Minutes of Evidence:  1 March 2001


Review of Post-Primary Education


Thursday 1 March 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Mr Gallagher
Mr Hamilton
Mr McElduff


Mr T McKee )
Mr P Scott )
National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers

The Chairperson:

We are taking evidence from various representative groups for our report on post-primary education. I am pleased to welcome Mr Tom McKee and Mr Peter Scott from the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

Mr McKee:

The NASUWT is the largest teachers' union in Northern Ireland, with in-service membership of over 9,000 out of a teaching force of 20,000. Membership is mainly in the secondary sector - about three-quarters of membership is in the post-primary sector.

The response to the Gallagher Report has been circulated by the Clerk to the Committee. I assume it has either been read or is to be read. Presumably you have received the responses to the questions that we submitted. In our response to the Gallagher Report, the central thrust was that of a trade union. We made it clear that we are opposed to 11-plus selection, but we took the view that it was a question of jobs first and ideologies second. We were particularly conscious of section 6.4.2 of the report regarding the envisaged contraction in the post-primary sector if comprehensive education were introduced. The number of schools would go down by approximately 60. Therefore we have to move with a fair degree of caution with that kind of statement in the main report.

Opposition to selection is strong now. Almost every day a new body adds its weight to the campaign against selection. The Northern bishops and even the Examinations Authority have come out against it. We put it to the Committee that the most damning critique of 11-plus selection is contained in the Gardner Report. Prof Gardner went through the transfer system very carefully, and the report's conclusions are that transfer procedure tests are not adequately skewed to deliver the top grades in the procedure.

The report also makes the rather startling point that if the 11-plus selection were to be skewed satisfactorily, more difficult questions would have to be put into the test. If you were to do that then you would, of course, increase the stress on children.

We believe opposition to 11-plus selection is unanswerable. However, we acknowledge that the way forward - what system will replace the current one - is not as clear. You will see that we do not recommend a particular comprehensive system to replace the current one. To a certain extent we believe that it is not the role of unions to administer the system. We have another preoccupation. The number of education authorities in Northern Ireland is quite high - we have eight central education authorities now - and if there were a fundamental reorganisation of education it would lead to a large number of teachers having to cross employment sectors. We would then have the problem of securing safeguards under the transfer of undertakings provisions in law. Those are quite complicated. We would be getting our priorities wrong if we pressed for a particular system.

In our view there is no one single system that recommends itself. We believe, as we stated in our report to Prof Gallagher, that the way forward is by the well-tested route of development proposals. This was tested in the case of the Strabane bilateral. There was a statutory consultation period given there and as a result of that the Department decided that objections to the system were not significant enough and the bilateral system has been brought in in that particular area. You could have a series of development proposals around Northern Ireland based on an inclusive comprehensive system, but you could accommodate different types of comprehensive education systems. There is no reason why a two-tier system could not co-exist with an all-through comprehensive one.

The other important principle to bear in mind about what happens after the Gallagher report and the Burns deliberations is the delivery of equality of opportunity in an effective way. In many senses that is a more important concept than that of comprehensive education. The present system is not delivering equality of opportunity. Youngsters do not have equal chances at external examinations, and we do not have proper parity of esteem between the two main examination systems - the GCE A level route on the one hand and the GNVQ route on the other.

Any review of post-primary education must take account of moves introduced last September in A levels - the new AS levels for example - designed to increase the number of youngsters staying on in schools for extended courses and to bridge the gap between academic and vocational examinations. A truly comprehensive system could achieve that either by offering GNVQs alongside GCSE and GC A levels with full parity of esteem or a baccalaureate type of examination like the system that operates in France. That would be the ideal situation, allowing flexibility for youngsters to transfer from one course to another within an institution rather than to feel trapped in the course they picked at the end of fifth year.

Our final point is that one of the strongest features of education in Northern Ireland - one of the reasons why the education system here has been the envy of the rest of the United Kingdom - is that, more than any other part of the United Kingdom, it is a genuine state education system. The inclusion of grammar schools in the state system is an important factor, and we do not wish to see that inclusivity endangered at all.

If there were a confrontational approach to the reorganisation of secondary education, there would be a real risk of a haemorrhage. Some of the grammar schools - and one can guess at what the percentage might be - would be tempted out of the system to operate as fee-paying private schools. That was the experience in both England and Scotland when secondary education was reorganised.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. I am going to open the discussion to the floor. I also welcome the members of the public in the gallery, who are from a trade union background - albeit a different trade union - listening to what we have to say.

Mr McKee:

Well, if they are on a learning curve, we have no objection.

Mr S Wilson:

Mr McKee, I hope I am not being unfair but, having read your response and listened to your presentation, I am totally confused about a number of issues. Perhaps you will clarify them. First, you indicated that you are opposed to institutional selection, but you recognise that there are schools that are oversubscribed, while others are undersubscribed. How can you not have selection if you have some schools oversubscribed and others undersubscribed? Surely there must be selection to decide which school youngsters go to, especially if there is oversubscription?

Secondly, you hinted that if parents were to insist on having the school of their choice this would make effective educational planning impossible. However, you also said that people should have a choice of different routes in education. How do you marry the two statements, that choice is a bad thing because it leads to oversubscription or undersubscription, yet at the same time there ought to be different routes?

Finally, you said that you were concerned that Gallagher had indicated that the introduction of full comprehensives would lead to rationalisation and the closure or amalgamation of 80 schools and that that would affect jobs. As a trade union representative you are, quite rightly, concerned about jobs. However, you also said that it was the policy of the NASUWT to have comprehensive education in Northern Ireland while retaining grammar schools, otherwise, they might go independent. Is that not the aim? Perhaps I have misunderstood, but I am confused as to how you marry those kinds of contradictory statements.

Mr McKee:

In one sense there has to be confusion. This is a very complex problem to grasp, given the different types of education systems that we have in Northern Ireland and the number of education authorities. On the issue of selection, we may have caused some confusion because there are two interpretations of selection. One is selection by institution - the dichotomy between grammar schools and secondary schools - which is extremely unfair. The other form of selection is parental selection - the exercise of parental choice. We presume that there is no way that parental choice is going to be reversed. Parents are entitled to have choice. However, our argument is that the future of post-primary education has to be in terms of the ability of institutions to offer flexible choice, not only in a particular course, but also in respect of the two main examination routes. Those are GCSE A levels, on the one hand and GNVQ on the other.

Small schools operating as self-standing institutions are not delivering that freedom of choice in an effective way. A school would have to be of significant size to offer effective choice of the full range of subjects in either course, and, certainly, to offer effective choice of the two courses together. If small schools try to offer a reasonable spread of GCSE subjects the price for that is that they offer it very thinly. They may have only one specialist in a particular subject. If specialists are ill or on maternity leave there are at times great problems in replacing them. In the bigger institutions you have the depth of provision in specialist areas.

Mr S Wilson:

Do bigger institutions not mean an amalgamation of smaller institutions? Is that what you mentioned earlier that you were concerned about?

Mr McKee:

Effectively this amalgamation does take place. If you look at what is happening around the Greater Belfast area - even without Gallagher or Burns - there is an unofficial reorganisation going on in which post-primary schools are beginning to work together. There is also an unofficial practice of secondary schools acting as feeder schools for the sixth forms of grammar schools so children can move across from secondary to grammar school. That is the kind of flexibility we want in the system. We are arguing that this practice should be more structured so that parents can exercise a choice within a genuinely inclusive system, a comprehensive system.

Mr Gallagher:

I want to ask you more about the issue of parity of esteem between the vocational and the academic parts. There is strong agreement that it is important that this is achieved, and you mentioned the baccalaureate system in which the facility for change exists. At an earlier presentation I mentioned this point. However, the witnesses did not envisage a future system in which there would be a crossover between schools. There is also a viewpoint that, particularly in the grammar school sector, teachers would like to have the pupils in their care for the full seven years.

Do you feel more can be done, in the interests of parity of esteem, to allow children to crossover between the different schools in order to achieve a greater parity between the vocational and the academic? Is that something that teachers as a professional body worry about or would be prepared to consider?

Mr McKee:

We do worry about it. If you do not get adequate provision of external examinations you do not have job security, so teachers would have a vested interest in having sound provision of any examination course underpinning what is studied in school. Current Government proposals are overly optimistic. They think that by bringing in the new AS levels, they will meet the target of 80% of children staying on in Key Stage 5 beyond the age of 18. The French have already hit the target of 80% by fudging the baccalaureate through the introduction of vocational subjects into it, and that really delivered equality of esteem between the two systems. The problem is that the public at large, particularly employers, and to a certain extent admissions officers in higher education, do not recognise the true validity of GNVQ. I suspect that it will not be recognised effectively until we get a fused system like the baccalaureate system.

Mr Scott:

Could I just pick up on something Mr Gallagher said? There seemed to be an assumption that there was a context of a seven-year cycle. That may not necessarily be the case and the way forward might not be to base things on that assumption. Central to other systems, in other countries, is the concept of a process of orientation - often called "election" - at a much later age than age 11. I think we are starting to look more closely at the curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds and in that context the whole concept of the GCSE exam as a terminal exam might disappear.

It would be wrong at the outset to think purely within the context of the cycle concerning 11- to 18-year-olds. There are other approaches which might inform our debate surrounding the abolition of the selection process for 11-year-olds.

Mrs E Bell:

In paragraph (d) and (e) on page two of your response to the Committee it states that a system of continuous assessment would be an effective statement of achievement but would have dubious value as a predictor of future ability. It then goes on to say that you are at a loss to understand what is involved in the system of parental input or how this could ensure objective and equitable decisions. We were in Germany looking at the education system there, and I am sure you have looked at it too. As a trade union I thought you would be looking on education right through and also looking at social, educational and economic objectives. Why do you think continuous assessment has dubious value?

Mr McKee:

At Key Stage 2 teachers in primary schools give their assessment, which is an assessment of what the child has achieved. It is not designed to speculate on what the child will do over the next year or two. You cannot mix that form of assessment with the attempt at prediction which the transfer procedure is attempting to do. That is a point that we are making very strongly, and we resist strenuously any attempts to make selection by that method. This was tried in the early days of the transfer procedure when pupils did not get a grade in the test. Schools got a quota of grades to give out. They were then given out on the basis of whatever assessment had been done in the school. People in the area then put intense pressure on the teachers in local schools. If the transfer procedure has one merit it is that the assessment is done anonymously at the centre, and individuals are not subject to that kind of pressure. We were not clear what the Committee meant about parental input, and that is why we answered that way. At the time we should have put a question to you before answering that.

Mrs E Bell:

We are not sure how much impact that input should have. It can have, and has had, a stressful effect on children.

Mr McKee:

That is correct. On a recent visit to the two-tier system in Armagh what impressed me was not so much how the junior high school/post-primary system operated but the atmosphere inside the primary schools. Many people tend to go to the junior high schools and the senior high schools in north Armagh to see how they are working. It is important to go to primary schools to see the effect of Key Stage 2 teaching where there is no selection and where there is positive teaching right through in the final year of Key Stage 2. The primary teachers and principals in that area are extremely enthusiastic about the two-tier system. They are more enthusiastic than teachers in the post-primary stages.

Mr McElduff:

The transition year in the South is something that I find appealing. Has the union looked at the concept of the transition year where pupils at the age of 14 can concentrate on career guidance or personal development? The education system has to be tailored to meet the needs of industry. My colleague Mr McHugh often makes this point. How should the system adapt itself to respond to changes in technology?

Mr McKee:

As a union we have not taken official consideration of that and nor has the Gallagher Report. There is an interesting argument that the key transition year is at the end of Key Stage 3 at 14+, which is the age of transfer in the two-tier system.

There are strong arguments for both of those situations. The Chairman mentioned the seven-year cycle in grammar schools. That does not occur in the two-tier system. The senior high school is broadly the equivalent of a grammar school - for example, the two-tier system in north Armagh would only have children for two years up to GCSE level. We maintain an open mind regarding which of the two systems would be best. However, our priority in approaching these problems must include ensuring job security insofar as possible, while also ensuring a adequate transfer of teachers. If we were to push for a particular system we would be weakening our position as a trade union in trying to secure those other advantages.

With regard to the needs of industry you are right to say those must be taken into account. The existing curriculum, quite apart from being tightly prescriptive and not flexible enough, is also subject to criticism that it has removed in a rather alarming way the teaching of skills - craft, design and technology skills - from the secondary curriculum. The new subject, technology, has become an academic subject, and there is a knock-on effect in the further education system. There is hardly a further education college in Northern Ireland now that has the three engineering departments -civil, mechanical and electrical. Most of them are operating in one single engineering department, while some are operating without any engineering departments at all. That is extremely worrying.

Equally worrying is the poor take-up of vocational GNVQ courses in the areas of manufacturing, engineering and IT. These figures are abysmally low compared with the very high levels in GNVQ in business studies, leisure and tourism. The implications for the Northern Ireland economy are serious. We have argued to the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment that one way to tackle this would be to introduce as a matter of urgency education maintenance allowances. This could provide an incentive to draw young people on to these courses. The allowances could be made available for designated courses. They are operating in at least 40 local educational authorities in England and are having the desired effect. The rate is about £40 per week. Of course, a youngster going on to the course must give a contract to complete a minimum time on that course.

One note of caution regarding the needs of industry would be not to go too far down the road of industry and commerce in determining what is taught. This came out in the Callaghan debate a few years ago. Education is about the exercise of judgement in young people. The curriculum must make certain that general education is a strong part of the education system. The education system here is not like the system in a totalitarian regime where if "x" number of engineers are required, the system is then tweaked and produces the correct number of engineers. That would be a disastrous educational system.

Mr S Wilson:

I am bamboozled by this. Transfer will take place. I am not sure if it is at 11 years or 14 years of age after Mr Scott's intervention, but it must take place at some stage. Is that correct? In your paper you say that the test is not a good idea, that allowing schools to set individual tests would aggravate social inequality, that involving teachers was a disaster, that continuous assessment was of dubious value as a predicator of future ability, that parental input would neither be objective nor would it lead to equitable decisions and, furthermore, that a combination of all three would be too cumbersome. How is this decision to be made regarding which type of school and when youngsters transfer from primary to another school?

Mr McKee:

No group has yet come up with a seriously convincing answer to that particular question. The Campaign Against Selection (CAS) has not come up with anything. It can suggest arguments that the system must be comprehensively comprehensive. An isolated town like Strabane is an area where there is one post-primary schools, whereas there are big urban areas where parents can pick and choose between a number of schools.

If you abolish the transfer procedure, then how you allocate pupils equitably to those schools is a very difficult question and one to which we as a union do not have the answer.

One way of doing it which you missed out is the catchment school. However, if you did that, estate agents would milk that for all it was worth. House prices in certain areas would go up very quickly. I am quite happy to put my hands up and say that we as a union, in the democratic process of developing our response - and we must go through a democratic process - have not been able to come up with a solution to that problem. It is not a cop-out. I hope that you appreciate that as a trade union we have also very strong responsibilities in respect of maintaining job security for our members, who pay subscriptions.

Mr S Wilson:

Some of the most vociferous objectors to the current system of transfer have been teachers. The reason why I press you on the question is that since your organisation and teachers themselves have been fairly vociferous against the transfer procedure, it really is incumbent upon you to give us at least some guidance as to what you would like to see as an alternative.

I come back to the other point about the comprehensive system. It is all-embracing - I know that you have not used that term. You have admitted that if you are going to deliver that width, then you will need bigger schools. I would like some guidance from a trade union point of view. Are you accepting that if you go down the route of having schools that can deliver that width of curriculum - and I suppose that you could call them comprehensive-type schools - then there are perhaps greater implications for your members than under the current system of differentiated schools?

Mr McKee:

If there is simultaneous reorganisation, the answer quite clearly is "yes". The implications would be serious for the union. The point that we are making about flexibility is that it should be at Key Stage 5, giving the maximum choice of examination systems. We have to have two separate systems. The maximum range of subjects within that system is of crucial importance at Key Stage 5. A narrower curriculum can be pursued up to the end of Key Stage 4. The problem is getting both width and depth in what you provide in respect of extended courses.

One solution which has been put forward by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is to go for sixth-form colleges. We could have schools which cater for Key Stages 3 and 4 and feed into sixth form colleges which could provide that flexibility. There are problems with the sixth-form colleges in England. The terms and conditions of employment in sixth-form colleges are clearly inferior to those in mainstream schools in England and Wales. We would be worried about the development of sixth-form colleges if they were based on the English model.

Mr Hamilton:

You want something comprehensive, but you do not offer any real guidance about what sort of system you would like to see come into being. I do not want you to take this the wrong way, but as a member of one of the unions-

Mr S Wilson:

An ex-union member, if you keep on the way you are going.

Mr Hamilton:

You are from a union which has campaigned for years for the abolition of selection at 11 and which has wanted to see a comprehensive system brought in. Now that that is becoming a real possibility are you not open to the accusation of having no guidance to give, of copping out? People might say that you want rid of it but do not know what to put in its place.

Mr McKee:

In one sense the answer to that would be the number of comprehensive systems that can work together. In the past few months I have looked closely at the two-tier system in Northern Ireland. I have also looked at bilateral schools. Strabane is a potential bilateral, but there are others. I paid a visit to St Catherine's in Armagh and was very impressed. Those are two different types of comprehensive systems. They work quite well at present in co-existence with other systems. I would find it difficult to argue for one generic system for the whole of Northern Ireland. As the union has advocated comprehensive education, we would have to go to a good all-through comprehensive or to the two-tier system which was working very well and tell them that they will have to be turned into a very different kind of comprehensive system.

The association has taken the view that the way forward would be to establish the principle of genuine equality of opportunity for all children, not as a vague aspiration, but with access to academic and vocational examinations with real parity of esteem. If we can get a system with that kind of objective we will deliver equality of opportunity, that will be good for the children, but it is not just a desirable objective for children. If we can deliver better equality of opportunity then we will have a better workforce and a better people who live and play together. We do not have that, and the country is impoverished because of it.

The Chairperson:

I assume that your membership ranges from secondary schools to grammar schools, and you have difficulty trying to compromise the needs, desires and objectives of those. I have been interested by some public submissions which have strongly advocated the abolition of the transfer system, but they have not finished the sentence. As I understand it, the sentence finishes by saying that it would also entail the abolition of the grammar system. If you are doing away with the selective system then the obvious conclusion of that would be that the grammar system would be abolished. Are others copping out? Are some people only telling half the tale because the second half of it would be a bit unpopular?

Mr McKee:

I accept that we have a substantial membership in grammar schools, and we have to be mindful of that. However, the democratically elected members around this table are equally mindful of their responsibilities for their own constituents. We would be acting in the same democratic way. The difference between the transfer system is that that has been seen to be inefficient and failing by academic research as well as by people who are opposed to it. Grammar schools are not inefficient in that sense and have not failed in the same way as the selective system. There is a significant difference there. There are many working-class youngsters who have gone on to good educational opportunities through the grammar school system. It would be churlish of anyone to see the solution as simply abolishing grammar schools. If one were to take that viewpoint that would be confrontational with grammar schools. Inevitably grammar schools would leave the state system, and that would be regrettable.

Mr Scott:

Is one of the problems that people talk about the grammar system as they do comprehensive education and that sometimes it is unclear what they mean? Are you in favour of abolishing grammar schools?

I believe that grammar schools were originally supposed to identify a certain percentage of the school of the ability range of the cohort at age 11 and provide that group with an academic education which was suitable for that top 20% or 17·5%. Are you talking about that notion? The system that seems to have evolved is that grammar schools do not do that. If there were, in the French sense, a concours, an examination where the top 20% was lopped off and put in a grammar school, there might be some justification for that in terms of argument.

I believe that in the Belfast area nearly 50% of children transfer to grammar schools. In other areas there is a gross disparity, for reason of gender and for various other reasons. The availability of grammar school places is not based on how someone performs in a test but on the evolution that has occurred in relation to grammar schools. So when you talk about the grammar system I do not think it is very clear.

The Chairperson:

I have to say, Mr Scott, in all 40 meetings we have always asked the questions and have never been asked any. Yours is a new departure, and it is a very valid point. My point, however, is that by a grammar system most people will assume the ability for some kind of academic excellence that the grammar schools provide. That is wrapped up into the social infrastructure of Northern Ireland, and to that extent that is the question that I pose. Do people fully realise that when you say we abolish selection we abolish grammar?

Mr McKee:

In a sense the answer to that would be to build on the success of the grammar schools since 1947, when access was given to more people from a working-class background, and to make certain that the restricted equality of opportunity currently available is extended. The present system does not give full equality of opportunity, particularly to many youngsters who develop after the arbitrary age of 11. We all know in our own experience - perhaps inside our own families - of people who have managed to "buck the system". In many cases people would say that that is an argument for keeping the selective system, to encourage people to buck the trend. Perhaps they are better people for it. However, for every one who bucks the system and achieves success there are thousands of people whose lives are blighted by it and who feel second class in their own country. That is wrong.

The Chairperson:

I only hope that the translators of the official record will hear with clarity the use of that word.

Could you expand on your reservations regarding mixed ability teaching at Key Stages 3 and 4?

Mr McKee:

There are extremists who would argue that there should be mixed ability teaching right through to GCSE, and that would be absolutely crazy. If there were a selective system, there could be a very strong argument for mixed ability teaching in Key Stage 3, but in the transition to Key Stage 4 there has to be a determination that youngsters have the aptitude and the ability for particular courses. There would then be the greater facility to move people about, if there were the full range of GCSE and A-level courses on one hand and GNVQ on the other inside the same institution - and that could be a split-site institution. That does not mean that people are segregated. There is no reason why they should not pick and mix between the two. That is desirable. One of the principles lying behind GCSE AS levels is that of ensuring that people do not specialise as scientists or on the arts side, that they keep a reasonably broad course going.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much indeed. May I, on behalf of the Committee, thank you for your presentation today and for our exchange of views. It was very useful, and we look forward to making progress on this important issue.

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