Education news

Jim Clarke: Put education at centre of next programme for government

AS a new Stormont executive begins work, former Catholic schools chief Jim Clarke urges the parties to prioritise education and offers ideas on how to improve the system

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THE evidence is clear: politically, socially and economically, Northern Ireland is a long way from where it needs to be.

A new year and a new decade give us the incentive to take an honest, evidenced-based analysis of where we are in our public services and how we got here, followed by a robust, integrated and costed programme for government (PFG) to create a better future.

There is no doubt that public services need an immediate cash injection to maintain services. However, we must then look towards a structural re-alignment of how they are delivered.

Health has Bengoa but, despite the Department of Education's work on a transformation programme, there is no blueprint for education.

I believe that education should not be seen as an end in itself but as a means to creating an equal and inclusive society and an agile, flexible and productive economy.

Putting education at the centre of the next PFG will allow it to collaborate with other departments such as health, economy and justice, to produce integrated indicators, actions and outcomes leading to more effective and efficient service delivery.

Below are some high level proposals which should be considered for the next PFG.

:: Strategic change: The focus should be on longer term integrated planning, connected services and new forms of monitoring and accountability.

:: Early intervention: There is a case for early intervention as a strategy across all activities but particularly in education. Investment in parenting and parental support can ameliorate any disadvantages of poverty or social background. Input should be proportionate to assessed need and available through all service providers from pre-natal to age 19.

:: Revision of school curriculum and assessment: This will require a review of teacher education, an emphasis on skills, including the ‘soft' skills, and an overhaul of the curriculum and its associated assessment and qualifications regime.

:: Coding: The pace of development in digital technologies and the associated impacts of artificial intelligence means that everyone needs to be able to master ‘coding' as a basis for comprehending and exploiting these advances. Coding should be added to the traditional core elements of reading, writing and arithmetic as the foundations of learning. These skills should be promoted in schools, further and higher education and in the workplace.

:: University places: One third of our most able students leave for third level education and less than a third return. A further third of NI graduates leave. To retain our talent pool we have to increase university places. The focus of additional courses must be on those studies which are going to drive our economy and secure inward investment such as engineering, technology, computer science and environmental studies, all linked to key employability skills.

:: Efficiencies and investment: Education delivery needs to be more effective and efficient in both curriculum and finance. Area planning needs to be modified and accelerated to achieve greater collaboration in curricular access and delivery. Governance, leadership and management too need to be renewed. These and other structural developments noted above will require detailed integrated planning and an investment of resources over revenue over several PFGs.

Effective change requires an agreed vision, sufficient resourcing and strong leadership. That is the challenge for all of us.

:: Jim Clarke is a former school principal and retired chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

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