Minutes of Evidence: 15 March 2001
COMMITTEE FOR EDUCATION
REVIEW OF POST PRIMARY EDUCATION IN
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Thursday 15 March 2001
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr K Robinson
Mr D Guilfoyle )
Mr B McKee ) Youth Council for Northern Ireland
Ms C McKinney )
Ms M Young )
The Deputy Chairperson:
I welcome you to the Education Committee.
The Deputy Chairperson:
This forms part of the Committee's inquiry into the review of post-primary education in Northern Ireland. We appreciate you attending to give the views of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland (YCNI). We have received your papers but you might wish to give us a summary of your points. The members will then put questions to you.
I will start by introducing myself and my colleagues. I am the chairperson of the YCNI. Mr McKee is a member of the YCNI and is the youth director for the Down and Connor diocese. He has been a teacher in the maintained sector and is a youth worker. Ms McKinney is the principal of Vere Foster Primary School in the controlled sector and, as well as being a member of the YCNI, she is a member of the Belfast Education and Library Board's youth committee. Mr Guilfoyle, director of the YCNI, has previously been a teacher in the voluntary grammar sector and is a youth worker.
Therefore, our response has been based on their expertise and experience. The YCNI is set up under legislation to advise the boards and the Minister on the development of the Youth Service, to encourage cross-community activity and to encourage development of facilities for the Youth Service.
Our main sphere of interest and influence is in the informal education sector, both voluntary and statutory. That sector is concerned with the personal and social development of young people. The organisations that deliver that service also provide their work according to a curriculum and key themes that underpin their work, such as the acceptance of others and understanding, values and beliefs.
Therefore, when the YCNI was looking at the effects of the selective system on secondary education in Northern Ireland, it was in that context, which was within our remit.
I will begin with a thought for the day. Pablo Casals, when writing about education, said that every moment of every day is a new and unique experience, a moment that never was before and never will be again. What do we teach them in our schools? We teach them that two and two are four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should say to them "Do you know what you are? You are unique. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you."
That vision of life is a fundamental aim of the Youth Service, which is about the personal and social development of young people, delivered through the underlying principles of participation, acceptance and understanding of others, and testing values and beliefs.
Such a framework aims to make young people aware of their unique gifts and talents and to provide opportunities and experiences for those to be discovered and expressed. We aim to equip our young people with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to engage in the task of building an inclusive and equitable society.
The YCNI advocates that any review of the educational system must allow for the development of a closer relationship between the informal Youth Service and the formal educational sector, and the sharing of the skills to be found in both.
How might the formal education sector benefit from the Youth Service? The Youth Service provides an educational experience that allows young people to engage in meaningful programmes and opportunities which promote their personal and social development. That is particularly important now that we are witnessing a reduction in extra-curricular activities. Fewer opportunities exist to engage in activities specifically aimed at personal and social development. That is particularly noticeable at sixth-form level. Up to this year I spent a considerable proportion of my time among year 13 pupils who have had class time deliberately set aside for personal development programmes. This year with the introduction of AS level exams and modules, schools are becoming increasingly hesitant about devoting class time to non-academic activities. Non-examination-oriented activities are being curtailed as teachers come under more pressure to produce coursework and prepare for modular examinations.
Through involvement with the Youth Service, young people, particularly those who feel marginalised from school life, are able to engage in activities which lead to a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. The work of the Youth Service can complement the work of schools, as youth workers are particularly skilled at reaching young people whom we might term "at risk" or with special needs. My own experience as a youth tutor highlights concepts such as personal and social development which might appear in schools' mission statements, but which are often not recognised as having the same value as academic skills. As such, a real teacher is defined as one who teaches academic skills, rather than one who fosters the softer skills of personal development.
Any new system must accurately promote and value those skills that help in the development of young people's mental well-being. Central to that is the development of an effective pastoral care system, which can be seen as the response to a crisis with an individual child or the "problem" child. It can even be used as a disciplinary measure. A review of the educational experience of young people must allow for the development of personal and life skills, such as self-confidence and self-esteem. The provision of pastoral care in measures such as counselling will be recognised as the right of every young person and not just the "problem" child or the child with problems.
Another area in which the formal education sector might gain experience of the Youth Service is through the development of community relations, particularly through the JEDI (Joined in Equity, Diversity and Interdependence) Initiative. That highlights the need for young people from different traditions and cultural backgrounds to develop mutual understanding, tolerance and respect. Incorporated into the education sector must be the means to develop skills in young people that will enable them to be active contributors towards a peaceful and inclusive society.
Our education system must value emotional intelligence to the same degree as it values and promotes academic excellence and provide the necessary resources in curriculum to that end. Young people are not just the citizens of tomorrow, they are equal citizens in today's society and the builders of tomorrow's.
What would a more proactive partnership between the Youth Service and the formal education sector achieve? First, it would enable a more inclusive and wide-ranging response from the education sector to issues affecting young people. It would allow a larger number of young people access to a wider range of work skills and experiences. It would encourage, where possible, an advocacy role with young people for those who shape public policy, particularly those policies which impinge on young people and the quality of their lives. It would provide a more co-ordinated challenge to Government in relation to the response to the needs and aspirations of young people and the promotion of the principles of equity, diversity and independence throughout the youth sector. It would also facilitate the use of the skills of youth workers in the formal education sector. That would particularly benefit young people who feel that they underachieve, as well as enabling the delivery of a broad and balanced curriculum that aims to develop the whole person and not just achieve academic excellence.
We all need to help our young people find their future. The Youth Council's vision for education in the twenty-first century is that all children and young people will have the opportunity to develop attributes, skills and knowledge, in that order, to fully participate as active citizens in an inclusive society. There are many challenges for everyone: the need to establish the learner as the focus of the curriculum; the need to actively pursue an inclusion policy for all young people; and the need to embrace the concept that responsible decision-making is a key skill for learners to help them exercise choice in their future learning goals, thus ensuring a new flexibility in education. The YCNI is committed to the guiding principles of inclusion, access, induction into society and holistic education, which includes building economic capacity. A fundamental appraisal of learners' needs in the twenty-first century is required, because learning is a lifelong process.
Page three, point six of our submission suggests that a better balance is needed between academic achievement and personal fulfilment. The YCNI is committed to the code that society can only be viable if all its citizens perceive themselves to be included. Too many young people have experienced marginalisation, alienation and exclusion. Therefore education must focus itself on the development of skills and talents in all children and young people.
There must be equality of opportunity in the school curriculum. While academic achievement should be cherished, the needs of those who do not flourish in that manner must be met. We need to concentrate on preparing young people for employment and helping them acquire new skills which will enable them to take their place in a demanding economic climate of change. That means that we must re-examine the initial teacher training programmes and the current provision made to "upskill" undergraduates in those areas. There is a role for professional youth workers to assist the teaching profession in paving the way forward. It is widely acknowledged that Youth Service personnel have unique skills which should be welcomed by the formal education system.
Research also needs to harness and examine the way in which adults and children learn. The question of multiple intelligence needs to be closely addressed. For example, are we differentiating appropriately with children in the classroom? Do conventional tests inflate the worth of knowledge beyond its market value?
In the conclusion of the Gallagher/Smith report it says that the starting point for exploration ought to be the social, educational and economic objectives which young people should achieve from their experiences. The Youth Council for Northern Ireland is committed to empowering young people and engaging them effectively in their learning. Therefore we seek a curriculum which fits that purpose for all learners.
That concludes the formal presentation. Our director Mr Guilfoyle has additional information if you wish to clarify matters or hear some examples.
The Deputy Chairperson:
A number of members have indicated that they wish to ask questions.
I welcome your submission, particularly Mr McKee's introduction. You talked about marginalised young people, the issue of self-esteem and self-confidence and how those can be improved and young people motivated. You also mentioned children with special needs. How can the deficiency in young people's social skills, which you highlighted, be addressed in a system of post-primary education? What suggestions do you have for improving the system for special needs pupils?
With regard to a broad and balanced curriculum, my experience in schools is that the breadth is achieved through the range of academic subjects offered to young people. In some ways the balance is missing in that. A broad and balanced curriculum should include a breadth of experiences as well as academic skills; that is what we said about the Youth Service.
Young people on the fringes are most often attracted to youth centres and to youth work. For example, if I am doing personal development work in a school I will be warned about certain pupils. Yet those are often the pupils who I am helping because it is relevant to their experiences. We need a curriculum that is relevant to young people, particularly to those with special needs. There are schools and youth centres that work in partnership to provide a more balanced school curriculum.
I worked as a teacher and then as a youth worker in north Belfast, and many of the young people I worked with there could be described as being more marginalised than those I worked with in a voluntary grammar school. I soon became aware that my teacher training had not prepared me for dealing with marginalised young people. We did a quick audit of our colleagues in the various education and library boards and in the voluntary sector. In Coleraine, for example, there is a student support scheme in which teachers and youth workers work with a group of 10 young people between the ages of 12 and 14 to improve their attitude to school. It focuses on their behaviour, their self-confidence and improving their relationships with teachers. In Antrim, work is being done with young people who risk being excluded from school. The Youth Council, along with the social services and the Probation Board, is working to improve their self-esteem and self-confidence.
The LAMBS (learning anger management and behaviour skills) programme is teachers and youth workers working together to address behavioural problems in schools. Self-confidence and mental well-being are closely linked, and that link brings us into active contact with the Health Service. We have conducted research in that area and find that it must be addressed. It will help young people's social development, which will manifest itself in better academic achievement.
There is a belief that marginalisation simply happens once children have reached the age of 13 or 14, but I can identify in primary school the children who will become marginalised. The primary schools' curriculum is so tight and so skewed, particularly at Key Stage two, that there is no time to offer the broad and balanced curriculum we need. We have a mission statement to the effect that we will do it, but the Department of Education's demands on us mean that we have to do something else. Although some teachers have been trained specifically in special needs intervention, it should part of initial teacher training. A teacher might get some training on marginalised children in his or her undergraduate programme, but not enough.
Rather than starting to address the problem when the children are 13 or 14, we must begin to address the curriculum's deficiencies in the early years of primary school. We welcome the emphasis placed on initial teacher training and the lack of special needs "upskilling" for undergraduates by the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).
First, Mr McKee, what did you mean by "emotional intelligence"? Secondly, we in the North should learn and benefit from the good points in other systems, one of which is the transition year at year 10 to 11 at the ages of 14 and 15. Pupils can take time out from academic pursuits and are encouraged to look at pastoral and personal development and career orientation. Does the Youth Council have a view on that?
I have taught pupils in secondary and grammar schools who have obtained A grades at A level and who could barely form a sentence. Outside the academic environment, those pupils had little self-esteem or self-confidence and they would be lost in the jobs market.
I have also taught young people in the secondary sector who were classified as having failed, yet who are the most self-confident young people you could ever meet. Emotional intelligence is about building up that sense of self-esteem and self-confidence, so that we produce young people who can engage with other young people in society. They know who they are, they have confidence in who they are and can play a major role in building up society. Year 13 was mentioned, and there are several ways of looking at that. Some people talked about it as the "doss year" or the "easy year".
That would make interesting reading.
However, when I look back on my own experience in lower sixth, often that was the year in which people began to grow up. They began to talk to teachers as people. Lots of different experiences were provided that went way beyond the academic sphere. It was a chance for both intelligence and emotional intelligence to grow. My experience now is that that year is being squeezed more and more. There are more pressures, especially with AS level. There is constant demand for modular work. It is difficult to get time for that, so the Youth Council would not have a set policy on a year-out year. It would, however, be for providing much more of a balance of experiences for young people that go beyond academic.
With regard to Mr McElduff's point, I am speaking in a personal capacity because the Youth Council does not accept policy on that. There is a tendency for secondary schools to do a lot of work in that area. However, my understanding is that less is done in grammar schools, where it may be modularised. The level of underachievement - 62% of students in north Belfast left school with no secondary qualification - means, however, that we have to hook into the grammar system so that it too can see the worth of that type of work. At the moment, there is still a dichotomy.
The Youth Council is very aware of the Assembly's proposals for a Children's Commissioner and other related strategies, which we understand are designed to ensure a more joined-up approach to the needs of children and young people. I hope that it is clear from what we have already said that we believe it to be desirable that sectors such as health, education - formal and non-formal - the Probation Board and social services should work together. That seems to answer Mr McElduff's point. Young people gain experience inside and outside school, in youth services et cetera. A holistic approach would be to develop what I would loosely term a "personal development plan". In the year you mention, there may be a specific focus on that. I take the view that, right through from primary school to university and beyond, some mechanism is present for tracking people and providing the support to allow them to gain experiences that will remedy gaps in their academic, vocational or personal training.
The Deputy Chairperson:
Several members wish to speak, so perhaps they would keep their questions brief to allow us to get through everybody's.
Here is an education system that can do great things for able children, yet one of the points raised in the Gallagher/Smith report was the long tale of underachievement. Does that indicate that something is wrong with the present system? How would underachievement be defined? Have we perhaps defined it incorrectly?
The Youth Council is committed to all young people fulfilling their potential. Underachievement in the current schools system is caused by not offering an appropriate curriculum for all students. The departmental approach to the curriculum, particularly in post-primary education, is still inclined to be subject specific. Underachievement is firmly linked to marginalised youth and the notion of achievement as performance success, and the curriculum may need to change in order to tackle that. However, with underachievement also comes the whole notion of disaffected youth and the lack of parental expectation. We cannot simply throw money at that problem to try and improve it. It demands a complete review of the post-primary curriculum to ensure that the holistic development of the child is engaged. We can measure academic success but it is hard to gauge qualitatively if a child's self-esteem has risen, so indicators have to be put in place to value and measure it.
What do you see as the gaps in the education system? You mentioned that values and beliefs are among the core issues. Our society has difficulty with people's values and beliefs - that is our environment. You also mentioned life skills; you can educate young people to a high standard but they are still failing miserably at life skills. Where are the gaps appearing? Perhaps we are expecting too much and the time spent at school contributes to the problem.
Some gaps could be narrowed if a stronger partnership existed between the Youth Service and the educational sector. When it comes to testing values and beliefs, the service adopts a joined-up approach towards community relations through the JEDI initiative, which looks at the principles of equity, diversity and interdependence. All the different sectors are joining together for one initiative, and the education sector is part of that. In many ways that is a unique experience for Northern Ireland because we can learn from one another.
It has also been recognised that different sectors have different skills, and when it comes to young people's personal development the Youth Service and workers can play a significant role. Part of the difficulty is when it is seen as a one-off event. At the end of the third term, with a couple of weeks remaining, we will wheel in a youth worker to deliver a course on self-esteem. However, if it were part of school life and not just a one-off event young people would be reached as early as possible.
When discussing our response to the selective system, we studied the Programme for Government and looked at the document on unlocking creativity. It became clear that society and employers were referring not only to hard skills and the competence that young people need to be able to work and participate in higher and further education, but also to what are called the "softer" skills. They need to be able to solve problems, work in a team, identify and manage change, take responsibility for their decisions and contribute to planning.
They would be skills that the Youth Service and youth workers would try to develop with children and young people. That is a significant part of any informal education that should become more mainstream. The practicalities and pressures that schools are under to deliver results must be recognised. It is much easier to deliver results in subjects than to show that working with children on teambuilding and problem solving will produce anything tangible that you can measure in a table of achievement for the school. That is where the difficulty lies for the Youth Service and also for the Committee to come to a conclusion.
Ms McKinney talked about the appropriateness of the current curriculum and that it was not meeting the social needs of children - I believe she said it was inclined to be subject specific?
That perhaps fits in slightly with what Ms Young has just said. Is the curriculum like that because today's society demands it? Society demands that pupils leave school with academic qualifications far beyond what was required in the past. I know of jobs that I could have got as an 18-year-old with two A levels that would now require a degree.
Schools are only meeting the needs of the wider population and wider society. If they did not do that they would be accused of letting children down because the children would not be able to obtain the academic qualifications that employers look for. You do not get to talk about your "softer skills" at an interview unless you have the necessary qualifications to be called for interview.
Feedback tells us that many graduates are going into industry who are not equipped to manage other people; they have no creativity. Many employers - as well as research including the Gallagher/Smith report - are saying that academic success is to be cherished. However, academic institutions are churning out graduates that do not have the skills to solve problems, to get on with other people or to negotiate. In contrast to that, other research has been done that shows that employers want graduates with those skills. Society will need a marriage of sorts between quantitative and qualitative in the future.
The average secondary school offers 35-45 teaching periods in a week. How will that time be divided? How much will be allocated to the "softer skills" and pastoral element and how much will be allocated to academic classes?
I do not see there being any difference in the time allocated to academic and the pastoral elements. For example, problem solving should permeate the curriculum through the subjects taught. The problem is that the pastoral dimension is seen as a safety net locked in behind the academic curriculum. That needs to be turned on its head. Teachers need to ask themselves how they can incorporate problem solving, negotiation and managing into their subjects. It can be done.
It is being done at the moment in the secondary education sector. I was doing it up until a few months ago while teaching English.
There has been a tendency to modularise the pastoral life skills approach into a separate part of the curriculum due to the demands of A levels, AS levels and GCSEs. The hidden curriculum is, in fact, a complete part of the curriculum.
The Deputy Chairperson:
We have five minutes left so can we keep the questions short?
You talk about the ideal system that provides the most suitable options for every individual and about the scope for transferability between those chosen routes. How do you see that working in practice? I presume that you mean that a pupil could transfer if they realised that they had a talent in a vocational or academic area.
Part of the difficulty is that we are asking young people to make decisions that will rule out a number of choices at too early a stage. The number of choices available to young people could be kept open if we had a system that somehow valued the wide range of skills and intelligence that people have.
When I was teaching in a grammar school, I noticed that there may have been someone who had spent five years at a secondary school, but who could not go any further because that school did not offer A levels. The student then opted to transfer to the grammar sector, because that seemed to be the place to go if you wanted to pursue academic excellence. The system needs as many avenues as possible for young people to explore, in order that options by the age of 13 or 14 are not automatically restricted. At 13 or 14, people are only beginning to learn who they are. All of a sudden they are expected to make choices that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
The Deputy Chairperson:
Points two and three of your submission mentioned "transferability between chosen routes" and "equal status" for different routes. Many different terms are being used in that area - the Labour Party is using the term "specialist routes", and we have "different routes" in Northern Ireland. Does your document imply that you accept that post-primary education should be delivered through institutions that reflect those different specialisms? In Northern Ireland we have the grammar and secondary routes that are both vocational and academic. When parity of esteem between those different routes is mentioned in your document, is it implied that there should be institutions that reflect those different routes?
That is what we are saying. Rather than setting in stone the nature of those institutions, we are saying that whatever is there should be valued equally. Secondary schools should be equally as valued as grammar schools, as should their pupils.
Should selection for the 11-plus be done using continuous assessment?
We have discussed that, and it is a valid question. However, our expertise is not in the formal education system, and that is why we framed our response in the context of the role of the Youth Council and our own beliefs. We did that because there are those in the Youth Council who are positive about the 11-plus, and others who are not. Many Youth Council members work with children and young people who have not benefited from the 11-plus, and those members have serious reservations about it. As a council, we felt that we were not in a position to comment on the 11-plus because our expertise is not in that sector.
The Deputy Chairperson:
We have a couple of late entrants to the session. I would like to welcome the Chairman, Mr Danny Kennedy, and Mr Ken Robinson.
I would like to apologise for my late arrival to the meeting - it was in no way a snub. The Youth Council considers it important that young people make submissions on the issue. Are you satisfied that they have had adequate opportunity to make submissions to the review?
I was going to conclude our session by offering the Committee the opportunity to consult with young people, and which we could facilitate. We feel that young people should be involved in consultation and we have also carried out some research, which Mr Guilfoyle might like to comment on. If there is no time, we could forward that research to the Committee. We have been collating the views of young people, particularly teenagers.
The Deputy Chairperson:
We do not have time today but it would be useful if you could make that research available to the Committee.
Last October we facilitated a presentation given by a group of young people from diverse backgrounds to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. What the Chairman is referring to is our capacity to bring together a group of young people who represent diverse views and to support them in making a presentation to the Committee at a future date - if that would be useful.
Mr K Robinson:
It is interesting how we have constructed what we used to describe as a straitjacket. We talked about it and now it has come to pass. We have arrived at a situation where there is no joy for pupils or teachers in our system. That begs the question "How do we climb out of that particular pit?" Ms McKinney suggested that there must be more proactive engagement between the Youth Service and the education system. Briefly, what do you feel that entails?
We need to go back to initial teacher training again. There needs to be a review of the training programmes. We have an opportunity to bring in officers from the Youth Service to talk with undergraduates in their initial teacher training period, creating a sense of harmony between the Youth Service and the education system. However, managers of schools need to be shown the expertise that the Youth Service currently has. The Youth Service needs to talk itself up. It may be in the informal sector but it is an educator, just like the teaching profession.
Mr K Robinson:
You have moved beyond the woolly jumper stage?
Yes, we have.
Mr K Robinson:
Do you feel that you have a professional expertise that has not really been brought to bear?
The Deputy Chairperson:
Thank you very much for your submission. It would be worthwhile if the written results of your research could be forwarded to the Committee.
I wish you well in your deliberations.