Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Around the UK: Northern Ireland

ASCL members in Northern Ireland are faced with challenge and change at a time of political deadlock.

The Executive (Northern Ireland's cabinet) has not met for five months while the two main parties of the devolved government eyeball each other over issues on which neither is prepared to compromise. While the province waits to see which side will blink first, school leaders went on wrestling with issues of the day at the ASCLNI Annual Conference on 5-6 November in Ballymena.

The issue of selection was on the back burner, simmering away as the single biggest issue facing schools, both primary and secondary. Since 1948 Northern Ireland has had a selective system of education, modelled on the 1947 Act in England and Wales.

The reforms that introduced comprehensive education to England in the 1960s were never enacted in Northern Ireland and grammar and secondary schools still exist. Grades achieved in the final year of primary education are the main criteria for admission to the province's state-funded grammar schools.

When Martin McGuinness was the minister for education he announced that selection would end in 2009 and implementing this objective is the main goal of his successor, Caitriona Ruane.

In procedural terms legislation is required; however the minister has not brought her proposals to the assembly for adoption, but has sought to implement the change by using her powers as a minister to 'regulate' admissions.

This has provoked significant numbers of grammar schools to ignore the 'regulation' and to continue using tests until legislation is passed to set aside the 1948 act.

ASCL has sought legal advice for members concerned that non-compliance with a regulation might be a breach of contact. We have been reassured that it is not, because regulations are not statutory instruments.

This was the back drop to the ASCLNI conference which focused on live issues such as co-operation and collaboration. Ironically the minister has done much to divide schools at a time when the province's grammar and secondary schools are beginning to reap the rewards of working together to provide pupils aged 16-19 with a greater range of courses and more curricular pathways than ever before.

With minds open to the wider possibilities, the ASCLNI conference was opened by the general secretary, John Dunford, reporting on the success of ASCL members in England in achieving co-operation and collaboration without compromising quality.

The absence of SATs in Northern Ireland has never meant that Key Stage 3 was trouble free and a useful session was devoted to the assessment and recording of cross-curricular skills. The council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is currently spear-heading an initiative aimed at raising levels of numeracy, literacy and ICT across all subjects in the first three years of post-primary education.

The politics of local government found their way onto the conference programme with debates on proposals to replace Northern Ireland's five Education and Library Boards (ELB's) with a new singular body - the Education and Skills Authority (ESA).

While ASCLNI broadly welcomes ESA and is willing to work with the new authority, we are concerned about the lack of meat on the bones of the new proposal. Supposedly in place by April 2009, it requires the kiss of life from an Executive Committee that is currently comatose.

As can be seen, Northern Ireland continues to go round in circles of its own devising.

Jim McBain is regional officer for ASCL Northern Ireland.

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