Minutes of Evidence:  22 March 2001



Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland


(Council for Catholic Maintained Schools)

Thursday 22 March 2001

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

Mr D Flanagan )
Mr E McArdle ) Council for Catholic Maintained Schools
Mr I Davidson )
Mr G Lundy )

The Chairperson:

Welcome to this public session of the Education Committee. We are pleased to welcome representatives from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, (CCMS), who are here to give us their views on post-primary education. We look forward to hearing your submission and having the opportunity to ask questions.

We usually time these sessions for approximately three quarters of an hour, and it is my duty to try to limit the proceedings to that.

Mr Davidson:

I would like to thank you for receiving this delegation and to say that we welcome this opportunity to speak on the document which has already been forwarded to you. You will see that a great deal of research has been done in the production of this document, and since the council encompasses those from a very wide geographical spread, many different views have been collated in it.

We welcome it, because we feel that the time is opportune in the light of issues such as open enrolment and the demographic trends. The document is a furtherance of papers which the council has produced in the past as it has tried to cope with the changing face of education.

This morning the director will deal with policy matters, Mr McArdle will make a presentation on the main contents of the document, and we will then welcome the opportunity to have an exchange of views.

Mr Flanagan:

Thank you. It is good to be back; I always enjoy the experience, and I hope this morning will be no different.

From our perspective it is useful to put all of this into a policy context within the council, because the council has chosen to deal with this issue within a policy framework. We have not just responded to the Gerry Burns review body. We have worked up through policy over time, and that is significant in terms of where we are coming from.

The policy context can be traced back beyond 1993 but essentially focuses on 1993, when my council set up a working party to look at the whole business of raising standards. The raison d'être for CCMS is to raise standards within the Catholic maintained sector. At that time that working party came forward with a number of recommendations and conclusions. One was that it identified selection and selection combined with open enrolment as an impediment to raising standards in Northern Ireland, particularly in the post-primary, secondary sector - and boys' schools within that.

We said at the time that the issue of selection was a structural one and needed to be addressed by the Department of Education at a policy level. There needed to be leadership. Those were our initial thoughts in relation to selection in 1993.

We worked on that whole process, and in 1997-98 we published two further documents - 'Selection: A Considered Perspective', and 'Selection: A Position Statement'. It might be useful to tell you why we released a position statement rather than a policy one. We did this because we had a call to make. We wondered if we could get policy through the council at that stage or if we would be unsuccessful. We formed the judgement that there probably was not sufficient consensus within our constituency to move to policy. We decided, therefore, that we would develop a position paper.

The position paper made a number of significant statements, one of which was that selection could not be addressed unilaterally, and that is one of the reasons why we did not move to policy. We also felt that further research was required; the debate and some of the research was a bit sterile and reflected situations in the past.

In addition, we suggested that although the research would take place, the council could not afford to sit on its hands. That is when we first came forward with the notion of exploring local solutions, particularly in view of some of the work we were doing in Strabane at that time.

Strabane was an interesting development in many ways, and it was driven by the need to raise standards and excellence for all children. In the process of the negotiations and consultations that took place, we found that the establishment of guiding principles was the central tenet of our whole negotiation.

Those guiding principles that we worked on are essentially around the notions of equality of opportunity, equity of access, excellence for all and also improved access to third-level education. With regard to the Burns review, the council took the view that it was time to move from position to policy. We have firmed up our policy on the whole issue of selection, so we are coming at it from a policy perspective. Whatever Burns comes forward with, CCMS now has a clear policy in relation to selection, and we will not be able to walk away from that.

In the document we have limited ourselves to addressing the issue of selection rather than structures. Within the document we are clearly saying that there are two phases in this. There are policy decisions to be made around the whole issue of selection, on the issue of open enrolment and in the context of curriculum. This morning Mr McArdle and I were at the Waterfront for the launching of the consultation on Key Stage 4 curriculum. It all appears to be a little bit out of sync. We have got to make some policy decisions about selection, and then the issue of curriculum can be addressed in that context. That is not to say that we are not committed to looking at the structural issues. We clearly are very committed, and we have already commenced that work in-house in terms of preparing ourselves for the next stage, which we feel will be an extremely important stage. Mr McArdle will now talk to you about the main recommendations of the report.

Mr McArdle:

It is not my intention to run through this paper in any great detail. One of the first things that needs to be said is that the draft Programme for Government in section 4.2 laid out the summary of the Northern Ireland Assembly's objectives in regard to its education system. They were to ensure the highest possible standard of education for all children and young people, which will motivate them to achieve their potential, build their confidence and enrich their lives. It then talks about an inclusive society, a strong and vibrant economy, and an incentive for lifelong learning. In a sense that is part of the purposes of education that have been defined.

When we were considering our document and putting together our position statement, we warned about the consideration solely of the issue of structures and said that there needed to be a notion of fitness for purpose. What are the purposes for which we want our education system to exist? What structures then will do that? That is the basis upon which our paper is largely predicated: the litmus test for any education system must be whether or not you define that purpose and whether the structures that underpin that effectively will deliver that.

At that stage we considered a whole series of different issues. The best thing for us to do would be to reflect, not so much on the issue of the educational element at the front end of the paper, but rather to reflect on some of the factors that will impact on that. One of the things that is emerging with regard to our skills needs is the fact that nearly one third of our long-term unemployed, according to the Northern Ireland Economic Council, have GVNQ level 3 and above. There is a National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets (NACETT) report that would indicate that there is a difference in performance of between 25% and 60% in terms of output in comparable industries across Britain - it is a United Kingdom-wide survey - and comparable countries in Europe such as Germany, France and Holland. That differential can be traced to the difference in the skills deficit and skills level that exist there. It is nothing to do with financial input, infrastructure or social factors; it is to do with the skills input that is there.

In addition to that we looked at the changing context of education in Northern Ireland that has brought about a creeping comprehensivation of some of our grammar schools - this is a move from 27% to 35% attending grammar schools overall across Northern Ireland. In some areas nearer 50% of our children are now attending grammar schools. We considered the impact that has on the viability of other schools. We also reflected in some detail on the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) findings that were published in October which indicated that between 1998 and 2013 there will be a drop of 52,000 children under the age of sixteen.

We will have heard from the Eastern Health and Social Services report earlier in the week that the birth rate has sunk even lower. We can therefore see not an improvement but an exacerbation of that situation. We disaggregated the figures a little bit and, yes, it is 13% across the whole of Northern Ireland, but it is 23% in Belfast, 19% in Newtownabbey and 15% in north Down. The pupil numbers are falling in different ways in different communities. It is interesting, for example, that in the area that will be affected primarily we already have four of the five group one schools, so there has been recognition by the Department that there are particular issues and difficulties manifesting themselves in relation to that.

Concerns and issues have also been raised in relation to the current transfer test. It is probably true to say now that people will accept readily that it has been reasonably discredited. John Gardner's work, 'Testing The Test', was particularly significant and important.

Let us reflect for a moment on what we are looking for from our economy. It says in 'Strategy 2010' that we want a competitive, innovative, knowledge-based economy where there are opportunities for everyone. It also goes on to say that the knowledge-based economy is now such that it, rather than natural resources, will impact and decide our future economic well-being. I am long enough in the tooth to remember the sort of notion where you had to rote-learn geographical maps, and we were told at that time that Northern Ireland had a problem because it had no natural resources. We are now told that that does not matter and the new knowledge-based economy will be there. It is interesting that Minister Farren is currently, or has recently been, in the United States seeking to inveigle IT specialists back into Northern Ireland or to recruit them to Northern Ireland. It is interesting that John Anderson, in relation to the Spratt company, was discussing this morning in the Waterfront Hall the difficulty that he has in recruiting IT specialists, and when IT companies are brought in or induced to come here they simply poach his staff.

There is therefore a skills deficit issue. Michael Best was the author of a paper produced by the Northern Ireland Economic Council earlier this year in which, essentially, he said that there needs to be in Northern Ireland a manpower analysis. We need to have a clear understanding of the outputs necessary for us to sustain our economy and economic well-being. His suggestion is that this effectively has not happened. I ran the idea past John Simpson at the Waterfront this morning. He feels that that perspective is not necessarily inaccurate and that that sort of work needs to be done.

In addition, we have the notion of social inclusivity. If we look at the new TSN documents in relation to regenerating disadvantaged communities, it is interesting that we are, as the draft Programme for Government mentions, talking about helping disadvantaged children. At the moment, however, there is little or no doubt that the operation of open enrolment in a selective system is, in fact, creating pockets of institutions which are struggling because of the nature of the available intake. The interesting thing is that in 1990 the Department of Education's inspectorate did indicate quite clearly in a report published at that time, that open enrolment would not be introduced without difficulties in a selective system. In 1994 they went further, and demonstrated in the report that there had been the aggregation within certain schools because of the operation of open enrolment of children with a significant number of learning difficulties.

That leads us to the core issues and our guiding principles. On page 22 of our document we have outlined some of the principles which we thought were important - a sense of dignity for all, the need to respect, the need to respond to a changing curriculum, changing economy, knowledge to have an education system and the imperatives of justice, equality and respect. We think that those are particularly important.

We believe that we should be moving away from selection to election, where people will have a meaningful choice. We did recognise, however, that the notion of choice will only be meaningful if there is in fact a parity of esteem. The mere rebadging of institutions, where the local grammar school became the local comprehensive, happened in England when they moved to comprehensive education.

The researchers, Benn and Chitty, when they examined such schools 25 years on, discovered that there had been no real difference to institutions that had been socio-economically grammar orientated. Grammar schools remained as such, and the socio-economic profile had not changed.

If there is to be a change, if there is to be a choice, then it must be meaningful. The simple rebadging of institutions will lead to what Goodman and other social scientists call "first order change". That is change without difference or improvement. There is a saying that today's problems are yesterday's solutions. If we move to change without difference, we will simply be creating a new set of problems for the very near future.

The core issues that we identified are set out quite clearly. Our recommendations are on page 24 of our response to the review body. We think that selection should be ended as soon as is practicable. That is an interesting word because we do not believe it should be done precipitately. It should not be done without a clear understanding of the alternatives. We do not think it should be done unless a meaningful and significant change takes place.

In fact, if there is going to be a change then there needs to be a systemic review of the whole issue. That may well need the establishment of a task group. There needs to be a reconsideration of early years two to four, four plus and a recognition of the new research that has been done in that area.

In relation to post-primary we are talking about a core at 11 to 14, to be followed by a notion of informed choice. That is significant because it is based upon the notion that to have that informed choice there needs to be a very clearly enhanced guidance and advice facility. There needs to be a tightly structured assessment regime that would operate to augment and enhance record of achievement. There needs to be significant involvement of parents but, more importantly, there needs to be a cultural shift that recognises the significance of issues such as vocational education, which should not be O level for plumbers.

Vocational education should be technical education for all abilities at the very highest level of academic capacity, right the way down to a significantly more modest level. It should not be something that is seen as second-rate or second-hand. We need to have a similar respect for engineering and such to that found in other European countries.

That sums up the basis of our thinking, and we are happy to take any questions.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much indeed. If I have read your document correctly and understand what you have said this morning, the natural consequence of your proposals would be the abolition of the examination. The implication is that the grammar school system would effectively be abolished as well. Are you quite satisfied that you have made all of the people that you represent aware that the grammar schools are facing abolition as a result of your proposed changes? In other words, a large section of, if I may use the term, "Catholic middle-class parents" are very comfortable and very happy to send their children to grammar schools all over Northern Ireland. Are you sure you can take those people with you?

Mr McArdle:

First, we do not see it as the abolition of grammar schools per se. What we have called for, in a sense, is a necessary reanalysis of the system and the needs of our community, and a definition at that stage of what we see as possibly supporting that. Quite clearly there is still room, and there is a demand. In our document we quite clearly make the point that we cannot destroy the academic actions that exist in the system. However, the bottom line is that the current system as it stands is not necessarily meeting all of the needs of our community. It is not necessarily meeting the goals of social inclusivity. One third of our long-term unemployed people have very high academic qualifications, and the Northern Ireland Economic Council is telling us that the question is whether or not what we are currently doing is fit for the purpose. We do not see it as being an assault on grammar schools. That would, in a sense, be inappropriate. It is question of what we need to meet our demands.

Mr Flanagan:

This report has to be read in the context of what the Catholic Heads Association - who are the head teachers of Catholic grammar schools - have said. It also needs to be read in the context of the Northern bishops' submission to the Burns review. Their views are very similar to those of the CCMS. There is a very broad degree of support for what we say.

Is this debate about whether we get rid of grammar schools? In my view, it is not about that, rather it is about a review of post-primary education and whether we should continue with selection. We have said clearly that we need to deal with structures, but in a policy context. That is for the policy makers - the Education Committee, the Minister and the Department of Education - to determine. The education authorities would thereafter deal with the structures.

You quite rightly say that many parents feel comfortable, and are very orientated towards, the grammar school. If you talk to those parents, they say very clearly that the one thing they require for their children is excellence for all. That is one of the reasons we have the present difficulties. The current system does not provide excellence for all. We have one pathway with two routes. The difficulty with selection is that parents perceive that one route is better than the other. Our system has been conditioned to allow them to believe that. We have an academic pathway through two routes. There certainly will be difficulties. People will perceive this as an attack on grammar schools. Our document is not such an attack. It is much more fundamental and policy-based around the whole issue of selection.

Mr S Wilson:

Having read your document and listened to what you have said today, I am not too sure what you mean. Perhaps you could address some of the inconsistencies for me.

On one hand, you say that schools do not have parity of esteem.

Mr Flanagan:

You are quite right. There are perceived differences.

Mr S Wilson:

You have also said that that would be a difficult issue to address, and yet you say you wish to do away with selection at 11 years. Given that some schools are perceived as different from others, do you not accept that, in the present situation, when it comes to transfer at the age of 11, some schools will be oversubscribed while others will be undersubscribed? Inevitably there has to be selection. If there is not how do you decide who gets into what school? In relation to doing away with selection, and parity of esteem, how do you then intend that children will be allocated to the various schools open to them?

Although it has been implicit in the documents submitted, no one who has come here has been prepared to say that they wish to do away with grammar schools, which are quite popular among all sections of the population. You have suggested some structures, but you have not said which one you prefer. Do you still support the idea of specialist schools, some of which would be academic, accelerated learning, grammar schools - whatever you like to call it. Others would be more vocationally orientated. Are you saying that the choice for that should take place at 14 years of age? There would then be two transfer periods -at 11 and again at 14. Or would it be an all-through system, where it will all be done in one school? That means comprehensive. You outline all of these options, and you pose all of these questions. However, I do not see any answers to them.

Mr Flanagan:

The present system that we have for transfer and selection creates schools for unwanted children. People must face up to that both morally and politically. Do we want to continue creating schools for unwanted children? In the city of Belfast some children never get into any of the schools of their choice. A growing proportion of children end up in group one schools, despite never having put that school down on any list as a school of their choice - that list can contain 10 choices of schools. That is the system we have at the minute, and that is what selection and open enrolment have created.

The issue of transferring from primary-to secondary-level education can be conducted in a number of ways. At present, it is conducted through selection, and with that, we have added open enrolment. This is some sort of double-type selection whereby if a child is awarded a grade A, grade B, or, in some cases a grade C, he has a choice of grammar schools. If he does not get that, he then has a choice of secondary schools. If he does not get his choice, he will be left without any choice at all.

In the context of structures, we have said that there is a time for structures, but we should have some sort of policy determination. If the policy makers decide to continue with the concept of selection, the structures will follow that strategy. You cannot determine the structures without the strategy's being in place, and indeed it would be foolhardy for any authority such as ours to work through a situation that was not yet determined and come up with a structures outcome. Therefore, we have resisted the notion of moving to structures, and we have demonstrated in our paper that there are a number of ways to manage this. Regarding selection and choice, we have also said in our paper that everybody recognises that the age of 11 is too young for children to determine where their future aptitudes and interests lie. Ivan and myself have experience of being involved in special education. In these circumstances, one of the great things available to parents and others was that they all had an input in terms of what best suited the needs of the children. Invariably, parents sent their children to special schools, because that is where they wanted them to go. They were not selected for placement in special schools, and they were able to make that choice.

The concept of double transfer is a possibility, and this has been articulated in the document. There is a combination of possibilities that could be taken forward. However, until we have a policy direction regarding selection, open enrolment and the curriculum, this is not the time to be talking about structures.

Mr S Wilson:

If we move away from what we have at present, take, for example, a school where there are 50 places available and 70 children have applied for them. How will you deal with that problem?

Mr Flanagan:

We would currently deal with it through open enrolment and criteria.

Mr S Wilson:

How would you deal with it if you have done away with selection?

Mr Flanagan:

Let us imagine that I am the principal of this school where 70 children are looking for 50 places. Those 70 children have applied for the school, because they feel that the prospectus at my school has something to offer them. The policy of open enrolment is determined by the policy makers, so can we select on the basis of ability? If we remove selection we cannot. Can we select on the basis of proximity to home? That is a possibility. Maybe we can select on the basis of those who opted for my school as their first choice. Some may not have opted for my school as their first choice - it may be their second choice, or they may have been turned away elsewhere.

We presently operate a system of enrolment which takes into consideration proximity to schools and a range of other criteria such as whether the child has brothers or sisters at the school. All of those criteria are applied. We have tinkered with the criteria over the last seven or eight years. At one stage, it was possible for a post-primary school to say that the first criterion would be whether you put the school down as your first choice. That was removed from the post-primary schools, and you are no longer able to apply that.

Mr S Wilson:

Would you therefore have enrolment by postal code?

Mr Flanagan:

I have solved your problem. You presented me with a problem. I am not suggesting that we solve this by postal code.

Mr S Wilson:

Your answer illustrates the nonsense of saying that you can do away with selection. You cannot do away with selection. I am trying to tease out from you whether you would prefer to have selection on social, economic or educational grounds.

Mr Davidson:

There is a danger that we are going to go down an alleyway and that we are generalising from the particular. Mr Wilson assumed that we are against selection per se. In the document we state that at present, the actual mechanism of selection is harsh. I do not want to return to the question; the worst thing that an Irishman can do when you ask him a question is to reply by asking another. However, are Mr Wilson and the Committee happy with the results of the procedure at present? Are the grammar schools not finding that differential learning is presenting a problem as we increase the percentage of pupils that go there? Would the Education Committee be happy with the disaffection, the absenteeism and disciplinary problems found in the non-grammar schools? We have not stated that we are against grammar schools. I chaired a board of governors at a grammar school for 22 years, and I would have asked the very questions that Mr Wilson is asking.

You are assuming something which is not there. What we are saying is that it is a bit like climbing a mountain. If you have done some mountaineering, you will know that when you reach what you thought was the peak, there is another bit of the mountain still to go. We are saying that if you set out with the perception that this is the top and you get there and find that it is not, you have a problem. This document is saying that the mechanism at present is harsh and leaves many children blighted for life and feeling that they have failed. There is a differential of provision that is morally wrong. However, you cannot change it in one fell swoop. It is only when you reach that level on the hill that you realise that there has to be a readjustment and realignment. You thought that you were there, but you still have another distance to go. That is why we are being cautious. We are not coming up with options that are just leaving this open. We are saying that there is a two-staged approach to this. Only when people realise that this is the reality will they then begin to look at new options and solutions. It is a big issue.

We are offering this document and working with you and all responsible people in this Province to try to make provision for children. If we look at the grammar schools, lots of the parents are happy. If we look at the other schools, lots of the parents can be quite unhappy, and it is not the fault of the schools - far from it. Some of our best teachers are there, and that is why I cringe slightly when you talk about the excellence of the grammar schools. Having chaired boards of governers of grammar schools, I know that there are bad departments and bad teachers in some grammar schools. We have great teachers out there slaving away, and they are not getting the incentive or credit. We are leaving the whole area disaffected.

Those who are happy with the present situation have had either no children of their own or no association with any schools. We are saying in the document that we feel that something has to be done, and this is an opportune time to say so. We are not saying that selection per se must be removed, because education - as Mr Wilson will know, having been involved in it for years as a practitioner - is a constant series of selection and election. We are saying that we should not jump on a bandwagon and then look for the corollaries. We have to try to ask what the implication of this step will be. We are asking for a stepped, gradual approach. In order to bring that about, we are categorically stating that as far as we can see, the current mechanism is wrong; we do not agree with it, and we think that it should go. Far be it from me to sit here and chair a committee that would say that we want to get rid of grammar schools. Eddie McArdle might want to come in at this juncture.

The Chairperson:

You have very adequately and eloquently covered the point, and unless Mr McArdle has something really heavy to offer us, we should move on.

Mrs E Bell:

I read your paper. At the beginning, I thought that it was very good, but when I came to the end of it, I was left hanging as to what was going to happen. I got the impression that you think this is the first stage and the next stage will be when we step in to start the second phase - in which will be looking at your gradual approach to it. I was a bit disappointed in that.

However, what you said this morning showed me why you did it that way. You think that there should be an agreed policy in the next step, rather than a way forward. The second phase would then be that you would be looking into the practical ways of doing that. Again, it is following on. That is the core of the problem.

You said in your paper that consideration will be given to the development of a culture in post-primary education of election to rather than selection for courses or pathways. That is the core issue. At this stage, selection is for things and you look at it in a pre-determined way, whereas I would have thought that election to courses would have suggested that we needed a more flexible way of looking at it.

You recommend this, and there are definitely some reasons to consider it seriously, however, how do you see that working in practice? Where would you come in on that as regards, for instance, parents' involvement and deciding which children go to which school? I think that the logistical implications of that would be enormous.

The involvement of parents, as you rightly said, is necessary but how much? I know what the practices are on the ground, and it is very hard to get parents involved. While they are interested in getting excellence for their children, they are not all that keen on actually contributing to getting that excellence.

Mr Flanagan:

Let me respond first, and then Mr McArdle will say a few words. Your articulation of how you have gone through this document is exactly the same as that of the task group when we first brought this paper to them. They thought that it did not go far enough. It was exactly the same with our education committee and with our council when we brought it to them. It was exactly the same with all three.

When we articulated our policy context, people clearly saw that there was a need to make policy decision before being able to move to structural determinations. The policy decisions around selection, open enrolment and curriculum need to be determined for the education authorities to move forward in relation to structures.

Secondly, central to the notion of this paper is the notion of election. Having worked with children and having been involved at school level as much as I have been, I have found that parents almost intuitively know what is best for their child. That has certainly been my experience. I witnessed only twice in my whole career in education parents making a decision that was wrong for their child.

Therefore, the notion of election is probably already embedded there. You must remember that 30% of parents do not put their children forward for the transfer test each year, because they are content to elect to or select the school of their choice. They are content with the alternative and the options that are available to their children.

A few more years would allow the child to mature. You could provide customised careers advice. You could have a record of achievement extending over a number of years, good interaction between the parents, the teacher and the child and a range of choices available that are realistic, have the parity of esteem and recognise the real world that we are getting into. Presently, one third of the long-term unemployed have A levels or better, so the grammar school system that we espouse is not necessarily producing people who are ready for work. There are difficulties in that sense.

We are involved here in a process of leadership, of inclusion and of setting clear guiding principles, and the schools have a part to play in that. In their prospectus, schools will set out their intentions; they will look at the area that they are working in, the type of intake that they have and the courses that they need to provide. They can go down a vocational or academic route, and a considerable number of schools will provide a range of choices under the one roof for children with a range of abilities, interests and aptitudes.

Mr McArdle:

Mr Wilson referred to the options. We were making the point that there are currently 15,000 surplus places in the system. There is a decline in pupil numbers in the region of another 13,000 places. We need to address in a coherent and structured way the rationalisation of that issue. That effectively offers new opportunities. One of the ways in which open enrolment can be eased in the operation of the selection is that it could have the effect of contracting the network to an extent, and we would then be in a position to offer a significant number of places for most people. You would, therefore, get fewer disadvantaged or disappointed individuals.

In considering the transfer test, one of the things that has come out increasingly from the likes of Howard Gardiner as opposed to Prof John Gardner from Queen's is the difficulty in assessing intelligence. We have recognised that at the moment, the 11-plus does not predict the likely pathway in terms of academic capacity - it predicts achievement. To some extent we have to recognise that that is impacted upon by socio-economic factors. The evidence from DENI statistical bulletin 1/96 quite clearly shows that working-class individuals tend to do less well. We currently have a system that is in danger of creating new cells of cumulative disadvantage, and it is interesting that north and west Belfast are already showing those signs; that is why 'group one' is there.

Part of the Assembly's agenda - and it is a wonderful agenda - is not only the invigoration of the economy, but also for social inclusion. Our belief is excellence for all, but the problem we have is the time bomb of demographics. In our own council we are beginning the process of mapping that out in order to manage the situation in a meaningful way, because we do not believe that open enrolment should be permitted to allow schools to wither on the vine.

The second thing to address is John Anderson's statement made this morning "I cannot get IT specialists". You hear people from Bombardier and the shipyard talk about not being able to obtain engineers; you see the haemorrhage of people and what is happening in the South with the whole plethora of sub-degree type courses; you see the 'Strategy 2010' document saying that there needs to be reinvigoration, these issues cannot be looked at in isolation.

The grammar school and that type of education have an inordinate amount to deliver in all of this. We need to have a structured policy that lays out a particular set of pathways. We need flexibility for those who decide early on. I believe that 11 is not the right age for a child to make a life-shaping decision. The difficulty at the moment is if a child is not selected for a grammar school, then that child's life chances are diminished. The evidence was there in the Gardner Report, although we did not need that, because Shuttleworth did similar research in 1995. We need to have a policy that will reinvigorate the notion of vocational education, not in a simplistic or demeaning way, but one which will raise it to a status that is comparable to any of our academic pathways. We should be looking for that sort of approach and flexibility. We are not against academic excellence; in fact, we think that is necessary for all, but for choice there needs to be parity.

Mr McHugh:

Fitness for purpose is a concept that comes up with the industry all the time, and, indeed, we raised this when we were in Germany. They seem to have moved to, or ended up with, some sort of open selection procedures from the first level right up to the final academic one.

The Gymnasium-type schools there have three levels providing some people with no choice at the bottom levels. I do not want to see that happening here. We should do something about that, as we do not want a situation where there are cells of deprivation in new areas. We need equality and choice in those circumstances, and perhaps you will tell us why this situation exists.

Who should carry out the manpower analysis? There are good reasons to find out what industry wants is one third of graduates are achieving good qualifications but have not managed to get jobs.


Mr McArdle:

We have suggested that a strategic overview group may need to be brought into being running across several Departments - from the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment as well as the Department of Education. A systematic structured approach to an analysis of our needs is called for.

One of the things contributing to the regeneration of the economic situation in the South of Ireland has been the development of a strong sub-degree vocational element in education. When we discussed with the curriculum people in the South what planning had led to this vocational element, they said that they thought it had been fortuitous and that there had not been a structured approach. I admired their candour. Nonetheless, there is a message for Minister Farren and us. Mr Anderson told me that he is losing people when they bring in the industries. He gave me a wonderful figure that I will not quote, detailing what a 29-year-old was earning, and I thought to myself that I had made the wrong life decision years back.

My point is that there needs to be a structure. One of the things about the present devolved Administration is that bodies like this one will be in a position to demand that this exercise be undertaken. You have the capacity to insist that there is a cross-departmental approach. Eventually you will be provided with administrators within the system and an analysis of our needs, and those administrators will then be able to bend the resources to delivering those needs. We would go back to the point that it is for the policy makers and the Government.

Mr McHugh:

We put the same question to the Ministry in Germany, and they said that as far as the Gymnasium sector was concerned the change in industry and the global situation did not matter. You still needed to have people going to those schools to be trained as leaders as opposed to plumbers. They were firm on that point.

Mr McArdle:

No matter which of the Länder you go to, some of the Gymnasia are effectively almost comprehensive. Others are, de facto, grammar. The name of the third type of school escapes me at the moment, which was supposedly for the less academically gifted, but it has largely withered on the vine. A bipartite system, which, has emerged, in Germany, is predicated upon a respect for the vocational and technical aspects of education, but we have not engendered that approach in our community as yet, and we will not do it by rebadging an institution as vocational. The last time we had a real go at this approach on a UK-wide basis was with the so-called technical colleges in 1944, but only 2% of the population were educated in those establishments during that period. It has not been a success.

The Chairperson:

Gentlemen, you will be aware of a certain toing and froing this morning. We are under pressure because of other matters. We are at the minimum complement for a quorum in respect of this Committee. I can verify that the suspected cases of foot-and-mouth disease in County Louth are now confirmed as positive. A serious state of affairs exists in the agriculture industry, and that is why the door of this room has seldom closed all morning.

Mr Gibson:

I want to take a different approach to this. I read your document with tremendous interest, and I think it has made a worthwhile contribution to what we are discussing. I am concerned that people in the public debates have jumped at structures and forgotten about the whole education process. Universities are still demanding increasing standards, and if they do not get those through the public examinations, the universities will threaten to resort to setting their own. That happened in Germany. They thought that their standards were being diluted, and they said that society demands a particular standard. If we do not get it, we will lose; the economic race will lose, as will every other race unless we are pitched at this level. Have our universities adequately coped with this change of demand? You rightly said that in the South of Ireland there are sub-degree levels and a plethora of courses, and you can graduate in almost everything from packing cigarettes right up to a fairly high standard. Have our universities geared up? It does not matter how many forms or processes we introduce, third level education, in the broader sense, must meet the challenge.

Mr Flanagan:

Obviously, the news that we have just heard has a devastating effect on many people around this table this morning. Mr Gibson is right to say that people have jumped to structures. If we jump to structures at this stage, we will lose the whole debate. We have been at this for 50 years, so we can take a little bit of time at this stage to try to get it right. That is why policy should be chosen as opposed to structures - the structures will come in due course.

You also, quite rightly, raised the issue of third level education and universities. We encountered this in Strabane at both further and higher education levels. There was a fear in Strabane that what we were creating would put other people out of business, particularly at further education level. That is where you have to move into the concept of lifelong learning in its real sense. The current problem about lifelong learning is that everybody talks about it as being a great theme, but the reality is that those who fail at school do not access lifelong learning. Children who have failed at school still fail in the lifelong learning process. That is a fact, and it has been well documented.

One of the guiding principles we used in Strabane was that we would try to increase access to third level education by what we were doing, whether that was through higher diplomas - HNC and HND levels - and into the whole concept of lifelong learning. Over the years we have seen how universities have responded to the needs of communities, the needs of adults and the needs of others. There will always be students that go through to university at the age of 18, but we hope to see other students entering university at 23, 25 or 30 years of age, as that will result in a more meaningful concept of lifelong learning. There are people involved in vocational education who move forward in terms of leadership roles and also take other second or third level degrees.

By looking at the issue of selection in this generic way, we feel that this will increase the numbers of young people and adults participating in third level education. Universities will have to adapt to change that, and over the last number of years we have seen that they have been able to adapt to changing circumstances and changing needs.

This is particularly evident in respect of the University of Ulster. Rather than sitting in Jordanstown or Coleraine to wait for the students to come to them, they have gone to the students; they have gone out to meet those needs.

The Chairperson:

I am afraid, Gentlemen, that we will have to draw this session to a close. We have had a very useful exchange this morning, and I express gratitude to you on behalf of the Education Committee. It may well be that we will have a further opportunity to exchange our views on this, given the extension of time that has been allowed for it. Thank you for coming this morning.

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