A secondary schools solution is achievable, so don’t wait for the politicians.

If justice and policing are the big headache for the deadlocked Executive, the future of secondary schools is the running sore. But behind the political paralysis, there are growing signs already noted by Pete, Fair Deal and others that key interest groups are moving ahead with their own solution. At first glance, the breakaway of at least six Catholic schools to join the rebellion of 30 mainly Protestant ones seems like a significant victory for retaining academic selection at 11. This is misleading. This 1798-like back-to-back unity is more a sign of frustration with political incompetence and clinging to nurse for fear of something worse. Yet this is one case where the politicians are not wholly to blame. As much as anything else, the split has been among the education experts. But now there are signs at last that Protestants and Catholic educationists together are beginning to grip the problem ahead of the politicians for the good of the whole community. If they can pull it off, it will be a great victory for the real people of Northern Ireland. But why disturb a system that has produced “the best A level results in the United Kingdom?” There are pressing reasons why. First, continuing falling numbers in the age group means the number of vacant places in secondary schools will increase from 50,000+ to more than 60,000+ in six years. This adds tens of millions to the additional £1.5 billion for the cost of duplication identified by Deloittes.

Secondly, the fundamental problem is the curriculum. Selection is the brake on developing it. The present structure is already failing to educate children for the goal of creating a modern high-skilled economy. Unionists are worried about the impact of the brain drain to GB and beyond . The excellent analysis made by Jim Clarke of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools paints the picture vividly. We have too many of the wrong sorts of graduate. More than 23% of graduates are in non-graduate jobs. The world of education has to catch up.

Over the summer, the Irish News’s Education correspondent Simon Doyle ran a series of reports which punctured some illusions about high performance. Overall, there are signs that Protestants are achieving less than Catholics. Only one of the breakaway Association of Quality Education grammar schools made it into the top 10 of A level results, a table now dominated by Catholic schools.

Why is this? Perhaps because although many Catholic children are now in the state sector, Catholic schools operate more as a group and the Protestant-dominated ones act more individually? The fact is that the performance of some mainly Protestant grammars, still thought of as “ the backbone of Ulster” is declining along with roll numbers, as they fail to offer the right range of courses needed to create the modern skill-based economy and threaten in some cases to opt out of an education system their forebears created. Not exactly the happiest of outcomes. This surely cannot go on.

In the political and educational confusion, parents are understandably dismayed. Nor are they helped by the templates for a solution. In the absence of any political and educational leadership great top-down reports like Bain on the consequences of falling school rolls and Costello on strategy are indigestible and intimidating. These great tomes urgently need to be turned into working proposals everyone can understand. What people want to know is: how is the choice of schools in my area going to affect my child’s prospects in life?

Bain set the demographic standards for school numbers ; Costello describes the range of available subjects and the structures needed to support it. Local planning to implement them has as usual been carried out in secret. As a response to such political and educational confusion, this is unacceptable.

In the three years grace now talked about before reform, the education authorities should adapt a process used for the abortive Melchett schools plan in the seventies – to lay out area maps showing how each school might be affected by change. I suggest two new versions of this. One, a schools map of NI broken down by council area solely according to demography, the shrinking population, without any regard to school type or faith. And two, a more refined version allowing for selection by faith. Each map would indicate in which premises students would find the courses of their choice.

And the immediate result? At first, the vested interests would start screaming.. But the exercises would quickly expose the opportunities for a more flexible schools structure and provide the bottom-up basis for outcomes that have always been top-down. Only when you can see what’s available can you make a choice or argue for changes in what’s on offer. Real consultation along these lines would be an untidy process. But dealing in specifics would profitably widen the debate and reduce the element of fear.

How then to deal of the bogey of academic selection? What I take it most people want is high educational standards for all, not selection at 11 for its own sake. It is not true that in all cases “ academic “ equals “high standards.” In my own case, I was lousy at Maths and should have been allowed to stay with useful “vocational” maths; I was “academic” in Arts subjects. There are thousands like me who do not fall neatly into one educational basket or the other. What matters most is whether the courses are rigorous and stretching and stimulate real interest. However in the Costello entitlement framework of courses available, the academic/ vocational divide is not as rigid as some people fear. The first 16 subjects are all academic; the other 11 are add-ons.

With an accountable process for developing the character of each school, there are realistic hopes that the freeze over 11 would quickly begin to melt. Secondary schools as now would be free to develop setting and streaming and offer specialisms like technology or stay with mixed ability. Educationally failing schools could become “ academies “ and receive special treatment with perhaps private investment on the English model. With clearer choices available to parents, there might be fewer grammar schools dominated by academic streams but these would flourish unencumbered by a long non-academic “tail”.

One suggested advance gaining favour is for a further choice of courses or schools to take place at age 14 on the argument, selection at 11 bad, choice at 14 good, when a student has a better idea of his or her aptitudes.

At 11, more intensive consultation between children parents and primary and secondary heads of the basis of reasonably robust pupil profile for each child should bed a new transfer system down. Transfers by family association and area would continue.

No doubt some schools will close – they would anyway – and the ethos of quite a few others will change for the better over time. This adds up to the biggest revolution in secondary education since the late 1940s. For parents and the wider public, it is an awful lot to take in. In default of political leadership it is now up to the educationists to get their act together. Further delay will only make matters worse. The issue goes to the heart of of economic social and political divisions, but it is far from insoluble.

A handful of schools may be located in the “wrong” place, like Foyle and Londonderry College which is about to move to the east bank of the Foyle. Or Belfast Inst, currently at the heart of the AQE breakaway. Its natural catchment is Sandy Row, Divis St and the lower Shankill. If such a change of intake is too radical for this generation,. Inst might have to move or go independent. Already it is no longer over-subscribed by the academic elite. Nobody can believe that a go-it-alone selection test is anything more than a counsel of desperation. As a means of deciding how to spend public money, “informal” selection is of doubtful social justice and perhaps legality. Everyone is agreed it should not last long. Whatever excuses are made in the short term, the message Sir Kenneth Bloomfield should adopt in the medium term is that no school should be allowed to become the totemic symbol of opposition to reasoned constructive change. So please let’s have an agreed plan, school heads, Protestant, Catholic and integrated, controlled or maintained. Live up to your own highest ideals for using your intelligence.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London