CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion


New schools for new times

Tony Gallagher

A child who passes the '11+' transfer tests in Northern Ireland is statistically likely to go to a grammar school, stay there until they are 18, leave with at least two A-level passes, go to university, graduate three or four years later, obtain a professional occupation and quickly earn an above-average income.

This is the 'high road' through the education system and, because the experience of the young people who follow it is so common, it is hardly surprising that so many parents strive to get their children on to this track. Nor is it surprising that, with open enrolment to schools, the proportion entering grammar schools has jumped in recent years.

Despite the fact that the 11+ demonstrably lacks any educational, economic, social or moral justification, debates on the system tend to avoid these broader issues in favour of a narrow defence of the grammar schools. To scrap selection, it is argued, would put at risk the unparalleled success of Northern Ireland's long-established grammars.

The statistics of grammar success appear clear-cut: in 1993-94 more than 90 per cent of 16-year-olds in grammars obtained five or more GCSE passes; more than 90 per cent of 18-year-olds passed two or more A-levels; almost two-thirds of grammar school leavers went to university and only one in ten dropped out of the education system.

But this discourse of grammar success conveniently ignores the fact that most young people fail, or choose not to enter, the 11+ tests, and go to secondary schools. In contrast to the grammars, the outcomes for secondary pupils are startlingly variable. In 1993-94 more than 30 secondaries had pupils who passed two or more A-levels and went to university. But in almost as many schools most 16-year-olds failed to achieve grade C in even one GCSE, while in an additional 81 between a quarter and a half of 16-year-olds failed to achieve this level.

The variability among secondary schools is found in their circumstances as well as their outputs. Too many young people experience schools struggling to cope with the multitude of problems associated with social disadvantage, falling rolls and hence declining budgets, low staff and pupil morale, and general low achievement.

Those with the lowest qualifications are likely to leave the education system at the first opportunity and go into youth training, rather than employment. Even here there is a range of experience, with the least qualified young people entering schemes where the employment outcomes are lowest.

Indeed, it is amongst these young people that deficiencies in basic literacy and numeracy are often discovered. At a time when an increasing proportion of young people are going to university, another significant, but largely forgotten, minority are emerging from 12 years of compulsory schooling unable to read a simple text or perform a simple calculation.

These young people are the truly disadvantaged and dispossessed-their relative position worsened by the fact that, in aggregate terms, educational performance has never been higher. Excluded from the mainstream of society and denied any opportunity to compete in the labour market, they are likely to become economically, socially and geographically immobile - concentrated in areas serviced by declining and under-performing schools, and so with every prospect of passing on their disadvantage to the next generation.

It is because young people such as these are so easily forgotten that the 11+ system is so reprehensible. The discourse of success is so effective that sight is lost of how it leads to a practice of exclusion-exclusion, indeed, of the majority.

An inclusive citizenship will need to promote a wider discourse and practice of inclusion. It must begin by scrapping the selective system. But that is not all.

Currently, most is spent on those who stay in education the longest, and least on the youngest. This order of priority must be reversed. Graduates obtain enhanced employment and earnings potential from their degrees, so it seems not unreasonable to ask them and their employers to contribute to the cost of their higher education.

Money saved should be concentrated on early-years education, with smaller class sizes and increased diagnostic testing. A new contract with children is needed, guaranteeing that no child will leave primary school unable to read and write.

Slowly, the morale of the teaching profession is being restored. This should continue and teachers should be permitted to play a more significant role in educational planning and development.

This is not to say teachers and schools should be unaccountable. Contrary to the claims of some teacher unions, school performance tables are not meaningless and are here to stay. Parents have a right to more information, not less. They have a right, also, to procedures which give a genuine choice of schools for their children.

The current system of 'parental choice' actually empowers popular schools by allowing them to select from amongst their applicants. Not surprisingly, in the UK generally this has widened inequalities between schools. In Northern Ireland it has exaggerated still further existing inequalities between grammars and secondaries.

Some of these changes would place equality as a core value in the education system. Were this to happen, all sorts of other issues pertinent to social inclusion would arise. For example, girls now generally out-perform boys in examinations; but what is the impact on their aspirations and expectations when they see that most of the teachers are women and most of the principals are men?

Or take the treatment of young people with disabilities. For some years, there has been an official rhetoric of integration for pupils with special educational needs. Unfortunately, this rhetoric has not been matched by resources, and nor have the procedures designed to achieve integration lived up to their promise.

The problem is not that these and related issues are ignored. Rather it is that they are not at the heart of educational debate, because the system implicitly values the priorities of élites.

George Walden, the Conservative MP and government critic, recently argued that the education system throughout the UK was a two-nation system with its roots in the last century. New times require a new system, based on inclusive goals and aspirations, its founding principles resting on the needs of the next century.

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