By Emma Shaw
Albert Einstein said “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”.
If you grew up in Northern Ireland, especially in working class areas, the chances are you experienced a highly segregated schooling system. We have the Education Authority who have the mandate for State schools, which are predominantly Protestant, and then the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) that have the mandate for Catholic schools. On top of that we also continue to facilitate high stakes testing on our children at age 11 through either the AQE or the GL exams that determine whether the child will go to a “grammar” or “secondary” school. This is the experience that I had, my siblings had and my children. There is a better way. If we genuinely want our society in Northern Ireland to move forward and work for everyone, we need reform. I don’t say that lightly, I am acutely aware that educational reform does not always facilitate the change it was meant to. You only need to cast your mind back to when, then Education Minister Caitriona Ruane officially abolished the 11+ in 2008 (predecessor of the current AQE and GL exams) with her No Child Left Behind Policy (for an more in depth discussion on the topic read 11-plus returns in Northern Ireland | Politics | The Guardian ).
Control of school admission criteria lie with (for the most part) the Schools leadership teams and Board of Governors. As the years progressed AQE/GL admission scores have fluctuated having a direct impact on non-grammar or non-selective schools by eating into their potential pool of pupils. In recent years in East Belfast, a community of around 94,569 (Belfast East Constituency Profile, NIA, 2017) have had the closures of Orangefield, Lisnasharragh, and the merger of Knockbreda with Newtownbreda becoming Breda Academy, while “grammar” schools have sought to increase their intake by not only lowering their admissions criteria but by asking for increases to the Education Authority. This is an attempt by “grammar” schools to poach the highest performing students, even though standardised testing is an unpredictable measure of an individual’s ability, but that is an argument for another day.
Our children are the next generation of Northern Ireland, they deserve better than what we had. Our education system needs to work for every child entrusted to it, regardless of religion or academic ability. Lagan College is an excellent example of how to cater for all pupils, don’t get me wrong, I have strong opinions on their admission criteria. Local children (i.e. within walking distance) are rarely accepted unless they have a brother or sister in the school, it is over subscribed every year as far back as I can remember with pupils coming in from Greyabbey, Millisle etc while local children cannot secure placement. Enrolment aside, Lagan is an integrated school not only by religion but also by academic ability, and it is this model that I am an advocate for, a local school that can accommodate the needs of all its pupils regardless of academic ability. Education is such a strong predicator for later life, academic research has consistently shown the links between education and health, in particular, low educational attainment with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
The recent news of convicted bomber Paul Kavanagh being appointed to the Board of the Education Authority is a kick in the teeth not only to victims of IRA violence during the NI troubles but also those who advocate for a way forward in Northern Ireland. Only in Northern Ireland could we have a man, convicted of bombing, sit on a Board for children’s education. Figures like him should not be permitted to hold any role in government, and yes, I say that regarding both sides of the community. How can we move on when individuals like Paul Kavanagh sit in public office, I believe that the only way we can all move forward is the exclusion of any convicted persons from public roles. It is disrespectful and hurtful to one side of the community who were routinely subjected to bombings during the troubles and still hold it in their memories as collective community trauma. Some may argue that as per the Good Friday Agreement, that Paul Kavanagh can take on such a role, but that does not mean it is the right thing to do. If recent tensions have highlighted anything in Northern Ireland it is that most people do not want to see a return to the violence of the past, they want stability, a strong economy, excellent education for our children and better resources for our NHS. These are issues for everyone to get behind, regardless of religion, identity, or socioeconomic status.