With Northern Ireland’s Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson MP MLA, providing a warm up act at the DUP annual conference, I attended a panel discussion on “Fixing Education”:
- Michelle McIlveen MLA (Chair)
- Rev. Trevor Gribben (Transferors’ Representative Council)
- Billy Young (President, Association for Quality Education (AQE))
- Gerry Lundy (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS))
- Mervyn Storey MLA
The first question was whether the Education Skills Authority (ESA), announced in the recent Programme for Government, will improve education in Northern Ireland.
Mervyn Storey explained how there was a consensus for changing the structures of education administration, but how his party worked to ensure that such changes would be transparent, accountable, and “a model that was able to deliver for education”.
Mr Young acknowledged the potential, saying that success hinges on three keys: (1) who chairs the Authority (his preference that it is someone with experience in education); (2) composition of the board, and that it be forward thinking; and (3) resolving any conflict of policy roles between the Department of Education and ESA.
Mr Lundy agreed that ESA has “significant potential” for improving education, adding that, “We can measure the success of ESA if it actually raises standards.” He wants an ESA that allows for schools to continue their autonomy, while in a framework of accountability. Mr Lundy said that they (CCMS) would welcome the establishment of sectoral support bodies, naming the controlled and CCMS sectors, which could provide a challenge role for ESA.
Especially praising the DUP for their work in this regard, Rev. Gribben said that the ESA body agreed recently is “totally different” than what was on the table 3-4 years ago: “It’s a body that will deliver for all children in all schools.” He was encouraged by the fact of the various education sectors coming together in their support for ESA, finishing with a salutary remark, “Structures don’t deliver for children, but they provide the framework for which delivery can happen.”
Mr Storey underlined the cooperative nature of the work to achieve this policy, stating that it isn’t enough to ignore the genuinely held concerns and issues of stakeholders, but to “drill down, understand them, and build a working relationship”.
The second question was whether shared education was the way forward.
Rev. Gribben replied, yes, shared education was the way forward, citing the Sharing Education Programme at Queen’s University of Belfast, the Primary Integrating / Enriching Education (PIEE) programme of the North East Education and Library Board (NEELB), and the Fermanagh Shared Education Programme of the Fermanagh Trust. He welcomed what the DUP party leader, Peter Robinson, has said in regards to shared education, and is “delighted” with his political leadership. While Rev. Gribben made a distinction between shared education and integrated education (as being a distinct sector), overall he said that if shared education policy is developed in a non threatening way, then there is nothing to fear.
Mr Young thinks the time has come to move forward with shared education, while highlighting the need to be aware of local sensitivities. As a former head of a Religious Education (RE) department, he warned of the risks of two extreme outcomes — having to incorporate all (faith) views (describing it as a “bureaucracy of views”) else excluding any religious views: “It’s a really, really important that there’s a strong … Christian and moral leadership in the school.” He described how this was practised with the inclusion of ethnic minorities at Belfast Royal Academy, and with a particular reference to its Jewish pupils.
Mr Lundy said that there needs to be an open debate on what “shared education” means, saying that there are several interpretations currently being used. For him, shared education needs to focus on social differentiation and inclusion in our schools, and must be on a faith basis: “Faith based education is extremely important to us, and to the communities that we serve.”
Underlining the dimension of faith in education, Rev. Gribben underlined his point that shared education does not mean secular or humanist education: “We don’t want to jettison … our shared Christian ethos and our Christian values in our education.”
The third question was, “How can we improve education outcomes among Protestant, working class people?”
Mr Storey said, “We should not wait until there’s some magic formula,” calling for a focused intervention. He gave as an example the work of party colleague, Nelson McCausland (Minister, Department of Social Development), with its nurturing programme in pre-primary schools.
Mr Young cited reports demonstrating how Northern Ireland’s education system does a good job promoting social mobility, in comparison with other UK regions. “But there is no doubt that there are areas in Northern Ireland where the young people are being failed, they’re being let down.” He referred to an AQE paper that investigated this [which paper?], and said that this matter is very close to his heart, having grown up in a working class background in Londonderry. Mr Young described the complexity of the issue: “We have within our community dysfunctional families, dysfunctional parts of the community, parents who have no hope. You have unemployment as well.” He added the significance of health and wellbeing, and the proven effectiveness of early intervention and a “firm, traditional” teaching.
Mervyn Storey concluded the overall discussion by referring to the three guests as colleagues and friends, having worked closely with them over the years. Tongue in cheek, he added, “Just because we have a (Gerry) Lundy on the platform, don’t be thinking that the DUP will be selling out on education!” Mr Storey argued that the reason we are in a better place in regards to education policy is because his party took the time and effort to go out and speak with the sectors — controlled, grammar, and CCMS. He added a jibe at former DE Minister, Caitriona Ruane, saying that she couldn’t have gone soon enough and was never going to be part of the solution. Mr Storey was confident that progress will be made, while his party will ensure that the controlled sector has its rightful voice in ensuing discussions, so that sector has the confidence in moving forward with the vision of shared education set out by his party leader, without threat.
Mr Storey’s last remark was that shared education was not about the “dilution of our identity, ethos and characteristics of our schools”, but instead about instilling “a sense of confidence, a sense of pride, and a sense about where we belong in this shared future that I believe Northern Ireland needs and Northern Ireland deserves”.