Without a new approach to Education, the Minister is condemned to micromanaging micro outcomes…

Well, I didn’t hear it, but apparently the Education minister John O’Dowd let rip this morning on the Nolan Show (42 minutes).

But some time earlier, his party colleague Daithi McKay gave a fairly calm account of the Department’s request to school inspectors to report primary schools found to be giving special tuition to pupils sitting grammar school entrance exams:

I know of no situation in Europe where it is seen as okay to leave a whole policy area half undone and try to bungle manage matters at one remove [think, Troika, IMF, frau bundeskanzlerin, or Ms Legarde’s big umbrella? – Ed]. Yet that’s what we have regarding the unfinished business of education reform.

To be fair the current incumbents, the mess began with direct rule ministers and their response to legal challenge from parents that Grammars which had still had free places could not refuse their kids entry on the basis passing or failing of a single exam. Thus the grading system allows some Grammars only to accept As, or As and Bs, and some even as low as Cs.

But rather than liberalising access to higher levels of education, it has allowed a complacent middle class to jump their less intellectually gifted children from what we used to call secondary modern schools (latterly ‘High Schools’) into a Grammar stream. Some private schools like Campbell College even make their comprehensive status a key part of their appeal to such aspiring parents.

I don’t have any figures on social mobility to hand, but this softening of lines has led many grammar schools to be less of the automatic route out of poverty or limited prospect for poorer kids than was historically the case. Largely because they can no longer get access in the world where private tuition trumps raw intelligence.

Indeed, the JRF monitoring report last week noted that the attainment gap between students who have free school meals and those who don’t is ‘substantial and not closing’.

Now the minister is stuck in a Groundhog Day argument about a single policy instrument, academic selection. There is little space for politicians or even policy makers to thoughtfully consider outcomes and what the local administration at a policy level might actually do to improve them.

You’d think that with both parties in OFMdFM enjoying a large working class support, that they’d be more motivated to actually look for a functional solution to the social exclusion question.

As a result, with no useful policy instruments to hand, the Minister is now condemned to trying to micro manage micro outcomes on a case by case basis in the one policy area where the public have hugely combustable feelings about the future of their kids.

In the meantime, the kids whom the ending of academic selection was supposed to help are floundering against the private purchasing power of an increasingly established and comfortable middle class…

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  • sdelaneys

    O’Dowd does not speak in that clip, Mick. It’s easy to remember O’Dowd more and more stepping forward to take the flack for Caitriona Ruane and here we now have McKay doing the very same for Mr O’Dowd, good old deja vu.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think I covered in the introductory paragraph sdelaneys…

  • bacach

    I heard John O Dowd today. I thought he was excellent. Its about time the smug presenters on BBC had their biases exposed. He told Joel Taggart that he would be getting legal advice. Should be fun

  • sdelaneys

    Of course you did, Mick, sorry about that, first para blindness, syndrome.
    Had a listen to the program and O’Dowd was more bluster than anything else while McKay did try to deal with the substance.
    It is amusing just how often SF threaten the law on people nowadays and how they don’t seem to follow through.

  • Mick Fealty


    Yeah, maybe. John’s argument was against the programme’s use of the word ‘threat’ over the main theme of the discussion. It would seem to underline the theme of this thread.

    When you have to ‘correct’ or ‘explain’ your actions, or non actions from the Minister, it demonstrates you are not quite in command of the situation.

    The Minister needs to get this nailed at a policy level (where he has some power), not use PR to try to ‘trick’ the system into better outcomes.

  • Reader

    Mick Fealty: But some time earlier, his party colleague Daithi McKay gave a fairly calm account of the Department’s request to school inspectors to report primary schools found to be giving special tuition to pupils sitting grammar school entrance exams
    No instances need be found; however, some schools give special tuition to pupils *not* sitting grammar school entrance exams. The remaining pupils get the standard academic syllabus with hard marking.
    Is this the department worrying about applicants getting extra resources? Separate provision doesn’t need to imply that.
    Or is this about departmental mandarins worrying that their own offspring won’t have an edge if the schools are preparing pupils anyway?

  • iluvni

    ODowd came across as nothing more than a bullying thug in that section of the show.

  • Mick Fealty

    My understanding is that the Minister has bought a line of thinking that this laissez faire approach will eventually progress the system to the point where it is mostly comprehensive from his senior civil servants. A line of least resistance

    But it leaves him without either ownership or significant public agency… You have to ‘understand’ what his objects are and sympathise with them for it to work… And even then the outcomes are unpredictable and not necessarily going to be uniform or sellable…

  • DC

    Takes you to have a thick skin in politics, which is why, up until now, John O’Dowd has succeeded.

  • sherdy

    Mick, possibly you should have a go instead at Ken Bloomfield who orchestrated the sabotage of the educational changes, rather than John O’Dowd who wants to give schoolchildren equality of opportunity.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ken’s in the lobby on this one. John’s might have the capacity to go round him or through him if the focus shifts from the instrumental to the wider objective.

  • RyanAdams

    Yes Kenneth Bloomfield, along with droves of parents and nearly all state controlled grammar schools were happy to go along with. and pay for the tests. The education debacle in my view is a great demonstration of people power, in how the people in their thousands have, are, and will continue to walk over Sinn Fein.

    Mick, I would have thought if they could get rid of Ken and the AQE they would have by now. I personally think its quite clear they are here to stay, apparently at the wishes of a majority of parents, schools and Sinn Feins political opponents who are more than happy to support them.

  • ranger1640

    If parents can chose to have Irish language schools, why can other parents not chose their children to have the chose of going to a grammar school?? As O’Dowd says

    There is a demand for grammar education, so why can the Irish sector be facilitated yet he is trying to remove the grammar sector which there is an obvious demand for???

    “There is evidence of a demand from parents to have their children educated through the medium of Irish, with a successful naíscoil already operating in the area.

    “I have therefore decided to award conditional approval of grant-aided status to the school and wish the school every success in the future in delivering a quality education for its pupils through the medium of Irish.”

    Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/education/minister-gives-goahead-for-irishspeaking-school-in-cookstown-16156595.html#ixzz1uUduFpeW

    I hope the possible shinner voters, the aspirational working class and middle class nationalists remember this when it comes to election time?

  • Mac

    “If parents can chose to have Irish language schools, why can other parents not chose their children to have the chose of going to a grammar school??”

    Paul sits next to Peter who has an apple, Peter sits opposite Jane who has a pear. Jane has two people to her left, one of which is Paul. Is Paul on Peter’s left or right hand side and should he compare his orange to Paul’s apple?

  • Mick Fealty


    Do they need to get rid of anyone? A shift in focus towards improving outcomes would not rule AQE out of the game, but it would:

    – one, get the minister off the hook of a policy that he cannot measurably achieve in any meaningful sense;

    – two, allow him to refocus public attention on the core problem of the NI system which is some of the worst outcomes in the UK where poverty is highly correlated to educational underachievement;

    – and three, gain him some credit for creating a maximal fix for a long term cross community problem.

  • seamus60

    If only some one had the wisdom in the first place not to do away with something until at least first thinking through what was going to replace it.
    Let some one else deal with it now.

  • Newman

    Time for a little realpolitik by Sinn Fein…this strategy of dismantling grammar schools by stealth will come unstuck and children will get caught in the crossfire. If you cannot legally prevent selection or academic schools why not work with the art of the possible…there are far reaching discussions to be had which do confront the core problem but at present we are caught in the trenches.

  • cynic2

    A radical thought. Why is what they do to prepare children any business of the Minister? Wouldn’t it be better to free schools and parents to decide, cut the departments central budget by 70% and free the minister to spend more time with his policies.

  • wild turkey

    “Paul sits next to Peter who has an apple, Peter sits opposite Jane who has a pear. Jane has two people to her left, one of which is Paul. Is Paul on Peter’s left or right hand side and should he compare his orange to Paul’s apple?”

    Mac, an outstanding question for transfer2012 with the following caveat

    “terms and conditions apply due to parallel universe considerations. correct answers may differ between AQE and GL tests. answers may also differ between english and irish language exam papers. “

  • “a new approach to Education”

    John O’Dowd: “I support parental choice in the type of education they wish for their children.”

    Does he really? Parents who choose a grammar school type of education may be doing so for social as much as academic reasons. In the Nolan show when the Minister wasn’t lamenting the absence of a ‘more informed journalist’ he accused the supporters of the tests as believers in ‘segregation at eleven’. Funnily enough, he didn’t AFAIK refer to religious/nationality segregation at five. Perhaps parental choice at five is fine, but not at eleven.

    The Minister also claimed that the grammar and non-grammar schools followed the same curriculum at secondary level whereas even a casual glance at what different types of schools offer would soon disabuse anyone of that notion.

    “secondary modern schools (latterly ‘High Schools’)”

    We seem to have moved on from the rebranding from ‘secondary’ to ‘high’ and the more recent brand is ‘college’. St Joseph’s High School (co-ed) in Coleraine is now St Joseph’s College but parents will easily note a big difference between it and Loreto College (co-ed) across the river; the latter has previously described itself as a voluntary grammar school. Coleraine Boys and Girls Secondary Schools have merged to become Coleraine College but neither it nor St Josephs would be perceived to be of the same standing as Loreto, let alone Campbell. Coleraine AI (boys) is in the same independent network as Campbell College. Coleraine High School (girls) is a controlled grammar school. North Coast Integrated College (co-ed), a newish school, would probably be closest to those who support the One School of Thought campaign; it claims to be the ‘largest secondary school in the area’.

    If the Minister has a problem with time being set aside for preparation for transfer tests to secondary school does he have a problem with time set aside for preparation for first communion or other extra-curricular activities?

  • [contd]Loreto Grammar School (girls) in Coleraine became Loreto College (co-ed) in 1977

  • Coll Ciotach

    Cynic is correct and I have got lambasted on this site before for promoting that idea. The business of the government should not be control, although the power mad who become politicians will never accept that. The business should be facilitating and provision, we need politicians who serve rather than rule. I support the view that parents are the prime teachers and they should decide the education they need for their children.his need. The business of the government should be facilitating this need. They should not be dictating.