In his speech to the recent Traditional Unionist Voice conference, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, Robert McCartney, focused on the underlying conflict at the heart of the education debate in Northern Ireland.
His analysis of the conflict at the heart of the education debate is that if a clash of ideology over practical pathways to excellence in education. A demonstration of this was well illustrated on the BBC’s ‘The School Report’ (broadcast 9 November) where Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane and Fiona Millar (Alastair Campbell’s partner) shared the same ideological path. Ms Millar’s and Mr Woodward’s inclusion show that the education debate is a national one, and not a new one.
Bob’s speech outlines the case for selection, the failure of the policy and educational theories that are integral to the Sinn Fein, and the liberal educational, approach. For McCartney, quoting Churchill; “Where is the compromise between the Fireman and the Arsonist”?
Perhaps unsurprising for a speech delivered to a Traditional Unionist Voice conference, criticism is almost solely directed towards the DUP as the Party believed to be ready to give up selection in some deal. He said “The real and ultimate issue is this – will the DUP, having sacrificed its principles to obtain power, now surrender selective education to Sinn Fein as the price of retaining power.“
Bob’s belief that the DUP is ready to do a deal seems to be based on the notion that the DUP/Sinn Fein rocky relationship is based on a ‘deal a day’: having done the deal to gain power, the two are now addicted to dealing to retain dominance. Prior to the European election that might well have been a reasonable proposition. Since then there has been less willingness on the part of the DUP to be… willing. On the face of it, the current policing and justice row would also suggest that doing a deal with Sinn Fein is not necessarily a top priority for the DUP.
Oddly, there was no criticism of the UUP and their Conservative friends. Yet it/they are part of a four/five party grouping trying to find a way forward, which includes the SDLP. The SDLP is equally and implacably opposed to selection as is Sinn Fein. So surely any consensus will necessarily undermine selection. Indeed the UUP are so keen to make wider political points about a Sinn Fein/DUP partnership that it is willing to be seen to take a lead with the SDLP, despite the UUP and SDLP approaches to education policy no less diametrically opposed than Sinn Fein/DUP.
A clear and substantial section of those who would send their children to Catholic schools are in direct opposition to the policy of Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Catholic Church. It would seem an ideal opportunity for the UUP to consult with the excellent Michael Gove and discuss innovative and imaginative ideas to help Northern Ireland onto a new pathway to educational reform. Most certainly the UUP and/or the Conservatives could use the education debate to map out a policy that endorses excellence, promotes meritocracy based on open selection, and take leadership on the issue in support of grammar education for all communities, classes and, most of all, children with academic ability. That hasn’t happened.
If the new UUP/Conservative collaboration cannot make progress in establishing leadership in education, bringing something fresh and new to the debate, it is hard to see where else it can stop out from the pack. At this point it would seem that the UUP is equally likely to succumb to the urge to respond to the Belfast Telegraph’s vacuous campaign to ‘do something’. Doing something, if it is the wrong thing is just as harmful as doing nothing.
While Ruane may well be the ruin of the successful Northern Ireland education system, Sinn Fein is only able to continue because of the inability of any other party to engage with the public. There is a hunger for a dialogue that promotes educational excellence at all levels – building on strengths and addressing the weaknesses. Removing selection tests will not remove the obvious educational underachievement within localities; as much to do with social factors as standards in educational delivery, and at Primary level education int the first instance.
The Education Minister appears to be listening to no-one, and doesn’t really have to – there is no collective responsibility in the Executive and the Assembly clearly has no means of holding the Minister to account. Even if they could hold her to account there is not an ‘opposition’ with a credible alternative to deal with the educational underachievement that is being used to attack selection. Even if there were an Assembly selection next year would education be a big electoral issue; would it result in the removal of the Minister, or a change in the Party taking the Ministry?
Bob’s speech is a good piece of analysis, but was lost in the TUV conference and in his pointed comments on the DUP. The speech provides a start point for a wider discussion. Yet that is not the reason why Bob’s speech gained little attention. In truth, there is no incentive for political parties in Northern Ireland to offer alternatives, and only a marginal chance of any Party with an alternative winning electorally on the issue and then being able to work through their ideas to implementation.
Discussion on educational policy is reduced to throwing blame around the media and scoring political points at every opportunity. Education may be an issue of huge concern to the electorate, and especially to parents, but a debate on the future way forward hasn’t even started, and the references to frame that debate remain undefined.
Robert McCartney: THE POLITICS OF EDUCATIONAL CHAOS
I have retired from party politics and I am not a member of any Party including this one. What I have to say I would happily have said on a UUP, DUP or any other conference platform.
As the youngest of 8 children from a 2 up 2 down on the Shankill I was the only one to get the benefit of a grammar school education when I sat the very first 11 + in 1948. Thanks to success in that examination I have enjoyed a university, professional and even a political career.
My mission is therefore that children from my social background retain in 2009 the same equality of opportunity that I benefited from 61 years ago. As National Chairman for the UK of the National Grammar Schools Association I have dedicated my remaining years to that objective.
Politically the most burning issue in Northern Ireland is education. Why? First because electorally it affects the parents of every school aged child; second because the economic and cultural future of our children will be shaped by it; and third because the political and national identity of a community can be changed by it.
What, you may ask, is the essential purpose of an educational system? The answer demonstrates the basic conflict between those who support a selective or differentiated system and those who would destroy it. The first believe that the function of education is to provide every child regardless of class, social status, religion or ethnic origin with an equal opportunity to attend a school best suited to realising that child’s potential. The second view education as a means of advancing some political policy or ideology in which schools are viewed as the machinery for social engineering to achieve a political goal. This is a Marxist philosophy.
The principle of selection, which was supported by some 64% of Northern Ireland’s parent’s means finding out a child’s aptitudes and matching that to a school, that is appropriate. This requires some form of test, which every child has an equal opportunity to sit. Selection and the grammar schools system are generally favoured by the Unionist community and the parties claiming to represent that community. The opponents of selection including the Labour Left, Sinn Fein, and so-called progressive educationalists favour a comprehensive system based on an all ability intake.
The purely educational debate divested of its political content has proved beyond argument that a selective system produces far better results both at G.C.S.E. and Advanced levels than Comprehensive education. Moreover, the Grammar and Secondary modern schools in Northern Ireland are providing greater upward social mobility than their Comprehensive mainland counterparts.
What the Labour Left and Sinn Fein have in common is the political goal of destroying what they perceive as the social and cultural base of their opponents. Education for them is a political and ideological weapon. Under the guise of educational reform and with the help of alleged progressive educationalists, Labour Governments have used education in the belief that it can solve social and economic problems. Instead, it has merely exacerbated and reduced the life opportunities of the disadvantaged classes by creating a large proportion of “bog standard Comprehensives” and a manifest deterioration of educational standards. Instead of increasing the upward mobility of the lower classes, it has reduced it.
What the pro-Union parties clearly do not appreciate is the extent of Sinn Fein’s long-term strategy to destroy the political and cultural identity of the Unionist community through the medium of the educational system. It is no accident that Sinn Fein has always made education its first choice. Indeed, its spokesman, John O’Dowd, has stated that Sinn Fein will continue to do so in the future.
For over a decade Sinn Fein in tandem with Labour governments has put in place educational arrangements that, if not changed, will make the destruction of the principle of selection and with it the Grammar schools well nigh inevitable. An educational system that has manifestly failed in the United States and is presently failing on the U. K. mainland is being forced upon Northern Ireland, not because it is educationally best, but because it serves the political objectives of those who support it.
The ongoing failure of the major pro-Union parties to recognise the dangers of this Sinn Fein strategy and to effectively counter it at every stage is a recurring feature of the present educational chaos. Could this failure be caused by their desire not to confront Sinn Fein on an issue that might provoke the collapse of the Assembly?
The present mess is the product of three major educational reports; those of Gallagher, Burns, and Costello. The membership of all three was heavily loaded with anti-selection members and advisers. Costello recommended a curriculum, reducing traditional subject based teaching in favour of a progressive approach advised by C.C.E.A., a government funded agency headed by one Gavin Boyd and dedicated to the progressive ideas that have comprehensively failed in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. The proven failures of 60 years ago in America were enshrined in Costello and the Education (N.I.) Order 2006.
A major Sinn Fein/Labour building block was then being put in place with the introduction of a New Curriculum based on previously failed ideas¬; a curriculum which effectively abolishes the capacity to carry out objective testing and is opposed to traditional subject based learning (like science, history, maths, geography) had been established. Its objective was to nullify the ability to select and thereby make the survival of the Grammar school and subject based learning untenable.
Before the parties went to St. Andrews in October 2006 Sinn Fein had already provided for the slow death of both the means and the principle of selection and with them the future viability of the Grammar school ethos.
Let me now turn to primary level teaching; the first steps in education are taken at primary school level and here the Sinn Fein strategy was to allege that the small number of children in disadvantaged areas getting grammar school places from Protestant primaries in North Belfast was due to the selection process. These children had, in fact, been subjected to a pilot scheme farcically entitled “Enriched Curriculum”. Research has shown that far from improving their literacy and numeracy, it had worsened their results.
The poor results had, as one teacher pointed out, nothing to do with selection, but was due to a failure of the primary education sector allied to social deprivation, lack of parental interest, support, and discipline, among other factors. If 5,000 children each year were leaving primary schools with problems in literacy and 4,700 in numeracy, how could they possibly gain success in an objective selection test?
Indeed the vast majority of the children in North Belfast primary’s were not even being entered for the 11 + and therefore could not possibly get to a grammar school place.
Despite the failure of the Enriched Curriculum for primary schools, it was repackaged as the Foundation Curriculum and rolled out across the Province. This programme is contrary to all recent research on the teaching of reading and I have little doubt that the number of children with inadequate reading and counting skills will continue to increase. However, since the results of the Curriculum will not be evaluated for many years, those responsible for the impending disaster will by then have left the scene of the crime.
At the post primary school level the Sinn Fein decision to abolish the 11+ without any viable alternative has provoked the present crisis.
Catholic and non-Catholic grammar schools have provided their own unregulated tests in the face of the public demand from parents for Grammar school education. Of course for children to successfully pass such tests they must have obtained an appropriate level of reading and numeracy. This has placed the Department of Education in a quandary. On the one hand it is charged with improving such standards, but on the other it has introduced a Foundation Curriculum, which is designed to be un-testable. How therefore can one determine whether standards of literacy or numeracy are improving?
The manner in which the Department has attempted to solve this paradox has been a catalogue of failure. First, there was to be a pupil profile on assessment by teachers designed to assist parents in determining appropriate schools for their child’s ability. This proved a complete failure. Parents had no idea of their child’s progress relative to its peers. The assessments were such bland statements as to be meaningless.
Under parent protest the profile was repackaged as an annual assessment in years 4 to 7 at the beginning of each year and a hybrid form of Computer Adaptive Testing (I.N.C.A.S.) provided by C.E.M. Durham University at vast expense was attached to give it the appearance of technological effectiveness. In fact, in recent weeks, a succession of failures in this form of assessment has been acknowledged. Children are not tested to determine what they have learned, but are theoretically assessed to determine areas of strength and weakness to be addressed over the next year.
By providing a primary school Curriculum that is designed to be un-testable, Sinn Fein is ensuring that no form of selection, which indicates a school suitable for the child’s ability, is possible, because no information of an objective kind such as a test result will be available.
Only the revolt of a number of primary schools, which, at the instigation of parents, declared that they will ignore the Curriculum and teach with a test in view, has enabled the Grammar Schools to provide tests, albeit unregulated one. How far the Schools Inspectorate, acting as “educational police”, will successfully enforce the Department’s Curriculum by disciplining those schools has yet to be seen.
The pro-Union and pro-selection parties, if they are to deliver on the assurances they gave on the selective principle issue both before and after St. Andrews, will have to realise that they are being out-thought by Sinn Fein and are being slowly pushed into a compromise that will end with the destruction of a Grammar School system which is producing results the envy of the rest of the United Kingdom.
The well intentioned but naive campaign of the Belfast Telegraph calling upon “The Politicians” to “sort it out” in some form of compromise ignores entirely that there are principles of education that are not amenable to compromise, particularly when one side is not educationally but politically driven. As Churchill once remarked “Where is the compromise between the Fireman and the Arsonist”?
The D.U.P. has already begun the process of abandoning its position. Jeffrey Donaldson, as a member of the Education Committee, endorsed the introduction of the failed “INCAS” system designed to bolster the equally defective “Pupil Profile”.
Having declared opposition to ESA (Education and Skills Authority) headed by Gavin Boyd, the anti-selection architect of the “New Curriculum” the ESA when in place, will have sole control over the whole of education, the DUP are now in the process of accepting it.
The real and ultimate issue is this – will the DUP, having sacrificed its principles to obtain power, now surrender selective education to Sinn Fein as the price of retaining power.
Like the 2007 election it is unlikely its position will be revealed until after the next election.