General Teaching Council Northern Ireland

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the 11plus: hands up if you want a better future for all pupils



It is no wonder that our system does well for some but fails far too many



This week saw the first meeting of the working group set up by the Catholic Trustees to propose an agreed way for the Catholic post-primary schools in the current uncertainties. The trustees — the legal owners of the 550 Catholic schools in Northern Ireland — have set out three key factors that should provide parameters for their work.

Firstly, for about seven years now there has been a growing consensus across the Catholic education sector — and elsewhere — that we cannot build a 21st education system on the philosophical/ educational and psychological assumption that there are two clearly distinguishable groups of children whose needs are so distinct that they can safely be selected for two hermetically sealed types of education at age 10. Differentiation is essential for appropriate education — but that does not have to mean different buildings and high fences.

As trustees of Catholic schools we want to move our schools from competing for dwindling pupil numbers at all costs to collaborating very closely together in the interests of all young people.

In line with the Costello and Bain reports we want to offer a much wider range of subjects than many currently have access to and to model social cohesion in how our schools are managed.

The current dual system of secondary and grammar schools, which suggests that only the grammar schools offer an ‘academic’ education, is both inaccurate and insulting to the other schools which teach exactly the same national curriculum, at least until the age of 14.

It is very difficult to see an educational reason for schools to be distinguished from each other before this age.

Therefore, in our post-primary review process, the area-based planning process and through the area learning communities, the trustees of Catholic schools are actively committed to building real educational collaboration.

But we do that with the assumption that all those involved are committed to a direction of travel that will move away from rigid academic selection at 11 to a situation where there can be a range of different emphases in schools.

A simplistic binary system with those who ‘pass’ and those who ‘fail’ seems positively outdated and accepted in almost no other industrialised country. It is no wonder that our system does well for some, but fails too many.

Secondly, there are various educational sectors in Northern Ireland. Catholic schools are not all the same and won’t be all the same — but no Catholic school is independent of other Catholic schools.

No school can claim to be Catholic in any theological sense if it is concerned only with itself and its community.

It is the trustees who set broad policy lines, not individual schools. Therefore, the six principals from the Catholic voluntary grammar and maintained schools are not two contesting groups, negotiating a way forward as if they represented quite different constituencies.

We have asked them to come with differing perspectives, but with a shared concern for the welfare of all children in their areas.

That means leaving sterile dogma at the door and seeking together a solution that will move us all forward.

Thirdly, despite caricatures to the contrary, Catholic schools are not just institutions that offer a good secular education to ethnic Catholics and add a bit of RE on the side. They operate on the basis of a profound and highly articulated philosophy of education. That includes being open to all and a commitment to promoting justice.

This group is not just seeking a way out for the Catholic sector, but trying to envisage new possibilities for our entire education system. I know that parents want the best for their children. But naked self interest did not work in banking. It is a poor content and context for education.

The current system of schools structurally advantages the already advantaged.

Falling numbers means that maintained and controlled non-selective schools will continue to take all the pain of losing staff and finances. We have many areas where parents are not asking whether their child will get to Oxbridge — but whether their child will get to 18.

That is why this is an issue of social justice and not just of jockeying for power. It is a socially irresponsible philosophy of education which neglects advantaging the disadvantaged.

Some seek a revolution in education. The Catholic sector, however, is united in trying to find an evolutionary way forward that moves us on from the current outdated structures to a 21st century model.

We share that with many of our partners in education.

That will involve retaining the excellence that exists in many parts of our education service — but it will involve looking after 100% of our children and not just prioritising the needs of 40%.

Schools did not create the current chaos. Politicians did. But together, educationalists can try to take control of our future.

If educationalists succeed, it is they, not the politicians, who will deserve the credit.


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