A coherent if one-sided Platform for Change discussion about education

Last night Platform for Change hosted a debate looking at the potential for Northern Ireland to have a coherent education system. Around 65 people attended the two hour event in the Ormeau Avenue Holiday Inn.

Initial five minute introductions from the panel of seven were followed by questions from the audience.

  • Ciaran Helferty ex-QUB SU President, now with Amnesty/BMA
  • Liam McCusker from Spirit of Enniskillen
  • Bronagh Heatley & Anthony from WIMPS/Public Achievement

  • Mark Langhammer from Association of Teachers and Lecturers
  • Mary Dorman from Irish National Teachers’ Organisation
  • Alan Smith from UU’s UNESCO Institute

It was a long and largely unexciting evening. Themes that I picked up include:

  • We “neurotically test” our children, yet as a colleague of Mark Langhammer says “You can’t fatten a pig by constantly weighing it”
  • The effect of social segregation shouldn’t be forgotten on top of the religious segregation in NI education. The big differentials between wealth/income across communities adversely affects educational outcomes.
  • The existing limited social mobility into the grammar sector “compresses deprivation” in the secondary sector.
  • Education reform needed along two fronts: equality and social cohesion. The political agreements didn’t look beyond an end to violence; we are hindered by post-conflict political structures. The political system also amplifies and extends social tensions that influence ‘parental choice’ around schooling.
  • Parental choice is good, and in some people’s eyes parental choice is also dangerous.
  • There’s little confidence that ESA’s single system will make the overall education system more coherent (or better).
  • The Irish language sector is quick to point out educational benefits of bilingualism. The integrated sector should be more brash about trumpeting that “social balance creates better schools”.
  • Integrated schooling challenges the prejudices of parents as well as children.
  • The need is not to extend the integrated sector but to make its ethos and patterns part of the existing mainstream options. We need measures and milestones to drive increased sharing and more importantly structural change within the system. Mark Langhammer wondered whether social balance be monitored and punishment introduced to encourage improvement.
  • Young people – at least those involved in WIMPS – are increasingly unconcerned about community background and the need to declare and monitor it.
  • We need to “nurture leadership” in young people: this can happen outside schools. in general, the changing of attitudes about education needs to extend beyond schools.

The Q&A session is in three parts. The battery in the roving radio mic died at one point, but you should still be able to hear the questioners.

Overall the evening was a disappointment.

February’s Platform for Change event had attracted the full range of political opinion – nine parties in total, including DUP and Sinn Fein – to the panel looking at flags. This time, the centre ground (particularly centre-left) was represented but the extremes were largely absent.

The urgency and emotion of the flags debate was absent, perhaps understandable given the getalongist audience and panel.

The great majority of last night’s non-party political panellists had direct experience of the integrated and Catholic education sectors. Members of various parties were present in the audience: Green, NI21 and possibly Labour asked question.

The lack of strong push back – or even representation – around the existing education system from the pro-grammar, pro-CCMS or pro-selection lobby reduced the potential conflict and certainly allowed the ideas and alternative models around sharing and integration to better develop. But the lack of challenge also diminished the complexity of the arguments and made it all seem far too straightforward.

Shorter introductions and fewer Robin-isms between speakers* would have sped up proceedings and perhaps allowed the event to finish earlier.

I spotted FitzJamesHorse in the audience and he has blogged his comments on the evening.

* Robin Wilson is however forgiven since he shared a joke that will tickle all the maths nerds out there. [Ed – on Slugger?] A piece of Northern Ireland graffiti spotted on a wall saying:

6 into 26 won’t go

Underneath someone had scribbled

Try base 9!

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