Education: time to challenge assumptions

A couple of days ago, we challenged some basic assumptions around Health on this blog. We should also challenge some about education, where the debate is not just gridlocked in terms of outcome, but also in terms of reference.

Think “Education Debate” and almost anyone in Northern Ireland will retort “Eleven plus”. What a nonsense. The issue is much more fundamental.

Of course, it’s about high versus low level accomplishment, comes the retort. Well, it’s not really about that either. It is about the same question we should ask about Health: is the service fit for purpose? Is there something fundamentally wrong with it?

The evidence again is that, yes, there is something fundamentally wrong. Not because its results are poor – actually, they’re quite good; not because there’s something wrong at the bottom end – actually, that’s no worse than anywhere else in the British Isles; not because teaching performance is poor – actually, it’s good and improving. It’s because it doesn’t produce the skills we require. We are awash with lawyers, accountants, civil servants, even teachers – but where are the wealth creators? And without the wealth creators, how are we supposed to use the lawyers and accountants or pay the civil servants and teachers? In a system of “passes” and “fails” we dismiss the “fails” and we cannot afford the “passes”.

Unlike in Health, radical solutions are not lacking in education. Change the age of selection; introduce comprehensive schooling; follow the Craigavon model; even abandon state-funded education altogether – there will be candidates at the forthcoming election advocating each of these (even the last one!) and more. However, do any of them tackle the real problem? In the unlikely event that they do, is the transition to any of them realistically possible (politically and/or financially)?

Were I a candidate (and I’m not), I would put forward the following:

– change of primary school entrance age from 4 to 6 (as in most of the highest scoring systems such as Finland and Australia), with savings re-allocated towards “early years assistance” and “play provision” (i.e., preferably, something approaching a nursery system for all from as early an age as financially possible);

– a broadening of the transfer test at age 10/11 to include questions on a wide range of subjects which would then be used to provide, alongside a score for Maths and English Comprehension (stated as such), information on subjects/routes to which the child is best suited (these should be wide-ranging, to include even music, art, design/technology, etc);

– a similar test taken again at age 13/14 with, in some areas, this constituting the end of “middle school” (i.e. with potential for decision on where GCSEs/A-Levels are to be taken postponed to this age where the school estate allows), also allowing clarity of choice as to which GCSEs are most appropriate and which type of education, from vocational to academic, is most relevant;

– a delay in start of Sixth Form from August to February, with the gap filled by “civic service”, where pupils decide from a range of options proofed for a positive impact on community relations (helping in the community, heading abroad as part of a cross-community team to help international aid projects, working in a group of interns for a local company, etc) that they wish to do in the intervening period;

– an A-Level system still lasting two years (thus with exams themselves likely taken in early February), allowing Higher Education offers to be made on the basis of actual scores and leaving another 9-month period where pupils may opt to return to “civic service” before starting third-level education; and

– establishment of a Commission to promote the integration and sharing of the schools system (including but not limited to integration to overcome the “traditional divide” in more urban areas) which would deliver savings to be re-invested in the system during and after transition.

The amendments early in the system are designed to find and tackle developmental problems (e.g. dyslexia) as early as possible; the amendment to transfer at 10/11 is designed to help parents find the most appropriate route (along a much broader spectrum than merely academic ability limited to a stand-alone test assessing in practice only two subjects); the amendment to introduce “civic service” is to allow pupils to become career-focused earlier and to open up options other than continuing in education (while also allowing businesses to approach and develop younger people with, potentially, future career paths available). The only pupils heading to University will be those who really are suited to a specifically academic path; higher education colleges and vocational secondary schools would potentially come to be held in higher regard as they came to turn out young people with better earnings potentials earlier in life.

I don’t ask for comments on this proposal itself – it is no doubt riddled with problems some of which I can immediately identify myself. I do ask any other proposal to be assessed against it, however, on the grounds that it needs to turn out people who will create wealth, not just absorb it.


5 thoughts on “Education: time to challenge assumptions

  1. NorthernIrishRanger says:


    What further comment could be made? I think is brilliant and hope that it does stimulate debate here and further afield.

  2. Sentinel says:

    It sounds good to me. I am pleased that the debate has finally hit the public domain and people are accepting that the current system fails most youngsters. And that one size fits all academic path has had its chance and failed. We need another path to include thae artisans and craft leaning individuals who can study their subjects to degree level and thus produce High Tech people to produce growth.

  3. […] Here and here last week were two posts which were inextricably linked. […]

  4. […] in March, I put my own proposals here – based on the fundamental point that the question is not whether the 11-plus is a good idea, […]

  5. Ronald says:


    […]Education: time to challenge assumptions « Ian James Parsley[…]…

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