Mission control: we need schools to unite in their vision for the future

Each school in Northern Ireland has its mission statement – and it’s the duty of the board of governors to see that the school reflects and adheres to it. To be clear: each school has its own, individual mission statement.

Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?

Presumably those which mention specifically “academic excellence”, “the Dominican tradition” or “Catholics and Protestants together” give a clue that you are dealing with a particular ethos or admission policy. But isn’t it the role – and therefore the mission – of each and every one of our schools in NI to educate, nurture and develop our children? “Our” children meaning the younger members of the community rather than of any particular family. How can every school be on a different mission?

The variation in mission statements reflects the variation in governance and policy of schools across the system – further evidence that we have a fragmented structure. Our system means schools are in competition. They are looking to offer a unique selling point. In these days of squeezed budgets, duplicated provision and empty places, competition is fierce.

In Finland, often cited as an education success story, there is a culture where principal teachers in an area not only share best practice but collectively share responsibility for education in that area. Their focus is on driving improvements throughout the local system. This approach works to ensure that teachers are trained and employed to bear responsibility for the wider community of young people: the next generation. They are not in post to defend or promote one school over another.

I can see an argument for creating a school governance system with similar responsibilities. We currently have a variable pattern in the way school boards are made up. If we had a single model and a single board for a cluster of local schools we could develop a way of working for education rather than for a single establishment within a single sector.

What we need to see is a truly common system of schools, each serving the whole local community and sharing a single mission. Although we have a common curriculum, an entitlement framework, a single inspectorate and over-arching policies such as “Every School a Good School” – all aiming to make sure every pupil is offered the same opportunity to learn – we do not have a single powerful message that we are collectively taking care of the next generation. Think how much stronger the education system would be if there was visible unity, collaboration and co-operation to deliver the same educational success to every child, no matter their background, tradition or ability. That is, not just academic success, but success in nurturing vocational skills, confidence, resilience, curiosity, civic responsibility and self-reliance .

Schools in Northern Ireland individually offer so much, I don’t deny that. Why can’t we have all schools uniting, therefore, to offer much more – and to everyone? On the same mission, making the same statement.