Children in Northern Ireland are frequently at the top of UK educational achievement lists – but in recent years far too many have been leaving school with few or any qualifications.
This inequality is the legacy of a selective education system, where children who have been educated together up to the age of 11 are separated into different types of schools depending on their performance in the dreaded 11-plus. We have neglected to provide properly for all abilities in the past, and the 11-plus certainly failed the test.
This exam experience has been a real strain on pupils and a source of constant tension, stress and frequently a financial burden on their parents. Some can afford tuition, others can’t. Many of those who fail are branded failures at an early age, despite their obvious abilities in many other areas.
The selection process has been bad for the children of Northern Ireland, and I am glad that it is going – the sooner the better. Our children represent our future, our path out of a troubled past. Yet our education system has let them down over the years.
As a member of the Assembly Education Committee I have taken part in many discussions about the future of schooling here. My colleagues and I travelled to Scotland and Germany to see how their systems operate, and the overall message that came out of our considerations was that post-primary education must be flexible and cater as far as possible for the needs of every child. We also wanted to see equality of opportunity and greater inclusivity, to address the shortcomings of the failures of the past.
Pupil profiles – detailed, wide-ranging assessments of progress, aptitudes and needs – are definitely a step forward. Alliance is strongly in favour of a system that gives parents a more informed input into the choices faced by their children. By working more closely with teachers, parents will gain a better insight into their child’s strengths and weaknesses at different stages, allowing them to avoid some of the pitfalls that the previous system failed to address.
The recently-published Burns Review has been the most important and challenging document for education in many years. Radical plans were needed to improve the situation, and while I would broadly welcome it, Alliance will be watching its implementation with close interest.
There are still questions to be addressed in more detail, such as where grammar and integrated schools fit into the bigger picture, particularly since some grammar schools have already expressed concern about the proposed ‘collegiates’. If they opt out, that could undermine the new system.
Collegiates are simply networks of schools. They have great potential to promote co-operation instead of competition between schools and could allow for the kind of flexibility we so desperately need in Northern Ireland – a much better balance between the academic and vocational.
In addition, I am hopeful these networks will do much to remove the perceived stigma some may have of a more vocational education. Collegiates will have the potential to offer pupils new options they haven’t had in the past, opening doors to careers they may never have considered.
Whatever happens, parents must be kept fully informed of what is being asked and expected of them and their children. We are all on a learning curve, and will need to change our mindset about the complex issue of post-primary education.
But what is clear is this – our children deserve the best education we can possibly provide, together with the opportunity for each one to reach their full potential.