17 May 2001 - Review of Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland




(Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment)

Thursday 17 May 2001

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

Mr Gavin Boyd) Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment
Dr Alan Lennon)

The Chairperson:

Good morning. The Committee welcomes representatives of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), Mr Boyd, the chief executive, and Dr Lennon, the chairman. They will give evidence on the review of post-primary education.

We look forward to the presentation and an exchange of views of views afterwards.

Dr Lennon:

Members may be relieved that we will not give a stand-up, formal presentation. We will give a short introduction, and I will give an insight into the origin of the paper. Mr Boyd will pick out the key points, and that will give the Committee time for questions and discussion.

The CCEA exists to advise the Department of Education, deliver and regulate examinations and develop aspects of the curriculum in Northern Ireland.

The term "council" is used in the public domain to describe the whole organisation, consisting of 200 staff and a 19-person management board. However, the term "council" really refers to the 19-person management board, and the other 200 people I describe as officers. I just want to get the description right, because I will make reference to those who were involved in the review.

The council operates through three sub-committees, two education and one business, chaired by council members. The council members come from varied backgrounds. For example, there are six teachers, two teachers' union representatives, three representatives from further and higher education, seven from business and industry or formerly so, one from an education and library board, one from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), one from the Department of Education and one from the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. It is a disparate group.

To tackle the post-primary review in the timescale allotted to us, I set up and chaired an ad hoc sub-committee. That included the senior officers of the council and eight council members representing primary, secondary, grammar, special needs, business and further education, a representative group. The sub-committee spent at least 20 hours on meetings and intense discussions in a constrained time frame. The recommendations were discussed at two further meetings of the full council and were then passed. - [Interruption.]

The Chairperson:

Mobile telephones must be switched off.

Mr Lennon:

The document has undergone a number of revisions and is owned by all the council members. I hope that it is not a camel as a result of that. We had a flying start, as this comes after a long-standing curriculum review in which the council was involved, so we were not caught completely cold by the need to deal with the matter. The document seeks to recognise the undoubted strength of education here, but it recognises that the world has changed and it is time to move on. In a realistic, measured and sustainable way we must deal with the changing needs of individuals, society and the economy.

Mr Boyd:

I have copies of slides that we would have used for a more formal presentation, and I will be happy to distribute them to members. In my 20-year career in business, I never experienced such a difficult management exercise as the chairman had to cope with in managing our submission to the post-primary review body. We had many disparate interests, and he went out his way to ensure that they were all represented in the working party. Part of the discipline imposed on us was that we had to set to one side our ideological views to look at the practicalities of the situation and fit that into the context of the curriculum review, which focuses on outcomes. We wanted to make sure that our education system, which is acknowledged to be excellent in many respects, is doing the job for our young people.

I had a conversation a couple of days ago with the vice-president of Bombardier, who is responsible for human resources. He is a French Canadian. He moved to Northern Ireland two years ago with his young family, and one of his sons moved into a P7 class. That young boy had enormous difficulty settling into our education system. The standard of the Canadian education system that he came from is nothing like the standard of Northern Ireland's. It has taken him two years to get up to speed with what is going on in our schools.

Then, with his human resources hat on, the vice-president of Bombardier told me that Bombardier tried to recruit 1,000 people last year as it was expanding its operations, but that it had difficulty getting 1,000 people with the skills required for a world-class aerospace operation.

Therein lies some of the challenges that we face. On the one hand we have an education system that is renowned throughout the world for many of its achievements, and on the other hand we cannot provide all that employers are looking for, and the world is moving on rapidly.

A lot of CCEA's submission focuses on the importance of the curriculum and the curriculum review. That should not be a surprise as CCEA is a curriculum organisation. CCEA needs to decide what is required from our education system, and having identified what the outcomes should be, the structures for an education system geared to bringing those outcomes about should follow. That is a matter of principle for CCEA. The structures should not be decided first; structures should be decided after the desired outcomes have been identified.

The theory behind the curriculum review and the work going on take into account the fundamental changes in society and the economy, and they are firmly focused on the individual. The development of a young person as an individual, as a member of society, as a contributor to the economy and as a custodian of the environment has to be considered. It is very much competence-led and skills-led rather than knowledge based.

Paragraph 3·11 of CCEA's submission contained a quote from a paper prepared by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). It stated

"If we are to transform education so as to serve the needs of the future, a new strategy must be found. The reforms of the recent years have focused largely on standards and structures. These are important - standards especially; but they have almost nothing to say about whether the system can help students become more capable of meeting the more complex demands that will be made of them in the future.

The RSA believes that real transformation can only be secured if we are clear what it is that students need to learn, that is what purpose education should serve. Reforming the curriculum so that it is competence-led, instead of information-led, is we believe the most effective strategy for doing this."

CCEA is firmly focused on what it expects to get out of the system. If we are to persuade people that there is real benefit in changing structures, we need to be able to predict reasonably well that we are going to get better outcomes. We know the current strengths and weaknesses. If there is going to be significant change, we need to be able to demonstrate in advance what the benefits of that are going to be and what the potential pitfalls are.

Anything that CCEA does will have a significant impact on the practitioners and teacher training. We feel the same about structures as we do about the curriculum review. However, we cannot drop new ideas on top of teachers without training, support or guidance and without being able to show that any proposed changes will have benefits all round.

There are also non-educational issues that need to be considered, and society is demanding that they be considered - issues of social deprivation and social exclusion. Members will be aware of the high correlation between social factors and educational outcomes and the high correlation between poor educational outcomes and poor social background.

Education has a role to play in developing society. You will have heard this from CCEA. That is why we place great emphasis on the development of early-years provision. One recurring theme in our discussions was that the transfer test does not cause social deprivation, but it may well be a symptom of it. If we seriously wish to deal with social deprivation through education, we must target any problems as soon as young people come into contact with education.

We must also identify the causes of underachievement of individuals and schools. Again this feeds through into curriculum development, and there must be widespread consultation and consensus with everything. Key issues arise from the curriculum review such as early-years provision, primary education, Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 qualifications and further and higher education. We say that there is likely to be continual change and much wider provision.

Vocational and academic qualifications should be much more widely available. We reject the German model of an academic stream and a vocational stream. Vocational qualifications should have the same status and value as academic qualifications for the development of individuals and the development of our economy. There are no more obvious vocations than medicine or the law, but for some reason society puts those to one side. We need much wider provision for vocational and academic qualifications. There is no reason for academic excellence to be the preserve of any group. We should encourage the brightest and best with a full range of educational provision.

Part of CCEA's discussions focused on the transfer test and why it was such a high stakes issue. We concluded that high stakes are involved because young people and, particularly, parents do not feel that the choices available are equal choices. They feel that the grammar school option is more acceptable than the secondary school option. This may well be ill-informed, but this is causing the high stakes element. The transfer test has, quite rightly, been subject to a lot of criticism. There are no defenders of the transfer test in CCEA in spite of the fact that we prepare the questions and run the tests. Some ill-informed comments have been made. The test is quite good and works very well, but there are real problems with grading, and grade reliability has been criticised. It is poor because the test is relatively easy. Generally, young people get very high marks - 25% of young people who got grade As in this year's test achieved at least 85%.

Young people achieve high marks; it is quite conceivable that someone who got a grade D this year got approximately 75%. The 5% of young people who ended up in category B1 were separated by less than 2% in the test. This is where the serious issue of grade unreliability arises.

We feel strongly that all key decisions to do with a person's education should be made on the basis of best quality information. Young people should make those decisions themselves with advice from their parents and teachers, and that practice should apply throughout.

There are other high stakes decisions such as the choice of GCSE and GCE subjects. Even now, decisions on such matters are based on little information. When we complete the curriculum review we intend to present a new assessment regime to cover all young people's education. The regime will provide a basis for guiding young people, parents and teachers on choices in education. The new curriculum review will not require any particular structure for second-level education.

There are very good reasons for differences in schools and differences in emphases, and it is that which provides real choice. In calling for wider provision we realise that not all schools will be able to provide the full range and that this will lead inevitably to schools developing strengths in particular areas. We think that this is good. We think that this will allow schools to develop, choice to develop, and young people to develop all their strengths and capabilities. It is vital that all choices are of the same quality. We must educate all young people to their full potential.

The Chairperson:

I was perplexed when you said that you could not defend the test but then mounted a substantial defence by accepting that it is an accurate reflection of pupils' ability. Your criticism appeared to be of how it is marked and assessed. As the chief executive of the examinations board charged with that, should you not have reformed the test? Would that not have been better than having us undertake a major review of the whole education system?

Dr Lennon:

The Department of Education was responsible for the process. It is only recently that CCEA was asked to run the test. We did not design it, and we have not been asked to reform it. Technical questions should be directed to the Department of Education. Having said that, all that Mr Boyd said is correct. However, this is not the only issue with the test.

There is the matter of coaching. We have been through questions about the predictive testing of future ability. The current test is based on knowledge rather than potential. There are questions about the design of the test and what one should be testing for. Assessment regimes have changed. We use key stage assessment, which includes a wider range of technologies and views. Some aspects can be defended, but others would benefit from a different assessment regime.

Mr Boyd:

That was not a defence of the transfer test as a selection procedure. We happen to have a system that has a test written into it. There are good and bad points about such a test. It can only tell you how a young person performed for that hour on that day, and that is the nub of the issue. I do not want anything I have said to be thought to be taking away from that.

Dr Lennon:

This may still be a problem regardless of the assessment regime. However, there is evidence in literature and research that the test gives rise to significant distortion in teaching, in P7 and with the delivery of the curriculum, and we are concerned about that. That must be dealt with. It may be an inevitable consequence of an assessment regime, but we can do better.

Mrs E Bell:

You say that the new curriculum will achieve a better balance between knowledge and skills and encourage a new approach to learning. That will then require a new approach to teaching. Will the new assessment regime and the new curriculum ensure that those emerging from education possess the wider attributes that will be required by society and employers in the future?

Mr Boyd:

That is one of the objectives and what we are trying to achieve. We are disciplining ourselves in developing a new view of the curriculum. We do not want to come back with a CCEA view of the new curriculum and simply hand it over.

The ideas have been developed out of a huge consultation process. We have been involved in the 'Northern Ireland Cohort Study', a unique practice of tracking thousands of children through their school careers and asking them for their views of everything they experience. We have involved large numbers of teachers and education professionals in consultation at various stages, and we have opened it out to the world of business, industry and commerce and to other bodies. We want to draw on everybody's views and on best practice wherever we see.

Dr Lennon:

Northern Ireland is not unique in this respect. Those of us who have earned our livings outside the world of education - and we are both from a business and enterprise background - recognise that there are imbalances in focus between knowledge-based and skills-based education that are reinforced by the assessment regimes in our examination systems, which are based on theoretical rather than on practical knowledge. We must redress the balance because there is discontinuity between the world of education and the world outside it. As Mr Boyd's anecdote illustrates, we must shift the balance between skills and knowledge

Mr McHugh:

You said that you foresee diversity among institutions but that they should all have the same standards. Do you foresee some schools being more academically focused and others more vocationally focused? Perhaps you see specialised schools such as England has. How do you define vocational education and how can parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses and qualifications be achieved?

Dr Lennon:

I can give a personal view, although we all have our own vision of the future. Some schools, because of their size, background, history and geography, are better at some subjects than others, and some will continue to place emphasis on academic subjects. They will be more academic than vocational, to use the old terms. Some schools will focus on vocational and business subjects because they feel that these subjects best suit their pupils.

Differentiation is inevitable, and that is all to the good because the national curriculum is fairly rigid. All schools, with their different strengths, try to do the same thing in different ways. Each tries to produce the same sort of academic outcome. We need more choice and more variety, and schools will have to differentiate to a degree. That is a good thing.

Mr Boyd:

There are many answers to the question "What is vocational education?" It is a minefield but not be as difficult as it appears. Training as a doctor involves education which leads directly to employment, and that has traditionally been seen as vocational education.

If a sixth-former wants to do an A level which his school does not provide, he can do it in a neighbouring school or college where it is available. There are several examples of that in the Province, including Belfast, and it is to be welcomed.

Mr S Wilson:

I am confused. Do you administer the test or do you set the questions? Do you mark them and set the grades? If so, then despite what Mr Lennon said, it is CCEA's job to ensure that the questions differentiate the pupils and that there is no squeezing of grades. That is standard practice for GCSEs and A levels, so why is it not done here? Are you purely administrators?

Dr Lennon:

Our role in the selection test is very different from our role in GCSEs and A levels and so on.

Mr Boyd:

We choose the questions, and we administer and mark the test. We did not choose to have the test in the first place - we did that under direction. We did not choose to have six grades in the test, and that is part of the problem. We do not advocate, even in the short term, that those six grades continue.

The grade boundaries would be easier to define if the test were more difficult. If the questions were more difficult, the average mark would come down and the spread of results would be greater. We are against doing that, because the test is enough trauma for young people as it is. We do not want to make it worse with questions that they cannot handle. It gets progressively more difficult - on page after page the questions are harder. It is designed to help differentiation, but it is also designed not to put kids off, and we are dealing with 10- and 11-year-olds.

Mr S Wilson:

It is amazing that you prefer a test that is unreliable, to use your word, in how it allocates youngsters to one that puts them off. That comes back to a question that the Chairperson asked at the beginning. One of the problems is that the gradings are unreliable because the questions do not differentiate enough. Surely it is incumbent on the examining body to ensure a more dependable result.

Your comment about the shorter tail of pupils leaving school with no qualifications contradicts what Gallagher and Smith said about the "long tail." My question is factual, and the information would be useful to have. Have you information about the number of youngsters who do GCSEs yet leave with no qualifications? We have comparisons with the boards. There is a discrepancy between what you say and what Gallagher and Smith told the world about the long tail of non-achieving youngsters. That is a result of our education system.

Your document says that you see schools operating with degrees of specialisation, and Dr Lennon said that that is likely to happen. However, Mr Boyd seems to be saying that vocational and academic courses should be available to all to have differentiation between schools. That would remove specialisation. What is more important, you say in your document that in schools where there is that degree of specialisation there is prejudice among parents in favour of the academic route, which inevitably leads to schools being oversubscribed. In that case how will you decide who gets into those oversubscribed schools and who does not?

Dr Lennon:

The role that we have described for CCEA in this test is the correct one. When the Department of Education wanted to make changes, it looked to Queen's University for advice on the nature of the test not to us. The test is very different from the rest of the examination system. Education and library boards previously ran it, but at some stage it was passed to CCEA.

I have read all the research papers that have been sent to the Department of Education as a result of the study, and I do not accept every piece of analysis. There is a wide degree of variability in the quality of the research, and the term long tail cannot be justified. I do not have the figures to hand, but only about 5% of people in leave school without any qualifications, a very small number. The numbers have decreased in the past five years because in the past a large number of schools did not enter people for examinations.

There have been long debates in the sub-committee and council about the performance of our selective system compared with those in England, Wales and Scotland. It has been argued that Northern Ireland would be better measured against a region of England such as the north-east. It is not correct to characterise Northern Ireland's education as having a long tail.

CCEA wants to try to square the circle that you have identified of schools offering, for example, vocational education across the board. There is no conflict there. CCEA encourages all schools to have a range of provision; CCEA would like to see that. We do not want vocational schools and academic schools à la the German model.

I am certain that schools will choose to specialise in one direction, and that will evolve from the needs of the parents, the school, the children, et cetera. CCEA will not prescribe a system, and I do not see any conflict there.

Mr Boyd:

A point was made about the hopes that parents have for their children. A lot believe that their children are successful if they turn out to be doctors, lawyers or other people who wear suits.

Mr S Wilson:

Or if they wear a uniform.

Mr Boyd:

A significant number of parents are influenced in their decisions for their children by the social status of a uniform. That is life in Northern Ireland. CCEA wants to broaden the issue and encourage the notion that it is socially acceptable to follow other routes. There are enough lawyers and barristers, but in future there will be a shortage of half-decent plumbers. There is a strong view that a half-decent plumber is worth as much as a half-decent barrister.

Mr S Wilson:

They cost almost twice as much to pay.

Mr Boyd:

I am making the serious point, in a slightly facetious way, that a range of skills must be encouraged. However, there are social pressures that are causing certain schools to be over-subscribed. Those same schools would be oversubscribed tomorrow if they were turned into comprehensive colleges at the sweep of a pen.

If Methodist College became Methodist High School tomorrow, it would still be oversubscribed, and there would still be issues to deal with. You have asked a specific question about how you make choices. From what I read, the review body appears to be approaching the issue in a very sensible way. There seems to be a realisation that no matter what you do, a roll-out process is involved, and that might take 10 years, according to 'The Belfast Telegraph'. I can deal with the reality of the situation, and that reality may well be that decisions will continue to be made by way of the transfer test in the short term.

However, I strongly believe that a good assessment regime, good parental involvement and the advice of top-class professional teachers will influence educational decisions at every stage of the process, and we wish to provide teachers with an assessment regime that will not add to the bureaucratic burden. If anything, it should reduce the amount of time spent on keeping records.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps you will address the question of the long or short tail.

Mr Boyd:

That question has already been answered. A great deal of work has gone into the tail, and it is a matter of fact rather than opinion that it has been significantly reduced over the last few years for many reasons. I do not have the figures with me, but they show a substantial reduction.

The same issue arises with literacy. As you know, Northern Ireland does not do very well when it comes to certain international standards of literacy, but you will also know that the problem tends to lie with older age groups rather than younger people with whom significant work has been done. Young people tend to achieve more in literacy than people used to.

Mr Wilson:

You are going to supply us with the figures; do the statistics compare Northern Ireland with other areas when it comes to the tail?

Mr Boyd:

I do not have them here, but I shall get them for you, and you will see a significant improvement.

Mr Gibson:

Are we not wasting our time? First, there will always be selection, because people select by their very nature. There is no such thing as an academic subject; every subject is a vocational subject. People wish to progress, and if there are not tests, they will invent them. The process of natural selection is one of social competition, and this morning we are talking about how parents' social ambitions are the driving force behind education. As politicians we recognise that.

It is therefore a matter of how we handle those ambitions. The one statement that was true referred to educational outcome, and that is the relevant point. What we teach is important, but often the question is irrelevant. Enoch Powell was a Greek scholar who became a Brigadier. People transfer their skills, and all we teach them is to use their brains more slowly or quickly.

What are we doing to equip our children to adapt to whatever society invents? The technological age is not new; we have been playing at it since Farraday invented the electrical generator. Are we not missing the most basic things: while we must enable children to perform at certain levels, we have forgotten the value of things like keeping a clock? Businessmen do not talk to me about academic ability but about the importance of a fellow's being able to read a clock and measure with a rule. The ethos of a person is as important as his academic ability.

Dr Lennon:

I do not believe that we are wasting our time. Enoch Powell is a perfect example of someone with a tremendous intellect and a great academic education who had extremely poor social skills and a low ability to get things done. Ultimately it was his undoing and caused his political career to fail.

The Chairperson:

Mr Powell was technically a colleague of mine; I was very impressed by your description of his background, but a little less so by your conclusion.

Dr Lennon:

I was unfortunate enough to have his extremely lengthy biography on my bookshelf at home. By way of explanation, I was talking about national politics; I hope that helps.

The Chairperson:

Whatever we do, we shall not speak ill of the dead.

Dr Lennon:

We have the same idea of what we want from the education system. We must deliver more skills to people and help highly academic individuals, whether they are medics or not, to communicate and develop good interpersonal skills. Thinking and knowledge are extremely important, but the world of work is different. Academia and the population as a whole overvalue them.

Mr Gibson:

Should we not teach interpersonal skills in this age?

Dr Lennon:

We are focusing on key skills in the curriculum review. We are currently talking about only three key skills, the application of number, communication and information technology, but there will be more, and we must deliver them right across the ability spectrum.They are as vital for a plumber as for anyone else. Indeed, perhaps we should help good plumbers run good businesses rather than work for someone else.

Mr Gibson:

Do you not think they charge enough?

Dr Lennon:

Yes, but there are not enough of them. However, whether the people in question are plumbers or surgeons, they all need skills to handle themselves and their interpersonal relationships with others. Our education system does not deal with that in a very formal way. There are associated assessment complications. We tend to teach what is easy to assess. Pencil-and-paper tests are easier to use than a portfolio or a test to demonstrate a pupil's ability to communicate. We are trying to shift the balance and, as you say, thus change society's perception of what is good and bad in education.

Right now people see grammar-school education as better than secondary-school education. I should like us to be able to deliver a curriculum radically different from what exists currently. You may well find then that people will regard a vocationally-oriented school as significantly better for the modern world than one that is slightly more academically focused.

Mr McElduff:

I find it hard to resist the debate about Enoch Powell and "national" politics; "Dublin or London?" is the question.

In paragraphs 5.2 to 5.4 of your submission, you recommend a later start to formal instruction. What age do you suggest, and how many fewer years of formal education might be appropriate?

Dr Lennon:

That is a very important question, and I am pleased you have raised it. The council was discussing that only yesterday. I suspect it will be difficult for many people to take on board that a significant body of evidence from Europe and elsewhere suggests that in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent in England and Wales, children, particularly boys, are being required to learn to read and write too early. Boys at that early age have fewer motor skills than girls, and they find it more difficult to hold a pen. Research suggests that it is beneficial to delay the teaching of formal reading and writing for at least one year, probably two.

That goes against what people expect of early years' learning. However, it is supported by data and by achievements elsewhere. One must remember that 20% of adults in the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom have reading and writing difficulties, and we are not doing well in the European league tables.

It will be difficult for people to understand that because it is counter-intuitive. However, it is important in relation to reading and writing, learning social skills at an early age and dealing with the link between social deprivation and educational outcomes. However, it does not go far enough. Other organisations such as social services bodies and organisations that deal with parenting issues also need to be involved.

That is one area of education that could be improved if support agencies became involved. The relationship between social deprivation and education outcomes has already been established when a child is 11. Social backgrounds are differentiated at primary school.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for attending the Committee meeting. We are grateful for your excellent presentation.

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