Breaking the deadlock over academic selection

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.

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  • Rory Carr

    It should also be noted that the “choice and localism in education [which] are being encouraged by the spread of academies and ” free” schools” in England are designed to be the vanguard of a creeping but relentless policy to privatise education whereby the standard of education that any child receives will depend almost entirely on its parents’ ability to pay.

    This policy goes hand-in-hand with the steady pauperistaion of state schools and the destruction of their amenities including the continuance of the sale of school playing fields that was such a disgraceful feature of Labour’s education policy.

    The investment in the poltical funds of whichever party is in the ascendancy by those corporations with a beady eye to profiteering in the burgeoning educational market continues apace and those politicians, of whatever party, who best serve their interest can be sure of their reward once they leave office.

  • backstage

    It’s shameful that the ongoing disagreement over selection rests on a national conviction that the only ‘education’ that matters is of the academic kind – NB, Blair’s target for 50% of young people at university. Non-grammar schooling has always been a poor cousin (especially in NI) yet there are obvious advantages for society in having young people trained in something other than just medicine and law. It’s bizarre that this is an issue at all in this day and age. The issues over selection are largely a reflection of class politics and might be less likely to exist if a proper investment in curriculum, equipment and finance was given to vocational schooling.

    Note to the Minister: tackle the problem from a different angle

  • Sorry, Mr Walker: I can’t cope with this one.

    Your very first sentence sent me into such convulsions of mirth.

    Whatever made you think that the spread of academies and ‘free’ schools might give the generality (who, according to every survey so far, prefer local authorities to plan and run schools) further “choice”?

    Equally, don’t conflate an academy and a ‘free’ school. One is within the State sector, the other is an independent school outside of all usual constraints and controls, except to have a business plan and ensure pupils achieve “progress”. You want Dotheboys Hall? That nice Mr Wackford Gove will fund it for you.

    I live within a spit and a jump of a proposed ‘free’ school: it will primarily be for Jewish children of the local shul: fair enough, but how does that improve the ‘choice’ of the vast majority of non-Jewish parents? All the same, as the Jewish Chronicle has it: “the government will fund it, which is an amazing opportunity.” Amazing indeed: the planned and much-needed new school in the same Borough has just been chopped in the initial cuts. Pupil maintenance, of course, is also proportionately deducted from the local authority budget.

    Does anyone else recall Paul Carter, Conservative Leader of Kent County Council, denouncing these dangerous myth, just a few days before the General Election? Carter’s argument was that more centrally-controlled (i.e. Gove-endorsed) academies and (very expensive) ‘free’ schools cannot come out of the same, or in reality reduced, budget without ‘ordinary’ schools having to take the hit.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Ironically, we’ve considerable choice with regard to the primary schools we send our children to since open enrolment, though the transfer procedure naturally restricts the choices for those children not able to join the 40% in grammar schools.

    You are right about the need for fresh ideas in the north, but, as I argued in the piece linked below some months ago, I think Malcolm is right with regard to the Academies/ Free Schools agenda in England.

    Ultimately, I believe the sharpest focus needs to be on improving the quality and standard of head teaching, whilst supporting those faced with the toughest of tasks- ie educating those who, in any system, are often written off as the ‘also rans;’ you know, the kids we’re told to throw tools at from age nine upwards “cause society also needs plumbers etc……”

  • edgeoftheunion

    Ah well Chris as the past two weeks have taught us, good plumbers are worth their weight in Golden handshakes.

    BTW the never-known-to-exaggerate Tele have you down as a commentator and blogger. I thought you had a proper job as a teacher?

  • Brian Walker

    Comment so far illustrates the gap between policy debate and politics. It’s a gap Northern Ireland has so little practice at closing. The fact remains that the parties are unlikely to agree on how to move secondary education forward. You can’t simply ignore this in favour of your own ideal. Also,it’s no good seizing on the dear old ulterior motive about Conservatives or anybody else and declaring it a certainty.

    If the politicians can’t agree on a policy, they might at least agree to transfer the problem to parents, with safeguards and regulation to ensure fairness. Conservative and Labour are exaggerating the differences between them in a struggle for political advantage. Social democrats in many countries have embraced choice and diversity, why can’t we, both on merit and as a way out of deadlock?

    If the spend is equitable and standards are monitored, the existing grammars – state funded remember – won’t be able to grab all the goodies. I detect enough confidence in many of the secondaries to win the competition for pupils with some of the underperforming grammars. With transparent planning and general access to the full curriculum, unregulated selection should wither on the vine. And Chris is surely right, leadership is key.

    Okay, given the problem and not the ideal, are there any other approaches on offer?

  • edgeoftheunion

    “With transparent planning and general access to the full curriculum, unregulated selection should wither on the vine. ”

    Much as I highly regard your posts Brian…

    Are you actually domiciled in the dysfunctional hell-hole we call home?

  • Chris Donnelly

    Guilty as charged and, if it wasn’t for tomorrow being one of those pupil-free staff days, I’d have long since retired to my chamber to commence the two score winks…..

    I do lament the absence of any imaginative thinking from our local parties with regard to education. Sloganising over academic selection- on all sides- does not make for a credible educational discussion.

    I think you’re right about non-selective post-primaries competing in certain areas of the north, though urban districts will always pose a greater problem.

    Personally, I would like to see a strategy aimed at enticing high-performing Principals into under-performing/ low attaining urban schools, possibly through a relaxation of the revised curriculum and/or financial incentives above and beyond the existing pay scale for head teachers.

    This could be extended to senior management posts to further attract talented curriculum area co-ordinators/ teachers and, so long as there was a pretty robust target setting programme in place to ensure standards were improved in a sustained manner and subject to regular review with meaningful consequences if not met, I think this would represent a marked improvement on what we have at present- and it should not have to involve a move away from state control of schools.

    I have issues with the direction we’re heading in under the revised curriculum, for instance, and the reliance on suspect statistics like Key Stage levels. With the emphasis on developing a generation of children more interested in STEM subjects, I find it hard to fathom how merging History, Geography and Science can lead to the latter being taught in a more effective manner, never mind my despair at the demotion of the former in favour of all-encompassing thematic units which fail to add up to the previous sum of the individual subject component parts.

    There should be a swifter process put into place to remove disruptive pupils from secondary schools where such behaviour robs other children of the learning opportunities they deserve.

    Far too often I hear fellow teaching professionals preface comments about their pupils in working-class areas with the quip “Sure what do you expect from ’round here’?”

    And….now that it’s well past midnight, I’m afraid that’s my griping session completed….

  • I’ve been wedded to the comprehensive ideal for at least four decades. Despite the (note, please, the precise use of the term) beggaring of such schools under the Thatcher dispensation the social and educational disadvantages of sheeping-and-goating remain gratingly obvious.

    So, to basics:

    ¶ Is education in itself a social “good”? Presumably that, in Latin, is a “Nonne” question, inviting the answer “yes”. In which case,

    ¶ Should it be rationed, apportioned, restricted, limited? I suggest that today the response would be “Well, err … probably.” Fortunately for my generation the ’50s and ’60s were more enlightened times.

    ¶ What is re-emerging as an issue in the schooling debate (and schooling ≠ education) is the “tripartite vision”.

    So, enter, far stage right, Anthony Seldon, his yellow-stockings cross-gartered. What Seldon said in his 8th December lecture for the Sir John Cass Foundation ought to suffice as a possible programme (available as a .doc: Google “Anthony Seldon”+ Cass). I found myself close to cheering this meaty bit:

    In the medium to longer term, government should divide schools into three streams at 14, an academic, technical and vocational stream, each roughly a third in size. The academic stream would ensure that all pupils who have genuine academic ability and interest could be again stretched at school.

    The technical stream in the middle would offer a blend of an academic and vocational curriculum. The third element, the vocational stream, would consist predominantly of practical-based learning.

    Universities would be heavily responsible for overseeing the curriculum in the academic stream, the professions in the technical stream, and the employers in the vocational stream.

    This tripartite system echoes that which was introduced after the Second World War which failed on at least two counts: the technical stream in the middle was never fully funded, and the third stream, the secondary modern, was seen as the dumping zone for children of low ability, as opposed to a flourishing option for those whose gifts were primarily practical and not academic.

    In this model new exams would be held at 16 and 18: GCSEs and A Levels would be abolished. In the academic stream, students at 16 would sit the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate or ‘MAs’, standing for ‘Mid Level Academic subjects’, which would replace GCSEs. Each student would sit, on average, ten MAs.

    Students in the technical stream would sit a mixture of five MA subjects, consisting of the core of 2 Sciences, Maths, English and a foreign language, as well as five ‘MT’ subjects, standing for ‘Mid Level Technical subjects’.

    The vocational stream would sit five MTs and five ‘MVs’, which stand for ‘Mid Level Vocational subjects’.

    At 18 students in the academic stream would all take four ‘HAs’, i.e. ‘Higher Level Academic subjects’, which would take the best of the old style academic A-Levels. In addition, all would sit a ‘theory of knowledge’ paper on critical thinking and philosophy, and would deliver an extended project. As an alternative, students could sit the International Baccalaureate diploma programme, which offers six subjects, a theory of knowledge paper and an extended essay.

    Students in the middle stream would sit a mixture of HAs and ‘HTs’, standing for ‘Higher Level Technical subjects’.

    Students in the vocational stream would sit two ‘HV’ subjects, standing for ‘Higher Level Vocational’, and could additionally sit HAs and HTs.

    Students in all three streams, to qualify for ‘graduation’ from school, would have to pass a ‘diploma’, in which they showed levels of proficiency in physical activity, the arts, volunteering and personal skills.

    Seldon rightly sees that as far more radical than anything envisaged so far by the Coalition government.

    The remaining objection in my mind is the sheeping, goating and geeping, even at age 14. So is Seldon’s, who is strong on the essential weakness of the English system, which is heavy on instruction/testing and light on “education”/personal-growth.

    Let’s be clear: most of our schooling amounts to no more than evaluating kids on their ability to bark or bleat at text. Bourgeois kids are better at such social orthodoxies than the “lower orders”, so the tripartite system has an inherent class-bias.

    Yet that might be a price worth paying in NI: the established “grammar schools” are not going away. They would go independent before they conformed to a fully-comprehensive system; and that would exacerbate social and cultural division. Better to link the successful grammars into consortia with technical and vocational institutions: hey presto! a functioning tripartite system.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Great post Malcolm.

    Not a million miles from the education system in the country which went from rubble to running the EU (Sorry France, let’s get real).

    To be a Master Craftsman in Germany is to get respect. In the UK …..


    BBC iplayer has an interesting programme on how the end of grammar schools stifled social mobility. Is that why Sinn Fein want them abolished?

    (anti Sinn Fein remark bold boy)