Open planning will decide if the “threat” to grammar schools is real

As final year primary school children sit the last regulated 11 plus tests, and a new Education Bill emerges, the Belfast Telegraph have run two articles for and against continuing academic selection. Professor Tony Gallagher, one of the frustrated architects of a non-selective system describes the rocky road to reform but ends limply, omitting to offer a solution to deadlock, presumably not wishing to get drawn into a political catfight.

With the Executive meeting again we can only hope that some compromise can be agreed. Pupils, parents and teachers deserve no less.

Bob McCartney gives what may be an accurate political analysis but typically expresses it in wholly unnecessary lurid and polemical terms.

The present situation is an unholy mess but even worse could follow.

Digging himself deep into a hole in the manner he has seemed happiest with for most of his political life he is implacably against compromise, sees no merit in a revised curriculum, betrays no knowledge of the development of specialist schools rather than “bog standard “ comprehensives and seems to believe that children must be educated at a single centre for the whole of their lives from 11 to 18. Scenting DUP betrayal at the idea of choice at 14 rather than selection at 11, he rests content on his self-awarded laurels. McCartney seems to have scant concern for the children of the Shankill whence he came who don’t possess the particular skills of a budding QC.

Catriona Ruane is an all too easy hit.

Yesterday, I heard Nigel Dodds say that a solution is possible provided it’s accepted that selection remains the starting point. As a debate on the future of education none of this is good enough. The future of secondary schools is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians and the experts.

What’s needed urgently is open discussion and local information that people can understand – of the revised curriculum with the new Authority ( we only need one) and with the right to tweak the subjects. Open area planning for school change should be equally mandatory with sight of clear options for reshaping secondary schooling in each area, taking into account a period of falling rolls and proposed curriculum changes. Only then will parents be able to see for themselves whether a threat exists to schools they admire or find some different and attractive subjects suitable for their children’s development. In this process of open consultation, I suggest at least two “maps”of NI secondary schools should be produced; one taking account solely of the implication of falling rolls in all types of school in each area ; the other also demographic-based but allowing for faith difference. Both maps would suggest new synergies and relationships and would involve parents, councillors and the wider public.

Stormont at all levels needs to get on with it. There isn’t much time. The big money stops after 2011, when the need to make swingeing cuts will dominate the debate.

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