Education – could do better is the message to the new NI Assembly

Research carried out just before the NI Assembly Election found widespread dissatisfaction with public services in Northern Ireland – and Education was no exception to this.

Independent polling company LucidTalk ran a “Tracker” survey (one of a series following trends in opinion) in March and found that only 48% of the representative sample gave education even a slightly favourable rating.  Most of these people judged the service a middling  ‘fairly good’ (ie very few thought education in NI “very good”).

So overall 52% of respondents currently think the NI education service is less than good. Add to that news the fact that these were worse ratings than the previous month.  Any company worth its salt would be very concerned if its products were similarly viewed by consumers.  There is no excuse for complacency in the public sector if the people who use services funded by the taxpayer show overall dissatisfaction with them. Surely we should expect something “very good” in return for our contribution.

It may be worth noting that education did not emerge as the worst service according to that tracker poll.  But it seems that the problems with education are perceived as most urgently in need of political focus. The LucidTalk March and April Tracker Polls both found that education was the top issue concerning the public during the Assembly election campaign. This is a significant shift, the Health Service having nearly always topped the ‘issues’ list in election campaigns until now.

But then, as John F Kennedy said “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education”.

Education provokes political and ideological debate more than any other public service. The rise of education as a major issue in the recent NI Assembly election campaign no doubt reflects those public concerns over the service, and a feeling that the system and structures need serious attention.

We have all seen the many recent news articles describing the fragile economic state of the education system.  This term, school leaders from across a range of sectors have united to send a distress call over the most recent budget changes. They warned that the quality of pupils’ school experience could be severely affected, with potential staff redundancies and a reduced curriculum.

The Fund has held a series of public meetings over the past few years to discuss a broad range of education issues and it’s clear parents, schools and communities want to see action to address many outstanding problems –  including the transfer process, the budget crisis and the number of empty desks draining the system of resources. So the latest opinion polling comes as no surprise.

A separate, earlier, LucidTalk poll of the NI public (in autumn 2015), commissioned by the IEF, clearly showed an appetite for rationalising school provision as a way of tackling financial problems. A representative sample of 1094 people across NI was asked to prioritise a list of actions which might be taken in the face of pressures on the education budget. The concept of amalgamating schools, including cross-sectoral mergers, was the most popular choice across all demographic groups:

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In another piece of research, a cross-party panel of MLAs was interviewed by LucidTalk late last year and asked for their views on systemic and structural reform of the education service. Replies included comments such as “The structure is overly fragmented”; “There is a lot of waste at the moment; we need one system that is efficient”; “Reform has the potential to save money”; and “There needs to be one state education system…”

It surely makes economic and social sense to develop a single system of common schools. President Obama, on his latest visit to London, commented that integrated education is a real symbol of progress towards a normalised community in Northern Ireland.  The public seems to share that view as do, increasingly, many politicians. Now, as we embark on a new NI Assembly mandate,  we need to see political leaders with the will to turn words into deeds and deliver progress.