The 2011-16 political mandate: how did they do?

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25 April 2016 by Mark Langhammer
As the devolved political mandate 2011-16 comes to a close, what has been achieved? Overall, the Assembly passed 67 pieces of legislation and 5 private members bills, few of them notable, and survived several existential challenges.

The Executive can be proud to have mitigated, to some degree, savage welfare cuts. The boast of creating 40,000 new jobs is another achievement. Buffeted by budget cuts, welfare reform, flag protests, parading issues, the unresolved “past” and paramilitary murder and gangsterism, the 2013 Haas talks and the two rounds of Stormont House negotiations left the institutions still standing.

The public view may be less kind, seeing Stormont as unimaginative, lacking core purpose, its politicians, SPADS and ample support staff wallowing in state funded largesse. So how did we do in education?

In further education, the landmark success of Minister Farry is the development of a new apprenticeship framework, based on European (notably Swiss) best practice. Apprenticeships focussed on “day one employment” will start at Level 3 and, in some frameworks, be available at Level 8, providing real “currency” in the labour market.

In HE, Farry was able to keep student tuition fees below £4000 and passes that quandary, gift-wrapped, to the next minister. In looking at the options in teacher training, and despite a rigorous report of Finnish educational expert Pasi Sahlberg, Farry was unable to progress the rationalisation of teacher education due to entrenched inter-communal disagreement. The Sahlberg Report, informed by international best practice remains the best road-map for progress, but also remains firmly on the shelf!

In schools education we had, on the plus side, a strong, listening and engaged minister, John O’Dowd. From a teachers union perspective, Minister O’Dowd took our concerns about teacher employment very seriously. He approved the Delivering Social Change Signature Project, giving NQTs and recently qualified teachers two years work aimed at improving literacy and numeracy.

The recent £33m Investing in the Teaching Workforce scheme did not get across the line, and will be the work of the next minister in the new mandate. If agreed, 500 jobs will be created for recently qualified teachers with 500 existing teachers aged 55+ enabled to leave the profession without detriment to their pensions.

O’Dowd was passionate about steering more finance towards disadvantaged learners. He has successfully secured more capital finance from the Stormont House and the Reform and Regeneration initiative, albeit based on borrowing and savings secured from shrinking the state through a Voluntary Exit Scheme. He will point to £1.2 billion investment in school buildings, the provision of additional nursery places, more nurture units for Early Years development, protecting resources for breakfast clubs and homework clubs, broadened criteria for entitlement to Free School Meals and School Uniform grants and protection of the Educational Maintenance Allowance which, whilst cut, was not abolished.

Whilst steering investment towards disadvantaged learners, the minister failed to get the argument that investment in 'high-poverty' schools, no matter how sustained, is always much less effective than achieving socially balanced intakes in schools. Minister O’Dowd has fought exceptionally hard to protect education from the'austerity by choice' free market ideology of the British Conservatives, but the budget remains extremely challenging. Shared Education saw more investment from government, EU PEACE and philanthropic sources.

From ATL’s perspective, we supported John O’Dowd in his decision to resist the English model of examinations with no change in GCSE grading in Northern Ireland. All exam boards operating in Northern Ireland must give their results using the letters A* to G. By 2017, English examining boards will give their results in the form of numbers, from nine at the highest grade to one the lowest. Around one in four GCSEs in NI is studied through an English examining board. The two largest English GCSE exam boards, AQA and OCR have said they will no longer offer GCSE courses in Northern Ireland, for commercial reasons. As such, the currency of exams remains a live issue.

We remain at loggerheads with the minister on the issue of Key Stage Assessment where a bureaucratic, workload-heavy system is seen by many teachers (and the General Teaching Council) as of nugatory educational value. A further disappointment was the failure to either legislate or provide helpful guidance on the issue of flexibility around the school starting age, a campaign led by ATL and Parents Outloud.

How did the education system do, generally?  By conventional measures of effectiveness the education system in Northern Ireland is improving but remains just “okay”.  Northern Ireland outperforms England in GCE and GCSE but with a very long tail of underachievement.  When the Republic of Ireland is included we are fourth of five across the PISA tests compared to other British Isles regions.  We do well in the international surveys of literacy and numeracy in the primary years with the P6 pupils (9-10 year olds) assessed for the first time against their international counterparts as part of two studies - the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The TIMSS and PIRLS results show that our primary school pupils, where socially balanced intakes are more prevalent, are performing well above the international average in both literacy, where our pupils are ranked 5th out of 45 countries surveyed and numeracy, where they are ranked 6th out of 50 surveyed.  Our pupils also scoring significantly above the international average in Science.

Performance is not sustained into the post-primary years, where social segregation is more acute - perhaps because of the residual effects of ‘selection’ and perhaps because some young people have become disinterested in learning by the narrow focus on those two key measured areas of learning, literacy and numeracy.  That said, GCSE results continued to improve based on the standard target of 5 GCSE’s A*-C, including Maths and English.

Little progress has been made on that traditional faultline, the “11+”, with unregulated tests enabling academic selection to grammar schools. From the minister’s perspective, the move by some Catholic grammars to move away from academic selection represents progress. Set against that, more schools (including in the integrated sector) have sought to encourage a ‘grammar stream’ through unregulated testing, often to ensure a reasonable social balance.

PISA results remain moderate. Increasingly, across the developed world, PISA league tables drive education policy. Northern Ireland is no different. The result is a narrowing of the curriculum. What is deemed important is what is tested whilst other areas of the curriculum and other dimensions of education become marginal. The submission of the Northern Ireland system to the narrow metrics of PISA league tables may be unsurprising, but it narrows the offer to boring standard fare. As one principal said “The only show in town as far as the Department of Education is concerned is five or more GCSE’s including English and Maths.”[i] Is that the vision we want for the future?

Ministers Farry and O’Dowd gets a A* for effort, resilience, doggedness and ingenuity in the face of severe cuts. Further and Higher Education may take a different focus within the new Department for the Economy.  However, in schools education, the system is too target stressed, too data driven with an overwrought, low trust accountability framework. We lack political consensus and – as the CBI point out[ii] - an overarching vision for the system overall. A steady C minus is the best we could award.

The Programme for Government for 2016-21 needs more political consensus in education and more nuanced broad targets.

[i] Jim McKeever, Principal of Little Flower Girls School, Irish News 4th April 2016, p7

[ii] See CBI “First Steps” education report.

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Educational reform