“we risk removing the old and replacing it with chaos..”

The newly-hatted Cardinal Sean Brady appears on today’s Irish News front page warning the Northern Ireland Education minister, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane, to clarify her vision for the post 11-plus system or risk chaos. [subs req] Adds It’s not the first call for more clarity from that sector

“It is vital that the minister ensures that there is root-and-branch cohesion across all these initiatives. Thus, it is one thing to announce that the end of the 11-plus and a transfer at 11 based on parental election,” he said. “But before that can have any meaning there need to be systems in place to promote an area planning process – and that will not be possible without a clear sustainable schools policy.”

The Cardinal went on to say

“However this exemplary post-primary review process will not be able to continue unless the department gives coherent policy coverage,” Cardinal Brady said.

“If we get clear directions and support from DE [Department of Education] and from the minister, we have the potential to develop a wonderful, robust system of sustainable schools into the future.”

“Without that clear guidance and appropriate sequencing of initiatives we risk removing the old and replacing it with chaos.”

And, in addition to the ministerial response yesterday, there are a few interesting paragraphs in the subsequent press statement, on an attendance at a teachers’ union’s conference, from the Education minister today

“There has been much interest, in particular, about transfer at age 14. Whilst there is consensus that age 14 is a key decision point, my plans have been interpreted as meaning wholesale structural change requiring huge capital investment.

“For those who believe this to be the case, let me say that I do not believe in a one size fits all approach to post-primary provision. I believe in the benefits of designing local solutions to address local circumstances and that is why I will shortly be bringing forward the detail on an area-based planning approach. This will enable local communities to decide on the structures that will be most appropriate for their areas.

“There has also been interest in how children will transfer at age 11. For those unclear about how this procedure will operate, I would like to emphasise that children will transfer on much the same basis as they currently do. Admissions will be determined on family, community and geographic criteria, without the need for academic attainment criteria.”

Paragraph one doesn’t actually deny “wholesale structural change requiring huge capital investment” would be the result of the proposals – despite the previous references to their cost-neutralness – although paragraph 2 does point to “local communities” making that decision and, presumably, taking responsibility for it.

And in paragraph 3, “without the need for” doesn’t rule out the possibility of academic attainment criteria.

But here’s a reminder of what the Bain report had to say on area based planning

Planning: A Strategic Approach

11. The Education and Skills Authority should plan the schools’ estate on a local area basis, within a strategic framework of vision, policy, principles, and guidelines provided by the Department of Education.

12. Within the strategic framework established by the Department of Education, the Education and Skills Authority should have overall operational responsibility for the strategic planning of the schools’ estate.

13. Until the Education and Skills Authority has acquired the capacity to exercise its estate planning function, the Department of Education should act quickly and decisively to take forward area-based planning as soon as possible in the year 2007, with the full support of the relevant education authorities.

14. The Department of Education should establish a provisional timetable, to be refined and taken forward by the Education and Skills Authority, specifying target dates for the following key steps in setting up and implementing the area-based planning strategy: (a) the Department of Education’s strategic framework of vision, policy, principles, and guidelines; (b) the specification of local areas; (c) the review of local provision; (d) the initiation and conclusion of local planning; (e) the submission of area proposals to the Education and Skills Authority; (f) the finalised and approved area plans; and (g) the implementation of individual plans for the estate as a whole. [added emphasis]

15. Future school building projects should be approved only after area-based planning is established, and previously announced capital projects that are currently underway should be reviewed, according to their stage of development, for their consistency with the area-based approach.

16. Local areas should comprise coherent sets of nursery, primary and post-primary schools, and, as appropriate, special schools, as well as accessible further education provision, and as far as possible lie within a single local council’s boundaries.

17. Planning should ensure that proposals for contiguous local areas are considered together, and that their interrelationships are identified and taken into account, before investment decisions are made.

18. Area-based plans should ensure that each area is served by sustainable schools that provide high quality education for all pupils and that, taken together, balance the expressed wishes of parents and the projected requirements of each school sector, with the cost-effective use of capital and recurrent funding.

It’s also worth noting that we are still waiting for the “foundation for a radical new future for Northern Ireland’s education system..”

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