Minutes of Evidence:  26 April 2001




(Institute of Directors)

Thursday 26 April 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Ms Lewsley
Mr McElduff
Mr K Robinson

Mr E Bell
Ms L Brown(Institute of Directors)
Mr M McCall

The Chairperson:

I am pleased to welcome representatives from the Institute of Directors (IoD). I welcome Mr Bell, Mr McCall and Ms Brown. I invite you to make your presentation, and then to answer members' questions.

Mr Eric Bell:

Thank you very much for the invitation. I am Eric Bell, chairman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland. My day job is as senior partner in Grant Thornton, a firm of chartered accountants. Mervyn McCall is chairman of our education committee, and he is also the business development director of Mivan Limited. Linda Brown is the divisional director of the IoD. She is also a former teacher and further education lecturer. All three of us will play a limited part today, and we hope to limit the presentation to about 10 minutes.

The business community is anxious to ensure that the education system we devise in this consultation process will reflect the best that is available in the world. The business community has stressed the importance of the workforce as a key asset in the development of the economy. Strategy 2010 called for investment in creating a knowledge-based economy. Existing skill shortages may prevent us attaining our objectives. The education system has a vital role to play in ensuring that the workforce of the future has the necessary attributes for employability.

We recognise that great strides have been made in the present education system in increasing the qualifications of school leavers, and that there is much of excellence to be applauded. However, we also recognise that the system does not allow every child to achieve his or her full potential. Young people should not be entering secondary school feeling that they are failures, or that the transfer test creates that feeling. Parental attitudes and the media have reinforced that view. Grammar schools are seen as best and secondary schools as second best, mainly because they are competing in the same subjects. We need to develop excellence in vocational or technical areas and the non-academic schools can take on the role of delivering the necessary skills and competencies.

Business needs graduates, but it also needs competent technicians. The system is seen as failing to provide in that area.

Our proposals could ensure that what is already good in the system can be maintained and, at the same time, raise the standards of the rest. Ms Brown will sketch out how we gathered and prepared our report.

Ms Brown:

The Institute of Directors has about 850 members in Northern Ireland. We consulted widely with the community and had universal support from our members for the final document, which appeared in our own magazine. We carried out a postal and e-mail survey of our members. We discussed those responses with our education committee, which consists of about 15 people from both business and academic backgrounds. We discussed it with the other main business organisations, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Chamber of Commerce, and a draft report was issued to a number of maintained and controlled primary and secondary schools.

The final draft was produced after that consultation with the education committee and it was approved by our Northern Ireland committee, which again consists of 15 members, who come mostly from the private sector although there are also voluntary and academic representations. I would like to emphasise that it did have the universal support of our members. They all had the opportunity to look at the full report, and it was also printed in our magazine.

Mr Eric Bell:

I was surprised with that support because it came from people from all sorts of sectors. Mr McCall will talk about the highlights of the submission.

Mr McCall:

At the start of the submission we say "Keep the best, improve the rest". That means that our education system has a well-deserved reputation for high academic performance. The opportunity to achieve the highest standards should be extended to all pupils. Secondary schools should place more emphasis technical and vocational areas, and should be resourced to provide a high quality service to pupils. Research is required into why some secondary schools cannot provide the right environment to enable all pupils to achieve their full potential. That is about raising the lower standards of those schools to the higher standards of other secondary schools.

We believe in parity of esteem, and we attach great importance to the quality of all education, both vocational and academic. We are most concerned about the lack of esteem accorded to people working in what are termed as "blue-collar" jobs as opposed to "white-collar" jobs. Business success depends as much on those who make and supply goods as it does on those who extend the boundaries of knowledge. Positive attitudes to careers achieved through training apprenticeships or further education must be adopted. We realise that business has a role to play, particularly in influencing parents about the importance of those roles.

Change is required. The members surveyed on post-primary education overwhelmingly supported the models that proposed a two-route system. There was little support for a comprehensive system, which has not, by and large, produced successful results elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Dr John Marks's latest publication 'The Betrayed Generations: Standards in British Schools 1950-2000' compares the achievements of the system in Northern Ireland, which is almost 100% selective, with the achievements of the system in England, which is approximately 90% comprehensive. He concludes that our achievements are substantially better for both grammar and secondary school pupils.

It is often argued that the comprehensive system increases social inclusion. The IoD believes that such a system could reduce social inclusion in Northern Ireland as the high level of social, and indeed religious, mixing that occurs in our grammar schools and some secondary schools would be lost. It is likely that families would move home to fall within the catchment area of the most popular schools, thus making social splits worse. I have personal experience of that through working with people in England.

We are really suggesting multiple opportunity and choice and that the current secondary level schools should become part of a single body of post-primary schools without the grammar or secondary labels. All schools should offer a range of opportunities, some common to all and some that would place greater emphasis on either academic or vocational pursuits.

We envisage that the present grammar schools would maintain their academic bias and that the secondary schools would become centres of excellence in vocational and technical areas. To a certain degree, we believe in a step-by-step approach rather than in changing everything at once.

The decision on which school a pupil enters should be a matter of choice involving the parent and the pupil. They should receive guidance from teachers to make sure that the child is likely to benefit from the type of education that he or she has chosen. That guidance would be based on continuous assessment throughout primary school.

Some research will probably be required into how that assessment can best be carried out. However, there would be no selection test as part of the transfer procedure. The current Key Stage 2 testing could continue as a method of assessing pupils's key skills.

Ideally, schools will be adequately resourced, but, if necessary, they need to be allowed to offer more places to satisfy the demand. In any system, however, certain schools will always be oversubscribed. The IoD proposes that schools apply similar criteria to those currently used to allocate places until the balance between supply and demand has been worked out - that will take some time.

A broad common curriculum would apply to all schools, with certain core subjects compulsory in all of them. Added to those, a wide range of vocational and academic subjects would be available on the basis of pupil demand in each school for more academic or vocational career routes. Those must be made available to enable the curriculum to be delivered and to maintain high standards in all schools.

Pupils will have the opportunity at age 14, as part of ongoing guidance and assessment, to move from one type of school to another if their aspirations and aptitudes have changed since they were aged 11. Such a move would be possible because the syllabus for any given subject would be common to both academic and vocational schools.

Parity of esteem for pupils from all schools also requires an improved qualification framework. Pupils from vocationally-orientated schools should be able to leave with the same grades in GCSEs and A levels as those at a more academic school, regardless of the subjects chosen. That forms the main part of our recommendation.

We did include a small section on integration because we found that we could not review the whole post-primary education system without taking that issue on board. Any administration that seeks to promote excellence should seriously address the segregation between the maintained and controlled sectors. Segregation is politically and culturally divisive, against equality of opportunity and wasteful of resources. Grammar schools attract a broad range of social classes. In the controlled sector, and in parts of the maintained sector, the schools also show a considerable religious mix - evidence that parents, despite traditional prejudices, send their children to schools that promise a high quality of schooling.

Mr Eric Bell:

We called for the procedure to be slowed down and are pleased that a further five months have been allocated to the consultation process. However, sufficient time should be allowed to find the right answer. International benchmarking on research will help with that.

Comprehensive schools would be a mistake as they have not proven to be successful anywhere else in the world. It is extremely difficult to teach children of mixed ability in one class, and if we were to go down that route we would need about four times as many teachers as we currently have. The pass and fail system must be replaced by continuous assessment. Research into how that can be done is required. Moreover, choice should replace selection.

The excellence of grammar schools must not be diluted, but retained in schools that are academically focused. Resources must be provided to create vocationally-biased schools, which provide high quality education for all pupils. GCSEs should be applied to all vocational subjects, so that a pupil leaving school will have seven GCSEs. It does not matter whether those are in English and Maths - they can be in any vocational subject.

Academic and vocational routes must be equally valued. The key is the employability of all young people, because pupils become employees and then, I hope, entrepreneurs. The education system provides the qualifications and framework that must ensure that achievements in both areas are equally rewarded.

The Chairperson:

What is your definition of vocational education?

Ms Brown:

We define it as education that leads on to training - into apprenticeships or employment as opposed to higher education - although people who go into employment often then move into higher and further education.

The Chairperson:

Do you see a streaming of those who are more academically gifted and those who would prefer a more vocational education? Your distinction is that it is to provide plumbers and electricians - that type of employment.

Mr McCall:

Yes, and computer technicians and programmers. We are looking to provide the technical skills that are in short supply. One of the current problems is that those careers are not currently valued.

The Chairperson:

At what stage do you make that distinction?

Mr Eric Bell:

The transfer process should happen at age 11, and between the ages of 11 and 14 the routes would be similar. However, from the age of 11, specialist vocational subjects would be added. The lack of discipline in some schools could result from pupils not being stretched and challenged in subjects that interest them.

Ms Brown:

Alternatively, they are being pushed down routes that do not meet their career aspirations; they do not see their subjects as leading them in the right direction. It appears that if you are in a secondary school and you wish to take the vocational route, you may be forced into it. The two curricula are now so similar that you will be forced down routes that will not necessarily make you a qualified electrician. Your chosen subjects may not appear appropriate to your aptitudes and desires.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps a period of orientation is needed?

Ms Brown:

And the option of changing from one type of school to another.

Mrs Eileen Bell:

In all your presentations you seem to be extolling the advantages of grammar schools, which I think we all agree with. The IoD, along with many others, has also fallen into the trap of implying that nothing good can be transferred from the secondary schools. Can anything useful be transferred from secondary schools? Moreover, could the grammar school system, as it is, be transferred without change?

Mr McCall, you mention integration in section 14 of your submission. It was music to my ears when I read somewhere that the IoD would urge that consideration of full integration be kept at the forefront.

I agree with that. Are you talking about integration as I am, or are you talking about bringing the maintained and the controlled schools together?

Mr McCall:

I am talking about bringing the maintained and controlled schools together.

Mrs Eileen Bell:

You are not talking about integrated education as it is usually talked about - all traditions and all abilities.

Mr Eric Bell:

Integrated education involves all abilities. We are talking about controlled and maintained schools.

Mrs Eileen Bell:

I wanted to clarify that. I am a little disappointed but I am sure that I can go along with that.

Mr McCall:

We have not covered it properly in the paper, but we are against mixed-ability classes.

Mrs Eileen Bell:

I agree with that.

Mr Eric Bell:

I am disappointed that it is seen as a grammar school paper.

Mrs Eileen Bell:

I said that it seems that you say that grammar schools "Keep the best, improve the rest".

The Chairperson:

Mr Bell would like to address the point.

Mrs Eileen Bell:

I want him to address the right point.

Mr Eric Bell:

There are excellent grammar schools and excellent secondary schools. There are also some poor grammar schools and some poor secondary schools. Similarly, there are both excellent and poor secondary schools in the same area. We want to know why that is. We can give you answers, but they are our answers, which have not been properly researched.

It comes down to management. The principal and his or her attitudes contribute to poorer schools. Some of it may be attributable to single-sex schools - the curriculum may not be as appropriate for some boys as it is elsewhere. That is why we want more research on it.

There are truly excellent secondary schools that anybody would be proud to attend. Much of that is down to what we consider to be the management of those schools. We want to see that progress.

Mr McCall:

We struggled in deciding a name for those schools. We suggest that there be one level of school after post-primary education. Specialist schools are emerging, for example, in music or sport. However, schools should share common subjects.

Existing grammar schools are good at delivering academic to higher academic education. While they should be left to do that, they should also have to broaden their curriculum to incorporate more vocational subjects. Pupils will then get enough experience in the first three years to determine the direction that they want to take.

Secondary schools have virtually the same curriculum. That should be reduced to the core subjects that everybody must do. Those schools should introduce more technical skills and things that were lost with the demise of technical schools. Other education systems have technical schools of excellence.

The economy needs those types of people, and they are currently not coming through the system. We are struggling over how to label schools. We could end up with two or six categories. All the details have not been sorted out, but that was the direction that we were thinking of.

Mr S Wilson:

I want to ask two questions about parity of esteem. In paragraph 6.8 of the your submission, you express concern about the lack of esteem accorded to people working in blue-collar jobs compared with those in white-collar jobs. The implication is that attitudes must be changed at secondary level so that people do not see exclusively see those who go to university as the success stories and those who do not as the failures.

What should schools do to change those attitudes? Unfortunately, they are already bound up in society's perceptions and in schools through careers advice et cetera.

Mr Eric Bell:

The number of teachers from purely academic backgrounds in Northern Ireland is out of line with England. When we challenge the Department it says that it does not have the resources. There is not enough switching between industry and academic careers.

Career development teachers are better than they were, but the teaching is still done in an academic way. We have developed Enterprise Insight with the CBI and the Chambers of Commerce across the whole of the United Kingdom. We announced that about six months ago. We are not going replicate what is happening with Young Enterprise. We are going to harness our people much more.

There is a case for saying that 16- to 18-year-olds should spend one day a week in a business environment. It would have to be carefully worked out so that the pupils would be given something sensible to do rather than making the coffee and photocopying. Many young pupils do not understand the disciplines of work until they are in that environment. However, if they are put in that environment during the school time they may be keener to obtain some sort of academic achievement by the time they are 18.

Mr McCall:

The existing transfer system causes much of the problem. When you have an 11-plus exam that you either pass or fail, the pupils going to the secondary school consider themselves failures, as do their parents and teachers. Moreover, for no valid reason, secondary school teachers consider themselves failures because they are teaching in those schools. We must get away from pass and failure and into allocation. It is about putting people where they are best suited.

You just have to look at what pupils do when they come home from school to know where their talents lie, yet they are still stuck doing things that they do not enjoy. Part of it is about getting away from failure.

Mr S Wilson:

That neatly leads on to my second question. You say that we should look for post-primary education, and where schools are oversubscribed we should apply similar criteria as is used to allocate places under the current transfer system. Even though schools may have the same name, they are taking people down different routes - the vocational route or the technical route. It does not matter what you call them. First, parents will quickly suss that out. Secondly, you are not starting from a blank sheet of paper because existing schools have reputations in certain areas. Therefore, you are bound to get oversubscription.

All the evidence from elsewhere is that people tend, against the advice of primary school teachers, to push children into the academically-orientated schools. If you do not have academic criteria - you have said that you want to get away from the pass and fail problem - then you start using a whole range of criteria based on the test, or on whether parents or other children have attended the school. If those are the criteria you are going to use, does that not do away with the vital distinction, which you said is important, of having schools that take people down the academic or vocational route? If parents cannot be persuaded to make choices for their child - and I think they cannot - we must provide educational testing. Is that not implicit in what you have said?

Mr Eric Bell:

It is our view that Key Stage 2 and continuous assessment form the ideal process. Teachers assess their pupils every week. The difficulty is that the current transfer test is a pass or fail situation on one or two days. If there is continuous assessment, pupils parents and teachers know that it will be taken into account if pupils end up wanting to go to a school that is vastly oversubscribed.

We believe in supply and demand. Good schools should be allowed to get bigger and those that are not good should be culled. If schools are not successful they may have to close and resources be reallocated elsewhere. It is easier in provincial towns to achieve these goals than in the urban areas of Derry and Belfast.

Mr McCall:

Mr Wilson made the point that some schools will be oversubscribed, leading to fall-back on traditional methods. That is a disadvantage. However, that will occur in a small number of schools and for a few years. It is part of the process of change. However, it is a lot better than the alternative, which would be to change every school in every respect. In that case the whole educational system would suffer for many years. We propose the lesser of two evils.

Ms Lewsley:

Unfortunately this consultation debate is about the 11-plus. We cannot simply answer "Yes, let's do away with the 11-plus" or "No, we want to keep it". The debate is much wider than that.

I am somewhat confused as to what exactly it is that you are proposing. I assume that you would like to keep the grammar schools and change them slightly by offering some type of vocational route on the edge of that system, while secondary schools continue to represent the main vocational route.

It follows on from what Mr Wilson said that this system would still leave us with haves and have-nots. Lack of recognition does not only exist in communities; it also comes from the business world. Many of the young people who get qualifications by a vocational route do not get the same recognition from business and industry as they would if they had followed an academic route. You have a big role to play.

I met Mr Eric Bell in another Committee and discussed the issue of Strategy 2010. We were talking about a new knowledge-based economy. What is your role in that and what contribution should you be making? It worries me that you propose to do away with the 11-plus while saying that there must still be some type of transfer test, perhaps by continuous assessment. You also propose that should schools be oversubscribed, we can apply the old criteria. This means that there will still be children who will be disadvantaged. Is that better than ensuring equality across the board by making every school equal? I am not sure what type of system you are recommending. I cannot see any difference between the system that you have mentioned and the one that we already have.

Mr Eric Bell:

When we were carrying out our research, we asked how many pupils ended up in a different part of the system. For example, how many ended up in a secondary school when they wanted to be in a grammar school? We were told that this happened to less than 5% of pupils.

Ms Lewsley:

How many of those pupils were in a grammar school but wanted to be in a secondary school? There were probably none.

Mr Eric Bell:

That is a fallacy. Undoubtedly, some students have this experience. As Mr McCall said, there are people who go to grammar schools and suddenly discover after a year or two that this is not the place for them and that they should be elsewhere. Parental pressure may well mean that they do not want to move.

We believe that we are proposing a fundamental change. Many schools are excellent, whatever label they are known by. We want to change all the names - if governors directors agree - so that labels such as secondary grammar school or secondary modern are not used.

People will still know what the old name and category was. However, it is in some of our current secondary schools that difficulties appear to be arising. We propose the abolition of grammar and secondary schools. We want to call them all by one name.

Ms Lewsley:

If there is no change in what a school offers, it is irrelevant what label you put on it. A school that is academically driven is still going to be a grammar school. Let us return to those children in that school whom you say will find out after a couple of years that they should not be there but should be in a secondary school. Why should they have to change from that school to another? Why should that school not be providing all that that child needs?

Mr McCall:

The reason is that that is a very inefficient way of doing it. If you want to be the best at anything, the only way to do it is to specialise and focus. Our idea is that some of these schools will specialise, focus on and be really good at different things.

Ms Lewsley:

Are you therefore saying that they are specialised schools?

Mr McCall:

Yes. People seem to pick up on specialised schools for music, sport or other things, but we should also have schools which specialise in academic subjects. That is the important point. Your question related to oversubscription and the feelings of disadvantage which result. People will not be disadvantaged if resources are put into schools to which people want to go. Parents and pupils should have choice. We raised that in the event of the preferred schools' inability to cope, but putting the resources into those schools would be the way forward.

Mr McElduff:

Language such as "supply and demand", "cull" and "efficiency" has not been heard for a long time in relation to children and schools, and it is important to record that.

Secondly, from an institutional point of view, and given that there is an emphasis on pupils' becoming employees and developing links in education with industry and business, I would have thought that a more thorough analysis, comparing the situation here with that in the rest of Ireland, might be appropriate. There is a cursory comparative reference on p11 of your submission, but none in the executive summary.

Is it possible to identify correctly the suitability of a child at the tender age of 10 or 11 for either the academic or the vocational route? Is it possible to determine aptitudes and aspirations at that age?

Mr Eric Bell:

We do not have the research facilities to enable us to answer your question. We did look at what was happening in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere in the world. The vast majority of transfer procedures happen at 11 years old. If the rest of the world sees 11 as the right age, then we see nothing wrong with that.

If I offended you about supply and demand, then I apologise. It was not my intention to offend. In business, if the good is there we believe it should be encouraged and developed. If things which are not working properly cannot be made to work properly they should be stopped. That is what happens in business, day after day.

The links between business and education are growing. I have said to this Committee that pupils should spend one day a week in business. That is a major step forward, and I doubt that it has been put forward by anyone else. The amount of resources we produce and ask our members to allocate to education is growing because we see it as so important. We do so much, but there is a limit to our resources.

Mr K Robinson:

The Chairperson took my vocational question straight away - he knew it was mine - and one by one my list has been ticked off. Before we start, I do not want any apologies. We are here to discuss things and tease them out, so no-one should be apologising for anything. We want to know what is going on.

You come from a business background, I come from an educational one. As a primary school teacher, I had to deal with the 11-plus for twenty-odd years, advise parents and watch children go on into different routes. I am now going to put myself into your place. What does the customer want? Who is the customer? You are the customer as business. I am the customer as a parent. The child is a customer, as is society, generally.

What do they want from our education system? Parents want security and social and financial benefits for their children. They want their children to have a good school experience and obtain good qualifications. These are laudable aims. However, the perception is that if you go to a grammar school you will finish up on the golf course; if you go to a secondary school you will end up looking for a second job in the evenings to boost your earnings and your financial status.

You talked about the availability of apprenticeships through vocational schools. Mr Wilson and I have had experience of this. Trying to find slots for children to get work experience is very difficult. Sometimes it is very difficult to get industry, commerce and business to engage with schools and vice-versa. You have highlighted the fact that there is very limited business experience within the teaching profession. Few of us have experienced industry over an extensive period.

Apprenticeships in Germany and in other places are linked very tightly with the business community. They are not away-day or work-experience situations. People show certain attributes at an early stage, go to a specific school based on qualifications or technical skills, and have a career path that will take them to the golf course. How can our business community change local perceptions? Educationalists should be able to say to children "Go to that technical school; go to that vocational school and you will still see the primrose path." It is not happening at the moment.

On the vocational side, Mr McCall, you talked about the shortage of programmers and technicians. I happen to have a very large hi-tech, state-of-the-art industry on my doorstep, and it has just announced more than 300 redundancies. How can I go to the local secondary school and encourage people to go along that route when they are still going to be faced with job insecurity?

Mr McCall:

The rest of the industry in Northern Ireland breathed a huge sigh of relief when that happened because it is almost impossible to get that type of person. That particular company had cornered the market. I can assure you that none of those people will be without jobs.

Mr K Robinson:

I hope you are correct about that.

Mr McCall:

There is a large demand. When I talked about parity of esteem I included business as part of the community - and I still do. We have a large role to play. If you were to walk into our car park today and select three or four of the nicest cars in it, you would find that they belong to the workers and not the managers. That has not always been the case, but I think it will be more frequent now. There is great demand for this type of skill.

Northern Ireland has the opportunity to develop a strong economy. The economy is stronger now than it has been in my experience. This means that employers will have to take a greater interest in education. They will have to know how people are coming through the system and where they are going to get their resources. Employers did not have to do that in the past as unemployment was so high.

I believe that education is a matter of choice; parental choice and pupil choice, with good advice and support coming from teachers. In the short-term, people may not make the correct choices because of their preconceptions about education. However, it should still be down to choice. I feel that people will see that this is the best way for their children.

Ms Brown:

Part of the enterprise insight initiative is about getting business people to talk to schoolchildren about their route through the education system. Not all business people will have passed the 11-plus and academic skills will not always be appropriate to their businesses. However, they can also be on the golf course when they are close to retirement age. I was in a chauffeur-driven car the other day, and the chauffeur was heading off to the golf course the following afternoon.

Mr Eric Bell:

As Ms Lewsley said, the review of post-primary education is not concerned with only one thing. The IOD is therefore keen that the myriad elements are successfully pieced together. Parents do not want their children going down the mines because the mines are wet and dirty. The business world has to do away with dangerous, dirty workplaces. They are fewer now, but they have not been eliminated.

Employees in dot.com and knowledge-based businesses can come from any background; what is important is their ability to do the work. Business has to integrate more. It has got to engage in education. Some larger businesses are dissatisfied with how that is progressing so they are starting their own initiatives. It is not part of today's debate, but further education has a bigger part to play in how students get from secondary education to further education. How that relates to business is equally important.

The Chairperson:

Due to time constraints I have to close our discussion. Thank you very much for your contribution and for the exchange of views.

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