Minutes of Evidence: 15 March 2001
COMMITTEE FOR EDUCATION
REVIEW OF POST-PRIMARY EDUCATION IN
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
(National Association of Head Teachers (NI))
Thursday 15 March 2001
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr K Robinson
Mr G Irwin
Mr I Arbuthnot National Association of Head Teachers (NI)
Mr A Greenwood
Dr D Hamilton
The Education Committee welcomes the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). This afternoon's session is somewhat male-dominated, but I can do nothing about that. You are here to make a presentation on the transfer procedure, and we look forward to the opportunity to exchange views and ask questions. This is a recorded session, so feel free to be indiscreet.
The association appreciates the opportunity to come here today. The NAHT is made up of head teachers and deputies. It has changed its name to the Association for School Leaders because across the water there is a new position of assistant principal, and it is likely that there will soon be a similar post in Northern Ireland. The association represents all phases of education - with pupils aged three to 19 - so we believe that we are very well equipped to deal with the issue. I wrote our submission on behalf of post-primary and primary principals. We made a joint submission, which is clear from the title.
I will outline the key points of the submission, and we will then answer your questions. The NAHT in Northern Ireland believes that selection should be abolished for a number of reasons. Since its inception, the selection procedure has been divisive and exclusive. In the second paragraph of the report, we make the point that selection identifies a percentage of pupils to benefit from a particular type of education. That group then progresses to higher education and the remainder will leave education at the statutory age. In the third paragraph we stated our belief that selection is outdated, outmoded and unsuited to our present needs. We do not believe that seven years of primary experience can be tested by two one-hour papers.
We do not believe that the test can accurately predict a pupil's future performance. Two of us represent the non-selective sector, and we could cite many cases where this flaw has been apparent. It is difficult to specify what selection measures. It definitely skews the primary sector's curriculum, and my colleagues from the primary sector will testify to that. The test is incompatible with, and a barrier to, the development of the curriculum in the primary sector. Perhaps most importantly, it fails to focus on the child's educational needs. We believe that it has not met the changing needs of society and the economy.
When we were examining the Gallagher and Smith report we also looked at the Gardner and Cowan report 'Testing the Test'. On page 2 a doubt is expressed about its fitness for purpose of selection. It does not meet the requirements of international standards in educational testing. Over the page it says that Sutherland found in 1990 that
"at best one in seven and at worst one in five candidates were misplaced by the tests".
From the report again, it is not officially known what the test measures. Therefore, we believe that our reasons are educationally sound and sufficiently compelling for prompt action to be taken. Selection at the age of 11 should cease.
Our submission deals with the pastoral aspect of school life too. We state that all schools are responsible for the pastoral care and welfare of their pupils. However, selection can undermine the ethos of a school and the principles upon which any system of pastoral care is built. The reasons are stated in the report. It places children under stress. We believe that it devalues the majority of children. It does not provide for the development of the whole person.
We point out the exclusion created by the selection procedure. It fosters neither the concept of inclusiveness nor the notion that all children are equally cherished by the education system. It ignores the fact that boys mature later than girls. It does nothing to improve the equality of access to life opportunities.
I turn now to personal development and self-esteem. Selection undoubtedly - and some of us have seen this - dents the confidence of children who are deemed to be unsuccessful by the procedure. In the non-selective sector we have to start rebuilding their confidence. We want to avoid anecdotal evidence, but both Mr Arbuthnot and I can give many examples of young people who come to non-selective schools after failing in the eyes of society at age 11, go through all the stages of education and are extremely successful. Those pupils are successful in many ways - not just academically in that they can complete degrees and PhD courses, but also as entrepreneurs and in other ways. However, we will steer clear of any anecdotal evidence. We believe that the test damages self-esteem and confidence. It does have a bearing on the child's emotional and educational development. It does create and perpetuate a feeling of failure. It leads to feelings of inadequacy.
I conclude with our recommendations. Transfer to post-primary education should continue to take place at age 11. We note the Dickson Plan that operates in the Craigavon area, and we understand that there is a minority belief among some members of our association that it would be more beneficial for pupils to transfer at the end of Key Stage 3. However, a process of parental consultation, professional guidance and external moderation is needed.
The balance between urban and rural areas must be found and there must be an examination of alternative school structures in the context of the abolition of selection. Different pathways exist, including vocational and academic routes, but the NAHT believes that all children should be able to access and benefit from both.
Any system which might be put in place must command the wholehearted allegiance of teachers, parents, pupils, business, industry, commerce and other sectors of society. It must be thoroughly planned, generously resourced and be seen as an investment for the future.
The NAHT believes that the brightest pupils in society must continue to be challenged and that all children should be encouraged to achieve to the maximum of their ability. There must be equality of status between the academic and vocational paths and the term "vocational", as it is currently understood, must be redefined.
The appropriateness of the common curriculum must also be examined; a review of the primary and post-primary sector curricula is going on at present. The association's guiding principles are that there should be equity of access, appropriate consideration given to the impact of delayed maturation, and parity of esteem accorded to all young people, irrespective of ability. The association also stresses that the educational experiences of young people are valid and relevant, that there should be equality of status between academic and vocational routes and that a genuine concept of inclusiveness is vital. The association is also guided by the principle that all decisions must be based on professional guidance, assessment, pupil aptitude, ability and choice and input from parents and parental consultation.
Education must not be constrained by the existing structures. Any possible structure must meet the educational and other needs of all young people. The structures must ensure equality of status and parity of esteem if they are to gain widespread credibility, respect and success in what must become a new education dispensation.
I understand that you are advocating a comprehensive education system. How do you avoid creating a "bog-standard" comprehensive system? How do you remove the possibility that certain grammar schools might walk on their own by becoming independent, thus creating a rich man's club for education, based on American Express.
You used the term "bog-standard". Secondary schools are doing everything they can to avoid being deemed "bog-standard". The fact is that we can educate children ¾ whom society has deemed failures ¾ to a standard in excess of the potential which the normal distribution curves suggest they possess. There is excellence in many controlled and maintained secondary schools in the Province among children who have been deemed failures. The lack of social esteem and self-worth of those children is a result of that system. Yet they are still reaching standards far beyond those predicted by the normal distribution curve.
I have recently heard reference made to fine grammar schools. Grammar schools are receiving a good deal of praise by comparison to the other schools in which, it is said, standards need to be improved. That is very wide off the mark. People need to look at what we are doing.
Therefore you do not accept Alastair Campbell's description of comprehensives as "bog-standard".
Most certainly not. Northern Ireland's education system is more similar to the comprehensive model than people are prepared to admit. I can identify a grammar school that accepts children who have got a grade D in their transfer test. I concede that they do not accept too many children who have a grade D, but if there is spare capacity they will fill up, because it is all about money. The more children that they enrol the more money they will have in their budget, therefore they will admit pupils who have scored as low as grade D. Ostensibly, they call themselves a grammar school, but as far as I am concerned, they are a comprehensive school because they accept pupils who demonstrate the full range of ability.
I am not knocking grammar schools because I was educated in the grammar school system, but I can recall - not many years ago - an advertisement by a prestigious grammar school for a special needs teacher. We have a comprehensive system here, but people do not like to admit that. Many of our grammar schools that cannot reach their full capacity with children who get As or B1s or B2s will accept those with C1s and C2s, and if they have to accept grade Ds to reach their enrolment capacity, they will do so.
Does anyone want to address the risk of independent schools?
I am not too concerned about whether a school is labelled as comprehensive, secondary, grammar or independent, but I am concerned about the quality of the relationships in each school. I teach in a truly comprehensive school ¾ a primary school. We have children from all backgrounds and of all ability levels. Our school can be described in four words: "providing opportunity" and "realising potential". Regardless of their location, every school must provide opportunity for children and realise the potential of the children who are enrolled.
We do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. We want to provide the opportunity for children to be high-fliers, but we also want children to have the opportunity to grow at their own pace in a way that will encourage them. We want them to embrace a number of courses. Mr Irwin referred to specific grammar schools. I call to mind a number of grammar schools which narrowly escaped getting into the raising of school standards, some of which comprise A-grade pupils only. I am also concerned about the fallout rate from grammar schools where pupils were encouraged to leave in the pre-league table days, and we thank you for that. In those days there was a certain massaging and preparation of the figures before they became a reality.
We must look at the quality of provision in Northern Ireland. We must consider geographical distribution. What suits Ballycastle may also suit Kilkeel or Fivemiletown and might be delivered with success. However, in Dungannon, for example, pupils with grades A to D might gain entry to particular grammar schools because of a decline in particular sections of the community. That is in contrast to schools in this area where a pupil who gains a grade A has choice as opposed to preference. Therefore, we must instil the notion of choice in the range of opportunities available to pupils and schools.
I also work in the primary sector, and I endorse Mr Hamilton's comments about the ideals for primary schools in Northern Ireland. We are finding it difficult to perpetuate those ideals when this system is grafted on to the primary sector. We are both in the process of picking up the pieces after D-day, when the results come out. There are many damaged children who, for one reason or another, have been graded with a 'D'.
One document was much more perceptive and damning than the other. In one, it is made clear that the test itself cannot possibly have any credibility. This is a system in which in children can score maybe 60 or 70% in a practice test, but when they sit the actual transfer test they discover that, because of certain circumstances outside their control, that mark is the equivalent of a grade D.
When I was at school, if I had scored 65 or 70 per cent, I would have thought I was pretty hot stuff. The results can have a psychological effect on the children. The skewing of the primary curriculum from P4 to P7, when it is incumbent upon us ¾ because of the marketing system that schools are currently undergoing ¾ to produce the goods in the primary system, demeans the hard work of teachers, parents and principals. In short, the status quo is not an option, there must be change.
In your introduction you mentioned that the transfer to post-primary education should take place following a process of parental consultation, professional guidance and external moderation. How do you see this working in practice, and what do you mean by external moderation? What role do you see the teachers and principals playing, and what arrangements would you propose to ensure a meaningful involvement of parents?
It is a corker of a question, isn't it?
Mr D Hamilton:
Parents and, more importantly, children must be involved in any scheme. The children in my own school are certainly well equipped to be involved in that decision-making process. While it would be contrary to the present system, I have considered directly involving the children, along with their parents, at the time of the parental interview. My children in primary seven are as mature as I was when I left grammar school to go to Stranmillis College to become a teacher, and that is saying something.
How do you envisage the process of parental consultation working in practice? What do you mean by external moderation? How do you get teachers and principals and parents involved?
In my own school, and in my last school in Cullybackey, an exam to transfer pupils from primary school to post-primary school was not needed. In my own school we could easily transfer pupils and achieve as much success, if not more, than we have under the present scheme. However, any system is only as fair as it is at the margin. How can we ensure that the weakest child in my school is well placed against the strongest or weakest link in neighbouring schools? I clearly remember my days as a vice-principal, when my principal expected me to rank the children in order. I had thirty-six pupils in my class. A new entrant to my class was ranked as thirty-third out of thirty-six, and the pupil's mother came up to the school with a great head of steam because her child had always been in the top three in her class at her last school.
We should have some form of continuous assessment, as we have in schoools at the moment. At my school, parents are consulted twice a year, and they receive a written report at the end of each year. Parents are well aware of their children's progress. As pupils approach the 11-plus stage, schools should be in a position to state that children would be expected to be at a certain level to gain entry to those schools. If they make an application, it would be on the understanding that there will be evidence, perhaps externally moderated material.
The funding for the non-grammar sector should be generous enough to provide an adequate level of staffing to deliver the needs of those children. For instance, if there were 30 pupils per class in a post-primary grammar school, why could that not be 15 pupils per class in a non-grammar, non-selective area, to provide for the individual needs of those children? That is what I am about.
Mr K Robinson:
It has been fascinating to listen to you, because you are talking from experience. As a Committee we value that more than anything else. You are telling us what it is like to be at the chalk face.
Looking beyond the mechanics of the transfer procedure as we know and love it at the moment, your submission refers to vocational education and training. Can you define "vocational training"? We are using that as a label, yet it means 100 different things to 100 different people.
There is a major danger there. To be frank, I do not think that any of us really know exactly what we mean by that. I understand that some of you have been to Germany. How can we say to a child of 11, "You are going down the vocational route; you are going to be a plumber or a bricklayer or whatever", without taking in to consideration maturation and how they can change.
We do not want to become anecdotal, but as George said, we have children who come to secondary schools as perceived failures - their parents, families and society see them as failures - and they are not supposed to get anything out of the experience, yet they go on to further and higher education and do very well. At the age of 11 it is too early to think in those terms. The vast proportion of what we teach in schools - English, maths, social studies, history, geography, languages - is unimportant. What are these children going to be doing? Dovetailing joints, fluidics, pneumatics or computers? You cannot rubbish what we are all operating and the thinking processes that are going on now. You need an element of that all the time.
We take your point. We use the concept and definition of "vocation", and maybe we need to revisit that term and redefine it. It is probable that everyone in this room has a view and a definition of the term "vocational". This came from Sean McIlwee of St Patrick's, Maghera, which you and I would consider a comprehensive school. It is a very successful school. Sean feels very strongly about these things. "Vocational" is understood and articulated, in its broadest sense, to include areas such as ICT, business studies, health and social care, as well as the areas that Ivan has been talking about. Perhaps we need to tease out what we all mean by "vocational" a bit more.
I recall attending the "Qualifying for Success" conferences not along ago and listening to John Barnhill, the academic registrar of the University of Ulster. He praised those students who had come through the vocational route and said they were better prepared to deal with university study than those who had taken the academic route, because they had gone through their two years of A-levels and had their terminal examination. No doubt they were very able and bright young people, but in terms of independent study, they did not have the first idea. Those are John Barnhill's words. Those students who had come through the vocational route - health and social care, business studies - were giving help in terms of how to study and how to cope in the library. Perhaps we need to revisit the term "vocational" and broaden our definition of it.
Mr K Robinson:
Unless we define "vocational" how can we make it subject to a parity of esteem, if that is what we need to do?
The present range of GNVQ courses in post-primary schools could be regarded as a possible avenue of approach. Similarly, on an anecdotal level, someone who left Methodist College to get a state exhibition to Queen's, but who during his time at school chose to do a woodwork course rather than an extra A-level German course would now refer, in his work at a medical centre in Canada, to how that experience fashioned his thinking and helped his medical skills.
We come back to equality of esteem and of opportunity. If it is meaningful for children to progress on a course of study which heightens their level of self-esteem and which will be recognised by public bodies as an admission into third level education, so be it. I notice that at least two people at the table have picked up pens to write with their left hand. When my brother was at school he was forced to write with his right hand - I always watched him when his left hand was coming towards me. The system dictated how one wrote. It was the same with selection and with Queen's University. The system dictated our thinking and expectations.
We must go beyond systems and look at individuals and at their abilities so that we can realise their potential.
We have heard of secondary principals whose job is to rebuild the confidence of pupils who have been deemed to have failed the 11-plus. Mr Greenwood, you have told us that between what you call D-day and the end of June there are many observations which you could make. Can tell us something about them?
A sociologist would have a field day watching and observing a primary seven class from September until June. The interactions that happen between the children and the shifts in friendships of six years are remarkable to witness. In the practice tests one child will score 15 or 16 and it is obvious that he will not make it; his best friend will score 80 or 90 and it is obvious that he will. The two will start to drift apart for no other reason than an artificial constraint. That is disturbing for teachers to watch.
The skewing of the curriculum is unfortunate, because it means that some of the fully inclusive things which we should be doing must be pushed to one side. By mid-February we are finding that we have not done certain subjects in physical education with the children or that we have not got them to do their controlled technology and computer studies. These must be slotted in between mid-February and D-day. It is a juggling match. We are trying to stuff subjects in which, in the normal course of events, would have been part of an ordinary structured timetable. It has a terrible social impact on the children.
They must also wait to find out if they have been accepted for the grammar school or the secondary school to which they have applied. They find it very stressful to have to wait until June 2.
Parents' role in supporting their children is another important factor that will not change.
I am not so sure of that. John Hume once said that there were no characters left in Derry because they had all passed the 11-plus.
Just as you see pupils' friendships changing, I see the friendships of mothers at the gate actually changing as well.
This is where our role as primary school principals comes into play. If we see that a parent is unable to provide support - on account of either placement, thinking or expectation ¾ it is up to us to support these families. We make them aware of the range of options available, what will happen to them, and the tremendous support mechanisms available to them. They can always come back to us for advice at any time. I always have children wandering through my door. Indeed, in this past fortnight, I was visited by a mother whom I was sure was going to commit suicide before the end of the day - and I jest not. She asked me to promise to look after her wee boy who is now in the third or forth form. I had to make certain telephone calls to ensure that the family structure was being supported at home.
However, you are quite right. When I was a boy all I asked for was an opportunity, and it is my job to provide boys and girls with opportunity regardless of their background. That is common to all schools. It is one of the features of schools and primary schools in Northern Ireland -there is a caring nature of people taking time, right across the board.
A number of parents would fall into the category of not being in the position, probably because of their own under-achievement, to help their children to answer the kind of questions that are asked in the transfer test. My own daughter sat the exam a very short time ago and I know the kind of questions that are involved.
These problems do not happen at post-primary level only. When we are preparing pupils in the run up to the test, we are faced with the phenomenon of nine-year-olds being sent to private tutors for extra lessons. Some parents can afford to pay £12 or £15 an hour for a tutor, but others cannot. What happens to social inclusiveness then?
You are identifying the ongoing society stigmatisation that exists. How long are we going to go on doing this? I have children in my school now who are going to be parents sooner than we would probably want them to be parents, and they are going to be in exactly the same situation. In their opinion, the education system has failed them because it labelled them. I do not want to become anecdotal, but children going in to GCSE mock exams have said to me; "Sir, why are you doing this to me again? Sure, you know I am thick." They say this because they were deemed thick when they were 11 years old. When they have children they will feel the same way. This is what is being identified and we must stop it.
It comes down to what sort of a society we want to shape and create. Do we want to compartmentalise children, by telling them to go into a little box called grammar school, or to go into a little box called secondary school?
It will not diminish standards, nor will we become bog-standard comprehensives.
Returning to my question about how to avoid the risk of creating a rich man's education. It is easy to say that you are introducing a system in which everyone is valued equally. That is very desirable, but there is evidence that if this argument goes in a particular way, there are perhaps a number of schools in Northern Ireland which might seriously consider turning independent, with fee-paying pupils. Is that acceptable? What does that really achieve for society?
Who would pay the teachers' salaries? Is the state going to pay the teachers' salaries in these independent schools? If they are self-funded, they can fund absolutely everything themselves, including buildings, et cetera.
So basically you would say, "Let them go".
Let those schools do that.
I welcome the Deputy Chairperson to the meeting.
Mr S Wilson:
This question may well have been answered earlier, because Mr Arbuthnot made reference to it. He said that he did not believe that a system of all-through schools need necessarily be a bog- standard system. The fact is that, whether you believe it or not, that is how the all-through system has been described by some of its former chief proponents in the Labour Party in England. People who advocated that system have bought their way out of it when they had the opportunity. They have sent their youngsters to schools that are not part of the state system. We are not asking for a statement of faith. We are asking you to tell us why the facts are different from what you say you believe them to be.
This is Northern Ireland.
Mr S Wilson:
Since Mr Arbuthnot was the man who stated his belief -
I was answering the first question.
Mr S Wilson:
The facts are that if we compare the system that we have in Northern Ireland - which does have defects - with what they have in England, Wales and Scotland, more people here get qualifications throughout the system, fewer people leave without qualifications, and more working-class youngsters go to university. Are you really telling me that, on the basis of your belief, you are prepared to sacrifice that for a system that its own proponents have described as "bog-standard"?
Can I ask you a question, Mr Wilson? Are you telling me that we could not have an all-through system in Northern Ireland and still maintain excellence? Is that the understanding that you, as a teacher, have of your colleagues in Northern Ireland?
Mr S Wilson:
I am saying that all any policy maker can work on is the evidence from where a system which has been tried out and what the result of that has been. The results in those places where this has been tried are as I have described.
Is there not evidence that there has been excellence in many comprehensive schools in England and Wales? I work -
Mr S Wilson:
Yes. That comes down to the point that the Chairperson made. The social divisiveness of educational systems is as great whether it is comprehensive or the kind of selective system that we have here. The comprehensive schools that you are referring to in parts of England and Wales are in those areas where people have had the money to buy into particular areas, in terms of the mortgages that are available. Working-class youngsters are the ones who have been betrayed. They are the ones who do not get the chance to go to university in the same numbers that they do here. They are the ones who have twice the rate of failure - leaving school without any qualifications - than we have in Northern Ireland.
We can all use statistics in whatever way we want in order to prove whatever we want.
Mr S Wilson:
I take it -
I am not entirely disagreeing with you, but you or I, or anyone around this table, could take any set of statistics and prove whatever they wanted to prove, depending on our own thinking and our own approaches.
Before Mr Wilson came in, I was talking about what secondary schools are doing at present. The one positive thing that you can say about the league table system is that a lot of secondary schools are actually delivering now. We are doing it now in Northern Ireland.
Forget about what is happening in inner-city areas in England, or wherever. We are doing this here and now with children who are under-qualified, and we are getting results.
I would like to reiterate, as Mr Wilson was not present earlier, that the status quo is not an option in this selection procedure.
It is interesting to look at the price range of the houses in the vicinity of the present array of grammar schools in Northern Ireland. If those grammar schools became neighbourhood comprehensives they would not attract enough pupils from those neighbouring houses, because insufficient numbers of children from that £400,000 or £300,000 property range, or whatever it might be, will attend the neighbouring school. It is the same in those schools. Therefore, opportunities will have to be examined.
I said earlier that I am not particularly concerned about what the school is called. It is the quality of relationships available within that school that is important, the range of opportunities and the ability - the four words I used were, "providing opportunity" and "realising potential" - that is what schools should be about. I do not care what you call them provided that the opportunity is on offer to everyone.
I am sorry that we have to finish there. We have had a very lively exchange.
Chairman, I thought we were interesting, but you are more interesting.
Mr Wilson's late arrival has skewed the curriculum.
Thank you, Gentlemen, for your contributions this afternoon. We appreciate the lively and very thought provoking exchange of views that we have had. Certainly, those who had expected a dull Thursday afternoon at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, have been seriously disappointed. We look forward to continuing to exchange views as this great debate moves on.
I will leave the article I wrote, 'Something of Selection', which is not part of an NAHT delegation, but which you might find interesting.