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November 16, 2008

The article below was one of a series of three supplied to the Belfast Telegraph by R. L. McCartney QC.

Without explanation this remained unpublished by the newspaper which recently bombarded parents with endless “exclusives” on the Northern Ireland education reform issue. Take note that the Belfast Telegraph and the BBC have adopted Professor Tony Gallagher as a neutral expert. Professor Gallagher  has declined the opportunity to legally challenge the charges made against him. Parents may wonder why not?


The proposed educational reforms place the future of Northern Ireland’s children at the edge of an abyss.  The questions facing their parents are these.  How and why have we come to the present chaos? and what if anything can be done about it?


Martin McGuinness when he became Minister of Education was hardly, by experience, an expert in the subject but he mistakenly believed that the principle of selection as well as the method of making it were socially unfair and elitist.  His social and political objective was to abolish both.  The case for removing the principle of selection was weak, with 64% of the parents consulted in the Costello Report responding in favour of its retention.  An equal percentage of parents however voted against keeping the 11+ test as the means of selection.


Democratically, the issue which should have been addressed was the finding of a fairer and less stressful method of selection which might have included possible improvements to the existing test, like the use of computer adaptive testing.  Research and investment should also have been directed to those areas of the current system said to be failing and the initiation of policies to remedy identified defects.


The cost of this, both in financial and social disruption terms, would have been minimal compared to the consequences of the present proposals, which will create and enrich an array of well rewarded bureaucrats.


Viewed objectively, selection was producing for Northern Ireland, academic results that were the envy of the rest of the United Kingdom.  In terms of upward social mobility it was out-performing the mainland comprehensives by some 50%.  Despite claims to the contrary, a smaller percentage of children in Northern Ireland were leaving school with no qualifications than was the case on mainland Britain.  The case for “keeping the best and improving the rest” was unanswerable in both educational and administrative terms.  None of this, however, would have satisfied Sinn Fein’s political and ideological objectives.  Grammar schools were erroneously viewed as bastions of middle class privilege and, as such, had to be abolished.  The popular antipathy to the 11+ was, therefore, used to mask the real target which was the principle of selection itself.  It is noteworthy that on two occasions Sinn Fein has made the Education Portfolio its first choice.  It was necessary for Sinn Fein to enlist the assistance of “progressive educationalists” in support of a new education infrastructure that would advance the Party’s political agenda.  As a result, the Minister commissioned a series of allegedly independent reports from groups whose members were, in the main, anti-selection and whose advisory experts such as C.C.E.A. (Council for Curriculum Examinations and Assessment) were opposed to a subject based curriculum.


The first report was that of Tony Gallagher on “the effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland”.  Gallagher was a self-acknowledged opponent of selection and the composition of his group and his own disproportionate contribution raised serious doubts about its independence.  The next report from Mr. Burns relied heavily on Gallagher and made no attempt to answer the central question – “Does comprehensive or selection education provide the best results and the greater degree of social mobility?”  A comparison between Northern Ireland and the mainland’s comprehensives would have provided an affirmative answer to both in favour of Northern Ireland.  Burns avoided either putting the question or allowing the comparison, since neither would have served the Minister’s objective.  In his attempts to veil his support for comprehensives, Burns came up with the totally unworkable idea of the Pupil Profile to be prepared by the primary school and made available to parents as an aid to their choice of school, but not to be disclosed to the admitting school.  All efforts to produce a Pupil Profile meeting international standards of validity and reliability have utterly failed.  Indeed, recent exhaustive research in Germany where assignment of primary school pupils to an appropriate further school is based on teacher assessment and advice to parents, has demonstrated an overwhelming prejudice in favour of children from middle class families to the clear disadvantage of children from poor and working class backgrounds – the very children who in Northern Ireland are supposed to benefit from the proposed reforms.


The next report was that of Costello.  This group, like its forerunners, Gallagher and Burns, was largely populated by anti-selection personnel.  This report synthesised the unbalanced findings of Gallagher and Burns and recommended a curriculum directed to the reduction of subject based teaching in favour of the more “Holistic Approach” advised by C.C.E.A.   This satellite government funded agency was dedicated to many of the progressive ideas that had failed in pre and post war America, pre-war Germany, and post-war Britain.  As an advisory body it was critical of subject based learning and supported its gradual replacement by grandiose schemes clothed in vague and nebulous language.  The failed progressive ideas of sixty years ago were enshrined in the paragraphs of Costello dealing with the curriculum and subsequently embedded in legislation by the Education (Northern Ireland Order) 2006.


Carmel Gallagher, then Manager for Curriculum in C.C.E.A., had earlier described her curriculum framework as “the Trojan Horse that would be the vehicle for effecting significant change”.  Clearly the change intended by a policy of deception was a move away from subject based learning like languages, maths, physics, chemistry, as well as history and geography, into a generalised and failed so-called progressive education for the 21st Century in which hardly a single idea was new or had proved successful throughout the 20th Century.  Moreover, this progressive education had failed most dramatically in helping children from poor and disadvantaged homes.  Middle class parents could provide the means that ensured their children survived the most extreme and untested educational reforms, but for the poor, if they were not taught at school, they were frequently not taught at all.


The new curriculum creates a basis for future education requiring “Big Schools” offering a “Bloated Curriculum” and based on educational ideas that have failed in the past.  It is a curriculum which is the antithesis of the grammar school ethos and the form of education the grammar schools offer.  As such it will eventually make the survival of the grammar school and subject based education untenable.


It has now become evident that the entitlement framework with its projected 24 GCSE subjects to 27 A Level subjects is fatally flawed.  No definition of what is claimed to be vocational or academic has been made even when they have been re-designated as applied and general.  The 11+ has been abolished without any alternative method of matching a child’s aptitudes to an appropriate school.  Parents are placed in a condition of total uncertainly and the Minister is clearly at the furthest limit of her competence.  Her present attempts to escape from a chaotic situation by farming out decision making to local groups largely composed of fellow travellers is evidence that she finds the current situation beyond her capacity to solve. The introduction of the Entitlement Framework ( the new curriculum ) is now about to be postponed until 2013, while the inappropriately named “ Enriched Curriculum” for primary schools has now been repackaged as the “ Foundation Curriculum “ with a flawed linguistic phonics programme at its’ core. Starved of resources this curriculum is now in an administrative limbo. Perhaps because of a recognition that it is based on ideas inconsistent with the most recent research on the teaching of reading as demonstrated by the Rose report.

The curriculum proposals embodied in the Education ( NI ) Order 2006 are wholly inconsistent with any future for the subject based education which Northern Irelands’ Grammar schools provide  and only its’ repeal or substantial amendment coupled with a fresh beginning can offer any hope for their ultimate survival.

Until parents organise themselves in mass protest and teachers refuse to be dragooned into compliance with the alleged progressive demands of the Education Department, Local Boards, alleged experts and some of their Union representatives, the future education of Northern Ireland’s children will continue to remain bleak.  In the United States it was the widespread protest of parents, particularly from black and underprivileged areas, and the courage of independent journalists such as Walter Lipmann that stemmed the wave of “progressive reforms” generated by those claiming to be experts in education; and who mistakenly believed that schools could solve any social or political problem when their real purpose should have been merely “to educate”.