Minutes of Evidence:  22 March 2001



Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland


(Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta)

Thursday 22 March 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh
Mr K Robinson

Mr P MacMuiris
Mr F Ó hÍrComhairle na Gaelscolaíochta
Ms C Ruane

The Chairperson:

I am pleased to welcome Mr MacMuiris, Mr Ó hÍr and Ms Ruane, who are representatives from Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta. We look forward to your presentation, after which there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

Mr MacMuiris:

As education officer, I have been asked to make this short presentation. First, I would like to thank the Committee for allowing us the opportunity to express our views on the debate on the reform of structures at post-primary level. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta has already had an opportunity to give background information on the structure of Irish-medium schools and on the philosophic idea of immersion and bilingual education systems. Like many other people, we feel that the debate is a unique opportunity, given the greater autonomy of our institutions, for local politicians to take responsibility for education reform, perhaps for the first time in our history. We can establish a system - right through from 3 to 18 - which suits our children and young people.

Our views on the selection procedure at 11-plus have already been submitted to the Committee. I do not wish to dwell on that topic. As far as Irish-medium education is concerned, the test is totally unsuitable to children learning in a bilingual situation. It has been shown statistically - we have made the point in our paper - that it is unfair, lacks validity, and lacks reliability as an educational instrument. Therefore Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta wishes to see the 11-plus taken out of the education system.

It is not a good transfer system socially, or educationally. It is socially divisive, it divides families, friends, communities and schools. Educationally, it succeeds in producing a large number of well qualified young people at 18-plus, but it also leaves in its wake a large swathe of under-achievement. In the Belfast Education and Library Board area, the under-achievement of young people - particularly young males in north and west Belfast - is due in part, if not totally, to the 11-plus and the differentiated school system. The 11-plus does not suit Irish-medium education, and it is socially divisive and educationally damaging. That is why Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta wants the 11-plus abolished.

The proposed changes to post-primary education structures will have an impact on Irish-medium education and on the wider education system. Gallagher and Smith put forward five possible scenarios, including delaying selection to 14-plus, as in the Craigavon model. Due to the number of children involved in Irish-medium education, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which there would be a multiplicity of post-primary Irish-medium schools. Therefore Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta is against delayed selection and against common primary and lower secondary schools, followed by differentiated upper secondary schools. We are not in favour of the second option because that model exists in highly populated countries such as Germany and would be difficult to replicate in Northern Ireland, which has a population of 1·5 million. When post-primary education is restructured - if it is restructured - we must not assume that just because a model works in one economic, social or demographic environment that it will necessarily work in Northern Ireland. That would be foolish.

Another option put forward by Gallagher and Smith was differentiated post-primary schools. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta is against that option . That was what the secondary and grammar system started out - and failed - to do in Northern Ireland. It has failed too many people and has not brought the expected economic gains. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta is against the status quo. We want an end to selection at 11-plus.

For the first time in the history of our education system, there is an opportunity to ask how we can provide as many young people as possible - from 11 through their teenage years into young adulthood -with the widest choice of educational experience for the longest time possible. Why does society have to select people or freeze them out of the system because they are not fit to go along that path any longer? Why can there not be the widest choice for the greatest number of people for as long as possible? Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta is against selection. We would like to keep the curriculum open for as long as possible with a wide choice, ranging between academic, technical and vocational education, not forgetting the fine arts, which are often placed in an inferior position in the education system.

We are in favour of educating our children under one roof, in a system that gives them access to learning opportunities that are not selective and do not force them to specialise too early. Other countries can pick and mix; young people have opportunities to develop skills in information technology, languages and other subjects all the way through post-primary education. When there is a need to select what one wants to study - and everyone, at some stage in their educational career, needs to narrow their choices - students and their parents should be consulted. Such decisions should not just be at the whim of a state-organised measurement instrument that gives young people no choice. In the year 2001, that is medieval.

We would be disappointed if the debate, at both a political and societal level, were based on structures in such a way that people were hoping just to tinker with them and change them as easily as possible. In terms of personal, social, academic and economic advantage what do our young people need to achieve in their educational experiences? If we establish that, we might be able to create the structures to deliver those things.

Post-primary Irish-medium schools are non-selective, all-ability and gender integrated. Meánscoil Feirste has proved that the system works. Young people who were deemed to be failures in the 11-plus exam have done extremely well in an all-ability, all-through school. Bilingual and immersion education systems throughout the world show that children tend to do better in that kind of environment.

Why can we not create educational learning opportunities for our young people in structures that suit us and not England or Germany or wherever? Scotland has always maintained its independence in determining educational structures and is an example of how systems that suit the local people work.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. My analysis of what you said is that you are advocating all-ability comprehensive schools in some form. Is that a fair assumption?

Mr MacMuiris:

The word "comprehensive" is loaded, because of the history of the education debate in the past 30 years. We choose not to use that word. We prefer to talk about all-through, all-ability integrated schools.

The Chairperson:

Some would say that that is shorthand for a comprehensive system. However, we should not get wrapped up in the terms used. When we look at England and other parts of Europe, we see that comprehensive education is being critically examined and carefully scrutinised. Why do you feel so strongly that it should be used in Northern Ireland?

Mr MacMuiris:

We do not have time to go into the details, but the history of comprehensive schools in England shows that the level of achievement has continued to rise, across the board, since the schools were introduced. It was always felt that the Conservative Party in its heartlands would be the great bastion of grammar schools and selective education. In fact, when Margaret Thatcher, Lord Young and Sir Keith Joseph tried to dismantle the comprehensive system, it was people in the Tory heartlands who said that it was working well and that it should not be abolished. There is a mistaken belief that comprehensive schools have been failing. Statistics show that they have continued to offer higher levels of qualification to a greater number of people since their introduction. That is irrefutable.

Mr Ó hÍr:

I have been involved in the delivery of education for some 30 years. I taught in a secondary school in the English-medium sector for 20 years, and I am now am in the Irish-medium sector as head teacher of Meánscoil Feirste. I went to a grammar school, so like most present, that I have experience of that. These debates can get bogged down in ideological positions and the use of labels. As an educationalist, I want to draw back from that and give reasons from my experience, and from what I have seen of young people going through the system, for what I advocate.

I firmly believe that when you enable, empower and encourage young people in educational endeavour, they will respond positively. The corollary is that when they are told that they are unable to do things and that they are failures, they respond negatively. I worked for a long time in the secondary sector, and I saw young people coming through who had been told at the age of 11 that they were a failure and who responded accordingly. Children are not stupid. If they are told that they are not able to do something - whatever nice terminology is used - they take the point, and they respond accordingly. I have seen it in streaming in a school. If class members are told that they are the low achievers, they will be a class of low achievers.

When we started the Meánscoil, the Irish language school, it gave me, and others, the opportunity - I am not claiming all the glory for this - to try to do things differently. We established an inclusive system, in which all students are valued and made to believe that they can achieve. There may be debates about the Irish language, bilingualism and inclusiveness, but we can show that our system has worked, despite the fact that it exists within a selective system in which some of the more academic students go to grammar schools and are lost to us. We have proved that by encouraging students to achieve, giving them choice and not blocking them, within our limitations, we give them choice, and they respond positively.

We have had pupils who have failed - to use that loaded term - the 11-plus. We like to say that they do not fail - they get an A, B, C or D grade - but the students know what they are talking about. They have an attitude that reflects the fact that they have been told that they have failed. However, some of our students have achieved high grades at GCSE and GCE level and are now at university. If we give opportunities to young people, they will respond to them. That is the system that we are trying to achieve. We do not want to block opportunities for children.

Mrs E Bell:

I agree with most of what you have said. How can we find the resources that may be needed for that. You stated in your paper that, whatever the structures, there must be the capacity to allow young people the widest choice. Would that be a good starting point for the next step in the procedure? That would take into account the pupils and the parents. Parents' involvement is necessary, and that is the ethos that you are promoting. Is that a good basis for going forward?

Mr Ó hÍr:

My approach has always been that there are three major players in education - the student, who is central, the teacher and the parents. That triangle has to be involved the whole way through, supporting students and helping them to make informed decisions. Parental involvement is vital.

We want resources to be available to everyone. I do not want to slam grammar schools; much good work has been done there. However, there has been an imbalance in resources. We want the best for all students. Some people think that grammar schools are better, but we will not get into that argument.

Mrs E Bell:

If you start off on that basis, the resources should go along with that. One of your recommendations is that we should put pupils first.

Mr MacMuiris:

The situation is unique. For the first time, we have a chance to make a decision about how education can contribute to our society. We must start from a zero base position of saying, "what do we want, and how much is it going to cost?" More successful countries in Europe spend proportionately more of their gross national product on education than the United Kingdom and Ireland. Socially and economically, and at many other levels, those countries success arises from that. There may be a chance for us to make the decision that a greater investment in education may bring greater returns.

Ms Ruane:

I am involved with Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta as a parent. I feel privileged that my children and lots of other children are experiencing such great opportunities. Uniquely, our children start in naíscoileanna at the age of three; then they go to the bunscoileanna and the meánscoileanna. It is a natural progression, as opposed to going to a playschool and then to a bunscoil. Parental involvement has been crucial, and parents feel strongly that our input is welcome. They are crying out for our support, and that support is given.

Having spoken to colleagues in Europe, I feel strongly that in the North and South of Ireland, we need to consider the fact that our teachers are not getting the support that they should be getting. It is a bit like the nursing problem - it is only when they are gone that we will realise what we had. I have great admiration for teachers in all sectors, but I have special admiration for teachers in the smaller sectors such as integrated and Irish language. They need support.

Mr McElduff:

A Chathaoirligh, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an fhoireann ó Chomhairle na Gaelscolaíochta. I would like to welcome the delegation from Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta. I share the concern that the term "comprehensive" has become so value-laden. People talk about "all-ability" schools because of that concern. Although we are glad to see the back of league or performance tables, I would like to note that Meánscoil Feirste performed very well.

In your submission, you mentioned extra difficulties that people faced with the transfer test, which were not accommodated, for example translation or coverage of special skills which people had learnt, which were not referred to. Could you talk about that? The debate is not just about structures, it is about the values and philosophy of education, or oideachas. Is the debate timely or are we rushing things?

Mr MacMuiris:

The 11-plus was constructed for children educated in a monolingual situation. It was established to test someone's ability, and to pick children who could progress successfully through a highly academic, knowledge-based, subject-driven curriculum. In as far as that is what was meant by it, it worked. However, it certainly does not work for children in a bilingual situation. For many of them, the language of instruction is their second language. In that sense, the 11-plus examination cannot measure adequately the performance of the children in a bilingual situation. There is no attempt in the test to measure the children's ability in English or in a second language. It is totally inappropriate, and it has been shown statistically to be unreliable, which means that it does not test what it is supposed to test. It is invalid, in that several people who have been deemed to be failures are actually very successful, and as many as 9% of the people who are deemed to be successes make no progress through the system. As an educational instrument, it is deficient and should be done away with.

Mr McElduff:

Is it timely or are we in a hurry?

Mr MacMuiris:

We would say, as so many others have said, that we should not rush in, look quickly at the structures that we have and the structures that other people have and then make a decision on which one we can afford. With a little bit of creativity and a little bit of stretching, we can decide, not just what kind of education system we want, but what kind of system would maximise the opportunities for our young people and optimise the results for society, in the broadest terms - economically and culturally.

We have an opportunity to create the structures that will work best for Irish-medium education, for integrated education, for state-controlled systems, for voluntary systems and so on. Irish-medium education is not cut off from everywhere else. We have said to the Committee and in other places that we are willing to look at post-primary education structures Given that greater element of choice, a system might have flexibility built into it, so that young people from Mr Ó hÍr's school could go to an integrated or a state-controlled school to get that portion of their education, between the ages of 11 and 16. We are not saying that we only want one system of education for our children.

Mr McHugh:

You mentioned the comprehensive system and the way that the media and others have hyped it as being a failure in Britain. I am glad to hear you say that that is not exactly the case, although that is not widely known.

On the question of economics you stated that the present situation has not brought economic gain. Perhaps you could elaborate on that statement, the failure of the present system and how your own system would perform better.

What impact has parental support had on the ability of children to advance rather than be labelled a failure? That support can continue in the years after the 11-plus.

Mr MacMuiris:

In Europe it has been shown on the economic front that countries introducing early education - as Ms Ruane said, from the age of three onwards - have also introduced degrees of bilingual or multilingual education. Those countries have built-in learning opportunities that involve not just knowledge-based essay-type assessment, but that do include curriculums involving skills and attitudes learning. The education systems in those countries do not narrow down options too early, but give young people a broad choice and education.

In the workplace it has been shown that certain people have highly developed planning skills, interpersonal and professional communication, flexibility and transferable skills. I am not making a political point, but Britain chose to cut itself off from Europe. Fog over the Channel - Europe is cut off. Britain chose to stay outside the educational developments happening in Europe and other countries. It is only now that the accrued and aggregated results of the educational systems on the continent have been shown to affect economic product, through a workforce produced by those systems. In the modern technological and scientific age those skills are needed. Gone are the days when you can be a history graduate and teach for 40 years. Society is not made that way.

We need to introduce the types of broad-based education experiences for our children, whether it is in Irish-medium immersion systems, integrated schools or the Steiner-type curriculum. We need to look at the whole picture.

Mr Ó hÍr:

Briefly and non-ideologically, our greatest resource is a well-educated group of young people. That will be a major factor in economic advances. Young people respond to being empowered and enabled. That is the way to achieve a well-educated workforce. That system of education, both in Irish-medium and in general empowers young people and makes them believe that they can succeed. That will result in the economic resources and welfare that we want and is the basis of any economic advance. Added to that we need investment, but the priority is a well educated, motivated young workforce coming on-stream.

Ms Ruane:

As someone who grew up in the west of Ireland, I had cousins in the North and I remember looking in horror at my cousins when I heard of the 11-plus. In relation to O and A levels, they seemed to specialise very early, but we did not know the terminology. The 11-plus was something that loomed on their horizon.

It had a huge impact on us as children and we were not even doing it. It must have had, and has been shown to have, a much greater influence on those people who were doing it. In our town everyone went to the same school after primary school. We naturally moved with our class. My cousin's family in the North were split up, one went to school in one town and the other went to another town because one passed and one did not.

If you have grown up with that system you can sometimes become immune or grow accustomed to it, but it is a shocking system for our young people. We have to be really careful, as Mr Ó hÍr has said, about empowering. We need to tell all our children that they are equal. We need to build a system that does not differentiate. During my education seven subjects were studied until the age of 17 or 18. Those subjects included languages, social sciences, sciences, maths, geography and history. We were probably not as specialised in three subjects, but if you ask people at 15, 16 or 17 want they want to do they do not know. However, in the system in the North people are deciding at a very young age whether they will go down a route that will change the whole course of their lives. Those extra few years can make a huge difference. They may decide that it might not be languages they want to study, but science or sociology instead. Huge benefits can be derived from not specialising too early.

Mr Ó hÍr:

I went to university in the South and because I had taken A levels here I assumed, given the broad curriculum they followed in the South, that I would be going there and be way ahead in chemistry and physics. I discovered in the first year of university that I was not. The breadth of the curriculum did not mean that students were behind. It seems to work.

Mr K Robinson:

I am interested in your comment about not knowing what you want to do until later in life. I once wanted to be a policeman but I came home on the bus one night when it was raining. I saw a traffic policeman with water running down his arms and I became a teacher instead - I am not sure if that was a wise choice.

The Chairperson:

I wondered where you were going with that. You can always blame the weather.

Mr K Robinson:

Mr MacMuiris you were talking about young people and the 11-plus, particularly in the north and west of the city and you suggested that the 11-plus was the cause of all the failure there. I spent 22 of my 32 years as a teacher in the north or west of the city. I taught across a range of schools from the lower end of the Shankill Road right up to the leafy suburbs in Cavehill. I would like to think that during that time both my colleagues and I took up the points mentioned at the bottom of the table - to encourage, enable and empower children.

I do not see the 11-plus as the destructive model that you have painted it as. There is no doubt that it has not been helpful to children in some instances. That has happened for a variety of reasons, sadly some of which are parental influences. In other ways it was the key to the door that allowed children to move from those areas into whatever area of secondary education, and, I hope to move on to other levels.

As I listened to you I was smiling to myself. Two people who have figured in my life - one of them a former pupil, the other my best man - are on the airwaves on a regular basis. They went down two very different tracks yet they are probably in the same studio on a certain morning of the week. We talk about "failure"; it has become as emotive as "comprehensive".

Children do not suddenly fail at 11 years of age. Many factors add to the inability to expand on those talents that they undoubtedly have, wherever they may lie. I would not lay it all at the feet of the 11-plus or the education system. Look at north and west Belfast. Think of the talent that was lost in the Falls Road and the Shankhill Road through civil disturbances. Look at those families who left - I have said that to some of my Colleagues from other parties - and think of what drove them out of those areas. They looked for a better life, went to better schools and took that talent with them.

All of those areas are the poorer for not having that talent today. They took it to the outer fringes of the city, or to the estates in Carrickfergus and Antrim, and also to Mr Hamilton's area in the south-east of the city. There are many complicating factors.

Looking at education in its broadest terms and taking in all the aspects that you brought in, will that not prove to be a tremendous strain on the Irish-medium system? If you are trying to reach out to all those areas in the manner that you have outlined, are you not biting off more than you can chew? Are you not placing children at a disadvantage, rather than giving them an advantage and the different quality that you seek to bring?

Mr MacMuiris:

I think that Mr Ó hÍr, as principal of Meánscoil Feirste, has shown that the system works. As wide a range as possible is offered, to as many children as possible, for as long as possible. That has the productive result in that it achieves success.

Mr K Robinson:

When students leave education and go out into the wider world, what sort of qualification are they able to present to potential employers? You mentioned earning opportunities. That is the key to everything. What can they, coming through your system, offer to a potential employer by way of a recognised qualification that makes them not just a reasonable potential employee, but a very good one?

Mr Ó hÍr:

That is an interesting question. They can offer the ordinary qualifications that any other student can offer - GCSEs and GCEs. My experience has shown that the students coming through the system - and I cannot explain how it happens - have a confidence and social skills that seem to be more advanced than others.

It is an ephemeral thing to say, but we are part of the education system, and I have educators coming in from all walks of life. For example, most recently we have had people helping students to fill in their Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) forms. People from both boards have helped. A series of people have all commented on the je ne sais quoi that the students have.

We could have a long discussion on that and I have views on why it happens. However, we have achieved that. In any school there is the cut and thrust of teacher/student relationships - for example, unsatisfactory homework or lateness. However, when you have something that brings everyone together, those relationships improve and everyone wants to do things better.

In our context, the Irish language unites. It is a major contributor to that extra something, and you are all invited to see that je ne sais quoi for yourselves.

The Chairperson:

Unfortunately, we have to close there. Thank you very much for your presentation and also for your patience.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more

Useful Contacts

Contact us

Contacts for different parts of the Assembly

Contact Us