Do not come to the education debate with closed minds

Declan O'Kelly.
Declan O'Kelly.

In this article, two former local school principals - Monsignor Ignatius McQuillan and Declan O’Kelly - argue that any reorganisation of secondary education should seek to improve and extend educational opportunities for young people.

Many people, looking back on their work in whatever field, will regret how little time they had to think about what they were doing.

Monsignor Ignatius McQuillan.

Monsignor Ignatius McQuillan.

Our own area of work, from which we are both long retired, was in second-level education. Now however, time having brought a level of detachment, although still concerned for its success, we may be capable of less prejudiced thinking than might have formerly been the case.

We see the greatest problem in education in Northern Ireland to be the split between the supporters of non-selective education and those concerned with maintaining a high standard of academic achievement.

The aims of both groups are admirable. Few would quibble about the desirability of avoiding premature categorising of pupils by ability at the age of eleven or of seeking high educational achievement throughout the whole age range.

Alternatives should not be proposed in ignorance of what is actually happening in schools at present. There is in grammar, secondary and primary schools a degree of underachievement indicating failure to reach potential. Statistics reveal some troubling trends:

* A significant number of pupils leave school with few or no qualifications.

* Among those who have achieved 5 GCSE grades A*-C, a high proportion have not passed English/Maths.

* Many grammar schools have a wider range of ability levels than hitherto.

* Some grammar schools have low levels of pupils on free school meals, which may be caused by growth of coaching for the transfer tests.

* Some primary schools prepare pupils for the new tests. Others do not.

* Subjects such as A-level Physics, Maths and Modern Languages are taught mainly in grammar schools.

Any reorganisation of secondary education should seek to improve and extend educational opportunities for young people.

The 11-18 Comprehensive Model

This would appear to be the only option being proposed by the educational planners in Northern Ireland. Whilst there are some apparently successful 11-18 schools, in England, however, many are associated more with failure. That is why there is a current move towards the establishment of “free schools” and academies and, even, to the extension of grammar school education.

It is debatable if 11-18 schools will solve the problem of underachievement because there will be a tendency to target resources at the higher ability examination pupils. Furthermore, there will be a decline in the numbers taking the A-level subjects listed above. It could be argued that this latter problem could be addressed through a linkage between schools. But whilst this might work on a small scale, to plan for it at a major level is to invite failure.

An Alternative Model

The approach to reorganisation should be eclectic rather than dogmatically exclusive; it should seek to preserve what is good as well as creating something innovative. In England, in reaction to underachievement, there is growing support for the creation of schools with a strong vocational dimension. In these schools, the vocational subjects would not be coming in the slipstream of GCSEs but would be the main focus of the schools.

In Northern Ireland, there is a residual contempt for vocational education but in order to tackle underachievement there is a need to blur the edges between education and training and between vocational and liberal education. The Universities and Further Education Colleges could have a role in shaping the curriculum in schools. The present Craigavon model could be adapted with pupils selected in a tripartite system of education at age 14 for a vocational college or for colleges which are academic/vocational or purely academic.

It is essential that at age 14 some students have access to vocationally rigorous curricula leading directly to further study or employment.

No doubt there may be objection to any form of selection but at 14 pupils will be more aware of their abilities and interests and selection may be more by guided choice.

One of the difficulties about educational planning is that the characteristics and needs of countries and even of towns and areas within countries differ. Belfast differs from Derry City; Derry City differs from South Derry.

Everybody in each area needs to work together for the good of the community and to create new educational opportunities leading to increased prosperity, communal satisfaction, a sense of well-being and the greatest possible development of the potential of each individual pupil.

So it is important that people do not come to the debate with closed minds, refusing to consider any new proposals or dismissing them in our case as the product of age-enfeebled thinking.