Milburn on opportunites for the young has urgent lessons for Northern Ireland

I hope the local airwaves and webpages are about to crackle with a new debate about secondary schooling in defiance of the dreadful deadlock over academic selection The rank and file Catholic revolt over scrapping it is one powerful piece of evidence that education reformers should skirt around the rocks of the emerging “unregulated” system rather than crash themselves up against them in a futile effort to shift them without consent. In this respect a local take on Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission report couldn’t be more relevant, given the urgency everybody agrees is needed to upskill present and future generations. Much attention has been paid to relative Catholic improvement in getting better jobs, less on the need to create more opportunities all round. The USP of this commission is that it strives to make education a non-partisan issue and takes good ideas from each of the three main parties. Is there any chance that this approach might shame the local parties into a similar initiative – or be pressed into it by popular demand? Much of the research work is already done. Surplus school places are available to leave room for choice and experiment. The question for NI now is: unlike England, 40% of Northern Ireland children attend grammar schools, although an increasing number have failed the selection test. Can our schools be improved at the lower end of academic attainment by widening curriculum choice while maintaining standards? There’s a fair amount of hankering after the return of the grammar schools in England which will comfort the diehard supporters in NI. But no party in England will turn the clock back because they know that would reduce opportunities in a world where university entry is around 40% compared to the old 15% of the grammar school heyday. Milburn himself addresses the selection issue head-on without getting hung-up about it.

“Some believe the answer lies in academic selection — and a return to grammar schools. But there is precious little evidence that schools selecting pupils does anything to close the attainment gap. The evidence from countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the US is that it is not schools selecting pupils, but parents being able to choose schools that raises standards generally and helps the disadvantaged particularly. ”

All three parties in England have worthwhile suggestions.

“The Conservatives say that city academies should be extended in both primary and secondary schools. They also say, rightly, that the supply of education places could be opened up to greater competition, particularly in areas of underperformance. The seeds of this have been sown: under Labour’s existing legislation 19 new schools have been opened and 37 more are due over the next four years.”

“The Liberal Democrats have argued that, in poor areas, schools could receive additional funding or each pupil from a disadvantaged background could attract a premium payment to recognise particular needs. They have a good point.”

“Schools could be asked to report on pupils’ outcomes as well as examination results. They could assess the progress made between pupils starting school, leaving school and their destination after school. The Government could then consider how schools could be paid according to the progress their pupils make.”

Milburn himself adds:
“I have proposed that parents be given a new right of redress to choose a better school for their child if they live in an area where the schools are consistently performing badly. Parents could be given an education credit worth 150 per cent of the cost of the child’s schooling for a state school of their choice. The extra funding would give good schools an incentive to expand pupil numbers and broaden their social intake.”

Too many in NI act as if there’s no problem here and dig their heels in on either side of the argument. Meanwhile, down from the stellar A level results, the problems fester.

  • Mack

    The English education system isn’t the best, focusing on it too much obscures the fact that the NI education system is sub-standard too. People merely get defensive on the basis that things could get much worse.

    According to a recent NISRA report, comparing educational standards north and south, there are almost 4 times as many full-time undergraduate students in the south as in the north. Despite the population of the relevant cohort being only twice as large in the south.

    The best solution is to allow all pupils attend the good schools (provide them with additional funding to expand to make that achievable), allow the bad schools die. Give schools real power to suspend and expel pupils who do not live up to standards of behaviour required in running a school of excellence. (and replace A-Levels with something broader while you’re at it – 18 year olds are not academic specialists, the level of knowledge attained is still very low).

    Don’t scrap the grammars – send everyone to a grammar!

  • Scooby

    Why not make the secondary schools better and maintain the grammar schools? In all this debate its the ones who go the secondary schools that are being forgotten. How many there go onto University or get 5 GCSEs or more? It seems like a very good compromise to me.

  • John East Belfast

    Mack, Scooby

    The reason we have bad Schools has more to do with the pupils and their parents than the teachers and resources thrown thereto.

    Taking all the bad cases into the grammar stream will only wreck everything.

    What we need are more schools to expel the bad cases and then we can have functioning comprehensives.

    There are very good kids and pupils in “bad schools” being dragged down by kids who should be educated within another environment and allowed to return to the mainstream should they agree to maintain certain minimum standards.

  • DC

    Can I say something profound…it starts in the primary schools.

    To focus on selection is a red herring, but yes competition is what drives productivity across the range and across all disciplines from art to maths to sports. Competitive identities are key.

    All schools shouldn’t be the best schools, that statement is naff, all schools should be improving schools. So when you enter you leave with improvements to your education.

    Fail on that keystone and therein lies the problem. And that to me starts at primary level and is carried through to secondary and grammar, if somewhat distorted by wealth and circumstances of the family when making the switch via testing.

    However, the issue is have the children really improved regardless? Isn’t that what education is about – learning?

  • Mack

    JEB –

    I agree that schools need to be able to expel pupils, but disagree with separating children into academic and less academic / vocational schools unless by parental choice. In order to be able to compete globally in the delivery of high-tech services we need large numbers going to college and at a minimum completing second level. The grammar schools in NI do a good job for preparing children for this, so I think they should be expanded (and have real power to expel trouble makers).

    —–

    I had a conversion with my wife about this recently.

    “Aren’t there two types of school there [where I’m from in the north], a good school and a bad school? What do you call them?”

    “Grammar schools and secondary schools”

    “Why would parents send their children to the bad school?”

    —–

    Ultimately, it is that simple. Parents shouldn’t have to send their children to a bad school.

  • AlanAlan

    While the DUP and UUP continue to fool themselves that selection is not the problem – the problem will continue. We have to get kids believing they can do well at school, not brutalize them into giving up. The Grammars setting their own exams is nothing less than privatizing child abuse. There is no academic value in it.

    We have been trying to improve failing schools for 60 years, but the figures remain stubbornly unchanged.

    If you want to tinker there are a number of things you can do – not that the Teaching Unions will like this.

    1. Improve Pay regimes for teachers for working in schools with poor attainment levels. Recognize that we need the best teachers and management in poorer performing schools

    2. Sack Principals, senior staff and governors who consistently fail to change failing schools.

    3. Make promotion dependent on a points system that values teaching at poorly performing schools above teaching in other schools.

    4. Reduce support for grammars by the level which they currently pull in from parental contributions, and redistribute these savings to second level colleges so that all schools are on similar funding trajectories.

    That is how to set poorer performing schools up to succeed.

    But you won’t make more than a dent in the problem until we accept that selection destroys more ambition than it creates – and we need to create ambitious, competitive, achieving young people if we are to drive forward into the future.

  • Mack

    AlanAlan –

    Dear God no!

    Your suggestions are akin to, when Google outcompeted Altavista around 10 years ago, demanding transfers from Google to Altavista in order to drag Google down and Altavista up resulting in a mediocre service for all.

    Better that Altavista die and everyone use Google. A great service for all!

    (Altavista was the number one, and pretty dire, search engine at the time of Google’s launch).

    Let parents choose. Expand the good schools, let the bad schools fade away. Force the average up, not force everyone to be average.

  • Diluted Orange

    [i]Milburn himself adds:
    “I have proposed that parents be given a new right of redress to choose a better school for their child if they live in an area where the schools are consistently performing badly. Parents could be given an education credit worth 150 per cent of the cost of the child’s schooling for a state school of their choice. The extra funding would give good schools an incentive to expand pupil numbers and broaden their social intake.”[/i]

    How is this going to work? By the very nature of the school league tables system there will always be ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools. We can all send our kids to Methody, etc, is basically what he’s saying. This is complete rubbish.

    If money where to be pumped anywhere it should be into the bad schools to make them better not the other way around. Of course everything will soon work out when the newest influx of failed bankers, who get fast-tracked into the teaching profession take up their posts. Labour is such a joke it’s not funny anymore.

  • Mack

    How is this going to work? By the very nature of the school league tables system there will always be ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools. We can all send our kids to Methody, etc, is basically what he’s saying. This is complete rubbish.

    It’s not you know.

    1/ There is profit to be made, 150% of cost of the childs eduation is provided – i.e. Methody (or any other esteemed school) could expand / run franchises to maximise profits if they so wished. There is no reason why we all couldn’t send our kids to Methody or even just a grammar

    2/ In real life there are good and bad businesses, customers migrate to the good businesses. The bad businesses die, the average standard of business rises (forcing living standards up)

    If money where to be pumped anywhere it should be into the bad schools to make them better not the other way around.

    Completely and utterly the wrong way around :-0

  • DC

    Mack you sound very New Labour however what about the primary sector in your analysis?

  • Two highly readable reports on the lessons learnt from the Northern Rock debacle have been published recently. The first is the Treasury Committee Report

  • Mack

    Is there a problem a in the primary sector? Same logic should apply – no parent should have to send their kid to a bad school.

    Could you imagine forcing parents to send their children to a bad child minder or bad creche?

  • Driftwood
  • DC

    Yes I think so Mack it’s called non-selection re your grammar argument and in some cases geography. Special care towards younger children who can’t travel very long distances like the older muckers can do must be factored in likewise.

    What I’m saying is then is that choice isn’t really an option due to area and obviously the lack of choices and in your terms, perhaps, I may call it a market failure for families needing primary schooling.

    Besides in freudian terms developmental analysis might rest better in the younger years and so knowledge of development (or lack of development) at that stage might be more beneficial, than the switch to secondary / grammar where all of that is lost to new schools and new teachers.

  • The Spectator

    It seems to my uneducated eye that we are pissing around the subject, unhappy and unwilling to even address a number of elephants in the room.

    Elephant 1. The Big Elephant – you cannot realistically have “upward mobility” for the talented working class, unless you can tolerate “downward mobility” for the less talented middle and upper class.

    In other words to give Wee Clever Joe a full chance to become a brain surgeon, we must accept realistically that Little Mediocre Master James might well end up on the tills at Tescos.

    And that way lies electoral oblivion, because if there’s one thing most middle class parents won’t cop, it’s their wee pleasant but middlingly able child not getting, at the least, that nice middle management job in [fill in local office based company here].

    And I don’t say that accusingly – I’m the epitomy of working-class, or even underclass, made good (crap primary, 11 plus pass, top A-levels, Degree, Profession)- and the thought of my children going back to whence I came makes my blood run cold. It’s ignoble. But hey, I’m honest. And I actually know and love lots of brilliant people still in that class, family and friends ; my view of it is less jaundiced than many “generational” middle class types.

    Square that circle, and we’ve made a start.

  • Mack

    DC –

    How does the scale of the problem in primary schools compare with that at second level? Do 60% of primary school children attend bad schools? Or is it less than that?

    If we get to the stage where the problem is that there are no good schools in an area then the priority should be creating good schools to service that area.

    BTW, I’m all for giving schools the power to remove (temporarily or permenently) disruptive pupils. (And for creating proper facilities for those kids that need them). That amounts to a form of selection, it’s just you’re removing children that are preventing the proper functioning of the school.

  • willis

    Driftwood

    Good on ye to put up this particular bit of nonsense from Heffer.

    “In Northern Ireland, which still has grammar schools, not only are the results from the selective schools superb – so are those from the non-selective ones, where teachers concentrate on developing the particular aptitudes of children in specific ranges of ability.”

    I had not realised that we lived in such an utopia.