Northern Ireland schools report calls for greater emphasis on shared education

Advisory group urges all-ability intakes for post-primary schools

Prof Paul Connolly of Queen’s University Belfast, who chaired the advisory panel, said shared education was the “core mechanism” for improving the quality of education. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Prof Paul Connolly of Queen’s University Belfast, who chaired the advisory panel, said shared education was the “core mechanism” for improving the quality of education. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Tue, Apr 23, 2013, 06:00

There should be a legal obligation on schools in Northern Ireland to promote equality and good relations among pupils, according to an advisory group report.

The report recommends schools be offered financial support to provide shared education and calls for a “strong system of training and support” to be put in place for teachers.

Under its programme for government, the Northern Ireland Executive committed itself to ensuring all children would have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015.

Prof Paul Connolly of Queen’s University, who chaired the advisory panel, said shared education was the “core mechanism” for improving the quality of education.

“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,” he said.

In Northern Ireland 92.6 per cent of pupils in primary and post-primary education attend either Catholic or Protestant maintained schools, with the remaining 7 per cent attending integrated schools.


‘Creating divisions’
As well as highlighting the religious divide, the report found “clear evidence that the current system of secondary and grammar schooling is not only creating and sustaining divisions on the basis of socioeconomic background but it is also exacerbating achievement gaps”. It recommends ending the practice of academic selection and replacing it with a system of “all-ability intakes” for post- primary schools.

Previously the Department of Education ran transfer tests for children at the end of primary education. These tests determined whether pupils went on to academically-focused grammar schools or vocational secondary schools.

Although the department dropped transfer tests in 2008, grammar schools maintained them as a way of selecting pupils for admission. Unionist support for the schools has seen attempts to outlaw the use of the tests blocked.

Calling for the abolition of transfer tests, Prof Connolly said “all children are different, with differing skills and abilities and differing needs. They also develop at different rates and in differing ways.

“Given this, 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.”


Mediocre performance
He added that the existing system was designed for a “bygone age” and leads to “mediocre” performance in the areas of literacy and numeracy among students by the time they leave post-primary school.

The advisory group said its “main fear is that this opportunity to transform our education system will be lost if key stakeholders simply retreat into, and seek to defend, their respective interests and sectors”.

The panel received 111 written submissions and visited a range of schools and colleges.