Endless reports used to push ideological change in schools

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

We were told on Monday that students from Northern Ireland have some of the worst numeracy and literacy skills in the developed world.

It was another supposed finding of a failure in the Province’s education system, about which John O’Dowd, the education minister, is never tired of telling us.

But it wasn’t in the end evidence of failure. The data in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report did not place Northern Ireland students 22nd out of 23 countries in literacy and 21st out of 23 in numeracy. In fact Northern Ireland was mid table (13 out of 23 for literacy and 14 out of 23 for numeracy).

The true figures are more respectable, given that developed nations are generally the wealthiest and most structured societies in the world. The OECD blamed the error on a formatting mistake. The Province fares better than England, the Republic of Ireland, Spain, the USA and Canada for reading and writing skills.

Every time Mr O’Dowd highlights a report that supposedly shows failures in the education system that justify the ideologically motivated changes he is trying to make to schools, there is a host of people in the educational, political and media worlds who seem ready to seize on the findings as evidence of deep flaws in Northern Ireland’s schools. But some teachers who have actually run the best schools in the Province are not so easily persuaded by the various reports. Last week the former headmaster of that outstanding school Belfast Royal Academy wrote on these pages about the money wasted on the “deeply flawed PISA reports”. He said traditional teaching addressed the needs of disadvantaged pupils.

Mr O’Dowd wants a comprehensive school system aligned on an all-island basis. He has moved GCSEs away from English GCSEs by not following the English grading system.

In all this, he has faced weak opposition in the Assembly - a situation that urgently needs to change.