Minutes of Evidence:  29 March 2001


Review of Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland


(Association of Headteachers in Secondary Schools)

Thursday 29 March 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Mr Gallagher
Mr Hamilton
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh

Mr S McCrea Association of Headteachers in Secondary Schools
Mr G McKimm
Mr S Rafferty
Mr A Browne

The Chairperson:

Good afternoon, and welcome to the second presentation on the review of post-primary education in Northern Ireland. On behalf of the Education Committee I am pleased to welcome representatives of the Association of Headteachers in Secondary Schools. Gentlemen, we apologise for the delay in receiving you, and we look forward to your presentation.

Mr McKimm:

Thank you, Chairman, and our thanks to the Education Committee for giving up its time this afternoon. On behalf of the Association of Headteachers in Secondary Schools, we welcome this opportunity to talk today.

I will make a brief introduction before giving way to my three colleagues. It would be pertinent if I were to give you some information about the association. It is a professional body that was formed in the early 1960s, and it is made up of all the post-primary secondary heads in the Province; that is running across all the education and library boards and the maintained, controlled and integrated sectors. In essence, our membership is made up of more than 260, of which approximately two thirds are active members.

We have made two submissions to the review body, and we anticipate that you have access to them. Both of those papers were recently presented at a conference attended by more than 100 post-primary secondary heads, and the recommendations of both papers were endorsed as the view of all those who attended. In essence, however, we see ourselves as executive members of the organisation speaking on behalf of the majority of post-primary secondary heads in the Province.

The executive is made up of two members from each of the education and library boards. Mr Browne represents schools on the Western Education and Library Board, Mr Rafferty is from the Belfast board, and Mr McCrea and I have our schools in the North Eastern Educational and Library Board area.

I must apologise on behalf of our chairperson, Ms Ann McGrath from Little Flower School in Belfast, who would have liked to have been here, but unfortunately she had a skiing accident recently and is recovering from a broken hip.

The Chairperson:

On behalf of the Education Committee, please convey our warmest good wishes for her recovery.

Mr McKimm:

Thank you, I will certainly do that.

Having made that introduction, the presentation we want to make is based on three strands. Mr McCrea is going to look at the current situation. He will be followed in turn by Mr Rafferty and Mr Browne, who will look at how we think things ought to be. Mr McCrea will be discussing our position on selection as it currently stands, and Mr Rafferty will then take on board some of the principles laid down in our submission paper. Mr Browne will look directly at our proposals.

Mr McCrea:

Good afternoon, Chairman. As Mr McKimm mentioned, I will be concentrating on what is the purpose of selection and its effects. There may have been historical reasons for our 11-plus, but we are looking at the twenty-first century, and, as an association, we are looking at its current purpose. In examining that purpose, it seems to us that there is absolutely no educational basis for its retention.

We look at selection as favouring the needs of institutions rather than children. That is a very important point. All of us who are involved in education, or have an input into education, want the very best for our children. If you ask yourself if selection is needed, the answer must be that it is not needed for children in the twenty-first century. It is needed only to maintain certain types of institutions. That is an important point.

We need to put children first. What are the effects on children and how many? By definition it devalues the majority of children. It is clearly stated that 51% will not obtain the top grades. What sort of democracy devalues the majority of its citizens at the age of 10 or 11?

The second issue is that not only does the transfer test devalue the majority of children, but also from our experience - and this is well documented in the Gallagher and Smith report - it damages many children's self-esteem. As parents and teachers, we realise that self-esteem and self-belief are extremely important. In the twenty-first century we want Northern Ireland to attract the right sort of industry, have a booming economy and a well-trained and skilled workforce. It is, therefore, crucial that we do not continue to damage the majority of our children at the age of 10 or 11.

It is well documented that the transfer test also distorts the primary school curriculum. Primary schools, in latter years, have concentrated heavily on getting children through those tests. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among our colleagues in the primary sector. The transfer test devalues, damages and distorts. It also disadvantages children from particular social backgrounds. We still use the term "grammar"; but I have to point out that there is no grammar school education. There is education in a grammar school, but there is no distinctive grammar school education. We have the common curriculum. It is a fact that the intake of that type of institution is largely from non-manual backgrounds, whereas the intake from non-selective schools is mainly from manual backgrounds. We are saying that there is a disadvantage built into the selective system, and that needs to be addressed.

In our association there is growing concern about the disaffection among a significant number of young people, and as a teacher, I think that is one of the saddest things to come across. Resentment is built up in young people who feel that they are not as good as others or that others are more privileged than they are. That is a sad fact, and we try to deal with it as best we can. Perhaps those young people can see only one route or ladder to success, but the education system should be the trellis whereby everyone's aptitudes and abilities are recognised and developed, and there is a system of self-esteem in place. Mutual esteem should also be encouraged.

The current selection system means that there will always be a great divide in terms of the differentiation of attainment at the age of 15 and 16 - at the end of Key Stage 4. In the 1950s 20% of young people were successful, but that figure is now up to 40%. I assume it is not the case that children now are twice as intelligent as the youngsters in the 1950s were, but it is the case that as long as we retain selection we are going to have a differentiation of attainment at Key Stage 4 between institutions.

Is there an educational reason for retaining selection? We have not come up with one. Are there educational reasons for getting rid of selection? We feel that there are very strong arguments for getting rid of it as soon as possible.

Mr Rafferty:

The experience of the members of our association, who number over 100 across the Province, is of working almost exclusively with students who were found to be somehow unsuitable for the prize at the age of 11.

The greatest problem that we face with children aged 11 and 12 - and which continues until they are 17 - is not our lack of belief in them but their lack of belief in themselves. We probably spend more time talking to students about what we believe they are capable of. The difficulty is to convince them that it is wrong to think that that is for others and not them. The impact does not go away. We know that, because we talk to members of staff; it leaves a legacy that does not go away. People remember the day they were told that they did not get the "qualifying".

I want to mention a recent report from Scotland. I was almost going to avoid saying that it was published in Scotland, lest you thought that we believed that the solution was just to follow the Scottish example. I do not want to talk about the actual report, but in many ways its title summarises what we think the underlying principles of a reformed system here should be. The title is 'Implementing Inclusiveness, Realising Potential'. The reason why I believe that it is such an apt title is that we have practised exclusivity. We have selected, promoted, encouraged and celebrated the achievements and potential of a minority, with a great deal of disregard for the majority of students who feel that they are not part of that. There is no doubt that we have wasted an awful lot of potential. There are many adults in the community whose educational potential and possible contribution to society has not been achieved. The association believes that society has paid a price for that and will continue to do so.

We welcome the opportunity to be involved in effecting a change. If it is followed through, there will be an opportunity, which did not exist before, and I think will not come again. It is particularly valuable that we are not meeting a Minister who is an MP for somewhere in England, Scotland or Wales. This is about local people and children. We have an opportunity to do something. The Committee, the Department of Education and we are charged with a responsibility which has greater potential than that of any other Department or Committee to make a contribution that will make a difference and a change to this society. However, if we blow it, it will be on our consciences.

We are also encouraged by the vision in the Programme for Government. It says

"Our vision is to extend accessibility, choice and excellence throughout our education system, raise standards and eliminate low achievement."

It talks about

"seeking to provide high quality education to all, with equal access for all."

One of the priority areas to be addressed is

"inequalities in the life experiences of our citizens"

which includes "educational opportunity" among a number of things. On the section entitled 'Tackling Poverty and Social Disadvantage' it says that there should be

"a particular emphasis on children."

That is a very laudable vision, but our fear is that visions are sometimes toned down and reduced in their breadth. Why? It is because people say that you must be realistic. You do not compromise vision. Realism may affect the pace at which it is brought to reality, but it should not be compromised. Our association has difficulty understanding how the principles of that vision can be realised by continuing with a selective system.

We are very fortunate here; we have great advantages. Young people here are second to none.

We read in the paper about the problems that they are having in England - if you turn up and say that you are interested in teaching, you could probably get a job tomorrow. We do not have a shortage of teaching staff; our problem is that we have qualified, great young teachers who cannot get jobs. We also have a sense - and I do not think that it will stay for ever - of hope for the future that is tangible in society in ways that have not been experienced in the lifetime of anyone in our society.

Education can serve a future; education can ensure that the division that is in the draft programme happens. We believe that that is your responsibility; it is the responsibility of the Assembly. I do not think that I need to repeat what we think that the Assembly needs to do to follow that through. The principles are there. We applaud them and we want to see them realised.

Mr Browne:

Our executive committee reviewed the present situation and came to some conclusions that formed the basis for our deliberations and proposals. The evidence crystallised by the Gardner report clearly demonstrates that our present method of selection fails even to select accurately on the basis of the narrow parameters currently employed. The work of Howard Gardner and others has shown that there is a range of multiple intelligences that are possessed to different degrees by people. That undermines, in our view, the case for selective and separate education. So much talent goes unrecognised and underdeveloped because of the narrow focus of our education system. It is perhaps most relevant to you as politicians that the society of the future will be very complex. It will be characterised by rapid change. It is essential that all of our citizens be given the full range of educational experiences - social, academic, vocational, technical, sporting and entrepreneurial - to enable them to operate with confidence in the society of the future. Many commentators suggest that the concept of a "job for life" will be dead in the future.

After much consideration, we decided that the Scottish model seemed to be the best model for Northern Ireland. Therefore, our submission is based on its appropriateness. You have read it and looked at the questions on the detail of the proposals. I will run through some of the main points.

In a society demographically similar to our own, with a similar urban/rural mix and many shared values, the Scottish model is accepted and used by 95% of Scottish parents. It offers the curriculum flexibility across the full range of abilities in institutions that share parity of esteem. There is a greater parity of esteem for and wider access to the academic, technical, vocational and entrepreneurial subjects and skills because they are taught in common institutions. At every level, primary and secondary schools are truly community schools linked in a common purpose; there is no distortion of the primary school curriculum caused by the requirements of selection as we have in Northern Ireland. There is a seamless transfer from primary to secondary schools that enables close links, in curricular terms, that can be evidenced by the age 5 to 14 curriculum in Scotland.

Secondary heads have told us that they received detailed information on transferring pupils, including their preferred learning styles, something that I think is quite impossible in our situation. There is a greater sense of collegiality between schools and teachers; they all feel that they are in the same business. The GCSE equivalent outputs in terms of results compare favourably with Northern Ireland and very favourably with the rest of the UK. Most significantly, there is a high rate of post-compulsory - that is post-16 - educational take up. In two schools that a group from our executive visited, 94% and 85% of pupils were staying on for post-16 education - that is quite amazing. There is a high take up of further education. Schooling, as we know, is an intermediate process; the 11 to 18 stage is an intermediate stage. In Scotland they have people who stay on to the end of the 11 to 18 route and then go on to both further and higher education.

Of all Scottish 21-year-olds, 46% complete higher education courses. In England, the corresponding figure is 28%. I do not have the figure for Northern Ireland. Although 50% of all university entrants in Scotland come from further education colleges, the point is not only that pupils are staying on post-16 in the state school system, they are also, at a later stage, going into the further education system and eventually getting to university. As I have said, 50% of all university entrants come from further education colleges - in Northern Ireland the figure is 21%, in England it is 13% and in Wales it is 5%. It is a tremendous success that there are people staying on and going further. This system seems to offer the greatest potential for increasing achievement and participation of all our citizens by removing the stigma of rejection and, what we in Northern Ireland know only too well, its concomitant alienation.

The Chairperson:

I wish to press you on the Scottish comprehensive model that you have clearly outlined. We have taken evidence from other groups and interested parties who challenge the statement that examination results in Scotland are comparative to those in Northern Ireland. They have also indicated that, whilst comprehensive schooling appears to work in rural Scotland, it is neither popular nor well regarded in major urban areas such as Edinburgh. There is also an assertion of criticism in the Gallagher/Smith report in that it does not stretch the more academically gifted pupils. How do we avoid what have been termed "bog-standard" comprehensive schools?

Mr Browne:

With regard to your first point about the comparability of results with the Scottish system, we had a conference here at which both Dr Linda Croxford from Edinburgh University and a number of educationalists were present. The comparability of A to C grades at the equivalent of our own level had been discussed at this meeting. Dr Croxford, among others, rebutted those figures. It was questioned whether this included either grades one and two or grades one, two and three in the Scottish system that were accepted. From the evidence that was given, it appeared that that was effectively rebutted by Dr Croxford. People who raise that type of objection at the lower end are often focussing on the upper end of achievement. We recognise across the full ability range that the achievements in Scotland are higher than they are in Northern Ireland. One of our great problems here is that built into our structure or perhaps even as an outcome of it, we have a long history of underachievement. This needs to be addressed. Also, state provision should be looking at all pupils equally.

Furthermore, there has been some recognition in Scotland that the most able pupils can be encouraged. I was in a school in Edinburgh where they are actually doing that - there are children moving through that system at an accelerated rate - and they are also offering further qualifications at the upper end. There are ways and strategies for meeting that problem.

We very much believe, as we said earlier, that secondary education is an intermediate stage. The most important thing for society is where people finally end up, and there is clear evidence that at degree level and at the higher education level, the Scottish system is extremely successful and productive. You mentioned the urban/rural problem in Scotland. We had the opportunity to speak to the leader of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, leaders of the Educational Institute of Scotland, several highly placed academics from Edinburgh University and others in the teaching profession and the education world. They told us that Edinburgh is unique because it has a very highly developed commercial and financial centre, which brings many people in from London and other parts of England. The situation in Edinburgh is very un-Scottish, and I would suggest that it is not comparable to our own, even in our cities. People from the international business community are moving in and out. Many of those very wealthy people live in the inner city areas, and this has skewed the position. Also, the Scottish independent sector, which is attended by about 20% in Edinburgh, is highly dependent on people coming in from Australia, the United States, England and Northern Ireland. Incidentally, with the end of assisted places, it is contracting, and schools are amalgamating. It is a very wealthy sector, which is not really representative of state provision in Scotland.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. I need to move on to others, but that was a very comprehensive answer.

Mr McHugh:

Young people are, as you have said, our main resource, rather than resources in industry which other countries have. How do you deal with industries saying that we are not providing them with the finished product, that there is a shortfall - even in the vocational sector, for example, in engineering? In any part of Ireland, we have been leaning heavily towards producing people who can be leaders and exporting them to other countries. We have to be flexible enough to do both and to give people enough opportunity for flexibility in their education to enable them to go in either direction. How do you see a system solving that?

Mr Rafferty:

This is not to repeat evidence that has already been presented, but the CCEA proposals for the future Key Stage 4 try to address that. You mentioned serving the needs of industry and mentioned examples of engineering. One of the problems endemic in our society is about children who attend grammar schools. There seems to be a tradition that that is a preparation for two professions: medicine and law. We believe that the opportunity should be there for every child to go in a variety of directions. I recently saw CCEA's proposals. They talk about key skills and personal development, together with scientific or technological, creative and work-related components for every child. It would be to the advantage of every youngster, including those at grammar schools, for that to be made part of everyone's curriculum, particularly between the ages of 14 and 16. As an association, we have a concern that a decision can be made by children or their parents as to which route or career to follow. We see the period between 14 and 16 as the opportunity to gain experience of a range of different possible vocations, so that at 16 an informed choice can be made.

If a child has no experience of the range of available careers, on what basis would they make the decision at the age of 14? Would they make their choice because they are told that something is good, because their friends are doing it, or because it looks nice? The contribution of the work-related component is that during those two years, every child will have the opportunity to be exposed to a range of potential careers. It is important to learn which things you do not like as well as those that you do, so that you do not make a decision that sets you on a route that you cannot change.

The proposals for the Northern Ireland curriculum that have emerged from the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), especially those for Key Stage 4, are ahead of anything that has been proposed in England and Wales. That is another example of how we come up with better solutions when we try to address our own situation.

Mrs E Bell:

We agree with your principle that children should not be condemned as failures. In your paper you talk about the implications for current school structures and how you would improve the situation. Would you recommend all-ability classes for all ages in the comprehensive system that you seem to be in favour of, or would you stream the classes? The word "comprehensive" is a dirty word, like the word "grammar", so that would have to be changed as well.

Mr McCrea:

Those questions are valid, but they should really come after the structural change. We want, like you, to try to get away from the issue of whether people are for or against a grammar school education. We have two different types of institutions at present. We would like to break that mould and have centres of learning that are strategically placed throughout the Province. Each community should have a centre of learning in which they can have confidence.

During the day, these centres of learning would be open for the needs of the community and the children. The organisation of the centres would be based on a professional judgement, although parents would have an influence on that. There is a great deal of research being done at the moment into the most effective ways of learning and teaching. We must get up to date - as a society in the North of Ireland, and as educationalists. We must look at the research that is being done and at the most effective ways of learning, and then organise the centres of learning to teach people in the most effective way.

It may be, therefore, that a mathematician will look at the research and say that the best way to organise the centres of learning would be to have closely identified sets. However, the literary person might feel that they could teach to a broad spectrum of ability and that that method would be the most effective way, at the time, of ensuring that standards were up to scratch, and that all young people were served by the school.

I know that it is difficult for us to break out of the mould that we have been brought up with. However, we need centres of learning in the community, and each centre can base itself on up-to-date research and organise itself to ensure that it provides effective teaching.

Mrs E Bell:

Are most people saying that a change of mindset is needed?

Mr McCrea:

Yes. I think that we must have a change of mindset. We are in the twenty-first century now, and we cannot return to the old arguments. I can see the historical reasons for a grammar school education, but those reasons are not applicable to the twenty-first century, and anyone who thinks that they are should think about what is happening to the children and what we need in society.

Mr Hamilton:

I may not have got the gist of the presentation, but you suggested that the current system results in a select group of children thinking of themselves as successes, while the rest regard themselves as inferior, or as failures.

You suggest that there is parity of esteem in the Scottish system - that you praised - between the academic and vocational courses offered in schools. Given that not all pupils stay on after the age of 16, leaving to attend FE colleges or university, does that parity of esteem that is created between the academic and vocational courses at school carry into society? Does it carry into business and industry, and so on? Do they give it the same parity of esteem? If is does not, you are back to teaching courses to a group who would leave and say "That is no use to me, because I cannot get anything with it - I am a failure." If it does not carry out into society, how would you bring that circumstance about?

Mr Browne:

Mr McCrea said that a change of mindset is essential. We know that in our society there are narrow mindsets. Mr McHugh made a valid point about encouraging our people to go into technology and entrepreneurship. When you have the common institutions in which people study those subjects - and indeed the most able students will be encouraged to take them up and see their relevance - then employers will have a change of mindset. That is because they will find that they will be getting a wider range of ability for sectors of employment than they would previously have had.

Some time ago - and I know this is anecdotal - I was listening to a programme on the industrial revolution that asked why it had been successful. There was no dissociation of sensibility at that time - there were people who were interested in technology working with people with interests in the arts, and so on, and they felt a common esteem. The best brains in the country went into technology and engineering. The divided system in Northern Ireland means that people are predisposed to feel that there are certain elite professions, and Mr Rafferty referred to that earlier. We cannot afford that predisposition in the rapidly changing, highly technological society of the future, nor can we afford to have a section of our population that is not as advanced and confident with technology as they may be as individuals in other areas. That must change. As the world becomes complex, it will be necessary for a range of our people to be equipped with those skills. We will no longer have lifelong jobs, and individuals will have to be more entrepreneurial in their approach to employment.

Mr Rafferty:

I would like to add a confessional anecdote. The mindset change is not just for those outside education, and I include myself. I could have a student with the potential to achieve five As at GCSE, and he could say to me that he wants to be a mechanic. My initial reaction would be to try to discourage him. Why? It is because I carry the values that have been inculcated through the education system. Why should he not be a mechanic? Why should he not be the best mechanic in the western world? Why do I immediately say "You are capable of better than that?" We all carry that mindset because we have been through the system, and that goes for everybody - it does not just apply to employers or teachers - it is for all of us, and I am included, because I am a product of the system. We all are, and that is the way we look at things. In looking at the issue like that we are serving the future of the society - we are not producing, and will not produce the type of young people that we need for the industries that will be necessary for the financial systems of the society that will develop.

The Chairperson:

The last question is from Mr McElduff.

Mr McElduff:

Gallagher and Smith examined various other models in their report, but the absence of analysis on the system in the rest of Ireland represented a gap. Has your association looked at all closely at the system in the Twenty-Six Counties? Last week we had a presentation from Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, and Caitríona Ruane, one of the members, said that she had a horrific image of the 11-plus when she was growing up. A biomedical scientist from Donegal with whom I spoke in Tyrone County Hospital talked in a similar vein.

Secondly, how are we to achieve parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses and qualifications? What are your views of the German model, which has a very pronounced separation between the academic and the vocational?

Mr Rafferty:

If you do not mind, I shall start at the other end. Something has been done in the Republic which would also serve our system very well. A recent body of research looked not at students' achievements at the end of post-primary education or after the completion of the equivalent of A level, but at what happened to them afterwards and how they did in university. After all, the purpose of the system is to ensure that they make good graduates. They produced some frightening statistics, but they were examining the reality. With some university courses, there was a drop-out rate of 40%.

It seems to me that we have never looked at our system in that light or asked what happens to our A level successes. Do we assume that the job of the school is finished? Surely the purpose was to ensure that they achieved at university. One of the things the Republic has done, which would serve us well, is to ascertain whether the children continue to succeed or if A level represents their peak. Surely it is supposed to be a continuing progression.

The comprehensive dimension in the Republic has strengths, but it also has weaknesses, since there is no single system. There are vocational colleges alongside traditional colleges. There is no parity of esteem, and things vary depending on what part of the state one is in. The rationalisation of provision has been avoided. If we were to take on their system when coming up with an alternative, we could not avoid doing so. It is not appropriate that oversubscribed academic institutions stand beside undersubscribed vocational education colleges.

There would be benefits in that they have a more developed vocational education structure than we; it goes much further than NVQs and GNVQs. It has weaknesses, for there is still the anomaly whereby, to benefit from a curriculum very similar to the CCEA proposals, a child must be out of school. If you are in mainstream education, you are not allowed to take the foundation course, but if you drop out and attend community provision, you are allowed.

Many strengths have been developed from which we could benefit. The Republic's system embraces more and overcomes some of the deficiencies which I perceive in the German model.

I have an image of the latter. It reminds me of John Cleese and the Two Ronnies - which is what we would be bringing in. It is a case of knowing one's place and looking up or down at the other person. I see no advantage in replacing a system which bifurcates at 11 with one which would divide into three or more at 14. The time between the ages of 14 to 16 represents an opportunity to provide every child with what the CCEA proposes - a vocational basis to make informed choices.

Mr McCrea:

If we imported the German model, it would be an absolute disaster for young people. In no way does it address the issues we mentioned concerning selection. Worse than that, it denies very intelligent young people the opportunity to experience vocational as well as academic courses. The only way we can envisage parity of esteem between the vocational and the academic is by offering both options to all children, regardless of ability and school. That is the way forward in the twenty-first century. We do not want to go back to the 1940s or the 1950s. We must move forward, and I must say that the German example would be an even worse disaster than what we have currently.

Mr Browne:

I have friends in Germany, and they are in the German education system. There is a disparity of esteem within the system in Germany, although it has to be said that they have a greater respect for technical and vocational traditions and training. That has come about because of their development after the second world war, when technical skills were vital in daily life and in the reconstruction of their economy, their houses and heating systems. They have a greater degree of respect for that system than we have. Our society is not going to achieve the same level, and I agree with my colleagues that we are not going to get that parity of esteem between the systems.

In Germany, there is a disparity concerning ability. They have three gradations in those Länder that have that system. Some of the others are comprehensive. However, there is that disparity, and I believe that it is also quite closely allied to social class, which is one of the problems behind our current educational provision.

As regards the Republic of Ireland, there are very successful examples there. However, one of the things that makes getting information very difficult for researchers is that there is a great variety of provision across the board there.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. We appreciate the time and effort you have made. The Education Committee has been to Germany to view the education systems there, and we hope to go to Scotland to see their comprehensive system.

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