What should be the primary target of a country’s education system? The more utilitarian amongst you will argue it is to provide the competent and efficient (and wealth-generating) workforce of the future; if you want to go for the more abstract ideal, then you’ll be wanting a process which produces a society of socially-conscious and intellectually fulfilled citizens. The achievement of both aims is obviously vital for a nation’s long-term future but, in my opinion, ultimately of secondary importance- an education system to be worthy of the name needs to ensure the maximum number of students within that system achieve their full academic potential. If that target is achieved, then I believe all the economic and social benefits aimed at by the secondary targets will naturally follow.
Is Northern Ireland’s education system presently ensuring all its students are reaching their full academic potential? The evidence suggests not: to take two examples, 25% of our children left primary school in the period 2004-5 with “literacy skills below the standard level”, only 12.2% of Protestant* boys entitled to free school meals achieve at least five GCSEs at grades A* – C or equivalent including English and maths. How the structural weaknesses of our school system are to be addressed should be the main focus of our politicians, education professionals and those directly at the coalface, the teachers and parents of our children. Instead a narrow ideological battle is being fought, which appears sometimes to be solely over the question of academic selection; the smoke produced by this battle is blinding “both sides” to those issues which must be dealt with if we are to achieve the fundamental goal I mentioned above.
In that battle the Unionist parties, of course, have aligned themselves firmly on the side of the pro-grammar school, pro-academic selection lobby. Considering the rank incompetence and general unpopularity of the comprehensive system’s main advocate (i.e. the present education minister), it’s a very easy position to take. However, just as Ms Ruane seems entirely incapable of looking beyond what her pseudo- “progressive” textbook tells her, the Unionist parties have refused to countenance the possibility that academic selection may not be the sole or even main panacea for N.Ireland’s educational requirements.
True, comparisons with the results achieved by the English and Scottish systems seem to point to the logic of not meddling with the present mechanism but the UK, taken as a whole, performs relatively badly when its results are contrasted with other developed nations. Which raises the obvious question; why should we measure our standards by the lowest common denominator, why don’t we raise our sights and compare our results with those countries which dominate the upper reaches of the educational achievement league tables?
Such a country is Finland, a country which regularly comes top or second in the OECD’s PISA tests carried out every 3 years, measuring 15 year olds’ abilities in reading, mathematics and science; with those kind of achievements, wouldn’t that be a much more worthwhile benchmark for our own schools?
It’s worth examining briefly the Finnish educational system and how it differs in a number of ways from Northern Ireland’s. The Finnish child starts school at the age of 6 or 7 and ends compulsory education at 15/16. During that period they attend only one school (although there is a de facto division at the age of 12, beyond that age instead of having one teacher teaching all of the subjects in one classroom, there are several teachers in different classrooms). At the age of 15/16 there is a choice between “gymnasium” (roughly equivalent to a sixth form college) and vocational; the former prepares students for university, whilst the vocational school aims to develop “vocational competence”, although its graduates are also formally qualified to enter tertiary level education.
Two interesting facts emerging from the Finnish system are relevant to the main problems suffered by our own. Firstly, although continuing the upper secondary school at 16 is optional, the vast majority of students, voluntarily, continue to attend. Secondly, Finland has one of the smallest gaps in the developed world between best and worst performing students and also a very low “between-school variation”- in other words, those top comparative results mentioned earlier are achieved almost entirely across the board at 15 and not only by the “top” 20% or so “academic high fliers”. The third salient fact is that up the age of 15 (i.e. the age at which those excellent results are achieved) the Finnish system is run on comprehensive, non-“academic-selective” lines.
The UUP position paper on post-primary transfer argues that the… “contention that the removal of academic selection will equate to equal educational provision and opportunity for all children is a gross- and perhaps deliberate- inaccuracy“. Insert the word “automatically” there before “equate” and I’ll agree. However, the Finnish example proves that a comprehensive, non-selective system can deliver equal educational provision and opportunity for all children AND also simultaneously produce excellent academic results. Of course, as with the prior contention, it is not an automatic given that such as system could deliver the same results here, but surely, at the very least, those are the kinds of achievements we should be aiming for with our own education process? The pertinent question now arises, what research or analysis has the UUP (or indeed any of the other parties) carried out to see if and how features of such a system could be adopted and possibly work here? Or has the fight to “save our grammar schools” demanded so much energy that there is nothing now left in the intellectual tank now to look at the bigger, overall picture?
As Lee Reynolds, a member of the DUP, pointed out in his article in The Newsletter (not online) on August 19th:
…in Ulster the educational debate has become wizened to a fight about academic selection. The narrowness of the debate is neither serving the long-term interests of education here nor the long-term interests of Unionism.
I agree. We desperately need to widen the parameters of that debate and, if necessary, be prepared to bury a few shibboleths in order to achieve that long-term target I mentioned right at the beginning of this post.
* The department’s choice of classification, not mine