January 25, 2009
The Minister’s 5th December reply in the Belfast Telegraph to Mr McCartney’s letter shows her lamentable grasp of the issues. In the article she cites no evidence for her “model” of education, but simply offers her opinion. Two of the most highly regarded studies in the history of education research prove that she is wrong. The Revised Curriculum, together will “election” at 14 via a Pupil Profile will damage profoundly the life chances of the poor. The evidence is unequivocal that underachievement will dramatically increase if the Minister’s ideas are implemented.
“Project Follow Through” is arguably the largest and most sophisticated educational project ever undertaken to discover, once and for all, the type of curriculum that maximizes the academic achievement of the poor. To give a sense of the scale of this study, it lasted 20 years, cost a billion dollars to fund, and involved 79,000 children from 180 low-income American communities living in poverty. The conclusion was that the curriculum which helps children out of poverty is a traditional curriculum in which the teacher determines what is to be taught and children work in learning environments which are orderly and highly structured. (The reader can find details of this study by “googling” the words Project Follow Through.) Curricula of the type the Minister is currently demanding that all primary school children follow were shown to be damaging to the development of the numeracy and literacy skills of disadvantaged children. A Minister who expresses concern for children being failed by Northern Ireland’s education system is promoting a curriculum that will increase that underachievement. The evidence that curricula of the Revised Curriculum type push the poor deeper into poverty is overwhelming.
As with all her pronouncements to date, her romantic notions of how one enhances the academic attainment of vulnerable children are entirely at odds with the evidence. The Minister therefore needs a mechanism to impose an incoherent damaging education model on our children. That mechanism is the new Education and Skills Authority (ESA) to be headed by Gavin Boyd, the man whose Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) developed both the Revised Curriculum and the Pupil Profile. Mr Boyd’s approach to curriculum was tried out on the children of the Greater Shankill. The evaluation report concluded that in academic terms, the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Few parents in Northern Ireland are aware that Mr Boyd’s educational ideas have already been tried out and found wanting. Research carried out on behalf of CCEA demonstrated that the model of education he advocates is damaging to the life chances of the poor. The Shankill study replicates high quality international research on the impact of innovative curricula on the poor. The Shankill study (which refutes in every detail the case set out by the Minister in her reply to Mr McCartney) is rarely mentioned by the Minister, Mr Boyd, CCEA, the Department of Education, the Education and Library Boards or the media. The Minister’s support for ESA, with Mr Boyd at its head, will serve to entrench and deepen underachievement and is damaging to already vulnerable children.
The really curious development is that the DUP have joined the Minister in endorsing Gavin Boyd’s ESA. Thanks to the DUP Mr Boyd’s contribution to the current mess we find ourselves in, is to be rewarded by assigning all aspects of our children’s education to his care. Rather than setting up an enquiry in which Mr Boyd might be asked to provide the evidence base for his ideas, Mr Boyd’s capacity to undermine a world-class education system is to be enhanced. The framework for such an enquiry already exists in the ten “features” of good policy-making developed for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Mr Boyd should be asked to evaluate his history of education policy-making against each of the ten features.
This sets the context for where we now find ourselves. This document aims to set out what the DUP must now do to protect standards of education in Northern Ireland in general, and lever up the basic skills of underprivileged children in particular. The DUP have highlighted their concerns for primary six children, and the plight of these children will be of particular concern in what follows.
The DUP must insist that schools should be free to ignore the Revised Curriculum because of its pernicious effects on the achievement of poor children. DUP politicians should be aware that there is peer-reviewed evidence that the scientific basis for the Revised Curriculum is non-existent.
Why should schools adopt a curriculum whose scientific basis has been refuted and which is damaging to the education of underprivileged children?
It is a measure of the depth of the chaos into which we’ve descended that the Minister has threatened to use the law against primary schools who privilege traditional teaching and learning over the Revised Curriculum. Indeed, in this brave new world in which Sinn Fein seem ready to use the courts against law-abiding schoolteachers, curriculum documents on the assessment of cross-curricular skills begin not with a rationale for such skills, but with a statement of the legal requirements on the teacher. Under Ms Ruane the law is being invoked to deliver what educationalists call the “Matthew Effect” whereby the rich get ricer and the poor get poorer. This from the avowed champion of the poor and underachieving!
It is important to reflect on the educational model which existed prior to the Revised Curriculum and to which schools could return if the Revised Curriculum were rejected. Mr Boyd’s own CCEA described the model which pre-dated the Revised Curriculum in these terms: “Education in Northern Ireland has an excellent reputation. In fact it’s no exaggeration to say that teachers here are regularly achieving results that are the envy of many other areas of the UK.” Who wouldn’t want to return to an education system described in these glowing terms? In addition, any move away from the Revised Curriculum is likely to free up much-needed finance for use elsewhere in education.
Finally, turning to the DUP’s commitment to the primary six child, it is instructive to examine the particular pressures on the primary six classroom. While the DUP continue to negotiate with Sinn Fein, primary six teachers are dividing their time between:
(i) preparing the children for the Minister’s test (by focusing on the Revised Curriculum);
(ii) preparing children for InCAS assessment (in anticipation of schools possibly incorporating InCAS measures in their admissions criteria); and
(iii) preparing children for unregulated tests (whether the AQE achievement tests or NFER’s “intelligence” tests favoured by at least one Catholic grammar school).
The most effective way in which the DUP can bring the misery of primary six children to an end is to take a clear stand on the Revised Curriculum, Pupil Profile and InCAS, leaving schools free to return to a model of education which focuses on maximising the literacy and numeracy skills of children, poor as well as rich. There can be no doubt that the DUP’s failure to take a firm stand in respect of the Revised Curriculum is contributing to the chaos in primary six classrooms.
If the DUP were to highlight the fundamental shortcomings in the Revised Curriculum (of which InCAS is a part), primary six teachers could engage those who demand that they emphasise cross-curricular skills at the expense of literacy and numeracy, with much greater confidence.
In summary, therefore, the DUP must:
· withdraw from negotiations with Sinn Fein, making clear their support for a return to the education model which pre-dated the Revised Curriculum (which was ordered and structured and in which “teachers here [were] regularly achieving results that [were] the envy of many other areas of the UK”);
· require the designers of InCAS to demonstrate that inferences drawn such tools can inform decision-making in respect of post-primary selection;
· require the designers of the Revised Curriculum to explain why they’ve pressed on with a discredited curriculum framework in the teeth of compelling evidence from the Greater Shankill study and Project Follow Through.