Report urges equality in education


Academic selection should be made illegal, a report on promoting shared education said.

All-ability post-primary schools using more flexible streaming and collaborating with other institutions must be created to drive up standards, a ministerial advisory group led by Queens University Belfast (QUB) said.

Ministers were also urged to make schools legally accountable for promoting equality and good relations.

Group chairman Professor Paul Connolly said: “The current system that only offers two educational pathways - grammar or secondary - and that determines which pathway a child will follow based upon one high-stakes and unregulated test at the age of 11 is divisive, archaic and not fit for purpose.”

Ministers have been unable to introduce legislation because of divisions between Sinn Fein and the DUP and tests have been introduced for entry into many schools despite the end of the state-sponsored 11-plus.

Today’s report recommended: “The Northern Ireland Executive should, without delay, introduce the necessary legislation to prevent schools from selecting children on the basis of academic ability and require schools to develop admissions criteria that are truly inclusive and egalitarian in nature.”

Prof Connolly said there was clear evidence that the system of secondary and grammar schooling was creating and sustaining divisions on the basis of socio-economic background while exacerbating achievement gaps.

The proportion of school leavers after GCSE gaining five or more grades A*-C including maths and English was almost 32% in 2011 among those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to almost 35% in similar circumstances in England.

Prof Connolly added: “If we want a world class education for our children then we need to move beyond our existing system that was designed for a bygone age.”

His report made 20 recommendations calling for shared education to be made the central way of improving standards, bringing schools together to allow pupils to learn alongside each other.

The panel, appointed by education minister John O’Dowd and including former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis and retired school principal PJ O’Grady, said there should be a more diverse school system reflecting parental choice, with popular schools allowed to grow and new institutions emerging with a distinct religious and cultural ethos. Those include faith-based, integrated, secular or Irish medium schools.

Prof Connolly added: “The arguments for shared education are compelling. We know from the international research evidence that the more schools collaborate together and share expertise and resources the more that educational standards improve.

“We also know that the more children and young people have opportunities to learn together in a sustained and meaningful way, the more they will develop positive and inclusive attitudes towards one another.”

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has said he wants to bring Catholic and Protestant children closer together in Northern Ireland and has urged an end to religious “apartheid” in schools.

Today’s report said the education department should encourage sustained collaboration between schools from different sectors, especially through the area-based planning process.

Other recommendations included:

:: Financial support must be provided to schools and teachers trained to promote shared education;

:: How schools provide children and young people with opportunities to explore controversial issues should be reviewed;

:: Schools should be made legally accountable for promoting equality of opportunity and good relations.

Mr O’Dowd said: “Greater sharing and co-operation between schools and across sectors is key to delivering access to the curriculum on the basis of equality.

“I am committed to providing all children with an opportunity to experience shared education, which I believe has the potential to deliver real educational benefits, to ensure best use of resources and to further community cohesion.”