Obsessing over history and identity won’t educate our kids or bring them closer together

Forgive me if I take advantage of my posting rights to reply to Andy Pollak’s interesting post on  cross border exchanges  in education and go on to  widen the issue.  Much closer cooperation is a no brainer. What’s stopping  it?  The introverted pressures of financial austerity? Preoccupation with different systems and problems N&S?  Might it be seen – wrongly  –  as a pleasant optional extra rather than a significant contribution?

Fifteen years since the GFA fundamental questions  need to be revisited.  Peace and reconciliation are fundamental goals but what is their relationship to improving education?  How much integration we really want is by no means clear.  The subject is being ostentatiously avoided.

Exploration needs to shift from history to political science and economics for models that can be translated into real life policy that people can deal with.  History which I love will not help us much further.

My fear is that educational reform is going off at half cock. For going on for a century now there has been little structural change in schools education beyond the introduction of the voluntary integrated sector under direct rule. Rationalisation of the schools estate is now being “planned”( if that’s the word ) along the existing communal and selective fault lines. There are models but no strategic drive. Area planning is  essentially a bureaucratic exercise. The real energy is going into  trying to break the deadlock over  setting up the Education and Skills Authority (ESA)  which itself may be an out of date institution before it even gets off the ground.

The present governance structure for different types of  maintained and voluntary schools is almost a century old and makes little sense today, apart from perpetuating the different roles of churches and resistance to change. Yet this is not challenged, nor is there any sign of them sacrificing the  substance of power in the interests of better schools, never mind integration. Not that the churches are the only or even the main problem. It’s taken for granted  that the politicians are trapped in their own silos and  will offer little  leadership. The present reform proposals were prompted not by idealism but  demographic change and financial austerity.

Independence for each school or group of schools under departmental supervision may be a better bet. Local people could elect a high proportion of  whomever they wished onto boards of governors including church and specifically clerical representatives.

The area plans emphasis the need for closure or amalgamation. To be fair they also present  a choice of  new partnerships. What is most  lacking though is any real strategy for how to forge these partnerships in a divided society and educational system. It isn’t enough to slap alternatives down on the table and leave people to get on with it. That is poor education and a poor politics. So are the lowest common denominators produced by purely bureaucratic control.

Real  progress will not be made until rigorous cost benefit analyses are produced with  incentives for creating new relationships at local level.  Politicians, parents and teachers need to be given much more help to show how a more efficient and effective organisation of schools in their area can produce better teaching and facilities and allow their children to become better qualified than so  many kids are today .Parents with  children  at grammar schools need to be reassured  the high performing ones won’t be harmed and that the others can do better. All parents  can then weigh new proposals with other preferences such as separate faith and communal environments.

Eventually politicians will have to take real decisions.  I doubt if those decisions will be one size fits all but they may be different from today’s.

I say this but it may already be too late. Area planning is said to be advanced. If so it’s hard to believe that it will be the last word.  Ten shared campuses are mooted. The single trumpeted example of the Omagh campus on the site of the former Lisanelly barracks is encouraging. But how much integration or even co-siting will actually happen?

 Bain on “strategic  planning” and Burns, Costello and  Gallagher on  phasing out academic selection  were the models produced  but there is a complete lack of  political strategy for putting them into effect or finding alternatives. The resistance of grammar schools was inevitable. Unless new leadership  is offered to reconcile upholding the best standards with improving the general level, there will be little or no change for the better ; crude rationalisation  might actually makes things worse.  The case of Coleraine High School  could turn out to be an example ( yes offered by Nevin, thanks) .

The merger of the training colleges was first proposed at least as long ago as 1976 but was blocked by the Catholic Church to the silent relief of the Protestant establishments. The existence of the Assembly provides at least a forum for the debate. We know why the politicians are avoiding it. But why is  the rest of society doing so little  to encourage it?



Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London