Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Around the UK: Northern Ireland

Jim McBain reports on the pressing issues in Northern Ireland coming out of the ASCLNI annual conference.

In Northern Ireland the word 'change' is ever present - but it seemed even more immediate and pressing as over a third of the ASCL NI membership gathered at Galgorm Resort and Spa, Ballymena on 4-5 November. Each of the main speakers acknowledged the pace of change and encouraged the association to engage proactively with the decision making process.

Such calls to arms were very much in keeping with John Dunford's address on 'Changing Public Policy' and a fitting note with which to mark John's final visit to Northern Ireland as general secretary.

Big changes in educational administration are anticipated on 1 January 2010 when the province's five Education and Library Boards (Northern Ireland's LEAs) will be replaced by a new singular body, the Education and Skills Authority (ESA).

While ASCL broadly welcomes the change, in the expectation of more money and support for frontline services, there were concerns about the degree of autonomy and accountability which school leaders could expect in the new scheme of management.

Gavin Boyd, chief executive designate of ESA was keen to reassure delegates that all would be well, while conceding that the new authority faced considerable challenges itself.

'Every School a Good School' was the theme discussed by the chief inspector Stanley Goudie. Now a major initiative, this policy provides a framework not just for teaching and learning and a revised curriculum but also for the creation of 'Learning Communities' formed by collaboration among schools.

School improvement and the drive to raise standards is still very much on the agenda in Northern Ireland and a focus for inspection. While inspectors may see it as a catalyst for change and a means of building capacity and confidence, in schools the old anxieties re-surface when word arrives that an inspection is imminent.

A lighter touch was brought to the conference by John Morgan, attending in his capacity as ASCL president but happy to share his experience of working with UCAS. The first day concluded with the conference dinner, with entertainment provided by the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

Day two was opened by Will Haire, permanent secretary of the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, who reinforced the need for improved standards. While acknowledging that some results are excellent, he stressed that 56 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSE's including English and maths was well short of a target of 70 per cent by 2020.

Having paid tribute to the quality of new entrants to the profession, he emphasised the need to support teachers with the best quality CPD and to strengthen leadership aspirations and skills.

He also identified the changes needed to improve the learning environment, reflecting that today's school stock was neither adequate nor appropriate. Future budget pressures, coupled with the need for changes to school funding, mean the coming years will be particularly challenging whatever party is in power in Westminster.

Will Haire was followed by Eddie McArdle, registrar of the GTC(NI), who alarmed some delegates by the fact that he has yet to take full account of the work of the GTC in both England and Wales.

Finally, during her presentation, Dr Carol Craig, Director of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing in Glasgow, found that her thinking on students' emotional well-being chimed readily with her audience.

The conference also included the Annual General Meeting of ASCLNI, at which Alan Dalton, principal of Strangford Integrated College, was elected president for a two-year term commencing on 1 January 2010. He succeeds Frank Cassidy who has done much during his two-year term to raise the profile of the association in the province.

Feedback from the delegates to the conference has been positive as have been the comments of guests who joined us from England, Scotland and Wales to make Annual Conference 2009 the biggest and best of recent years.

Jim McBain is regional officer, ASCLNI.

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