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Radical changes needed as academic selection is ended


07/07/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

If academic selection is ended, there must be far-reaching changes in the education system, writes Bob Osborne of the University of Ulster.

There has been an intense focus in education for the past eight years on the transfer procedure after the seminal research conducted under the leadership of professors Tony Gallagher of Queen's University and Alan Smith of the University of Ulster.

The Burns and Costello reports have come and gone and we are still locked not only in the political stalemate but into a debate over academic selection that seems to ignore some of the most pressing issues of educational disadvantage and inequality.

Simply, it is most unlikely that ending academic selection will be a key factor, in itself, in tackling the huge problems of underachievement and the wastage of talent that blights young lives, holds back communities and acts as a brake on the capacity to transform the economy towards high-value-added, well-paid jobs.

Unfortunately, while there may be many reasons for ending academic selection, there is little evidence that doing so has reduced educational disadvantage or enhanced social mobility - two of the objectives of those advocating non-selective schools in the 1960s.

Indeed, in England, educational attainment differences have increased between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier areas over the past few decades - as demonstrated by research undertaken for the Sutton Trust - and social mobility is at an all-time low.

Nevertheless, if academic selection is ended, there must be far-reaching changes in the education system that focus attention and resources where it can make a real difference - in the early years.

Here are some suggestions:

- A redevelopment and resourcing of the Sure Start programme similar to that in England. Sure Start is the British government's programme to deliver the best start in life for every child by bringing together early education, childcare, health and family support. It is especially targeted at disadvantaged areas. We have elements of this policy in the north but not all. Why not place a statutory responsibility on the new Education and Skills Authority to promote Sure Start objectives similar to those given to local authorities in England under the 2006 Childcare Act that comes into effect this year?

- A substantial investment in reading recovery programmes - just piloted in Britain, found to be successful and being developed as a national policy. Intensive work with a dedicated teacher on a one-to-one basis enables pupils to capture the essential skill necessary for all learning. Pupils who miss out at the ages of five and six not only lose then but can lose out for the rest of their lives. An expensive but effective approach.

- Do as the primary principals have urged and rebalance the funding between primary and post-primary education in favour of primary schools and then rebalance it again in favour of those primary schools with the highest levels of deprivation. As a House of Commons report suggested, schools in the most deprived areas of Belfast do less well than similar schools in other UK cities.

- End the public subsidy to private fee-paying preparatory schools attached to grammar schools. Individuals and families are entitled to buy private education but not with subsidies from taxpayers. The subsidy could be withdrawn over the next three years. Arguments by opponents that this will flood the state-funded sector suggest that parents do not really value what they are getting and with falling rolls, there is unlikely to be major expenditure pressure. While the sums involved are relatively small in public-expenditure terms why on earth do we aim these subsidies at the better-off?

- The Extended Schools budget should be reinstated and increased. Informal learning opportunities such as those provided by out-of-school activities have been shown to assist more formal learning in school.

- Relaunch the commitment to lifelong learning (initially a policy launched under direct rule) including a determined attack on adult illiteracy. An estimated one in four adults has been failed by up to 10 years of formal education and is now unable, for example, to read a bus or train timetable. Such a reinvigoration of this policy would also involve looking at the costs of studying part-time whether in further education and/or the universities.

- Press both Queen's University and the University of Ulster to extend their widening access strategies, which are schemes targeted at trying to ensure that those from socioeconomically deprived communities have a chance of going to higher education. Northern Ireland does quite well in securing access to some disadvantaged groups but when those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are considered, we do no better than other parts of the UK. So there is only limited scope for political satisfaction on this issue.

Of necessity these ideas have only been sketched out here.

But just think what might have been achieved if we had spent the past eight years pursuing these objectives in our education policy rather than wrangling over selection.

Selection should go but only as a part of a radical policy to tackle disadvantage and underachievement. Our societal cohesion and economic well-being require it.



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