I firmly believe that education is the bedrock of society. It is a vital component of a prosperous and successful country.
If Northern Ireland is to move forward to the next level, we must have a high-quality, high-achieving, skills-based and most importantly, a child-centred education system.
Education is the foundation on which we will build a Northern Ireland with a stronger economy, increased job opportunities and enhanced living standards for all of our citizens.
I want to offer an excellent education to every young person in Northern Ireland. As our young people progress through school and beyond, I want them to be equipped with the ability to meet challenges head on. We need to equip them with the tools to fulfil the potential of every opportunity that is presented to them. We need to be able to attract high-quality jobs to keep our brightest and best in Northern Ireland, while educating and equipping our young people to take on leadership roles in the future.
We need an education system that will continue to be the engine room for innovation; a system where high achievement is open to all. My vision can be summed up in four words: No child left behind.
I am proud of our education system. In 2014/15, 65 per cent of our students achieved 5A*-C grades, compared to 56 per cent in England. Our schools produce top-class students; some continue to university, some will follow other pathways. Regardless of their destination post-16, our students enter the workplace with the ability to grow Northern Ireland’s economy, helping to create a much more prosperous society than many of my generation grew up in.
Tackling educational underachievement and low attainment, especially in working-class areas, will continue to be a top priority in the incoming Programme for Government.
The performance of working-class Protestant boys is particularly concerning, especially in inner city areas.
However, the DUP has not stuck its head in the sand, we have led the way. We have introduced genuine plans to tackle this issue head on. We have worked closely with Ashfield in east Belfast and the Model Schools in north Belfast. I am pleased to report that we are already seeing young lives being transformed by the determination and drive of both teaching staff and local politicians.
This is just one example of our attempt to ensure all citizens in Northern Ireland are given a fair opportunity regardless of religion, class, age, gender or ethnicity.
I have a real desire to ‘maximise opportunity’. A teacher recently told me, “Education is all about encouraging people. No matter what their strengths, support them to fulfil their ambitions.”
I believe this is best achieved through re-emphasising academic excellence whilst bolstering the range of quality vocational subjects on offer. The perception that one set of subjects is worth more than others is a complete fallacy.
I have affectionate memories of my schools days. I want all of our young people in Norrthern Ireland to look back to theirs with similar fondness.
However, I believe that education does not start and stop at the school gates. School is very important but parental and community influence cannot be underestimated.
John Dewey, the American philosopher, once said: “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” My experience as a girl guide leader provided me with “life skills” which I still use today. I see my own son’s self esteem soar when he plays football with his local team. Many of us can relate to this, through sport, drama, music as well as the Boys and Girls Brigade and Duke of Edinburgh award. The positive impact that local communities can have on our young people cannot be undervalued.
I believe that retention of academic selection is paramount because it increases social mobility and allows everyone the opportunity to progress. I am an unashamed supporter of grammar schools. The perception being pedalled by some that grammar schools are only for the ‘privileged few’ is a gross misrepresentation.
I take great inspiration from the late Margaret Thatcher. This is due to our similar background and education. She was able to go on to university and ultimately, lead her country, in no small part because of her grammar school education. I am a product of our proud grammar school tradition, where everyone is offered the opportunity to maximise their potential, regardless of gender, religion, class or postcode.
For the future of our economy, and our society, we need a first-class education for every child. Education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living – it gives young people the character to live a good life and to be good citizens.I believe that this can best be achieved, not by a ‘top down’ approach from DENI, but by allowing open and transparent communication between educators and politicians. I want to create an environment where school governors, principals and teachers are empowered to deliver in accordance with their school’s individual needs. We can maximise educational opportunity by giving principals and school governors greater autonomy over school budgets.
We can maximise opportunity through equality of provision and treatment for all education sectors. No more lavish spending on Irish Medium schools which cater for as few as 14 pupils. The politicisation of the Irish language is becoming increasingly detrimental to education provision in Northern Ireland. The damage that Sinn Fein has inflicted in this area must be addressed.
Education provides the tools we need to build a better Northern Ireland. My party will ensure that every child is given the chance to maximise their potential. We will ensure that no child is left behind, that no child is denied the opportunity to learn and that no child is denied the chance to see how far education can take them.
Arlene Foster is the leader of the DUP