The children of Ulster are not a political football. Their education is not the plaything of the Assembly.
UNESCO claims that 57 million children worldwide do not have access to education. UNICEF puts that figure even higher at 61 million. In our world education is not a right; it remains a privilege. It is a precious thing. It demands safeguarding. It is not a rope to play tug-of-war with in the political playground.
Of course, in our world there are many factors that play a part in excluding children (especially girls) from education – poverty, pressure to work and earn a wage from a very young age, social attitudes, and cultural influences, to name but a few.
Attitudes, as we know only too well, are as difficult to change as economics. In many countries more often than not it is in school that children, for the first time, experience what a protected environment is, and how much value they have as an individual. They will have their first experience of running water, of sanitation including separate toilet facilities for boys and girls, and of hygiene. Basic everyday norms for our children, yet when we consider these things, we are sharply reminded of how vast the meaning of education is.
Currently, feelings are running higher than ever regarding our education system. It seems that the importance of listening is being ignored, and were we not taught that hearing and listening are two completely different things?
Sometimes the best place to start is by listening to ourselves. Listening to how encumbered we have become by our own opinions, by our power that can force a result, by our arrogant dismissiveness of others.
What about listening to the evidence of what our education system has delivered to date; of what the parents of our children are saying; of what those at the coalface, tasked with teaching, are saying? What about pinning back our ears so that we hear more than just their flap, flap, flapping?
There is no “one-size-fits-all” in education. Personality, talent, ability and character are all aspects of a child’s potential being fulfilled. So too are a variety of pathways for them to have access to. But a pathway that has been proved is better than one that is experimental. Why would we herd our children along a road that neither their parents nor their teachers trust? Why would we insist in untried medicine when there is no new superbug to fight? Cleverness is one thing, horse sense is another. Sometimes politicians can be too clever by half. Sometimes they can also be too greedy, robbing departments of their teeth in order to repair their own wobbly dentures. But ill-fitting dentures make things hard to digest.