Patrick Murphy: We cannot reform education without reforming Stormont

Patrick Murphy
Patrick Murphy

THE basic test for the usefulness of an organisation is to ask whether we would be any worse off without it. (Example: would we be any worse off without Stormont? Answer: no.)

That same test applies to the production of Stormont government reports, most of which have a lifespan somewhat less than that of a mayfly. So would we be any worse off without last week’s Interim Report on the Review of Education? Sadly, no.

You will (maybe) remember that as part of the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement, Stormont decided on an independent review of our education system. (The Assembly collapsed 18 months after the report was commissioned, which suggests a review of Stormont might also have been required.)

Anyway, with impeccable timing, just a month before this year’s emotional and intellectual torture of children known as academic selection, the review panel has issued an interim report. Although well meaning, it might reasonably be described as less than encouraging.

It fails to recognise that our political system is incapable of delivering a world-class education system any more than it can deliver a half-decent health service. We cannot reform education without reforming Stormont.

Having served for over 40 years as teacher, manager or governor at every level here from nursery to university, I hopefully have enough experience to suggest that while good in parts, our education system is essentially dysfunctional.

(One of the best parts I experienced was not an education department’s school, or an economy department’s university, but the Department of Agriculture’s College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise.)

The system is held together by dedicated teachers and administrators and held back by politicians through neglect, ignorance and the urge to turn everything into a sectarian row. What the politicians miss, the bureaucrats hit.

The interim report’s failure to understand our political system is mirrored by its limited perspective on the society in which education operates.

For example, one of its educational principles is to “ensure individuals are healthy and confident”. How can the education system ensure good health when 100,000 children are in poverty, many of whom (as teachers will testify) come to school hungry?

Another principle is that “over time, there should be an expansion in the universal service available to children” in their early years. And what time scale have they in mind? Twenty-plus years. (For their homework they might like to write an essay on the difference between dreams and delusion.)

The report also says that those who “do not succeed at school” are “more likely” to be “ a perpetrator of crime” (meaning criminals).

The truth is that those of working-class backgrounds who “fail” at school are more likely to be punished for any wrongdoing than those of influence and wealth, whatever their schooling. Money and power speak louder than academic success, as evidenced by those with connections to royalty, the upper ranks of the Tory party and the politically powerful in Ireland.

If, as the report suggests, “failing” at school causes so many social problems, why not immediately demand the end of academic selection which promotes the concept of failure from the age of 11? Ah but, says the report, we “will not shirk” academic selection. (You have already shirked it. The next test is three weeks from today.)

Since learning is not a priority in a sectarian Stormont, the final report will join a burden of previous reports on education, which gather the dust of disinterest and neglect somewhere on an over-crowded shelf. It will do little to reform our education system.

Former DUP education minister Peter Weir last year defied a majority Assembly vote to end academic selection. Last week he was given a seat in the Lords. Inactivity on education has its own graduation system.

So when the final report is issued, don’t expect much of a reaction from Stormont (if it still exists). Indeed, it might be reasonably suggested that a report on mayflies would receive more serious consideration.