We have in Northern Ireland an education system which is recognised the world over as one of real quality, both in terms of its teaching and of its highly impressive range of extracurricular activities.
It is imperative that our leaders in education work hard to sustain the best and seek to improve where there is need, but I have deep concerns about the support being given to our teachers; I present these concerns in the form of 10 questions.
1. Given the standing of our primary school pupils in the highly-regarded two authoritative surveys which tested and placed our 10 year-olds in the top five in the world for literacy and numeracy, and in addition the impressive performance of the senior pupils in the public examinations every year, why is very little credit given to the excellence of our teachers and schools? Instead of our education system being lauded for what it is, many, with other agendas, state that it is not world class, basing this conclusion on the widely discredited PISA report.
2. Our minister for education refers to our “long tail of underachievement” in public examinations, yet it is one third of that in England and Wales. Every system in the world will have children who underachieve. The question is: what is being done here to help those hard-working teachers striving for the best in disadvantaged areas?
3. Given the strong and widely published evidence that traditional teaching is best for disadvantaged children, why do our leaders persist with the Revised Curriculum? For the majority, learn and discover is the route, not discover and learn. I would have thought that the rights of these children need be addressed immediately by dropping the Revised Curriculum.
4. Are inspections giving the support needed in areas where schools are hard pressed?
5. What value is there in the expensive Entitlement Framework, which seeks to widen the number of Advanced Level subjects which schools should offer to children? The Wolf report from the University of London stresses the need rather to emphasise that the academic subjects are what are needed for the good of the country; this is also supported by the Russell Group of universities, which includes the Queen’s University.
6. Why disadvantage our GCSE pupils by operating a grading system different from that in England? Any decision by our minister for education not to keep our grades in line with England will have serious consequences for our pupils.
7. School budgets are under great pressure, and schools continue to experience large cuts to the service they provide for the children. How much money has been saved by the introduction of the new Education Authority?
8. What is the purpose of the ILIAD project (Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation), where public funds are being used in an area where problems of underachievement have been identified for quite some time? One area of concern which has been known for quite some time is that of working class Protestant boys, yet very little seems to have been done about this.
9. The ninth question is also about ILIAD, has three elements to it and is one to which the public has a right to answers. What experience in education do the leaders of ILIAD have, has the source of the leak of part of this unpublished report been identified and if so, has it resulted in any disciplinary action being taken?
10. It is important that parents have every support to send their children to schools outside their own area if that is their wish. What assurance can be given, especially in more rural areas, that bus passes will not be limited? Given our history, it is important that young people at the secondary stage have the freedom to cross boundaries and travel to the school of their choice.
The elements which have underpinned the acknowledged excellence of education in N.Ireland and the achievements of gifted teachers are, I believe, being undermined on a broad front and, if these baleful influences are to be arrested, there is an onus on all who value the standards on which our reputation is based, whether in politics, industry and commerce, or academe, to raise their voices in resistance.
• Billy Young is a former head teacher of Belfast Royal Academy