People’s passivity over schools deadlock must end

I see The Irish Times has at last discovered the academic selection row and has run a long, mainly factual and descriptive piece by Dan Keenan. (Incidentally, its about time the much vaunted newspaper of record for the whole island upped its game in reporting and commenting on NI social and economic issues – but that’s another post). What is truly amazing about the academic selection crisis is that civil society ( that is, “ordinary citizens”) remains largely mum about the deadlock, whichever side of the argument they’re on. Throughout the long drawn out dispute with no end in sight, the unions and the massed ranks of the voluntary sector, and the academics have been as useless as the politicians. Perhaps they feel intimidated by fears of funding cuts from both sides of a divided Executive if they dare to speak out? No wonder the political parties feel under little pressure to resolve the crisis. But it’s no good the vested educational interests piously opposing selection and then sitting on their hands in a “job well done” mode. This dreadful passivity must end. To make any kind of impact at all, they have to work to win agreement on a replacement for selection. As Keenan points out, the political split is not confessional but class and ideology-based ( to put it kindly– I would suggest blind prejudice too). The Catholic church establishment took a big hit when their grammars peeled off off in dribs and drabs from the bishops’ lofty declaration against selection. But why haven’t the Catholic and (de facto) Prod-ethos grammar schools managed at least to agree on a uniform test?

I reiterate my own approach, which is to apply the Bain and Costello reports to every local area, describing the proposed revised character and curriculum of every surviving secondary school and publishing the results for consultation in local forums. Only when parents can see, touch and smell the choice of schools which might be available to them – and argue for something different if they don’t like what’s on offer – can the whole vexed issue make any sense and – perhaps – begin to end the deadlock. The party battles and the coy little legal threats from both sides are wholly irrelevant to a decent outcome. No change is possible without pubic consent and this is not forthcoming. That’s the elementary lesson of democracy. And parent power is increasingly the name of the game – if only the parties realised it, locked in their introverted arguments . As the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools says in response to Transfer 2010:

It is unfortunate that this consultation is taking place before parents and others have an appreciation of the new kinds of post-primary arrangements which might emerge in the course of the next few years. New arrangements in curriculum, necessary re-organisation arising from demographics changes and the end of selection will totally transform the environment in which admissions take place. Much of the initial reaction to the consultation has been limited because those responding have assessed the proposals based on the current provision in schools and current parental wishes. Council would urge the Department to seek to increase both professional and general public awareness of the new environments which may emerge under the ‘Entitled to Succeed’ initiative.

In other words, if only you knew the choice that was available to you, you mightn’t cling so firmly to academic selection, as the least worst option.

Our children deserve better.

Well, has anybody come across a road show anxious parents might attend? If you’ve spotted one, please let us know and claim a prize from Caitriona..

  • Reader

    Brian Walker: In other words, if only you knew the choice that was available to you, you mightn’t cling so firmly to academic selection, as the least worst option.
    Well put. They are being damned patronising, aren’t they? As though we couldn’t recognise a Comprehensive system when it’s offered to us!
    Well – we have at least seen that parent power can stand up to that sort of vested interest.

  • Brian Walker

    Reader, you wrap up the issue in toxic little packages and then seem to want to make a fight of it. Education isn’t about that; it’s diversifying fast, even in the independent sector here in London, which I know well. A broader curriculum is needed to improve some schools which have declined, like my own in NI. Granted that “bog standard” comprehensives don’t appeal after 40 years in England. But gradually,schools are being tailored to suit the children rather than vice versa. This embraces a broader curriculum choice including the academic. I yield to none in support of full Classics, tough Science and Maths. The quality lies in the curriculum and the teaching, not, ultimately, in a selection test at 11, for pity’s sake. It’s too crude an arbiter and it’s becoming an obstacle to developing schools properly. This is not about dumbing down which I loathe ; it’s about increasing choice to suit children’s aptitudes.

  • Reader

    Brian Walker: Reader, you wrap up the issue in toxic little packages and then seem to want to make a fight of it.
    Your introductory piece was loaded – your preferred outcome was built into the discussion. Fair enough, but it was only to be expected that the first response tackled your built in assumptions. Now the battle lines are drawn and we can proceed in the usual local manner.
    And you are the one who first mentioned parent power. I simply pointed out that it has already had its effect. The CCMS tagged along after the voluntary grammars so as not to lose their most able pupils to themmuns. Parent power.
    And I don’t think that streaming can fill the gap left by selection – four streamed classes per year group is barely enough in compulsory subjects in a grammar school. I would have found Additional Maths GCE agonisingly slow in a comprehensive school. Other people in my year would have been held back by my presence in their English class.
    And as for ‘toxic’ – haven’t you noticed that there are a lot of angry people out there? My children scraped through before the selection cut off date, but I know lots of people facing chaos next year and onward.

  • Brian Walker

    Well, if I search my memory of long ago, I can remember 5 Maths streams. My Maths would have held back an intelligent monkey but my English was different. My dreadful Maths held back no one but myself. Experience differs and streaming can be very effective. And different schools will have different biases – I repeat, the future is not about uniformity. Schools should be more diverse, whether selection survives for a few years more or not.

  • willis

    Reader

    “And I don’t think that streaming can fill the gap left by selection – four streamed classes per year group is barely enough in compulsory subjects in a grammar school. I would have found Additional Maths GCE agonisingly slow in a comprehensive school. Other people in my year would have been held back by my presence in their English class.”

    Good points which go to the heart of this debate.

    Sorry to be pedantic but is Add Maths a reference to GCE O or A level?

    The quality of Maths teaching has at least as great an impact on learning as the standard of the class.

  • Reader

    willis: Sorry to be pedantic but is Add Maths a reference to GCE O or A level?
    Additional Maths was the O Level, Further Maths was the A Level.
    willis: The quality of Maths teaching has at least as great an impact on learning as the standard of the class.
    I had good teachers, but there was more repetition that I was happy with – I wanted to move on.