Minutes of Evidence: 15 March 2001
COMMITTEE FOR EDUCATION
REVIEW OF POST PRIMARY EDUCATION
IN NORTHERN IRELAND
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
THURSDAY 15 MARCH 2001
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr K Robinson
Mr J Stuart )
Mr J McBain ) Secondary Heads Association
Mr J Wilson )
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the reconvened public session of the Education Committee, at which we are taking evidence on the transfer procedure. It is my pleasure to welcome representatives from the Secondary Heads Association.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make these comments. The Committee has already seen our responses both to the review body and to the questionnaire you sent to me some time after Christmas. I sent a seven-page response to the Committee, and I shall therefore not bore you with much detail. You may want to ask us a large number of questions.
The Secondary Heads Association represents mainly principals, vice-principals and senior teachers - or should we call them assistant heads? - in schools throughout Northern Ireland, mostly in the grammar sector. It has some 140 members.
We spoke to the Committee last year before the review body was set up. We wish the very best education for all our children, and we want you to recognise the achievements of the schools that we represent.
There are many deficiencies in the present set-up, particularly that the transfer system itself appears to be badly flawed. There is a need for significant change. We are only too aware of the distortion in the primary school curriculum.
We also realise that, in some geographical areas, only As - and indeed not all the As -transfer to a grammar school because of the shortage of places. That strikes us as being very unfair. We also recognise the bitterness, rejection and failure, and the accompanying loss of esteem, that present grades engender in pupils and parents.
We make a number of suggestions. By and large, we opt for the tripartite system. We recognise, for example, that the present curriculum for secondary schools is simply not suited to the majority of their number. It is too academic, and it certainly does not suit them. That is why we emphasise the importance of having academic, vocational and technical schools.
We also emphasise the importance of parity of esteem for all schools on the part of parents. The absence of the transfer examination would leave a completely new situation with which schools would have to deal in due course.
I hope that gives you a flavour of our feelings on the issue. I want to be as brief as possible because I recognise that the thrust of questioning often brings about a more detailed response than I can give at this stage.
Thank you very much.
How can parity of esteem among academic, vocational and technical schools be achieved?
I had the opportunity to go to a German Gymnasium on a head teacher visit My impressions of Bavaria were that there was parity of esteem among the different types of school.
Such a situation has come about over time and because parents recognise that there are two pathways that can lead to desirable outcomes for their children. I do not have an answer to your question, but I have a comment. It will take a great deal of time, for certain perceptions are deeply ingrained in the community and must be changed. That is perhaps not the answer you are seeking. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
If schools offer different curriculum pathways, which are seen over time to lead to equal opportunities for employment and career development, you will arrive at the German situation. I cannot see any legislative or other device that would bring that about in the short term.
You are probably aware that members of the Education Committee also looked at German models of education. Given the ethos and culture of Germany, how should we apply those to Northern Ireland? Have you any suggestions for a process? Is it a case of using money?
What other methods could we use to enhance schools' status?
Mr J Wilson:
Certain failings in our system have been recognised. We must start by looking at the failings of the current system and how it can be developed. Eventually we must look at the whole system. The common curriculum was one of the greatest mistakes. I believe that more strongly than my two colleagues, for I am the principal of a comprehensive school, one of the non-grammar head teachers in the Secondary Heads Association.
When the common curriculum came in, non-grammar schools felt that they had to compete with grammars. The league tables reinforced that; we were all in competition. As a result, the non-grammar sector pushed its pupils - particularly at the top end - very hard, for those were the pupils who would get the results to move the schools up the league tables. That left a tail of pupils who could not cope with the common curriculum and became disaffected. That made them disruptive and the reputation of schools started to suffer. Therefore there is an imbalance between the idea of the grammar being a good school and the non-grammar being full of rowdies; even though there are not many of them, the school is labelled. Parents, communities and society form opinions of schools, not from the results achieved, but from how children act on their way to and from classes, how they act on buses and how they talk about the schools at the dinner table.
A school can get a poor reputation quickly if it has a group of pupils that is disaffected - pupils who set off fire extinguishers, for example. To enhance the reputation of that school, you must remove the disaffection, starting with the curriculum. Therefore we must cater for all pupils: the academic pupils; the middle-of-the-road pupils who are not quite sure what they are good at until a later stage; and also pupils who are less academic - those are the pupils for whom the common curriculum has not catered.
The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has a new Key Stage 4 curriculum in the pipeline - possibly operating from 2003 onwards - which will be much less prescriptive than at present. It will be less academic and sufficiently flexible to allow schools to choose options and emphasise vocational key skills such as Information and Computer Technology (ICT), rather than purely academic ones.
Thank you for your presentation. I should like to see how you conducted your discussions.
Is 11 the best age to consider transfer? You suggest three routes: academic; technical; and vocational. What do you mean by "technical" and "vocational"?
Age 11 is used throughout the United Kingdom at the present time.
When you move into year eight at any post-primary school, you begin to specialise in areas such as languages or the sciences. It is the type of specialisation that, with all due respect, I do not think a primary school can really contribute to. We must remember that we have many small primary schools particularly in rural areas, where teachers take composite classes - two or three year groups in one class. I do not feel it is appropriate.
Is there any empirical evidence to support your view of transfer?
Not that I am aware of.
Can you answer the second part of the question?
Mr J Wilson:
Eleven is the generally accepted age because the majority of schools go with it, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. However, you could run a school for five to 18-year-olds where there is no transfer at all, and that must be considered. It depends on whether you are prepared to take a gamble.
I define "technical" as encompassing more manual occupations such as those of electricians, plumbers or construction workers, whereas "vocational" leans more towards service careers such as nursing. You do not necessarily need different buildings for the three routes - you can put the three routes under the one roof. One of the challenges for the group will be how it provides equal opportunities throughout the Province while retaining present structures. It could be that, in rural areas, all systems will come under one roof, whereas in an urban setting such as Belfast, you might have schools specialising in different areas like the city technology colleges in Britain.
Mr Chairman, you asked about the age 11. It is worth remembering that in England there are still significant numbers of junior schools that straddle Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3. However, they are declining because it is recognised as inappropriate to have that throughput at that stage.
You state in your submission that some form of selection is necessary and that greater use should be made of continuous assessment and advice from teachers, principals and parents. How would that work in practice? I am particularly interested in what weight you would attach to parental opinion. Mr Gibson referred to empirical evidence; reports from parts of Europe show that parents are inclined to encourage the placement of their child at slightly above its level of ability. How would you protect against that?
You make the point that parents seem to have that perception. I suggest to you - without sidetracking too much - that it is the pupils who make choices at 11. Therefore, how do you influence choice? Removing the transfer examination means removing the whole structure, which, at present, results in an exaggerated sense of what you regard as the ability of the people concerned. I agree that you have got a void -a vacuum - but no one seems yet to have addressed that completely yet.
The advice of the principal in those circumstances would be held in greater esteem than it is at present. At present, regardless of whether we like it, the good professional advice coming from primary principals is being overshadowed by the grades of the transfer exam.
Mr J Wilson:
I concur. As a comprehensive school, we test pupils as soon as they come through the door. We also visit all the feeder primary schools and talk to the primary seven teacher rather than the principal. We have a rank order on paper before we even test the pupils, and it is amazing how accurate that is. We place them into sets after streaming them. We receive virtually no complaints from parents - some will make enquiries about why their children are in a particular stream. One of the advantages is that there is a chance of movement after exams in January and June. Although the movement is not great, we take pride in having got it right first time around. Parents seem to be reasonably happy.
Where there are schools of different types - academic, vocational and technical - there will always be selection. The issue is how that selection is made and by whom. Where it is based on an exam, with the perception of pass or fail, you will be left with the problems currently identified. Where selection becomes a matter of choice and the parents and child are central to it, acting on advice from the primary schools, you have a totally different educational environment in which to work. My mind goes back to a time when there was such a thing as guided parental choice. It was an effort at transfer that was experimented with only to be set aside.
It is curious that guided parental choice, for the short time in which it featured as part of the Northern Ireland educational system, was as effective at identifying children suitable for different types of schools as anything we currently have. I have in mind my father, a primary teacher and principal who lived through it. It is an idea that bears exploration and development. As my colleague has said, the notes he receives from the principals of primary schools are exact. It possible for primary seven teachers and primary school principals to express a view about the suitability of children for particular types of education that is as accurate as achieved by any other means.
Those of us who have experienced special circumstances - and will undoubtedly over the next few weeks have requests for special circumstances - asked for extra information. The quality and quantity of information regarding pupils, which primary schools are able to provide, is remarkable. They could do a super job in that area if they were allowed.
No doubt other members will return to that.
Certain grammar schools make the claim that the step up to third-level education is easier from a grammar than any other kind of school. Do you agree? Do you feel a new system of selection will resolve the problem of disruption and the long tail of those who do not achieve?
As the head of a grammar school, I can only report what I hear about the long tail. I understand from research evidence and that of the Department of Education's Inspectorate that a great deal of effort has been put into addressing the lower end of the ability range - with some success. The most recent performance indicators from secondary schools show that the tail exists as before. The indicators are very similar to those for comparable secondary schools in Scotland and England. I hope the tail is historic.
The step up to higher education, as I am sure you will understand, has been made more straightforward by 'Curriculum 2000' and the parity of esteem afforded to vocational and academic A levels. Those who have opted for further education at, for example, the end of Key Stage 4, can now go into further education, and by taking advanced level GNVQs they can get into higher education. We therefore have parity of esteem from those two pathways.
Your question was whether a grammar school makes the transition to A level easier. Grammar schools have specialised to a greater extent in preparing children for higher education. They have developed the skills to do so, and the evidence from schools is that we do that very well. In grammar schools we have staff and traditions that have been honed to get youngsters into university.
If it is easier, it is because we are practised. I do not know whether it is structurally easier - I simply feel we have staff who have refined the necessary skills to make that possible.
Mr J Wilson:
I disagree totally. I do not disagree with what Mr McBain has said, but with the suggestion that the transfer from grammar school to higher education is easier than from secondary school. It can be difficult to go to higher education from a secondary school without a sixth form, for it is a transition from secondary school to a grammar school or further education college. Generally people go to a grammar school where there is a small number of people entering a large sixth form.
Coming from a secondary school with a sixth form or from a comprehensive, it may be that the school mirrors life better than the elite grammar school. I would hate to try and diminish the positive effect that sixth formers have in an all-ability school. We use them a great deal for tutoring or helping us with younger children. They see the difficulties of those with lower ability.
In many ways they are slightly better prepared for life when they leave that system, in which case they might find it easier to cope when they bid school farewell. That is not to say that grammar school people do not, for they are successful when they go on to higher education. However, you should not consider that it is easier moving from a grammar than from the secondary sector.
Perhaps I could add a point to that. Ten years ago the vice-chancellor of Queen's said "GNVQ - what is that?" The present vice-chancellor is only too well aware of what a GNVQ is, and he holds it in high esteem. In that sense there has been some movement.
On the issue of disruption, we are talking about the sort of disruption perceived by parents, and, whatever choice is made in the future, certain schools will be seen to have a number of disaffected pupils. I suspect that that is what you were referring to. How do we address that problem? Is that not a different problem from what we were looking at in terms of secondary education? Or are they linked?
There may be an earlier stage to it.
Mr K Robinson:
I am sorry that I was late for the meeting. Can I ask Mr Stuart to tease out the vocational role again, as we did this morning? Your colleague, Mr Wilson, referred to the plumbers and other people whom we cannot find when we need them. You mentioned the German situation. In Germany, given the way their society is structured, there is equal esteem. A craftsman is such because he has gone through a very strict educational regime. He will have his title - "Meister" of one thing or another - on a plaque outside his door, which he will polish every morning. Everybody knows where he fits in society.
Is there a role for the institutes or colleges of higher and further education that come lower down the scale? They could perhaps provide the opportunity for young people to go on to develop IT skills in modern technologies. Perhaps there is a role for our existing secondary schools to specialise in those skills - not necessarily manual skills but also the commercial variety; for example, training for shop assistants.
What always strikes me about Germany is that a shop assistant knows how to serve people correctly. She has been trained to do it, and she is good at it. In Belfast, it is a case of "What's your problem?" Shop assistants here are not trained properly.
Why is it only "she"?
Mr K Robinson:
The men are worse. I am referring to the mythical "she".
Do we need to enhance the type of skills training schools currently offer to those young people who are disaffected because the curriculum is not what they need? Presumably we are going to change the curriculum to suit such people, but could we give them the appropriate skills and by doing so raise those individuals with talents? As for myself, I could not nail two pieces of wood together. I do not have that skill, so I value the person taking apart my bathroom at the moment for his skill in a situation in which I would not know where to begin.
Such a person has a skill, without the social enhancement his skill should bring to him.
Mr J Wilson:
I agree. The application we have been working at over the last two years has taken that route. We have been in partnership with further education in respect of our fourth-form and fifth-form students, and they go to the institute in Newry one day a week. They can choose between 20 options, including hairdressing, reception, retail, joinery and construction. The students select six areas in fourth form and specialise in those for NVQ at fifth form.
It has been very successful, both in pupil attendance levels and satisfaction gained.
Mr K Robinson:
Is it focused?
Mr J Wilson:
Yes. I do not want to harp on about disaffection, but much of it comes from situations where, for example, students age 14 have uncles who are joiners and that is what they want to be. They ask themselves why they are learning French, history, or geography when they want to be joiners. There is a need for further education to have an increased role in such situations. There is also a need for schools to increase their role in developing citizenship skills in young people. To an extent, that matter is being addressed. However, the challenge will be to pull together the work of the CCEA and the review body into a system for Northern Ireland. It is not a matter of copying the system in Scotland, Germany or in the South - it is a matter of developing a system that will improve what we have at present.
Mr K Robinson:
Do we have an opportunity in that we are now being told we have almost reached full employment? Some of us were put into grammar schools because they were nice places to go. We got nice jobs at the end, our hands were clean and we were never unemployed. Parents valued that because they had either worked at dirty jobs or had been unemployed.
The Committee visited British Telecom several weeks ago, where I spoke to a gentleman who had come up through the old technical education system. He had reached the top of the tree as far as social respectability was concerned. He was socially accepted, had a job for life and was a pillar of his community. He had succeeded along that trail, and I am sure that success lies out there for others if we could find the right trail for them. They can get the right jobs and the life skills, they can develop their talents and be happy in their work, and they can put something back into society, which we require.
Mr J Wilson:
That is the challenge.
The Committee visited Germany, and I was disappointed in their system since they believe it is still selective. Many of the children are presented with certificates, and your entry into the Gymnasium depends upon having such a certificate. Otherwise, you end up going to the Realschule. The other issue for me was the lack of flexibility between the two education routes. The only way students seem to be able to move is down.
The Bavarian Minister of Education thought that parents had too much involvement and too much to say. She would like their influence to be curtailed.
Moving on, I should like to return to issues raised by Ken Robinson. I maintain that you are still talking about selection in part of your submission - about how pupils are streamed upon entry to first year. What annoys me is that those children are taught together from primary one to primary seven. They all have different levels of academic and vocational skills. Why then do you have to separate them so dramatically when they go to secondary school? Most of them do not mature very much until they are about 14 years old. That is only my personal view.
Another issue is the failure of equal social recognition to be given to a skilled joiner and somebody who has taken an academic route. That is society and culture in Northern Ireland. It is not simply about choosing a vocational or academic route; there should be flexibility between the two. Someone who wants to do IT vocationally can still follow the academic path and take subjects such as French. If there is to be a radical overhaul of the system, can you foresee a time frame for implementation? I hope we shall see that in the coming months or years. Moreover, how can public confidence be secured when implementation occurs?
Mr J Wilson:
First, the review body is not starting from a greenfield site. Structures are already in place, and I presume there is no bottomless wallet to do whatever needs to be done. Presumably the structures will have to be utilised as best they can. No matter what is decided, the review body perhaps needs to come up with more than one recommendation. It could then be costed and have a timescale applied before implementation. Then you finish up with a system that is better than what we have. One danger is an acceptance that our system is currently very good without being totally acceptable. Therefore, if we throw it out and implement change for change's sake, we finish up with a system that is not as good as what we had. We must not pick an option simply because it means change.
That answers the question, but I do not agree. However, I accept we should build on what we have and make that accessible to everybody, whatever their potential. That is the problem.
Mr J Wilson:
Make what accessible to everybody?
If we are talking about a vocational route, then we should make that accessible to everyone - make it flexible so that people can choose the vocational and the academic. Moreover, we should afford it the same recognition.
Mr J Wilson:
We all agree with that.
Did we start the debate the wrong way round? We should ask ourselves "What is education and what is our purpose?" rather than debating structures.
That is a philosophical question to which I am not sure there is a direct answer. However, I liked the idea of "What is education?" because one could talk about that all day. The culture of education in this community and the understanding of it, its prestige and its importance are very high. The same is true of Scotland. I may sound prejudiced, but I do not believe it is as high in England.
Mr K Robinson:
May I suggest that it is not as high because unemployment is not as significant a factor of life in England as in Scotland and Northern Ireland?
Thank you for your presentation. We look forward to further meetings as our inquiry progresses.