system we now have completely different views and conclusions about it.

    From what I can see the only people who brand the kids as failures are those who don’t like to see kids branded as failures. I’ve only ever heard the term when people who are anti-11+ are talking about it.

    Now, I haven’t made up my mind yet on the matter BUT the system took us (‘the failures’) and put us in a sink or swim environment; if you didn’t want to drop down a class then you had to work for it.
    Five years of having to work for what you want is (I feel) a wonderful lesson to bestow upon a teenager as opposed to having the system level the playing field for you.

    The system clearly isn’t perfect but the alternative would have to be pretty good otherwise we might see private schools popping up all over the place which would really do the poor no favours.

  • Surveyor

    What schools attended these plays?

  • Lee

    I think this is suspected by unionist communities all over NI.
    People in east Belfast can’t actually find a primary school for their 4 year old. I have one friend who had to resort to sending his east Belfast child to Ballygowan PS where the Granny lives. There is a perception of immigrant kids growing up Northern Irish by going to state primaries providing a de facto demographic boost to unionist communities, and something had to be done about it. People were incredulous that Ashfield school was not allowed modest expansion of 60 pupils, a school that is bucking the trend of protestant underachiement. Ditto Avoniel PS, a school that worked with disabilities.
    In coleraine the Boys Inst and Girls Grammar amalgamated resulting in lossof approx. 150-200 grammar school places. Where do these kids and families go? Out of the area? These stories are coming in from all over NI and
    I have the feeling these perceptions have been oft repeated on the doorsteps and in communications to unionist parties.

  • Gingray

    Some Catholics fear that when Unionist politicians say integrated education, they mean doing away with the existing system and replacing it with a modified version of the state system – and by never mentioning the good work that already exists, the aim is to airbrush this out.

    Personally, I think something along the lines you suggest would work, up to a point. And its whether the local politicians have the cohones to sign up to an integrated system that embraces best practice but will force kids in some areas into schools that are mostly full of the other sort. A lot of angry parents have made many a politician change their mind. And as you say, its not just secondary, Primary should be the starting point.

  • Gingray

    WB? I?

    Looking at the 2015 manifestos for example, even alliance has no detail. Regardless tho, it needs the politicians of all parties to sit down together, share the credit and blame, and be prepared for the nimbyism.

    I am all for it, I just have my doubts we will see it any time soon.

  • Gingray

    It depends on what kind of system you want – in Northern Ireland we produce some of the very best and very worst scores across the UK. Getting to a grammar school has major benefits.

    To be honest, the 11+ arguments are a pile of shite.

    You can tell from age 7 or 8, generally, how children will do, and it comes down to parental involvement and support from home. There will always be exceptions, but particularly in Belfast we have primary schools that are seeing no pupil passing the 11+, with kids being forgotten.

  • Gingray

    In effect we will have a two party coalition, with nothing happening without the agreement of SF and the DUP. This is particularly true IRO DFP – they work together to stitch up the Departments help by other parties (notice the new money found for DRD when the UUP left and DUP took over).

    So if DFP only works with approval from SF and the DUP, then why does it matter who has it?

  • Gingray

    And yet Saint Etienne the % change for Protestants in Fermanagh is very similar to that in East Londonderry, North Antrim, East Antrim, South Antrim, all parts of the Unionist heartland.

    Perhaps the fact that Protestants have smaller families, and are more likely to move away from Northern Ireland has more to do with it? Its right across the board and, if you look at the estimates, the greening of the west of Northern Ireland began right from the start of Northern Irelands existence, at much the same rate as Fermanagh now, despite the fact that it Northern Ireland was a one party sectarian state.

    Placing the focus on Irish medium schools, and SF really does miss the point that Unionist politicians have been guilty of failing the Protestant people in regards education right from the off.

    Your article will pander to those who require a scapegoat and are hell bent on making the same mistakes of the past, learning nothing.

  • Saint Etienne

    “And yet Saint Etienne the % change for Protestants in Fermanagh is very similar to that in East Londonderry, North Antrim, East Antrim, South Antrim, all parts of the Unionist heartland.”

    Indeed. Can you point to the 60% reduction in state secondary schools in these places since SF became responsible for education?

    “Placing the focus on Irish medium schools, and SF really does miss the point that Unionist politicians have been guilty of failing the Protestant people in regards education right from the off.”

    While I don’t share the view that because unionist politicians haven’t been attempting to shoehorn the same imbalances into the education system over the lifetime of devolution that SF have ‘achieved’ they are somehow failing anyone, the campaign trail is revealing people believe it right that something is done to reverse 17 years of lop sided policy.

  • Gingray

    The fact that the man is viewed as so biased after how he handled housing in North Belfast, means a lot of people will discount what you say because you mention him. Not just nationalists either, he is not well liked.

  • Gingray

    Saint Etienne, the root cause of Fermanagh having too many state schools lies with Fermanagh UUP members having too much power. Look to Leitrim, Sligo and Cavan and they have a similar school to pupil ratio.

    Perhaps a better solution would be examining how cross border solutions could be found so someone 10 miles from Sligo town is not travelling 30 miles to enniskillen.

    That would be too radical for you I imagine 🙂

  • cu chulainn

    Were there not people from all faiths and backgrounds involved in the Easter Rising? Was that Rising not on behalf of all of the people of Ireland? It merely wanted the Irish people as a whole to be able to democratically chose their future and living in a democracy, rather than a colony, can only benefit decent people.

  • Surveyor

    I remember my primary school teacher branding us as failures. He took a note of all the pupils who passed the 11+ in his journal, and told the rest of us that from now until the end of term he would be only concentrating his time on the pupils who passed the exam.

    You don’t easily forget things like that.

  • Jollyraj

    From the heart, yes.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Wow! That’s awful!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    That’s idealism, as a rule of thumb people of a Protestant background see it as something for ‘themuns’, so if you have a display or commemoration it’s unlikely to have much in the way of Protestant participation, in fact it would act as a deterrent to Protestants (again, as a rule of thumb).

  • Skibo

    AG I was the opposite. While I was always viewed as SLOW in school or a day dreamer I actually passed the 11+. My cousin was expected to pass but failed and she has held a grudge to this day and considered herself a failure.
    We have a high school in our area that didn’t require the 11+ to be done and took all pupils that wanted to go. When the classes for the 11+ started, they were left to their own devices and considered not smart enough. Our principal always considered the success or failure of the class by how many passed. I believe that was systematic in all primary schools of the day.
    I didn’t get my last two children to do the tests and let them progress to the local high school. The first achieved good GCSEs and moved on to a grammar school mainly because all his subjects were not available at the high school. The last is doing GCSEs this year and intends to do A levels also.
    The biggest failure I see in education is parents who tell their children that they don’t need papers to say they are smart and there are plenty of millionaires without degrees. That may be so but it is a considerably easier path with the papers.

  • Gingray

    Lee, population rates have dropped on both sides from 30 years ago, however the drop is much steeper on the Protestant side. Census 2011 provides some great information on this. People are having less kids.

    East Belfast for example, where I live, is the oldest in all of Northern Ireland. Looking at our local primary schools, we can get a kid into the state ones quite easily, but the Catholic schools are over subscribed, and with large numbers of those not born in NI.

    Orangefield Secondary and Knockbreda Highschool have already closed, down to the drop in the number of potential students.

  • Skibo

    Irish medium primary schools is just a sore that Unionist politicians keep picking at. The affect of Irish medium schools in the overall picture is minuscule.
    In 1998 there was about .5% of pupils attending. In 2008 it had risen to around 1.7%. While I do not have the percentage for last year, I believe it is around 3.5%. While it is growing rapidly, the overall percentage is not an issue.
    A small price to pay to keep the language of Ireland alive.

  • Skibo

    Lee, how can you lose 150 to 200 grammar places? Was it down to empty desks in both schools while the new amalgamated is working more efficiently. Is it a strangulation of desks in the State schools or a more efficient state school system resulting in less empty desks.
    You should be asking the question are there not enough pupils to fill the positions.
    The closure or amalgamation of a school does not necessarily mean no desks for children. It is more likely to mean a higher pupil to teacher ratio and less empty desks.

  • Skibo

    But who does mean business on Education? The Unionists so far have ignored the portfolio when they could have grabbed it. SF have shown they believe it so important that they have chosen it every time.
    Will UU or the DUP even say that they prioritise the Education ministry high enough to actually take it ahead of any else or are we just hearing sound bites. Their previous history does not bode well for a Unionist education minister.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    It would be a good idea, Saint Etienne, to show us what you mean by ‘relative over investment’ in the Irish medium sector. Historically this sector has had to battle against threats of imprisonment and long standing government bias against the sector. When finally it begins to make headway and actually gains a measure of equitable funding, commensurate with the increasing number of children choosing to attend Irish medium schools, provincial unionist critics begin to carp about so called ‘lavish’ and ‘disproportionate’ spending. This is an assertion without evidence and it is aimed at gulling unionist voters to vote DUP so they can continue the phoney war against their partners in misgovernment, Sinn Féin. Just remember that Sinn Féin has already been taken to court for its failures to adequately resource the IM sector – and it lost that case. If the DUP takes education and is minded to cut back on investment in Irish medium education for no good reason, its education minister will find him or herself in the dock before the judiciary before it has a chance to draw breath.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    My word, i have no experience of this whatsoever.

  • apollox

    It would be informative to see some actual figures to demonstrate the ‘structural imbalances’ you refer to.

    For instance, one comment below points to the merger of two schools in Coleraine as evidence of this, but even a cursory search shows that, in that case, the two schools were struggling to fill seats and so made the proposal themselves. The only role played by O’Dowd was in approving it.

    So where you refer to structural imbalances as accepted fact, you haven’t quite put the effort in to prove that it’s not another grievance caused by the persecution complex that afflicts so many in the unionist community.

    I mean, I get it… after decades of preferential treatment, being treated equally will feel like discrimination, but you can’t honestly expect to be taken seriously.

    ‘Ordinary unionists share his discontent’ is a meaningless statement, it’s not evidence of anything. If you want the next Minister to take action then you should perhaps try to show that it’s a real problem, not a perceived one that can be pandered to for votes and forgotten about after election day.

  • Skibo

    I too would favour such a merger but I cannot see the protestant people accepting it, especially as they have lost their high school in Maghera a few years ago. We could go further and have the amalgamated school as a feeder to the high streams in the Rainey and St Mary’s Grammar. Amalgamate the lot of them and allow St Mary’s and the Rainey to specialise. Call it Magherafelt College.
    I believe Omagh could be open to such an amalgamation also.

  • Skibo

    OTF you are probably aware of the tutoring of pupils for these exams. This is the issue with those able to pay being able to push their children further. The removal of the 11+ was not the issue, the setting up of private exams by Grammar schools who actually take all streams when you look at the figures is. The introducing of the exams is more to do with Grammar schools keeping up numbers and bussing children in from outer areas where high schools have been available.
    The issue of education should always be about raising the average. Grammars would like to do it by taking the elite and pushing them.
    We should give the chance to all.
    Keady High school achieves some of the highest results about and has no streaming. The Principal stated that once a child is streamed to a lover stream, their level of achievement drops. Tell a child they are not capable and they will stop trying.

  • On the fence!

    Exactly, but because they started by REMOVING the 11+, it has now BECOME the issue. If they had concentrated on a re-structure of the education system that had rendered the 11+ obsolete by being better, there’d have been little fuss. Maybe a bit from the Grammar die-hards but if things had been working right they’d have looked a bit silly.

    I’m no fan of the old system, both myself and the missus were products of Grammar schools (one from each of the two schools in the area) yet even with the youngsters both passing the 11+ we sent them to an integrated college through choice. But the old system has actually been made to look acceptable by the hash that’s been in place this past few years and unfortunately a “fix” may now be seen as simply turning the clock back 15yrs or so.

  • Reader

    Skibo: OTF you are probably aware of the tutoring of pupils for these exams. This is the issue with those able to pay being able to push their children further.
    If the schools were allowed to coach for the exams that would be a more level playing field. The advantage to private tutoring would be reduced.
    So that’s another thing that the education ministers got wrong.

  • Barney

    “Our principal always considered the success or failure of the class by how many passed. I believe that was systematic in all primary schools of the day.”

    That is still the case today, principals particularly new principals see it as the only measure of their performance.

  • Lee

    What u say is fair points. I am largely talking about perception but some of the decisions leave you scratching your head and wondering if there is something under the radar going on. The 2 much loved icons of Coleraine town were amalgamated and downsized at a time when vast sums were put into starting an Irish language school from nothing up the road in Dungiven with just 15 pupils. While state primaries with steady but on-the-small-side numbers are being closed or threatened. Perception is key, unionist communities look at that and go ‘are SF laughing in our face?’

    Danny Kennedy highlighted an example in Markethill were the oversubscribed state school was denied expansion yet the undersubscribed Catholic school had extra places funded

    And ‘shared education’ ; millions can be found for this just so separated education can continue under a fluffy misnomer. I am not surprised education is coming up as a priority on unionist doorsteps

  • Lee

    You can get a kid in easily you are lucky! Just last summer Strandtown started its term and 9 pupils didn’t have funding and had to wait. Similar story at Victoria PS and Elmgrove. I think there only is 1 Catholic PS in the East at St.Joe’s?
    You raise interesting examples; definitely at Orangefield the east local perception was that a strategic decision was taken many years ago to run this school down. I attended a schools football match there not that long ago and was shocked at the state of the place. Buildings falling down, all round demoralization, and yet at its end I still think it had over 250 pupils. And yet Grosvenor Grammar next door is absolutely thriving, brand new buildings, expansion etc. If the will was there years ago Orangefield could have been built up and it could have done an Ashfield. Admittedly as someone else pointed out Unionists have been extremely lazy here and did not scrutinize what was going on as the rot set in. I remember kids going to Orangefield in the 90’s it had a sixth form and worked with working class kids very well. A real shame that what could have been an ongoing icon of East Belfast life has been allowed to go to the wall. But that’s a feather in the cap for someone.
    And knockbreda, which was amalgamated with Knewtownbreda to form Breda Academy. It was mooted to make one of these schools integrated rather than essentially close one, it is the ideal area to do this in outer south-east Belfast but that was soon buried.
    And yet Dundonald High School which was outside Belfast, was allowed modest expansion. I tell ye Dundonald was in no great shape. Why when others were shut down or not invested in?A perception on unionist doorsteps its to do with tipping the demographics of Belfast City Council areas.

  • Lee

    I honestly think if the DUP said they will take education as their no.1 choice their vote wiould go up.
    I guess the problem for the DUP is that finance is seen as the biggie, everything goes through finance. But perhaps they are slowly catching on that even if they don’t have finance they will still get a budget for education. Shinners would be raging at their education project being unpicked by the DUP, could be stormy waters ahead on this issue if the DUP take it.

  • Lee

    BTW I understand the decline of demographics etc, but certain school closures can overegg such declines if even only only by 5 or 10 % its still enough to disproportionately affect a community and spark a vicious circle. Similarly the failure to invest in expansion in deserved cases and I’m thinking Ashfield High school, holds back a communities development under what it should be. The subject deserves proper scrutiny and frankly unionism has been fast asleep on this subject and seems to have only been recently woken up by my guess the amount of communications and doorstep conversations it is having in the runup to the election.

  • Gingray

    Lee, I first moved into the east (albeit South Belfast constituency) 10 years ago. Lower Ravenhill Road. We were the only Catholic family in the area. Nearly every single new family that moved in over the next 10 years was either Catholic or non national.

    The locals either dying off or moving further east to Dundonald, Strandtown and North Down. The demographics between from the Newtownards Road to the Ormeau Road are undergoing massive changes, reflecting the declining Protestant population in Northern Ireland.

    Where I live now, I am seeing a similar situation. Most of my neighbours are older Protestants, their kids older and living further away. Most of the new people moving in are Catholics. They also tend to be the people with the school age kids.

    Take a walk along the upper cregagh and castlereagh roads and you will see adverts from the local state primary schools looking for pupils. Harding memorial, Orangefield PS, Nettlefield PS, Cregagh PS and Euston Street. They cannot get enough kids in the doors.

    In terms of PS choice for Catholics – St Josephs, St Bernards, St Michaels, all massively over subscribed.

  • Croiteir

    I suppose you could say the number of parents who wish to enter Grammar schools is a measure

  • Sam Maguire

    Ah yes, post hoc ergo propter hoc

  • Cosmo

    I can’t really believe this, going by the approach taken by two of my close contacts who are young primary school teachers, and indeed two others who were a Primary Principals, now retired.
    But, If so, it’s an inditement on
    – the teacher training ethos in place
    – the type of ambition and person who is being promoted to Head Principal
    – a simplistic ‘league-table’ culture, in which other measures are not taken into account by the Governing bodies

  • Skibo

    Lee I do not see it an act of unpicking anything. I believe the next executive will be agreed to a much higher standard. Ministers will be able to go their own way to a certain extent but like the schools themselves, I expect a works package will be agreed for ministry. UU and SDLP have hinted this also or they suggest they will head to oposition.

  • Skibo

    Lee £91,000 is not a substantial sum to set up a college, not when nursery schools can cost £1.3m. Is it the amount spent or the fact of it being spent on an Irish College. The numbers are low but they will go up. I would not be surprised to see the numbers double every year for the next five years and then level off.
    I have not looked into the Markethill issue. Normally in these cases, the fact of one school getting a substantial increase in numbers affects an a nearby school detrimentally. No doubt if this happened and the other school closed, that would be the Minister’s fault also.
    Education is coming under the Unionist microscope because the education figures are rising and SF cannot be seen as successful. Had the grammar schools fallen in behind the scrapping of the 11+, I believe they would have risen more, not only that but the cost of bussing pupils across the country would nave been reduced also.

  • Skibo

    and thats the problem. the school should be judged on how they bring all pupils on and not just the high flyers or those whose parents can afford the extra tuition. I believe it is policy that the school is not supposed to coach pupils for these exams and concentrate of the curriculum but I think we can be quite sure it is happening.

  • Skibo

    OTF I think you will find the high schools and the integrated colleges will be able to compete with the grammar schools. It is happening already. All schools should perform to their best and those that don’t should be inspected and proposals put in place to increase their efficiency. Teachers are one profession that cannot be sacked for bad results!
    The Catholic grammar system is slowly disintegrating with the Church forcing the issue.

  • Skibo

    reader the coaching for these exams is actually the issue. The teachers are there to teach the curriculum not coach how to pass exams.
    I see that as one of the major issues with the education system as it stands today. we are producing pupils who know how to pass exams and that’s it. Common sense seems to have gone out the window. Ability to learn how to resolve problems is what industry needs.

  • Skibo

    Lee as a republican I have always found if you want to find perceptions, there are loads out there. Doesn’t make them facts though.
    I think Unionism are still running scared of republicanism and will try and block it at every opportunity. This will look like anti Irish policy and you will be turning off the very Nationalist people you will be relying on to defend the union.

  • Reader

    If the syllabus is good and the exams test the syllabus then a bit of focus on the exams is a good thing. But maybe the SATs don’t meet those challenges?
    As for common sense and problem solving; I learned those in the fields and streams and gangs and dens and playgrounds.
    And the selection tests – back in the day we spent a few months away from Tudor monarchs and the difference between frog-spawn and toad-spawn so that we could prepare for the selection tests to come. I enjoyed the novelty, and at least the rest of our school days weren’t blighted by SATs.

  • Thought Criminal

    Catholic and Irish are not the same thing. There is no need to encourage Irish Nationalist indoctrination.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Strictly speaking you’re correct, but I don’t believe that’s what scotty meant.

    Though to be even stricter about it, ‘pursuing an Irish identity’ is not the same as ‘pursing an Irish nationalist identity’.

    The point is, as a rule of thumb most Catholics come from a nationalist background of sorts which in many cases is simply diluted to something along the lines of ‘liking-one’s-Irish-identity’ and the current political-unionist strategy of alienating anything Irish is unlikely to endear people of such a background to unionism i.e. if unionism is perceived as ‘anti-Irish’ then what’s the appeal for them?

    If unionism returned to it’s pro-Irish-identity roots of a century ago then there’d be a greater chance of attracting pro-union votes from people of a Catholic and/or nationalist background who aren’t THAT bothered about the border.

  • Croiteir

    I know. Which is why I have a bit of distance in there. But at the same time if it was not wanted it would decline

  • Skibo

    Reader could I suggest you get a wee look at the tests as I believe they have noting to do with the syllabus. Perhaps one of those tutors making money on the backs of these tests could inform you better.

  • Kev Hughes

    AMG, as a Nat,I have to agree with you. The proscription for unionism’s safety and longevity is quite simple and as you pointed out above, only as an Irish Nat I am well aware that political unionism just doesn’t have it in them to do this so I breathe a sigh of relief.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Would your reaction be like this Kev?
    I think you can sleep easy though.

  • Kev Hughes

    In work, but can figure that one out. Perhaps, but then, I can never see it happening so it’s akin to asking me about the return of say, the Soviet Union?

    It’s striking or interesting as to why loyalism and large swathes of unionism just can’t bring themselves to budging on certain matters. There is a social anthropological study PhD waiting for someone there to look into it all, but I doubt it would move many…