Open Unionism


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Thoughts on Robinson’s Education speech

By Turgon

Many people have given their views on Peter Robinson’s now infamous speech on Integrated Education a few weeks ago. The reaction to the speech has been interesting if predictable. The speech itself, however, is one of the cleverest pieces of politics in the last number of years in Northern Ireland and marks the first time in a long time that Robinson has managed to be both tactically and strategically cunning; though his ability to implement his strategy is of course significantly limited by the coalition arrangements which he and Dr. Paisley before him have been trapped in since the DUP entered power sharing.

Robinson’s call for integrated education managed to wrong foot nationalism to a very significant degree. The narrative preferred by many within nationalism and republicanism is that they are the progressive force within NI politics. Robinson, however, by this speech managed to claim the mantle of the liberal, progressive forces on this issue. There are valid arguments to be made in favour of allowing faith based education but Robinson reasonably pointed out that in a divided society such as Northern Ireland this is highly problematic.
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Filed under: DUP, Education, , ,

Robinson versus the segregationists


Reproduced with thanks to 'amboo who?'


By Unionist Lite

Peter Robinson has ruffled more than a few segregationist feathers with this speech to Castlereagh Borough Council on Friday. This is the relevant part where he explains his views on our divided education system:

“In the area of education it has been said that considerable savings could be made with the creation of a Single Education Authority.   I still hope that agreement can be reached in moving away from the five education and library boards to a single authority.  This is not a difference of principle but one of detail and I am hopeful that it can be resolved in the next period of time. However, in the meantime I believe that a simple and speedy solution to achieve savings would be to create a single education and library board under existing legislation and leave the issue of additional powers to another day.

“Moreover, I feel I have to point out that the real savings in terms of education will not be gained by simply creating a single educational administrative body but by creating a single educational system.

“For me this is not just an economic but a moral question. We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.

“Not many of you will believe that my first contribution as a speaker at a DUP conference was on the issue of integrated education – and I spoke in favour.

“If one were to suggest that Protestants and Catholics would be educated at separate Universities it would be manifestly absurd; yet we continue to tolerate the idea that at primary and secondary level our children are educated separately. I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was common for so long. The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society.

“Who among us would think it acceptable that a State or Nation would educate its young people by the criteria of race with white schools or black schools?   Yet we are prepared to operate a system which separates our children almost entirely on the basis of their religion.

“As a society and administration we are not mere onlookers of this; we are participants and continue to fund schools on this basis. And then we are surprised that we continue to have a divided society.

“The limited number of Integrated schools in Northern Ireland do offer a choice but more often than not they join in the competition for funds against the other two main education sectors and in truth will never create the critical mass needed to make a real difference.

“I entirely accept that such fundamental change will not happen overnight but that is no excuse for further delay in making a start. I know that we will face difficulties in dislodging the vested interests that are so strong in this sector, but I am absolutely convinced that we must.

“I don’t in any way object to churches providing and funding schools for those who choose to use them.  What I do object to is the State providing and funding church schools.

“The transition must begin and must be carefully planned and programmed.  It may take ten years or longer to address this problem, which dates back many decades, but the real crime would be to accept the status quo for the sake of a quiet life.  The benefits of such a system are not merely financial but could play a transformative role in changing society in Northern Ireland.

“Consideration should be given to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration and produce proposals to deal with some of the knotty issues such as religious education, school assembly devotions and the curriculum.  Future generations will not thank us if we fail to address this issue.”

A snapshot of the reactions…

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Filed under: academic, DUP, Education, Shared future, , ,

Positive message on Stormont could form one half of a hopeful conference.

Last year the Ulster Unionist conference proved a heady affair. Fresh from striking a historic deal with the Conservative party, Sir Reg Empey introduced David Cameron to delegates at the Ramada hotel.

The Tory leader delivered an exciting address, steeped in unionism, and received a tumultuous reception. This year Cameron’s deputy, William Hague, will attempt to rekindle enthusiasm, which occasionally, during the intervening ten months, has appeared to diminish as UUP members have become reconciled to repercussions of the Conservatives and Unionists electoral pact.

With a Westminster poll imminent, European success secured and senior Tories still committed to a vital deal for Northern Ireland, there is no credible reason why the atmosphere at Belfast’s Europa hotel should not be equally buoyant, tomorrow morning.


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Filed under: Education, UUP

Education- a less selective debate needed

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

Filed under: Education

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