Minutes of Evidence:  15 March 2001


Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Hamilton
Ms Lewsley
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh
Mr K Robinson

Mr F Bunting       )
Ms N O'Donnell   )    Irish National Teachers' Organisation

The Chairperson:

I am pleased to welcome Mr Frank Bunting no stranger to the Education Committee, and Nuala O'Donnell from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO). We shall hear representations from them on the review of post-primary education.

You are most welcome. Thank you very much indeed. We look forward to what you have to say and, no doubt, an equally lively exchange of views.

Mr Bunting:

We shall drive the dullness levels down.

Ms O'Donnell:

I shall open the discussion with a summary of the INTO position. You should have a copy of our submission to the review body and also our answers to the questions you sent us.

The INTO has wished to abolish selection since its inception in 1947, and it has carried that position through year on year. It has been the subject of debate at practically every conference and teachers have unanimously concurred that selection should go. A comprehensive system of education is what we envisage for Northern Ireland.

On that basis, we have certain issues which we feel also need to be taken into account, and in the review of post-primary education there are a number of factors that we feel are very important.

First, we feel that the selective system should cease as soon as possible, and that there should be no system of selection at all between primary and post-primary education. We feel that there are two stages. The first thing would be to abolish the selection system - there is much dialogue and debate about what should follow from there.

What is very important at the moment is the current review of the curriculum, of which phase one has been completed. Phase two will soon come out for consultation. In fact, we have just received the proposals for Key Stage 4, which we have to respond to by the end of April. All those factors have an important part to play in the kind of post-primary education system we will examine.

We feel that the following points should underpin any new system of education. There should be equality of opportunity for all children. Social inclusion is very important, and all schools should have equal status and parity of esteem. Funding and resourcing disparities between schools and school phases should be removed, and there should be equal and appropriate funding and resourcing for all schools. There should be special recognition for the needs of schools and teachers in areas of social disadvantage.

We feel that choice is important, that is to say the abolition of the selective transfer system, which allows no real choice for pupils or parents. All subjects should be valued equally. There should be a common currency for all qualifications, so that you can actually see what qualifications. That is a summary of our position.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much indeed. I shall open this up to general discussion and questions. I should like to ask you one or two questions. First, you have been campaigning since 1947 to have transfer selection abolished. Why do you think you have been so unsuccessful to date? Secondly - this is not meant to cause offence - how do you avoid the creation of "bog-standard" comprehensive systems, referred to by none other than the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell. How do you address those two issues?

Mr Bunting:

The first answer would be "Long runs the fox". It is not a question of how long you campaign for something. If you consult with your members, who are teachers in schools throughout Northern Ireland, and they continue to say that selection is not in the interests of children at post-primary level - or of those in the upper stages of primary level - you have to bring that to the attention of the public. We have done that over many decades and have been successful on a number of occasions. You will see in the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) response that we try to take an historical approach to our analysis. Anyone who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.

We had major studies done. The Burgess report was published in 1971 and - fortunately or unfortunately depending on your political perspective - the Stormont Government was prorogued immediately thereafter. There was no opportunity to put the Burgess recommendations into effect. Those recommendations were very similar to the recommendations the INTO was making at the time - and to those which the INTO is making thirty years later, in 2001, though the situation has developed considerably since.

The Burgess report came out in 1971. Later there was the Melchett review, about which we had very substantial discussions. It went as far as the Cowan report bringing forward actual feasibility studies for post-primary schools at different levels. That came to an end when Lord Elton was bought into Northern Ireland. One of the benefits of devolution is that we have a politician elected in Northern Ireland as Minister of Education. Lord Elton brought forward the Conservative Party policy of the day in Britain of terminating the development of comprehensive schools. It was an ideological issue for the Conservative Government at that time.

There have been serious difficulties, but it would not do to underestimate the fact that the selective system has benefited a large number of people in Northern Ireland. Sammy Wilson has already drawn attention to some of them. Teachers in grammar schools have benefited considerably since there has been a burgeoning employment situation in grammar schools due to the way in which Government policy worked.

The middle and working classes in Northern Ireland who have a positive disposition and bent towards education have also benefited greatly from it. They have all got into grammar schools in certain areas. I am from the Falls Road, and I benefited from a grammar school education. The people who have lost out are those who have been disadvantaged or who come from low socio-economic groupings, who do not have a voice in society, and who are unable to influence politicians or political parties to implement their will.

The situation is confirmed by the Department of Education's statistical press bulletin of 23 March 1999. It states quite categorically that in the post-primary phase 40% of pupils attend grammar schools. In 1947, when we were talking about the implementation of an academic curriculum for grammar schools, it was deemed that 12% of the school population was eligible or suitable for an academic education. Gradually, as the years have gone by, this strange notion of the percentage of children who would benefit from "an academic education" has changed, and the figure has risen to 40%. What has happened is that the result of that policy of drift has been visited upon teachers, pupils and families. The secondary sector has contracted and, in a situation of dysfunctionalism and destabilisation, pupils' education and training have been undermined. That is how we see the last 50 years, and we believe it is the reason that INTO Northern Ireland members's views on the nature of selection and post-primary education have not been fulfilled.

In relation to the final point, I dispute that Alastair Campbell is a product of the Labour Party system. He is yet another Oxford-educated person operating as a spin doctor, and the remarks he made were deplorable. They have regularly been seen to be deplorable, and he has been castigated right across the political spectrum. Most people are quite shocked at what he said.

In the 1970s, when the Republican party was in power in the United States, the word "liberal" became a term of abuse. In educational circles, among some right-wing parties, the word "comprehensive" has become an epithet associated with low standards. That is totally untrue, and totally unjustified. We are not ashamed to say that we are in favour of comprehensive schools, as our colleagues said. Comprehensive primary schools are very successful and could be more successful if selection was abolished. We see no difficulty at all with all-ability second level schools promoting children's education and development.

Ms O'Donnell:

The curriculum is a very important part of comprehensive schools. If we get that right for comprehensive and other schools we can prevent having any kind of "bog standard". We can have a high standard, and that is very important.

Ms Lewsley:

The INTO believes that children should be able to go to the school of their choice, using a selection method similar to that for primary schools. How would this work in practice? How should it be decided which pupils gain places in schools which can become oversubscribed? How can the danger of selection by postcode be cut out?

Mr Bunting:

That is a very difficult question. Many of you have already made the comment that you have to live with the current situation. One of the things we are saying is that the selective transfer system should go, and that an early decision should be made on that. The much more difficult question of the nature of the post-primary education system must then be determined. If we were to bring about a situation whereby the child could have the school of his or her choice, that would be the first time it had ever happened in Northern Ireland. Although Governments have talked about parental choice, the selective transfer system largely means school choice.

Many pupils are not able to go to the school they wish. We are in a very difficult situation, and we do not have answers to it. Our solution would be a comprehensive school system. However, considering the situation we are in, we must be very creative.

We do not have any answers today, but we have begun a dialogue with other organisations such as the Governing Bodies Association. We shall continue that dialogue to see if we can find situations which provide opportunities for people to move from the primary to the post-primary system using either the school systems we have at present or combinations thereof.

Mr S Wilson:

I want to press Mr Bunting on his last answer since everyone who has advocated that kind of comprehensive system has unfortunately avoided the very issue Mrs Lewsley asked you about. You are the third group - I have kept a careful record from Hansard because I shall use it on some occasion - who have said that it is a hard question and that you do not have an answer. I shall not tell you who the other two groups were. However, once you go down that road you are in danger of allowing economic selection, for that is the only alternative to academic or educational selection.

Allow me to take you through your own document - I should like you to explain this contradiction. In the first paragraph you say that you want to end selection. In your response to question two in your submission you say that children should be able to go to the school of their choice. However, in the next paragraph, you say that you are against open enrolment. How can children go to the school of their choice if you restrict the numbers allowed to enrol with a particular school? Furthermore, if you do restrict that, how do you avoid selection? You are saying that, on the one hand, parents have a choice while on the other hand schools cannot respond to it. How do you then avoid selecting from among the youngsters beating at the door considering that there are not enough places for all of them?

Mr Bunting:

I shall take this stage by stage, for I feel it is important, if you want to maintain the standards that we have in Northern Ireland, to develop a consensual model. There is no point in breaking up school systems in an attempt to move forward, because the chances are that in the destruction process, some children's education will be disrupted. I do not think that there is any excuse for that. We must find a way forward using a consensual model that involves all the different groups working together.

We are prepared to put our proposals on the table and discuss other people's ideas to see whether we can achieve compromise. We need, in the absence of a selective transfer system, a post-primary system that is designed to meet the needs of this century. The grammar secondary divide we currently have does not meet those needs.

It is crystal clear that we must move towards. The situation is complex because of Government policy and those policies brought about by the Belfast Agreement. In the Agreement, as I understand it, several forms of education are to be promoted by you. Those are Irish-medium education, integrated education, Catholic education, other denominational education and controlled education, not to mention the voluntary grammar sector.

In addition there is a perception that there should be single-sex schools. If you consider all of those policy imperatives, some of which existed before, but some of which are in the Belfast Agreement, how do you develop a post-primary system that embraces all of those things?

It can only happen if everyone is prepared to compromise. It is much more complex than a straightforward question at Catholic grammar, Catholic secondary, Protestant grammar and Protestant secondary. As Ms O'Donnell said, it is also related to the curriculum review since the consultation and decisions which are being determined in Westminster will influence the nature of our education structure. It is also related to the most important factor - the funding of schools.

The Education Committee has already received documentation and consultation from the Department of Education on changes to the proposed funding of schools. All those things are directly related to the sort of school structure we have. In that state of flux there are no easy answers, but the status quo cannot stay - it must evolve. The best way in which it can do so is through some form of transfer from primary to post-primary school which has the support of teachers, parents and the wider society.

Teachers will not be used as patsies to transfer people to a selected system. That is one of the transfer systems which the Department of Education has already used, and it rebounded against teachers when their professional judgement was used to fill grammar school places. That will never happen again. Teachers will never allow themselves to be put in a situation where their professional judgement is used to transfer. There will be a system whereby teachers may have to take more definite action.

The INTO has been taking things "softly, softly" for the past 50 years, but gradually our patience will run out. We are investing a great deal in this process to ensure that we achieve a consensual model which is in the interests of children, teachers and society.

Mr McElduff:

If radical changes are proposed by the review body, what time frame is feasible for implementation, and what will the likely effect on grammar schools be? Secondly, do you recommend streaming or banding in the comprehensive system?

Ms O'Donnell:

The first question is difficult to answer, since we do not know how radical the changes will be. The body will have to be realistic as to how that change can happen depending on whether it is the schools on the system that is to change and whether it should be phased in. Those things can only be decided when we see what the changes will be. We should like to have a realistic period for it to be done properly instead of being rushed through, but it must be done relatively quickly. It is about getting a balance. We can only decide on the timescale when we see the proposals.

With regard to comprehensives we would see that as banding as opposed to streaming. If you are talking about putting pupils into streams it is the same thing as selecting them. However, if pupils are working within banding in different subject areas they have more of a chance to develop themselves. That question has to be taken in the context of the curriculum review with the proposals for the Key Stage 4 because there will be elements, if that comes through, for a lot more choice. Banding may not even be an issue in some of those cases.

Mr Bunting:

The review body will not, and cannot, make radical recommendations. Any recommendations it will make will already have been proposed by the 1973 Burgess report, or will have been proposed by the Labour Government consultation exercise in the mid 1970s. Unfortunately, there is nothing new going on here. We are revisiting a subject which has been visited many times. The Government is moved to taking action where it has been, for a variety of reasons, not pertaining to education but pertaining to politics.

It has been stranded. This issue should have been addressed by the Stormont Government in 1971-72, but this did not happen and everything has changed since then. Our colleagues from the National Association of Head Teachers were asked to define the term "vocational." In the Northern Ireland context, it is the grammar schools which are vocational ¾ pupils at these schools are guaranteed jobs, and they are educated in preparation for a professional career.

My friend and colleague, Wilfred Mulryne told me that, as principal of Methodist College, his major concern is that large numbers of pupils are going, like lemmings, towards such professions as law and medicine. Pupils are not looking towards Northern Ireland's wealth-creating sector within which they could make enormous differences. They would be able to create the difference which would make this society a successful European region. Until we can break that cycle, we will be caught in that situation.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you, Mr Bunting, for answering my question before I asked it. I noted that you would probably refine your definition of the term "vocational" in response to my earlier question, and this was the case. Mr Mulryne's graphic description of what is happening is interesting. Grammar schools are vocational even though that title is not ascribed to them.

Mr Bunting, your union is in a unique position; it is an all-Ireland union, therefore it can look over the fence to see what the neighbours are up to. You have used the term "vocational" very lightly. I have been through your submission several times and I noticed you have defined that one. How do you regard the Irish Republic's problems, vis-à-vis the difficulties that we are currently trying to wrestle with? What do you think of the solutions that they are using to combat those problems? Is there anything that we can learn from their actions, or are there obvious dangers that should be flagged up to us now?

Ms O'Donnell:

The union has been looking quite closely at the post-primary education system in the Republic of Ireland, including pupil transfers and other issues. Problems exist in some areas, but overall the Republic has what could be described as a comprehensive system, and it believes it to work effectively. The Republic is in the process of reviewing its curriculum, and I think that this will determine the standard that is produced in the schools.

It has introduced new systems ¾ such as the community colleges ¾ and they have been very successful. The INTO is looking into this aspect in even greater detail than before. Our colleagues in the Republic have told us that, although no system can be flawless, the Government is also continually trying to improve its education system. We would like to see more common work, which would allow improvements to be made across the board.

Mr K Robinson:

We are constantly told that the Republic's educational system has been the driver of the Celtic Tiger.

Mr Bunting:

Everybody is keen on profiting from the Celtic Tiger.

Mr K Robinson:

At the moment, Northern Ireland has a relatively successful and improving economy. We must ask ourselves if we want to gear this restructured educational system to service that economy or, alternatively, if we need to address some of the educational points, as referred to by other witnesses?

Ms O'Donnell:

Both are important. You can - [Interruption]

Mr K Robinson:

Are they exclusive?

Ms O'Donnell:

No, they are not exclusive. Both issues have been important factors in the curriculum review debate which incorporates economic factors in addition to considerations of the type of education that we want to provide in Northern Ireland and the kind of people that we want to produce. That is why the curriculum is now based more on skills and values. The goal is to achieve a balance between the two. This is a difficult objective but we should be striving to achieve it.

Mr K Robinson:

Mr Bunting mentioned a grammar school that is not focusing on the wealth-creating sector of society. Society must be aware that some young people somewhere have to create that wealth before the whole system collapses.

Mr Bunting:

There is a problem with the size of the subvention that we get from Westminster. Everyone wants Northern Ireland to be a successful society; however, a good deal of hypocrisy prevails. In a recent Department of Education statement, Martin McGuinness pointed out that this is the European year of languages. Despite this, the only thing that the Department of Education has done in the past 10 years is to close down European language provision in the teacher training colleges.

Children should not only be taught European languages in primary schools but they should also be taught modern world languages. At present, that can only be done on the basis of voluntarism because of the lack of capability and capacity of the system. When the Department of Education examines children's needs, it should not base them on what the Northern Ireland economy might be like in 15 years time, because by that stage people's needs may have changed.

The INTO is not interested in bringing forward a technical system which replicates the German model because Northern Ireland does not have such companies as Volkswagen or Audi for which to manufacture widgets to high levels of specification. Northern Ireland's asset is the intelligence of its people and their capacity to develop in the knowledge-based economy which we believe will form the basis of our success in the next 10 to 15 years. The Northern Ireland people should be made as flexible and adaptive as possible therefore basic components such as a language provision must be made available to them. It is a shame and disgrace that that has not been provided. That area needs a major turn around and a skewing of resources. It needs more teachers to be employed and better paid.

Last year Stranmillis University College and St Mary's University College received the lowest number of applicants for teacher places in the past 20 years. I attribute that to the development of peace and democracy in Northern Ireland and the growth of its economy. People are now looking beyond careers in teaching towards better paid jobs. It is not difficult to become a better paid person than a teacher. Salaries in the police service start at £19,000 for 18 year olds, but an Honours trained teacher must have five or six years' professional experience before earning such a salary.

Mr K Robinson:

There are a number of unemployed graduates in Northern Ireland. Is there any way of bringing those trained teachers into the new system, whatever that might be, to ensure that it starts off with the best possible pupil/teacher ratios? Then some of the longstanding problems of the current school structures can be addressed.

Mr Bunting:

The INTO advocates the need to re-examine education in Northern Ireland. All education systems must be examined - comprehensive education and education in the round. An inquiry into the big problems and strategic issues, such as the conditions and service of teachers and salary of teachers, should be carried out within a three or four month time limit, and with the Education Committee's co-operation and involvement. It should outline the direction which society needs to take in regard to education. That has already been done in Scotland.

Mr S Wilson:

You make several fairly strong statements in your submission, among them that you support the introduction of a system of comprehensive, grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland. In the 'Summary' section of the 'INTO Response To The Review Body On Post-Primary Education In Northern Ireland' you say that

"Existing government policy providing grant-aided funding to various forms of post-primary provision - Catholic, Voluntary, Controlled, Integrated, Irish Medium and single-sex schools - complicates reform and renders "local" and "sectoral" approaches impossible to implement."

Would all of these various divisions have to be abolished before a comprehensive system of education could be introduced? If it is impossible to have no selection without open enrolment and parental choice, does that not make your objective even more difficult to achieve, given the political undertones?

Mr Bunting:

Ireland is a small place, and it would be much more sensible to have a system of primary and post-primary education which replicate each other. In this way, a child who was born and educated in Ballymoney could move to a new school in Cork to study the same curriculum and be subject to the same assessment arrangements. It would be a seamless process, and that is our objective.

The Belfast Agreement encourages Irish-medium education, Irish studies and Ulster-Scots studies on both parts of the island, and both parts of the island would benefit greatly from such educational provision. Creating the ethos of the Catholic and Protestant churches in that system, and the distinct ethos of integrated schools, is a matter which would have to be addressed. Those are questions of school management and funding. That would be our ideal. It would require people to give, and that is something to which we must aspire.

Mr S Wilson:

That is not the ideal. You say that it is impossible to implement without that happening.

Ms O'Donnell:

Unless all schools and education systems have parity of esteem - and parity of funding - it will be impossible. If some schools are viewed as being better than others and receive better funding than others, there can be no proper comprehensive system.

Mr Bunting:

You must know from your own experience, Mr Wilson, the kind of gyrations which parents might get up to in order to get their children into a school, which is valued because it happens to be a grammar school. That goes on across the board, and principals and teachers are involved in it as well. By no stretch of the imagination is it educational, and it is certainly of no benefit to the children involved. I have heard the excuse given that the child had a headache or that he saw the bogeyman on the way to the test and that that is why he did not do well.

People must live with the stigma of failure all their life.

Mr S Wilson:

I am not sure that your interpretation of that paragraph is correct. It merely states that to "grant-aid" - there is no mention of equal grant-aiding - "renders local and sectoral approaches impossible to implement".

In the opening paragraph on page 1 of your response you make a point about people being stigmatised for the rest of their lives. Tony Gallagher does not say that at all, because paragraph 2.5.2 of his report states that overall, the attitude of youngsters in school, regardless of which type of establishment, has been gauged as being fairly positive. Pupils tended to focus on their own school rather than compare it with others, and according to Gallagher those who went to the secondary schools - whom you say should have felt the greatest sense of failure and had the most negative repercussions - found their schools more supportive.

Mr Bunting:

I have also read the Gallagher report, and you can draw from it what you wish. I am an 11-plus failure, and I remember the traumatic experience which I went through when I failed. I know the impact it has had on me right up to the present day. The majority of children who go through the system are like me. You can pull whatever you wish out of the hat, but let me tell you this: it is not in the educational or social interests of society for children to be failed at the age of 11 simply to put bums on certain types of seats. It is neither proper nor ethical, and we have said as much for many decades. I am very pleased that so many people, including those in business, agree that it is not in society's economic interests for that to happen.

The Chairperson:

Thank you.

Mr Bunting:

We have already given you some copies of the literature that we brought with us. We have brought additional copies along. These are the finished articles.

Ms O'Donnell:

The printed version.

The Chairperson:

The authorised version.

Ms O'Donnell:


Mr Bunting:

It is in blue.

Ms O'Donnell:

Everything in the INTO is in blue.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your contribution today. We obviously look forward to other exchanges which we are likely to have.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more

Useful Contacts

Contact us

Contacts for different parts of the Assembly

Contact Us