Minutes of Evidence: 22 March 2001
COMMITTEE FOR EDUCATION
Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
(Ulster Teachers' Union)
Thursday 22 March 2001
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr K Robinson
Mr R Calvin)
Ms A Hall-Callaghan)Ulster Teachers' Union
Mrs R Barton) Miss G Garrett)
We are pleased to welcome representatives from the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU). The matter under consideration is the review of post-primary education. I apologise for the lengthy delay that you endured today. Other issues and matters have been on the mind of the Education Committee. We look forward to your presentation and for the opportunity for members to ask questions.
The Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) welcomes the debate on the selective system of secondary education in Northern Ireland. It has expressed its opposition to selection at 11-plus at successive conferences for over 50 years and it passed the attached resolution at its conference in 2000.
The UTU believes that the existing transfer arrangements divide the education community at secondary level. They deny pupils the quality of educational opportunity and fail to serve the best interests of society.
Following the publication of the report on 'The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland' by Gallagher and Smith in September 2000, the UTU formulated two papers that offered its members views on 'The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland' and 'The Review of Post-Primary Education'. Both papers were finalised in January 2001. The union included, in the second of the papers, its views on examinations and qualifications, its preferred alternative structures and its view on the purpose of education. Mr Chairman, I commend those documents to you.
I suggest that the Committee should define the purpose of education before it engages in the mammoth task of seeking alternatives to the present selection system in Northern Ireland. The education service in Northern Ireland is being challenged to fulfil its role of effecting and making changes in our society. It is the UTU's contention that a radical realignment of attitudes and values in society is needed. Education has a vital role to play in bringing about that change.
I understand that the review body on post-primary education will travel to several countries to observe other education systems at work. The UTU hopes that it will look at each society and endeavour to discover whether that society holds its education service in high esteem; does it, for example, value the resource that it has in education; are the citizens of that society lifelong learners?
The UTU believes that the current arrangements to transfer pupils from primary to secondary education is educationally unsound, inaccurate, unfair and socially biased. We believe that the entire selection procedure is a denial of the aim to promote self-confidence and encouragement in children, in that it classifies the majority of them as failures.
We present to you two short reports. I draw your attention to the heading at the bottom of the first page of the first report, 'The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education In Northern Ireland', which reads "The Impact of Selection and Open Enrolment on Pupils".
I draw your attention to the comment made under the heading "Impact of Selection and Open Enrolment on all Post-Primary Schools" at the top of the following page, and just below that, our comment on "The Impact of Selection on Primary Schools". We would like you to take those in particular into account.
We move on to the second paper, 'The Ulster Teachers' Union Response to the Review of Post-Primary Education' where you will find on page two our comment on the "Transition to Post-Primary School", "Examinations and Qualifications" and "Alternative Structures and Systems". Those are worth highlighting. Finally, I want to quote from "The Purpose of the Education System", which is on the final page of the document.
"1. The Union believes that equality of subjects, equality of opportunities and equality of schools would enable all pupils to maximise their potential.
2. The Union believes that this review of Post-Primary Education should examine the following objectives. The education system should ensure that the young people it educates will be highly motivated, well educated, well trained and adaptable. Any improvement is subject to adequate resourcing being made available. As a union, we believe that this Education Review should support the provision of a set of pathways through which all individuals can fulfil their potential and gain the knowledge, the skills and the competence to perform effectively in the workplace. The objectives should include ways to strengthen, consolidate and improve the encouragement of worthwhile attainment and the maintenance of high quality and flexibility in the curriculum."
That is where we stand. I do not know if any members of the Committee would want to ask questions at this point on any part of our submission. We kept it fairly short because we felt that given that the document is twenty or thirty pages long, it would take upwards of three-quarters of an hour, and that would not be particularly productive for question and answers.
We feel that our education system needs to be changed, but that it can only change within the parameters of what is possible in practice.
Are you in any way compromised by your membership as regards the response that you would have to make? Are there major changes that would have consequences for sections of that membership or large parts of it? Do you draw your membership from grammar schools as well as secondary schools? If that is the case, will you not be slightly compromised in meeting and addressing all of their concerns and needs?
There are several things I could say in answer to that question. We do not feel compromised, because we have taken into account the views of our members. We have asked them to state their views. We have had unanimous decisions at our conference in relation to our resolutions over the past thirty years. That happens every year. Therefore, I do not feel compromised in that sense.
There are many more teachers from secondary schools working in the grammar schools today. That resulted from the change in the common curriculum.
The influence of teachers who have gone into the grammar schools has been considerable. I have not heard any vociferous comments against the UTU policy. On three or four occasions I have heard minor comments on our policy on selection. We are against the selection of the 11-plus.
The line that we take on the provision of secondary education would probably cause less heat than other approaches. We favour the Dickson plan - as it was introduced, not as it is now. There may be a need to fashion the Dickson plan on the German model. The German model puts a greater emphasis on the technical senior high school.
Mr K Robinson:
I am a former Ulster Teachers' Union member. The UTU was mostly for the primary sector at that time. Is that still the case or have you moved into the secondary sector?
Most of our members come from the primary sector although I could not provide statistics off the top of my head. However, we do have a substantial secondary membership. We have fewer members from the grammar sector than from secondary schools.
Mr K Robinson:
How would you define the purpose of education? You have stated that you want us to define it so I would like to pick your brains. You said that if you got rid of the 11-plus primary schools would have the millstones removed from around their necks, and that that is long overdue. What would you like primary schools to do at that stage in education if they have been released from that responsibility? If they were not constrained by the 11-plus at the upper end of Key Stage 2 what would the primary schools be able to do that they are not able to do at present?
At the moment we are working towards the end of Key Stage 2 assessment. That has been satisfactory. I have just put a set of pupils through the assessment and the 11-plus. Doing the end of Key Stage 2 at this time of the year, we have found that if all of the children had sat the 11-plus most of them would have had problems passing the exam. Six months makes a lot of difference.
We have been teaching towards the end of Key Stage 2, but the preparation for the 11-plus was rushed and parents and pupils were expecting it and had to gear themselves up for it. The children were taught the material for the 11-plus but it was forgotten soon after they had taken the exam. The primary seven year is spent going over all of the work again and investigating and exploring the fun side of learning for the end of the Key Stage.
Mr K Robinson:
That is the nice part of the year. Do you see parents as part of the problem?
Yes. The problem is how society views the selection system. Parents think that their children's education should be geared towards the 11-plus. We are set against that but teachers and principals are under pressure to work in that way.
Mr K Robinson:
We are setting up a general teachers' council to show the world that teachers are professionals. If you are professionals and you feel that the system is wrong, should you not stand up against it? You should not allow parents to dictate the pace and direction of education.
You have to have uniformity across all primary schools. Some teachers would say that they do not teach towards the 11-plus, but it does affect them. If there is a movement of pupils between schools the children do not have an equal chance. If the schools do not prepare the pupils for the 11-plus then the parents will find another way such as tutoring their children themselves.
Mr K Robinson:
You are suggesting that parents are very inventive people. No matter what sort of system we concoct here and in other places, parents will always outwit us.
No. It is about re-educating those parents. They have come through the system. It is about re-educating them and society as a whole, as to how they view the process of 11-plus.
Mr K Robinson:
That brings me back to my other question. We can define the purpose of education. If we educate the parents, we can educate the child after that.
How can equal recognition be given to academic and vocational qualifications? How can that be achieved?
I sit on a body called the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge, which has various satellites. Some of them are more important and some are less important than the Growth Challenge itself, in my view. However, that body is an interaction between the worlds of commerce, industry and education, as well as bits and pieces of other worlds. Industrialists need more young people who are able to go into industry or commerce and function well, not only at the intellectual level, but also at the engineering and production level. We need a greater emphasis on the real value to society of someone from an "engineering" background, as opposed to a "classics" background.
We could delay the selection to either 14 or 15 years of age, when children are in a better position to make decisions for themselves. Moreover, we need to accommodate as far as possible the wishes and needs of those children - and to some extent the wishes of their parents - as they transfer to technical or academic senior high schools. That was the vision of the Dickson plan. For all sorts of reasons, it did not work out exactly that way. Part of the reason was that parents resisted. Parents are - we all are - conservative about their children and the places where they are looked after, whether it is school, university or youth club. They resisted by removing children from the Dickson plan area and moving them into another area where he or she could be taught in a grammar school from age 11. They bused or drove them there. That affected the Dickson plan.
The other thing that affected the Dickson plan was that the technical senior high school did not work quite as envisaged. Unfortunately, other initiatives came on line and changed the role of the FE colleges, which became institutes of education. It is a bit like the change in approach by secondary schools since the introduction of the new curriculum. They have competed with the grammar schools, rather than fulfilling their original role of complementing the work done by grammar schools. The technical schools ended up competing perhaps with universities, rather than complementing the universities and making other kinds of provision.
In two presentations in the same afternoon, we have had one delegation for selection - at age 14 or 15 and another delegation opposed to that, quoting consultant psychiatrists about compounding preoccupations and anxieties at age 14.
I would agree entirely with those views. In an ideal world, there would be a straight comprehensive and fully integrated system. There is no question about that. The first thing that we must do in Northern Ireland is get rid of the apartheid between Catholics and Protestants. The second thing is to get rid of the other apartheid, which is the academic one. The reality of life is that we do not have the resources or the funding to be able to do either of those things immediately. In our documentation, we take account of all of that. We spent a long time on it. We concluded that that notion - whether it is as per the Dickson Plan or with selection delayed to sixth form - may be realisable with existing resources. The buildings are there and can be used. The ideal arrangement is to have a primary school and a secondary school, perhaps taking students right through until they have reached the equivalent of completing FE courses on the same campus. Special education could also be provided on the site. That situation would be ideal, but it will not happen in Northern Ireland except with a massive injection of funding.
I have friends teaching in the United States, who tell me about the integrated provision for children whose special needs are met in the normal school environment. They have a second-level school that is truly comprehensive taking pupils all the way through. We must remember the resources that they have. Our submission is based on what we think is practicable, given the relatively limited resources available here.
You will be aware that Mr Frank Bunting and I met the Committee previously and presented a joint UTU/INTO document. We still stand by what is in that document, which is basically a synopsis of what is in this document except that it is more oriented towards a straight through comprehensive arrangement.
You spoke about trying to get rid of the two apartheids - we have to wonder whether there is the political will. Your submission has good points, and you are coming at the issue sensibly.
We met representatives of the German system and discussed options for moving away from selection. They were opposed to the type of selection that we have, but they have their own form. They were arrogant about their results at the highest academic level and felt that they could meet economic requirements by having pupils in a particular school heading towards leadership positions. They argued that their system was capable of meeting the needs of industry. There is a big difference between the populations of there and here. How can we deliver better locally? Industry now requires people to be flexible and to be able to leave this part of Ireland altogether and work elsewhere - down South or wherever the work is. We should not just hope that there is enough work here to keep people employed all the time.
I hear constantly from principal teachers and from industry and commerce organisations about the real need to satisfy the requirements of the productive part of the economy, not the service industries. I am a trade union official, and I have certain views about society and economics and so forth, but I have to say that there is a gap in the economy that we have not filled. In Northern Ireland we have, perhaps, failed in that respect more obviously than other parts of the United Kingdom.
In an ideal world, there would be a straight-through comprehensive system that is fully integrated and provides full equality, regardless of pupils' religion. What can be achieved in the meantime? We talk about the likes of the Dickson plan or amending the system along the lines of the German model, and we also look to Scotland. Each time that I am in Scotland, I am impressed by what I see in the education system there. I am aware of the criticisms that Tony Gallagher made of the Scottish system in his report and, notwithstanding that, I still view that system favourably. The Welsh education system is a halfway house, and I do not like the English system, where there is a lot of real apartheid. We can do better than that in Northern Ireland.
When I started 30 years ago - and for a good number of years since that - I was convinced that the Scottish system was better. I was told constantly that we needed to look to Scotland to see the quality and service that teachers provided. That no longer applies. Scottish teachers are better qualified and better selected than their English colleagues, but we have managed to at least get level with them, if not overtaken them. I have made that point before. Department of Education statistics released about a year and a half ago show that the average A-level score of entrants to teacher training is 21 to 22 points in Northern Ireland, whereas in England and Wales, the score is between 13 and 14. That is because of unemployment, the relative value of education in any society and other criteria. It does not matter what those criteria are; we end up with better qualified people going into teacher training. Someone asked me whether that carries right through to the end of the training. I do not know what to say about that, but I suspect that if we have better value at the start, there must be better value at the end. That has been the one big factor that has taken us to the level of the Scottish teachers and perhaps beyond it.
Ms Garrett said that many pupils would pass the 11-plus if they were doing it now, rather than six months ago. Is that more pupils than actually sat the test?
I have been teaching P7 for some years and have worked in a variety of schools, with pupils from different backgrounds. My present class has a nice mixed background, and a third of the class passed the test. I have now managed to get two thirds to a level which, if they had been at that level in November, they would have passed the 11-plus. It is hard to tell children given a D in their 11-plus that they have failed. Those two thirds of children have the same attainment as the third in the same class who are going to grammar school. That is devastating for them.
That is an amazing point.
Mr K Robinson:
You mentioned the Scottish and German models and the term vocational education came up again and again. We have asked several of the different groups appearing before the Committee to define what they mean by "vocational". That is an interesting exercise for 5 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon.
I work in the secondary sector. I see vocational education as an educational route for children who are less academically gifted. They can follow training courses that they find more relevant to their view of the outside world.
Mr K Robinson:
That is a slightly traditional view of the word "vocational". Given what Mr Calvin has said and what we have heard from other sources. Industry today needs people to have a vocation that lifts them beyond that. How would our system do that?
On the vocational route, there are other qualifications available. There are key skills, which provide an academic aspect.
Mr K Robinson:
We are told that the "Celtic tiger" economy in the South stutters a wee bit because it is running out of technical skills. It has got the graduate, academic level but the next level down is missing. I think you have already highlighted that problem. That suggests a vocational skills deficit.
Within the ICT field, there is a skills deficit. Many practically oriented courses should be declared to be as valuable as a traditional academic course. Northern Ireland has to be educated about that, so that we can move from the traditional view.
Mr K Robinson:
Is there sufficient interest to bring the vocational sector to the point at which it is seen to be equal?
One of the big difficulties is that we have divided the situation that way. If you talk to an engineer, he does not consider himself any less an intellectual than a lawyer. In fact, if I can think back to my youth, in the main street in Bushmills there was a guy who was a very good mechanic. In many ways, he probably had more responsibility for life than the local doctor had. He had to be precise and careful - if he was not, someone could die.
I have a friend who says that education has the country wrecked.
We would do well in Northern Ireland to remember the importance of all jobs. The chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools spoke this morning about that, about our attitude. We are inclined to talk about our sons and daughters who are doctors and lawyers. We might not refer to the guy who is the town planner or the engineer, and we might not regard them in the same light. The guy who is the brickie may not be mentioned at all. Yet the brickie who turned my bungalow into a two-storey house arrived in a car that I could not afford to drive. Every morning, he arrived wearing a suit. He was the number one brickie in Northern Ireland - he had won the prize, and he behaved like that.
Could you still afford to pay him?
When I was at grammar school - a tiny grammar school - my mother would not have recognised the notion of my becoming a brickie. I suspect I might have been far better as a brickie than as what I am now.
We will not draw any comment from anyone on that.
The Chairman said that education has the country wrecked.
I said that my friend said that education had the country wrecked.
I have a similar friend. He said there was no word of education before the 'The Late Late Show', and that "edumacation" is easy carried. We have similar friends.
On a practical level, as far as the Dickson plan, or that type of system, is concerned, one of the practical outworkings would be that your starting age for education is at five, bringing children through to 13-14 years of age. Is that sensible? Are there good grounds for having a five-year old at the same school as a 14-year old?
We are not necessarily suggesting that. Under the Dickson plan, children transfer at 11 to what would have been secondary school. They go to senior high school or take the technical route at age 14. One of the prime considerations would have to be that the schools should all go down the same path because if, as in the Dickson plan, there are grammar schools somewhere else, that distorts the whole picture. It would have to be clearly seen that those were the only types of school.
Thank you for your presentation and for the question and answer session. It has been very valuable.