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into  trying to break the deadlock over  setting up the Education and Skills Authority (ESA)  which itself may be an out of date institution before it even gets off the ground.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?



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  • Independence for each school or group of schools may be a better bet.

    Hmm. Now consider the examples in our neighbouring parish. Mr Gove (building on the damage work already done by Andrew Adonis) rates stand-alone academies and “free schools”. What that means, in practice, is a centralised system, dependent on the good-will of the Minister for finance, and obedience to a “free-market” ethos.

    We know, from what Gove has said, that an unconstrained Tory government would happily accept, even promote schools-for-profit. In practice, of course, scratch the surface and that’s what is already happening: those “free schools”, in many cases, source their recruitment, staffing, materials and services from a profit-making corporation, which just happens to be the promoter for the “non-profit” school.

    More to the point, what the Adonis/Gove philosophy achieves is fragmentation, greater division by social class, and some very weird and wonderful sects getting their claws into the younger generation. Bad as NI denominational schools may seem, head-scarves and banning music and creative literature (i.e. “imagination”) haven’t featured. That’s because they are “aspirational” rather than repressive.

    A “free-market” ethos implies “light-touch” regulation. We all know where that got us economically. It’s now delivering episodes like the Pimlico Academy and Al-Madinah.

  • Brian Walker


    Thanks for giving me the opportunity for a Part 2.

    To state the obvious, NI is much bigger than England. That could make it much easier to manage either way, with schools or networks of schools becoming independently run or managed corporately and bureaucratically by the state.

    The struggle over ESA is nominally about the degree of independence under a new system but is actually about everything.

    You can’t have academic selection at 11 as that affects neighbouring schools. The Catholics want to preserve a degree of control that could make merger with state schools difficult if not impossible. The Catholic establishment is opposed to applying equality laws to teaching as that would throw open the door wide to non- Catholic teachers and damage the Catholic ethos, whatever that is, However they have a proven good track record of performance which strongly appeals .

    In fact the current proposals solve none of the problems beyond imposing cuts which I fear will only be top slicing and potentially damaging.

    Lots favour reform but not in my back yard. I would start by seeking to replace all existing forms of governance. ESA strains at doing that but not quite. Only the State can afford to finance modern education apart from one, maybe two schools which might want to do go fee paying independent.Any other than Belfast Inst?

    In default of political agreement the only alternative I can see is to allow a wide degree of independence for each school or a network of schools on the basis of a common curriculum and inspection. The Catholics could easily adapt to that. Financial pressures will encourage sharing and perhaps some structural integration to boost to the de facto integration going on already in state schools.

    I would use the shared future strategy boldly to develop a vision of “our schools in our area “ and encourage public and teacher involvement. Faced with making tough choices with the cohesion budget I would cut down on the camps and fringe activities, leaving them more to charities,and spend the money on better consultation.

    A hard line on selection – to refuse to fund schools that employ a transfer test and force them to go fee paying independent – is politically impossible and perhaps legally dubious. The other route is to amalgamate the several lesser performing grammars with other schools to allow them to reach critical mass and expand their curriculum perhaps to include more vocational courses as envisaged by Gallagher.

    Civil society have been largely abjectly silent either because they fear their employers or are communally divided on the issues themselves, I don’t know which.

    The Gove reforms are barely relevant except to give comfort the better NI grammars. The part that appeals most to me comes not from Gove but Baker; the revival of the technical colleges.

  • Let me not to the marriage of true minds.
    Admit impediments.

    I’m with you on all of that. The greatest failure of the Butler Act (of the other parish) was with technical education. Somehow in the middle-classing of Middle England there was never a qualification like (der Meisterbrief?) hefting the same status and kudos as A-levels. Therefrom stems a comprehensive failing in technology and engineering.

    However: a pithy aside.

    As the second Thatcher government set about deconstructing ILEA (not just because of Thatcher’s own prejudices, but because Shirley Porter resented spreading the City of Westminster’s loot), a senior ILEA apparatchik —and more-than-competent educational thinker — voiced the opinion that the aim was to ensure “the smallest number of least-bad schools”.

    Think on.

  • I’m hearing that ESA, should it ever be delivered, would produce an additional level of bureaucracy with the current ELB HQs acting as ESA regional offices. A limited degree of accountability exists at ELB level in the sense that ELB members appear to do little more than rubber-stamp officers’ reports so perhaps members’ absence wouldn’t be much missed.

    The September report from the Coleraine High School headmistress is scathing; additional material can be found in the June NALIL blogs.

    Folks in Coleraine district appear not to have noticed that the number of grammar school places in the non-denominational sector will be slashed from just over 1600 at present to just under 1000. This will happen at a time when other government departments are trying to attract investment to the area on the back of grammar school provision.

    I posted a blog a few days ago entitled Christmas Comes Early for (some) Grammar Schools. It looks at where the £106 million School Enhancement Programme is to be spent; 32 of the 50 schools are post-primary:

    I’ve looked at the schools which are to be enhanced, by sector:

    Voluntary Grammar [non-denominational] :: 10 schools
    Voluntary Catholic Grammar :: 11 schools
    Controlled Grammar [non-denominational] :: 0 schools
    Controlled Secondary [non-denominational]:: 2 schools
    Catholic Maintained Secondary :: 3 schools
    Grant Maintained Integrated :: 6 schools

    Why do some grammar schools appear to have favoured status over secondary schools and why are there no controlled grammar schools on the list? …

    Is it not a little strange that this financial decision has been taken in advance of agreement on the area plans? But then again the area plans are merely plans by sector cobbled together for each area.

  • Brian Walker

    “To state the obvious, NI is much bigger than England.”
    Not quite the start to part 2 I intended. Obviously everybody knew what I meant.

  • “I would use the shared future strategy boldly to develop a vision of “our schools in our area “ and encourage public and teacher involvement.”

    Brian, you have ready access to the mainstream media to do so. By and large, the MSM has had relatively little to say about the changes that are taking place under its nose.

  • Charles_Gould

    Nevin are parents concerned about reductions in selective school places?

  • They appear to be, Charles. When I looked at the Year 8 numbers in 2011 and 2012 in and around Coleraine those schools that would be considered grammar schools filled their quotas whereas the Catholic, non-denominational and integrated schools experienced quite a significant drop in their intakes. These changes are a direct reflection of parental choice.

  • Barney

    Nevin are the majority of parents concerned about the inability of grammar schools to deliver the curriculum to all pupils?

  • Barney

    The mainstream media have little to say because they must be seen to be impartial effectively resulting in the few dictating to the many.

    I find it strange that those schools who wish to have independence in selection and employment practices demand to be part of the collective when it comes to funding. Why should the state fund an educational cult?

  • Barney, seemingly not. Presumably they are factoring in various issues when they make their choices.

  • Barney

    It does seem strange to me that the majority should be discriminated against that is not parental choice infact its the exact opposite.

    The ever moving benchmark that is selection is perhaps the best indicator that grammar schools dont select by ability.

  • Charles_Gould


    I think these are the schools:

    Coleraine Academical Institution: Nondenominational Voluntary Grammar school for boys
    Coleraine College (co-ed nondenominational secondary)
    Saint Joseph’s Co-educational Roman Catholic Secondary School
    Coleraine High School: Nondenominational Controlled Grammar school for girls
    Loreto College, Coleraine: Co-educational Roman Catholic grammar school
    North Coast Nondenominational Integrated College

    Do I understand that the plan is that CAI and Coleraine High are proposed to merge, and to retain Voluntary Status, while the numbers fall?

    It’s interesting that Loreto is the first Catholic grammar to stop selecting on academic grounds. So if the nondenominational grammar sector also falls, parents in Coleraine – regardless of religion – may find they have a hard time getting places in CAI.

    One likely resolution is that numbers at CAI after merger be increased more than evisaged at present.

  • Charles_Gould


    On a related matter: I am aware of plans for 10 shared campuses – which will I presume eventually become integrated education centres.

    There is one at Omagh, and another planned in Armagh. do you know where the other 8 shared campuses are planned?

  • Charles_Gould

    I’d love to hear from Alliance Party people what they think of the Minister’s recent announcements on shared education. A step in the right direction, or too timid?

  • “Why should the state fund an educational cult?”

    Barney, I’m struggling to find an explanation for the funding choices I’ve illustrated further up. Two-thirds of the schools on the ‘randomised’ list are semi-private; the secondary schools are shabbily treated and there’s not a bean for the controlled grammar schools, schools that are fairly similar to the semi-private ones.

  • Barney

    If these schools merge there will no longer be a CAI………

    If the minority of parents wish to choose a segregated education for their children thats grand, as it stands the state is paying for these discriminatory practices this must end and hopefully with a merger it will.

    It’s the state’s duty to use its resources for the best interests of all not just the few.

  • Charles_Gould


    There could be a CAI – it would depend on how it’s done. I presume the most likely outcome would be that CAI as the Voluntary school would retain its jealously-guarded status.

  • Barney

    I would imagine the small (relatively) amount of funding in the SEP was allocated on a needs basis independent of sector.

    The department has a budget shy of £2 billion and funds the grammar sector who are wagging the dog. I find it odd that a subsidised minority are dictating to the majority. Grammar schools must be fully integrated into the educational community and further in order to make the best use of resources. After all we are paying for them.

  • Barney


    It does depend on how its done, a merger signifies the ending of both entities. It will not be an absorption of the college by the academy.

    The academy probably has a good reputation but I wonder why they cannot teach all ability? That seems to be what you are claiming

  • Charles_Gould


    I did a bit of research and I see that CAI and CH are not to merge, as such. Sorry about my misinformation above.

  • Charles, Dunluce High School, Bushmills [11-16 controlled secondary] and Dominican College, Portstewart [11-18 voluntary Catholic grammar] are also in the Coleraine area.

    NEELB only has control of Coleraine High School, Coleraine College and Dunluce High School. It has proposed that Dunluce be left as it is; that there be a voluntary non-denominational co-ed grammar on the Inst site and a non-selective co-ed school called Coleraine High School. This would probably be on the current Coleraine College site as the CHS site has been ear-marked for houses, a linear park and new roads.

    NEELB faces several difficulties. It used an unscientific approach to selection, used figures from the integrated sector even though it had opted out of the process and left out figures from CHS parents; the CHS figures were slipped into the data later but in the wrong row and the original statistics were left unchanged [see NALIL link above]. I understand that CAI would have to close down for a day to accommodate NEELB’s legal arrangements but I’m told that CAI has decided to avoid this step.

    I’ve not seen the year 8 intake for the schools in the Coleraine and surrounding districts so I don’t know whether or not much has really changed at Loreto College; Dominican College retained its selection process.

  • Charles_Gould


    Aren’t Coleraine politicians rather poor at promoting the University there?

    Shoudn’t they be calling for its expansion? I have not heard much; as University of Ulster makes decisions as between expansion of Belfast and Coleraine, it is important to Coleraine that it does not lose out. Yet I hear no politicians on this topic.

  • Barney, I’m told from reliable sources that there’s been a bit of a ‘barney’ between the CAI and CHS managements. CAI does have quite a wide ability intake compared with, say, CHS, Loreto College and Dalriada (Ballymoney) so it’s more ‘comprehensive’ than these three. Some CHS folks have even cheekily suggested that it should be the site of the co-ed voluntary grammar but this wouldn’t have gone down well with CAI or, presumably, those developers with their eyes on the CHS site.

  • I’ve not looked at tertiary provision, Charles. Is it likely that Coleraine and Derry could both lose out to Belfast?

    On the secondary level front NEELB failed to include the Northern Regional College in its deliberations even though NRC operates in the secondary and tertiary levels.

    I’m surprised you didn’t stop at ‘Aren’t Coleraine politicians rather poor?’ 😉

  • “I would imagine the small (relatively) amount of funding in the SEP was allocated on a needs basis independent of sector.”

    Barney, were it independent, I wouldn’t expect to see such a huge discrepancy in outcome.

    I’ve also just been told that NEELB surveyors have recently turned up at CHS to, er, spend money on new facilities on a site that they, er, seek to sell off!

  • Barney

    A row between management of schools doesn’t surprise me at.

    I would question the ability range of any school that practices exclusion.

    It looks as though there is a spread of ability that opens and closes according to demographic changes what therefore is the point of practising exclusion? That seems to be an ethos that benefits the institution at the expense of children.

  • “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.”

    Brian, I passed the 11+ in the mid-50s and I was offered a choice of courses at the technical college in Ballymoney and the then small grammar school in Bushmills; I cycled to the latter. The introduction of secondary intermediate schools seems to have replaced the role offered back then by the technical colleges.

  • DC

    The Gove reforms are barely relevant except to give comfort the better NI grammars. The part that appeals most to me comes not from Gove but Baker; the revival of the technical colleges.

    I would have thought primary school is where the problems with learning are to be corrected, if the kids aren’t leaving with basic grasp of english and maths at that point then why take the analysis up a notch to the secondary tier and beyond?

    Narrowing the attainment and results gap starts at primary school, surely?

    In deprived areas why should schools not have smaller class sizes and more one on one tuition with pupils than have the same as less deprived areas, more resources need to be put into primary schools in deprived areas to power up failing schools and kids not leaving with much of a clue how to count and string out a sentence.

    i think low voter turn out in working class areas and having little to no working class representation and punch to wrestle back some state resources to reshape education so that it works for all areas than just middle class ones is as much a part of the problem.

    obviously middle-class type voters wouldn’t want to see wholesale remodelling of primary schools in working class areas as this would take money away from their areas and would be detrimental to them and their kiddies collectively.

    That approach might be viewed as a drag on the education system pulling back other potential high achievers just to ensure that all children leave primary school with roughly the same satisfactory level of education, which might be less of a standard than what their child could have achieved if more money was available in their area to develop him or her, but was taken away and spent elsewhere.

  • Barney


    We dont know if there is a discrepancy or not.

  • “That seems to be an ethos that benefits the institution at the expense of children.”

    Barney, the Department’s ‘putting pupils first’ slogan looks like the breach of a descriptions act. Religious and other institutions are well ahead of parents and children in the choice/needs queue.

  • Brian Walker

    It would be great if comment switched from the particular to more strategic comment.

    Has anyone absorbed the results of consultations? If so with what conclusions?

    Are there lots of problems over amalgamations and closures or are most going quietly?

    Might the 10 campuses hold the best hope ? Any news of uptake? Are they for real, given the cost of new siting?
    How committed is the Executive to agreement on ESA? Might it yet be abandoned despite the huge loss of face that would entail, far more important than squabbles about the Maze? Can differences over the substance of control with CCMS and voluntary grammar schools be resolved?

    Will demographic erosion undermine what’s left of solidarity over academic selection?
    s it accepted that school governance below ESA is unlikely to change? The Protestant side although split between maintained and voluntary is not facing serious challenges and CCMS is too powerful, representing over 50 % of children in education and handling the politics very adroitly.

    Re “main stream media “ coverage of this massive topic the only inhibition is a reluctance to tackle issue based journalism beyond identity and politics, at least in text. They probably believe it’s too technical and boring. If the BBC News website is any guide, BBC reporting is poor despite the fact that they can afford specialist correspondents. I admit I don’t listen and view much in iPlayer NI apart from the odd debate and Spotlight so perhaps I have a distorted picture. But from where I sit they seem stuck in the same rut as politicians.

    DC I agree about primary schools but that’s a different point.
    Nevin, to some extent intermediates absorbed techs but the real damage was done by grammar schools who saw them as marginal competitors. . ,

  • Charles_Gould


    CCMS does *not* have more than 50% of kids. I think its between 46% and 47% and this has not changed much in the last two decades. A steadily increasing proportion of Catholic children don’t go to the Catholic sector. Some go to integrated schools, but what is growing lately is that others are going to the voluntary/controlled sector. It started with Methodist College, etc., but this is now happening almost everywhere. It can be seen in the DENI figures by individual school for the last 4 years.

  • CCMS is just the Catholic maintained sector; it doesn’t include the Catholic voluntary grammars.

  • Charles_Gould

    Thanks Nevin. I wasn’t sure on that point. The entire Catholic sector is 46%-47%, so then CCMS must be considerably less than that.

  • “Has anyone absorbed the results of consultations? If so with what conclusions?”

    Brian, the consultation process isn’t complete. The minister’s words, which I’ve quoted on NALIL, bear that out:

    “The successful projects are all consistent with the emerging area plans ..

    In theory, money may be spent on schools that are supposedly scheduled for closure.

    The shake-up in the Catholic sector is being carried out by the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE), not CCMS.

  • Brian Walker

    Charles Gould, Fantastic correction Charles, terrific pedantry although sources differ,, but where’s the wider discussion?

  • Brian Walker

    nevin, Yes I know the consultations aren’t complete. but someone may have seen some of them.

    CCMS have taken part in the consultation. I’ve read it.

    Again terrific pedantry. You all know lots more than me. Now let’s have your real contribution!

  • Barney

    Without completed consultations we would all be punting in the dark. The thing that really irritates me is the attempted forging of a NI identity as though this place had some sort of rational beyond a sectarian head count. That is the core of the problem with NI……

    Discrimination in education is the exception in Europe and again this place ploughs a lonely furrow

  • Seamuscamp


    Obsessing with history and identity is clearly a bad thing. But so is ignoring reality. It isn’t good enough to say: “We can’t sort out our divided society, so let’s experiment with the children.” History and identity are not shaped by schools; schools are shaped by history and identity. More’s the pity.

  • “I know the consultations aren’t complete. but someone may have seen some of them.”

    Brian, the cobbled together proposals for each area can be found on the Education and Library Board sites.

    NEELB back-pedalled in Larne when the merger of Larne Grammar (voluntary) and Larne High (controlled secondary) was proposed:

    Among other comments, the board was told that: “Traditionally, the two secondary schools in Larne have been in conflict for years.” This despite praise for educational collaboration between the two. NEELB reported: “The majority expressed the opinion that joining the two schools would not solve this problem: it would create even more conflict.

    “The two schools both have a community and sense of individuality that would be destroyed in an amalgamation.”

  • “Again terrific pedantry. You all know lots more than me. Now let’s have your real contribution!”

    Brian, sometimes the devil is in the detail and it’s important to expose any and all shenanigans. My blog was set in a wider context, including not only the DE minister’s mixed message but also the DSD minister’s Coleraine Town master plan.

    You appear to have confused the roles of NICCE and CCMS. For example, there’s only one CCMS school in the Coleraine Area Plan – St Joseph’s College* – whereas NICCE embraces it along with Loreto College and Dominican College:

    Loreto College, Dominican College and St Joseph’s High School to be part of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education’s Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portstewart project recommending that there be two 11-19 Catholic managed post-primary schools, one in Coleraine and one in Portstewart. .. P-PAP, February 2013

    [* St Joseph’s College was formerly known as St Joseph’s High School]

  • If people want their children to be closer they need to live in the same neighbourhood and go to the same school.