When you consider that the religious mix of the 140,000 plus pupils in controlled schools encompasses Protestant, Catholic, no religion and ‘other’, then the controlled schools’ sector is the largest and most diverse part of Northern Ireland’s education system.
Did you know that Northern Ireland has 558 controlled schools, comprising nursery, primary, post primary and special schools? Within this, integrated, Irish medium, grammar, non-selective and Dickson plan schools sit alongside each other.
It is only since 1 September 2016, following several years of work by an interim board chaired by Uel McCrea, that this unique sector has had a bespoke advocacy organisation.
Led by Barry Mulholland, former Chief Executive of the Western Education and Library Board, the Controlled Schools’ Support Council (CSSC) has been successfully supporting controlled schools, always mindful of the need to place pupils at the centre.
“The need for an advocacy body for controlled schools became apparent very quickly after CSSC formed,” says Mulholland. “Over 90 per cent of controlled schools have opted-in to register with the Council.
“As a new organisation, it has been our priority to build relationships with principals and governors, educational partners including DE, EA, NICIE, CCMS, CnaG and ETI, plus the Transferor Representatives’ Council, trade unions, NICCY and others.”
CSSC has undertaken a range of activities to achieve this, including a series of roadshows in early 2017 for school leaders to raise and discuss their significant concerns as a result of the current educational climate.
“This approach has proved incredibly valuable,” Mulholland outlines.
“As a membership organisation, CSSC will be guided by schools. Participants appreciated being listened to and, importantly, had many potential solutions.
“It is clear that we need to work together, strategically, to influence educational policy, reduce the isolation felt by school leaders, develop networks to share good practice and, ultimately, enrich the educational experience of pupils.
“There was agreement that we need to raise the profile of the sector and celebrate success.”
CSSC’s staff will be key. “CSSC has a team of 18,” says Mulholland. “Our education team, the first point of contact for schools, comprises experienced teachers and education specialists. Support has been provided, for example, in facilitating the sharing of best practice, applying for additional funding opportunities and area planning.
“Usual business functions are covered by corporate services. We also have a dedicated research and communications unit to enable us to build an evidence base of what the controlled sector is and needs, and ensure that messages are conveyed appropriately.
“Feedback from controlled schools has been very positive; we know that being listened to and having concerns taken seriously is appreciated.”
The next 12 months for Northern Ireland’s controlled schools will be increasingly difficult as the education system faces substantial budget cuts; these will impact directly on schools in terms of the teachers they can employ and the curriculum they can deliver.
“The bottom line is that our children deserve the best education to enable them to meet their potential,” concludes Mulholland.
“CSSC’s vision is one that supports controlled schools in providing high quality education for children and young people, to enable them to learn, develop and grow together within the values of a non-denominational Christian environment.
“By working together, I am confident that we will achieve this vision and ensure that our education system delivers for all.”