In England, choice and localism in education are being encouraged by the spread of academies and ” free” schools, while Northern Ireland seems to be to heading off in other direction, through greater centralisation by the long delayed Education and Skills Authority. This seems all the more inappropriate as the Assembly is no nearer to agreeing a policy on secondary education. A bureaucratic body functioning without clear political direction is a recipe for trouble.
While we can expect little sense to emerge from the parties this side of the May elections ( and even afterwards perhaps), it seems plain that the bureacratic structure of ESA needs rethinking in the light of continuing cross community deadlock over academic selection and the emergence of a certain if vague willingness on both sides of the community to look more closely at school mixing and sharing. Local option and greater parental choice seem a better way out of paralysing deadlock and could offer routes to new and more creative relationships.
It would not take much to transform ESA into a regulatory body to ensure fairness of entry procedures, core funding and curriculum access for all pupils. As even in the LEA controlled system in England today, “aptitude” in NI would remain one of the core criteria of entry, though not the only one.
To mitigate the charge of selection by the back door, the department of Education should forthwith publish the area plans for school amalgamations and closures. This would allow new local synergies to develop through consultation, as I’ve consistently argued. The case that seeking agreement with the grammar schools rather than trying to dictate to them is undemocratic doesn’t hold water. As a significant cross community minority resists a one- size- fits- all solution, they cannot be overridden unless it can be demonstrated conclusively that by their actions they are disadvantaging the majority. The point could be proved one way or another by the publication of the full area and funding plans for the entire secondary school sector.
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