Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Around the UK: Northern Ireland

Secondary schools in Northern Ireland are struggling with the requirement to provide 24 subjects at GCSE and 27 at A level. Jim McBain reflects on what this means for the future of education in the province.

Since devolution and the transfer of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland has been spared some of the changes which have most exercised colleagues 'across the water', as we say.

Despite a lot of talking, the province still has not implemented a workforce agreement - much to the annoyance of the teaching unions.

The English concept of academies is unknown in Northern Ireland, although the word itself features in the title of some of the province's leading grammar schools - Belfast Royal Academy, Ballymena Academy, Omagh Academy.

This does not mean that terms and conditions of service are without need of revision or that secondary education is structured in a way that best serves the community.

The only point on which all political parties agree is that there is a need for change; there is, however, no consensus on what changes are needed or how they should be implemented nor, it appears, any mechanism for breaking the deadlock that currently paralyses the power-notsharing Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Over the past two years school leaders have had an opportunity to see how far the powers of the Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane, actually extend.

Having inherited a commitment from the previous education minister, Martin McGuinness, to end selection and establish comprehensive education across the province, Mrs Ruane amended the regulations on school admissions and banned the use of academic criteria by grammar schools. However, her authority does not run this far and the majority of grammar schools continue to use academic criteria without regard to the regulations.

However the minster's authority to change the curriculum does not require legislation and she has pushed ahead with a model which is taxing the resources and imagination of school leaders across all sectors of secondary education.

Known locally as 24/27 it refers to the requirement for secondary schools to provide 24 different subjects at GCSE level and 27 at A level, of which one third must be vocational, one third academic and the balance a mixture of both.

Known officially as the 'Entitlement Framework' only the largest schools in the province, with more than 1,250 students, have the staff and resources needed to meet this requirement.

For the remainder it has meant collaboration with neighbouring schools and further education colleges - no bad thing in itself and a development supported by ASCLNI. However in the rural community, where schools are small and distances large, the challenge for some appears insurmountable.

School inspectors now report progress towards the delivery of the Entitlement Framework and funding for capital development is being withheld for schools unable to rise to the challenge.

It is a policy which over time will bring about a reduction in the number of secondary schools by a gradual process of closure and amalgamation.

Recently the Catholic bishops have rushed in where others fear to tread and announced a programme of reorganisation involving all Catholic grammar and secondary schools.

Under these proposals, which are currently the subject of consultation among teachers, governors and parents, selection would end, smaller schools would close with those remaining either amalgamating or federating into larger structures with the capacity to draw down funding from the department and deliver the curriculum to which the minister feels all children have an entitlement.

We wait with interest to see whether these measures will succeed.

Jim McBain is Regional Officer, ASCLNI

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