The current necessary budget cuts have led the Education Minister to demand a thorough look at the effectiveness, as well as the efficiency, of each school in Northern Ireland – though, surely, with the “Every School a Good School” policy in place, this should have been a paramount concern for several years? Yet we recently heard a respected educationalist, Sir Robert Salisbury, tell us that there is no room for complacency about the academic service our schools provide.
The Minister, John O’Dowd, has pledged that he will not flinch from closing a school which is not performing well or which is deemed overall surplus to requirements. Some say intervention should be tried first, though that could be seen as a luxury in an overcrowded public sector. But if we are to close a school, the alternatives for its pupils and wider community must be considerably, and palpably better. No-one should be left feeling their new arrangement is a second choice, or a fallback position, of that they or their child has been forced to make a sacrifice for economic reasons. The result must be an improvement in the learning and development experience for all involved. I include in this the social health of the communities involved.
We do not need a piecemeal shaving of expenses, but rather a radical change in our approach budgeting, thereby spending what we have to best effect. Greater sharing and integration offers the chance to work economically but also to offer an enhanced experience in which children grow, learn and play together. The crisis should be turned into the opportunity our young people have been waiting for.
The minister has acknowledged that he would countenance cross-sectoral mergers of schools, but he has left it to the sectoral management bodies to propose them on an individual basis. So he has grasped the opportunity to scrutinise and improve standards, but not the chance to promote collaboration, integration and meaningful sharing. This in the face of evidence that most parents, it seems, would welcome the opportunity for their children to mix with people of all backgrounds, as long as the education they are receiving is of a high standard. We can only hope that the sectoral bodies recognise and reflect this, moving forward to offer a holistic restructuring of education. We hear so much about parental choice but if every school becomes truly welcoming to and nurturing of every young person in its area, then the standard of education becomes the over-riding factor in choosing a school, not the name or the badge. We have seen in integrated schools that is it possible to not only accommodate but also support and value different backgrounds under one roof; the education experience becomes richer and more complex and stimulating.
Literacy, numeracy and exam results all count….but so does the ability of a school to grow confident, enquiring young people, ready for the increasing diverse world of adulthood which awaits them.