The truth is, probably not a great deal. The trend in Northern Ireland is pretty established: best top end performances in the UK; and the worst record of students leaving with no qualifications at all. Education Minister John O’Dowd has been questioned several times about a .5% drop in the NI performance; which, to be fair to the Minister, is probably neither here nor there.
The real problem is that after four years of Education being devolved to Stormont we have stasis. There is no sign of fresh innovation, or that the Executive is even looking for policy instruments that would tackle the problem at the bottom end of the scale.
The Academy school initiative in England established under new Labour’s Andrew Adonis has had mixed effects. Although as Frase Nelson’s slightly breathless blog on the Harris Academy group of schools points to the need for schools to grasp the opportunity to do something with the autonomy that comes with it. Fraser concludes:
The Harris results demonstrate beyond any doubt that it is a lie to say failing schools take a generation to turn around. It’s also a libel on the pupils from these backgrounds: they don’t lack brains, but were being given a poor education. The results are the most visible reminder of the lesson of the Blair/Adonis reforms: we don’t have to tolerate failing schools.
But there are thoughts in play within the wider educational debate in England. Not least because the earnings gap between graduates and non graduates (just as the UK government is piling up personal debt on university students) is narrowing, there are questions to be asked about putting so much emphasis on qualification within the wider educational debate…
According to educationalist Alison Wolf the issue of NEEPS (not in employment, education or training), the problem is not qualification it’s the quality of jobs that matter, “…subsidised employment training has an excellent record of improving the future prospects of those who receive it, whereas training programmes have a dismal record”.
There is much to be done, particularly at the lower end of the income scale. Minister John O’Dowd seems much less inclined to resile to the thin rhetoric of ‘death to selection’ so favoured by his predecessor. Let’s hope this time round he encourages thoughtfulness and innovation that seeks to take the problem in hand rather than to simply make cheap political capital out of it.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty