Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Around the UK: Northern Ireland

Failure to carry through with reorganisation plans for Northern Ireland's LEAs is likely to exacerbate funding problems, while some schools are struggling to meet the requirement to offer 27 subjects at A level. Jim McBain reports.

On 1 February a new permanent secretary, Paul Sweeney, took over in the Northern Ireland Department of Education. In the absence of a functioning executive in the province's power-sharing Assembly, senior civil servants have a heightened role. For this reason various segments of the education establishment have been beating a path to Mr Sweeney's door. All are keen to lay before him their frets and fears in the hope that their concerns will become the new permanent secretary's priorities.

ASCL has not been behind the door in coming forward and a letter from the regional officer was on his desk when he arrived for work on his first day. The letter invited him to address ASCLNI's annual conference next November and to meet the Executive Committee of the association at his earliest convenience. It is pleasing that he has responded positively to both in view of the genuine concerns felt by members at this time.

Top of the agenda is funding - as it is in all parts of the United Kingdom. In the present political climate the amount of money devolved from Westminster to Stormont is set to decrease. As expected our officials have stated that frontline services will be protected as far as possible and the requisite efficiency savings made elsewhere in the system. This assurance has not stopped school leaders pondering if there will be enough money in their budgets for 2010-11 to retain current levels of staffing and support school development.

As part of a wide-ranging reform of public administration, plans were drawn up to replace the province's five Education and Library Boards (LEA equivalents) with a singular authority. The subsequent failure of the Northern Ireland Executive to pass the necessary legislation has budget ramifications. Considerable economies of scale were forecast and the notional savings had been factored into the education budget. The fact that these have not materialised puts further pressure on a budget already under strain.

A significant proportion of ASCLNI members work in grammar schools. As previously reported, the legislation needed to end academic selection has yet to be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Despite this, the minister withdrew the Transfer Test, action which provoked selective schools into setting their own entry tests. Results achieved by the first tranche of pupils to take these tests were published in January amid much hype in the local press.

In reality the tests had been set and administered in such a professional way that the results gave rise to no more issues than usual. However, with appeals looming members are wondering if it will take a court case to determine if a school which rejected an application on the basis of an academic test was breaking the law. And if so, what then?

Another big issue is the pressure to broaden the curriculum. Schools are expected to offier 24 subjects at GCSE level and 27 at A level, with one-third of A level subjects classed as applied, one third general and one third either. Only the largest schools can provide such breadth. All others can only achieve this through collaboration with neighbouring schools and FE colleges.

This has led to the development of 'learning communities' in most parts of the province. It is hardly surprising to note that these arrangements work best where schools are close to each other. Colleagues serving dispersed rural populations are finding it all very challenging to say the least.

One can but hope that Paul Sweeney will be able to provide some answers at a time when the number of applicants for secondary headship in Northern Ireland is worryingly low.

Jim McBain is Regional Officer, ASCLNI

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