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.

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