How should the education sector cope with a reduced budget?
There needs to be more money in education, regardless of where the cuts are made elsewhere. This year, we’ve had 300 redundancies of teachers and that’s with potentially some protection for schools that won’t be there in the coming years.
We need to change the way that we organise education to focus on the young person and build a system that supports the young person. The employees are the most important resource and we need to keep them in place. If you’ve got a teacher, the teaching can still go on.
The budget challenge is unprecedented. There is a premium in making the best use of those resources. We have too many places. We don’t have any planned system. This needs radical change if we’re going to make the best use of the money we’ve got.
We don’t have a top class education system. We’re good at the top but the gap between the top and the bottom is one of the biggest in the developed world. We’re badly slipping down the league tables of the relevant countries.
Education is fundamental to the economic prospects here. We’re competing with Singapore and China. That fact needs to be realised and far, far too many children here don’t get what they should get from education, and it is a scandal.
In the work we did on area-based planning, we were very much committed to the idea that children needed to come first. The way the system has grown, in an ad hoc way, means that some children are not able to access the Entitlement Framework because individual schools are not able to deliver the full entitlement.
When I was at my last school, my raison d’être was to get children to come to my school and to do the very best I could for them. I think in the future the quality of a school will be measured by what collaborations and partnerships they have to access the full range of the curriculum. That has to be managed initially at a strategic level.
In 2000, the OECD PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] report, which measures numeracy and literacy performance, showed that Northern Ireland was above average but since then our performance has declined. In the last decade, a lot of money was pumped into education and the public sector in Northern Ireland. Just throwing money at it hasn’t solved the problem.
This is about enabling young people to achieve their potential, giving them the right careers advice, skills and tools to succeed. Businesses need people with different types of skills including a good foundation of numeracy and literacy. Particularly in maths, our performance is declining quicker compared to other developing countries and that’s a real concern for business.
Speaking as an ex-English teacher, what I was asked to teach for GCSE was simply not fit for business purpose. We need to drill down into that and fix it by creating, in consultation with industry and employers, what standardised measurement tool you want. The focus in schools is not on business and industrial English, but reading ages.
We need to go right back to building a very firm foundation with the children who are three years of age, who are coming from different backgrounds and different levels of literacy. We would like to see teachers being used to implement that so that all nursery provision is teacher-led. The earlier children meet with people who are different, the less they see the difference and the more they accept it.
I believe it is important that in this roundtable conference that we distinguish between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Two full years of education are effectively wasted: P6 and P7. The primary heads have to ask: “What are we about?” They are “teaching” to determine which children will be accepted into grammar school and which will be rejected. Wouldn’t it be great if children emerge from primary school with a fluency in Spanish, French, Irish or even Japanese instead of primary schools pandering to the elitist and selfish agenda of the grammar sector? There are wonderful post-primary non-grammar schools in North Belfast. They are the strong schools, doing their very best with love and care for their pupils.
Big comprehensive schools under one roof are needed. Look at St Andrew’s in Glasgow: working class area, best report of any school in Scotland four years ago. As a retiring principal, I detect a move across all schools away from our tradition of child-centred education and would urge the teaching unions to be vigilant, lest they facilitate this. It’s all about children, not teachers.
The main focus is teaching and learning. Anything else should be stopped. GCSE is taking us away from the task. The education system is making failures all the way through the system, and that’s wrong. Every youngster that walks into our schools is our responsibility in the community, in the town. If there is expertise in any of the schools, we should be able to share that.
What we’ve said about sharing is quite right. We need to learn to do that more creatively and more effectively. What we also need is encouragement to share.
I also agree we need young people who are skilled and who are able to work well in the future and find jobs. However, we’re not just in the business of producing effective and productive citizens. Education is much more than that.
We don’t just need hard-nosed businesspeople focused on earning wealth and doing well selfishly for themselves and their family. We need people who’ve also got an outlook on the greater good of society. We want people to do what Michele’s involved in: to become volunteers and do other things for our society, without pay; we need a more holistic view of life.
Also, when we come to schools to improve standards, can we do that in a way that doesn’t demoralise teachers? If you were a teacher faced with a roomful of pupils and some aren’t doing well, you’re not going to make them improve by just being severe and harsh; you do it by encouragement as well.
The area-based planning exercise very much focused on the needs of children first: principals of schools taking responsibility not just for their own pupils but for all the pupils in an area. If you’ve got really good teachers, why is their expertise confined to one place?
It is the idea that small classes are the answer to everything. That is the red herring. Classes need to be of sufficient size to ensure that there is a dynamic. Part of the solution has to be using technology. It doesn’t have to be real encounters. It can be virtual encounters. Some headteachers have seen information and learning technology as an optional extra. It’s not. It’s absolutely integral to what needs to happen in the future.
Our curriculum has become too broad. We’re offering too much choice to our young people, which is difficult for schools to deliver individually when actually, if we could come together more and provide a balanced curriculum, it will benefit young people, employers and the wider society.
We don’t have a segregated workforce and when young people come into the workforce, they need to know how to deal with difference, whether it’s from a religious or a multi-cultural perspective. If children are educated in a shared environment, it will make it much easier when they come into the workplace.
When I came to the Department of Education, I was actually quite shocked. People were intent on running a schools system rather than worrying about what the outcomes were. That is very much in contrast to most other parts of the public sector.
This is about adding value to kids’ lives. We only have one go at this. We have a market of 1,200 corner shops or supermarkets, and that is no way to run a public service. You need to plan provision and clearly, with the budget in the red, we’re going to have to make our schools much bigger.
Collaboration is not an objective. It’s a means to an end. Most children need to spend most of their time in a single school. It’s not about choice, it’s about quality. We need to re-engineer the system fairly quickly, turn it on its head.
You must concentrate on outputs and outcomes in any system and what we’ve got at the minute isn’t good value for the tax-payer and isn’t good value for many parents and kids.
Government has to get its thinking clearer. There’s a contradiction between the need for soft skills (because they’re the coping skills) and the constant criticism by politicians of Learning for Life and Work.
I remember when children loved the fact that they got an apprenticeship. When that was a goal, they really believed in themselves. We’ve introduced modern apprenticeships but young people who do not have grade C in English or maths are barred.
How do we resolve these problems?
I speak in regard to the Catholic sector. I believe that the Catholic ethos demands that the Catholic sector put in place the appropriate reforms and that we do this promptly. What we really need is area- based planning under the one roof.
It was a mistake that the transferors transferred in 1931 after the Lynn Commission. Protestant churches would have stewarded their schools positively e.g. Church of England and Quaker schools across the water.
I truly believe in faith-based education but I also believe in looking, openly, at how we can share our faith schools. We are perfectly capable and competent people to discuss sharing our faith-based schools, for all the economic reasons, after the faith-based reasons.
Catholic schools quite clearly are open to children of all faiths and none. That was a sea change. Ten years ago, the bishops made the categorical, emphatic statement that Catholic schools should not only be open to all faiths and none but should affirm the faith tradition of each person in that school.
Integrated education is not necessarily about building new schools or getting integrated schools. It’s about getting people to share. We finance a PACT [Promoting a Culture of Trust] programme which is open to all schools in Northern Ireland and a lot of schools are taking part in it.
The exercise that we engaged in was the first time that all sectors and interests sat round the same table and talked about what sort of provision should be made for young people. There are very specific actions set out in the document as a way forward and it sat there because of politics. I think education has to be dislocated from politics and if you get principals and representatives of the sectors together, you will get a consensus.
One of the reasons that the ‘One School of Thought’ campaign has suggested an independent commission is to take the politics out of education.
It appeared to be a political problem that stopped the implementation of the Education and Skills Authority.
We are all really passionate about education. Everybody wants to get this right for young people. The frustration is even when you get that broad agreement, politicians don’t always follow through.
People need to make a decision and they need to be responsible for that decision, and see beyond their own schools and their own project goals. There’s a lot of protectionism going on.
The Minister and the department need to take out some of the barriers that create the protectionism. Schools are trying very hard to keep their numbers up, for their own reasons, but actually we should all be working together to deal with all the needs in a particular area.
We need to get people round the table and say: “You stay there until you solve this problem and don’t pass it to someone else. You solve it. You come together and move the thing forward.”
If you look at the other sectors in Northern Ireland, you can see change over five years but the education system seems to almost immune to change. Not just the politics: “We do this because we’ve always done it.” When I worked in health, we re-organised it and people got on with it.
Things are moving on. We have democratic institutions here who are in charge, who are supposed to take decisions and the Minister’s very clear that it’s for him to take the decision.
The issue is far bigger than politicians. You can’t just leave it with politicians. Over the next year, the IEF is facilitating five sub-regional groups in areas across Northern Ireland and seeing what people in local areas want to do. We need to break that down into smaller areas to look at what people want and go on from there.
We elect politicians to take decisions. That is what democracy’s about. One of the issues I’ve certainly had with devolution is reminding people: “You elect an Assembly. You elect local ministers. They’re in charge. You go to the ballot boxes and you let them do it.”
Yes, we voted for ministers but everybody’s in the Executive. They need to work out how to leave their party politics behind sometimes.
In any normal democracy, you elect people because of their policy position and you expect them to bring their politics.
If a Minister gets up and says: “I’m about raising standards and closing the gap,” you shouldn’t expect anyone to disagree but yet we do. Someone might say: “That’s ok but how does it affect my local school?” If your local school is not delivering what it should be, somebody needs to take action on it.
What should the education system look like in 2020?
I would like to think there was more co- operation and willingness to change in the system. There is a huge inertia in the education system which is mostly based upon internal self-interest. Like many human institutions, schools and sectors have tended to think largely about their own destiny. I would like us to break through some of that and begin to think of the greater good for all children in our community.
I would like to see a change in the mindset of parents who have a tunnel vision that the best education is a grammar school.
What I’m working for is that the school is at the centre of the community. It may be more than one building but they’re all working together for the same end, and it may include other services as well as education. The education system should change so that we’re all there together to support our children. Principals and headteachers should be focusing on teaching and learning, and not looking after pennies.
An equitable system based on respectful interactions between all sectors and phases. Technology-infused leading and learning in partnerships and collaboration. The school’s strengths based on its capacity to deliver the Entitlement Framework through strong vibrant partnerships. I would be very keen to see a student voice and the democratisation of schools, to listen to children and their views. An overriding moral imperative in the system that children come first and everything else comes second.
I would hope to see an egalitarian restructuring both in the Catholic and state sector. The Catholic ethos demands an end to selection at 11. I hope the state will do likewise. I look to quality structures in both the Catholic sector and the state sector and of course, a huge degree of interaction and co- operation. I would witness the dynamic in St Patrick’s, Bearnageeha, as an example.
I’d like to think in Northern Ireland that we’d still place value on our faith-based schools but that we would allow the debate to be less heated in terms of how faith-based schools contribute to the common good in Northern Ireland and to value the common good that they contribute in Northern Ireland.
Education has traditionally been at the heart and the soul of community. I would actually quote PJ’s school as putting the heart back into the community, as it grew in stature and as parents believed in it, so the community began to believe more in itself.
Schools do more than have outputs and outcomes. They actually have capacity builders for communities. There’s a huge amount of capacity building going on in Northern Ireland and it needs to be more joined up and that is especially true of education.
I’m very passionate about poverty of achievement or, worse, poverty of aspiration. There are too many kids and too many communities where there is no level of aspiration. Parents don’t see their children going to certain schools. It’s getting worse and there are still too many kids coming out and disappearing into a sub-class.
Every year we are adding to it. You’re growing disillusioned youths out there who have no prospects, no nothing, and that’s where a lot of the trouble comes from. In essence, they then have no allegiance even in local communities. We need to deal with that.
Education as part of a wraparound package, including health, housing and general care: it’s all taken together.
Education for a 21st century, which is not just about taking degrees but all paths recognised as equal. Meaningful involvement of parents. Quality leadership and quality teaching. All children properly taught the history of Northern Ireland and this island.
It should light the enthusiasm for lifelong learning and create ambition and aspiration, but also provide the skills to enable young people to achieve their potential, whatever educational route or career path that takes them on. Everybody should have a good scientific foundation to build from.