Education: thinking outside the box

This FILE INFO must not be removed from the JPEG Sir Robert Salisbury has been commended for turning round the Garibaldi School, a failing post-primary in Nottinghamshire, and has reviewed education policy in Northern Ireland. He shares his thoughts on improving the system with Peter Cheney.

Every year, Northern Ireland prides itself on having the best exam results in the UK but those headlines always consistently fail to give the full picture of the education system. The province also has the largest gap between the highest achievers and lowest achievers in Europe, as measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Poor performances are “disguised by the high performance of the very best schools,” according to Sir Robert Salisbury. This contributes to the region’s low rankings in PISA tables: 27th out of 30 OECD countries for numeracy and 19th out of 30 for literacy.

Sir George Bain’s strategic review of education (December 2006) outlined the need to close another gap: 53,000 unfilled places. The Bain recommendations were “just shelved and the position, in my view, the position is worse now than it was then.” The Department estimates that the number of empty desks now stands at 85,000.

“We almost need somebody to grasp it and get in with it,” Salisbury says of reform. He acknowledges that ministers have taken decisions on the transfer test and area planning but he wants to see more urgency.

Salisbury established a trainee heads scheme for England, covering the practical management skills for running a schools (e.g. budgeting and performance monitoring). The scheme takes like-minded staff who swap their jobs for one year so that they can gain experience in other schools and leadership schemes.

He sees a need for a similar scheme in Northern Ireland and would make the existing Professional Qualification for Headship (PQH) mandatory.

“It isn’t the fault of the teachers necessarily,” he says. “It’s very hard to move in Northern Ireland, to get experience in more than one school. It would be very rare for a person to have experience of only one company.”

Principals should concentrate on what happens in the classroom. “You need high expectations, you need high accountability of teachers, you need to know the quality of your teaching,” he adds. This should include internal mini-reviews of teachers’ performances, which he introduced in the Garibaldi School. Garibaldi also “blurred the lines” between education and the economy by involving a range of local companies in its work.

Salisbury has seen “superb teachers” at work in the education system but very few mechanisms for using their expertise and sharing it across the system. Introducing benchmarked data for schools (currently lacking) would not be a threat as similar groups of schools could be linked together, to help teachers learn from each other. This has had a “very powerful” effect in England.

Science Duplication

“Really, you cannot afford the number of schools that you have,” Salisbury states. “The diversity of schools is very, very expensive. You have duplication of schools all over the place – many of them far too small to offer a proper curriculum or the variety of teaching you need for the 21st century.”

Many small schools owe their existence to a very generous small schools allowance which, in his view, “distorts the fairness of the system”. The review found that some schools received funding of £14,000 per pupil compared to the average of £3,000 per pupil.

His school funding review proposed the removal of funding for small post-primary schools and the limiting of funding to “strategically necessary” small primary schools. Education Minister John O’Dowd accepted the recommendation “in principle” but kept the allowance until at least 2015 after opposition from schools.

A third of Northern Ireland’s primary schools (286 in total) are below the standard lowest threshold outlined in the Bain review. Forty-three per cent of post-primaries (93 schools) are below the optimum enrolment of 500 pupils set out by Bain.

The former principal questions the populist attachment to small schools.

“I hear a lot of small schools being called ‘the heart of the community’ but in actual fact, they’re often the divisive issue in most communities,” he remarks. “Many of them are shut all of the summer, many of them are closed from 3.30 onwards and the gates are locked.”

As an illustration of duplication, Salisbury compares Retford (in Nottinghamshire) with Omagh. Retford has two post-primary schools compared to six in Omagh, despite the County Tyrone town being smaller.

He comments: “You can see, in that instance, that’s why the funding is stretched because you’re running six schools, six caretaker services, six principals etc.” Ministers have delayed rationalisation “because there’s no votes in it” but the decisions will have to be made at some point in future.


Once a school’s enrolment starts to fall, it starts to lose the ability to offer a full curriculum. Even if a sixth form says that it can offer 28 subjects, it will not necessarily be able to offer them in the combinations sought by pupils.

Salisbury thinks that this is “very restrictive” on young people and questions whether it fulfils the needs of business and economic development in a changing world. It is unclear whether every school in Northern Ireland has maths and English specialist teachers: “Nobody knows that and I suspect you wouldn’t have [specialists in all schools].”

One the key questions, in Salisbury’s view, that is missing from the education debate is: “What will make our youngsters marketable as individuals in the next 15 years?” He wants all educators in Northern Ireland to think about what competences and skills young people will need: “Are we teaching them to be adaptable and flexible or are we spoon-feeding them with a predictable diet that won’t work when you get out there?” A “global view” of the world has to include an enterprise mindset, high level communication skills and teamwork.

Improving inspections

A school in Northern Ireland currently receives two weeks’ notice before an inspection: this is “far too much notification” according to Salisbury. In England, Ofsted sends out its notice on the afternoon of the working day before the inspection begins.

He asks: “What are the schools doing when they’re not running around that they should be doing when they haven’t the threat of an inspection?”

Salisbury also warns that Northern Ireland has “no satisfactory category” for a failing school. In England, a school is automatically inspected when it fails to exceed 40 per cent of pupils receiving five A*-C GCSEs. Schools in the 30-40 per cent band are marked as requiring improvement, while those with a 20-30 per cent performance are given a formal ‘notice to improve’.

Those under 20 per cent are put into special measures with the school leadership obliged to present a written action plan for turning the school around. In the worst cases, the head, deputy head and governors are removed. He has chaired three interim boards for failing schools in Bradford, Salford and Derby, put in place after the management was dismissed.

He thinks that popular and over-subscribed institutions should be allowed to expand at the expense of schools which repeatedly fail to reach their targets. In 2012, 82 of Northern Ireland’s 215 post-primary schools were below the 40 per cent mark. In six schools, no students attained five A-C passes.

Salisbury also suggests a value added system for post-primary schools, which would measure numeracy and literacy at age 11 and when they leave school – and compare the difference. This would be particularly useful for commending schools in disadvantaged areas, which will not get the highest grades but can bring about substantial improvements in the lives of young people.

school computers1 The best system is possible

Deadlock in education policy is, in his view, unique to Northern Ireland. This is explained by the system’s segregated nature and the defence of the different traditions within it: “When you try to make changes, each sector seems to defend its own and revert to the trenches almost.”

That said, Salisbury believes it can easily have the very best education system in the UK or even in Europe. The province has a culture that generally values education and its schools have less diversity than many of their English counterparts; the multiplicity of languages complicates how education is provided in inner city Birmingham.

With integrated education accounting for 7 per cent of enrolments, Salisbury thinks that it is not making a significant impact on the overall system.

He wants to see more emphasis on ‘transforming’ existing schools into integrated ones rather than the integrated sector operating as a distinct entity. Shared education is a “step in the right direction” but the logistics of sharing classes and transporting pupils between different schools are hard to put into practice.

He wants schools to go further and amalgamate, so that shared education can be delivered more effectively in one place.  Robert Salisbury has met “some of the very best youngsters I have seen anywhere in the UK” when visiting local schools.  He surmises: “I just think it’s unfair that we’re not giving all of them the very best education they can have.”

School sizes

Number of pupils Primary Post-primary
Over 1,000 0 34
700-999 7 65
600-699 18 23
500-599 17 19
400-499 61 26
300-399 85 19
200-299 121 12
140-199 158 10
105-139 94 4
50-104 199 2
Less than 50 87 1
Total 857 215

Source: Department of Education. Figures for 2012-2013.

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