Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Around the UK: Northern Ireland

Greater degrees of compromise and diplomacy are required for politicians and educators in Northern Ireland if they are to overcome the persistent political obstacles and transform the school system, says ASCL NI President Frank Cassidy.

In Northern Ireland we are living through a period of profound change as a society. We are, thankfully, healing as a people and, we hope, moving towards a shared understanding and acceptance of our diversity. Instead of direct rule by secretaries of state, we now have a devolved local administration with locally-elected ministers and this is progress indeed.

As a people we are all too familiar with the politics of confrontation but we are only now learning about the art of agreement and accommodation of difference. With these opportunities for involvement comes responsibility and we no longer can blame politicians from across the water for the shortcomings of our education system.

One of the distinctive features of government in Northern Ireland is the fact that consensus and agreement are required across the community and political spectrum before legislation can be enacted. This, of course, requires compromise and that is proving very difficult to find, in education in particular.

Those of us in leadership roles in schools are well aware of the problems associated with educational innovation. During our years of training and academic study we would have certainly internalised the mantras of consultation, agreement and inclusion and vowed to live by those principles if we were ever put in charge of a school. Sadly, in Northern Ireland at the moment educational change is not being managed in that way.

We are 'a house divided' both into broadly non-denomination/ catholic sectors and selective and non-selective post-primary schools. Moving beyond this framework is fraught with difficulty and will require diplomacy and compromises on all sides. The educational arguments are difficult enough, but they are further compounded by conflicting political and social change ideologies and the direct involvement of politicians.

A number of vehicles of change are moving the system forward, however. Area planning of school provision is facilitating the development of new 'learning communities' which are inclusive of all types of schools and are allowing collaboration and consequently cross-community contact as never before.

In Ballymena, Co Antrim, the town where I work, the nine post-primary schools have been at the forefront of this initiative, forming Ballymena Learning Together as a learning community. It has a particularly strong reconciliation ethic and, unusually, this has driven us towards curricular co-operation rather than the other way round. Similar schemes are springing up right across the province. The speed of these developments is being hampered however, by an impasse around a replacement for the 11-plus selection process. The disagreement about the future of selection at 11 has become a major stumbling block to overall change.

While the need to evolve and tackle problems in our system is accepted by all, the failure of the politicians to agree and legislate has left a vacuum on the issue, forcing schools to devise entrance assessments and arrangements of their own. Currently in the selective grammar schools, heads are dealing with a whole new set of issues and challenges associated with this issue.

All of that said, we are very proud of our schools in Northern Ireland and in the darkest days of our recent troubled history they were - and still remain - oases of calm, order and good education.

Frank Cassidy is principal of St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena, and president of ASCL Northern Ireland.

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