Over a decade ago, an early major decision made by the new Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness, was to establish the Post-Primary Review Body to consider views on the selective system of post-primary education and make recommendations on the way forward. The report recommended, among other things, the end of academic selection at age 11 and while it provoked much discussion and debate, it generated little consensus.
A decade later, the official 11-plus transfer tests are gone but two unofficial tests are run by consortia of grammar and integrated schools and selection remains. More surprisingly, the issue split the Assembly on unionist-nationalist lines and the lack of consensus meant no decisions were possible.
Sadly, this is not the only major educational issue to be caught this way. The school curriculum was revised, but we have never settled on an agreed means of assessment. The Entitlement Framework, was an attempt to ensure that all pupils had access to a wide range of curriculum choice, but many, particularly in grammar schools, remain sceptical. Area learning communities were established to promote curricular collaboration but, despite official optimism, the track record of the ALCs remains somewhat patchy.
The most spectacular failure to date has been the Education and Skills Authority. Designed as a single strategic authority, including the diverse educational interests in our school system, ESA was to replace the education and library boards and herald an era of unified strategic planning. Once again, it has proven impossible to achieve political agreement on ESA’s powers and responsibilities, so while existing capacity has been down-sized, nothing has been established to replace it.
Current initiatives include area planning (or school rationalisation) and the mechanism for funding schools – don’t be too surprised if progress on some of these issues falls foul of political pressures also.
So even a cursory glance over the educational terrain of the past decade does not inspire a great deal of satisfaction – but perhaps all is not doom and gloom. We have come through a long period of falling rolls, and while this is still affecting post-primary schools, primary enrolments have been rising since 2010-2011. Falling rolls and competition for pupils means that a higher proportion than ever are in grammar schools: indeed, in the controlled and voluntary sectors, a majority (54 per cent) of pupils now attend grammar schools. Despite this, the achievement gap in favour of Catholic schools has continued to grow, for both grammar and secondary schools. Perhaps the more robust approach to school leadership taken by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is part of the explanation.
The biggest challenge of all is that provided by technology and the digital economy. The job market is changing more rapidly than ever before and so too are the skills required to succeed. The entire education system is struggling to adapt to these new realities but there is a glimmer of hope.
A group of extraordinary teachers, from schools right across Northern Ireland, organise a weekly social media conversation via twitter on an agreed theme. Once a term, they get together for a ‘teachmeet’ at which they give presentations on curricular and pedagogical innovations being implemented in their schools. They include some of the most imaginative and creative people I have ever met and they are a reminder of how fortunate we are in the quality of our teachers.
While the politicians argue and the educational bureaucracy creeps slowly towards new arrangements, some of the brightest and best among our teachers are figuring out for themselves how to prepare our children for the 21st century. If we cannot agree on anything else, then I suggest we could, at least, try to agree to help them.
Tony Gallagher is a professor of education at Queen’s University Belfast.