Let’s cut the PR hype and begin reform of education – Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins is an Irish News columnist and former editor of the newspaper.

The DUP's Paul Givan was appointed education minister in February 2024
The DUP's Paul Givan is the new education minister (PA)

The economy is struggling, but there’s one sector which is thriving by making silk purses out of sows’ ears.

Annually, hundreds of millions are spent paying clever people to make the most of a bad job – for that’s the primary purpose of the PR industry.

Many friends and former colleagues in the sector may dispute that. But lift any press release and you will see the masters of obfuscation at work.

Take as an example the Department of Education’s first release following Paul Givan’s appointment as minister. Headlined “Minister pledges to deliver on key priorities for education”, it opens with a line of breathtaking hubris: “Education Minister Paul Givan has pledged to build on Northern Ireland’s reputation for delivering a high quality, innovative and world-class education system.”

Readers familiar with the game of PR-Speak Bingo will have ticked off ‘high quality’, ‘innovative’ and ‘world class’. They are common PR phrases.

The notion that this is a fitting description for education in Northern Ireland is fanciful to say the least.

Yes, the system works for those who have the money to pay for it. But parents who don’t have the resources to pay for tutors, or who were let down themselves by a system set up for the primary benefit of the middle-class, are forced to sit by as another generation is failed.

An education system that does not work for everyone is not high quality, innovative or world class. It is a scandal

An education system that does not work for everyone is not high quality, innovative or world class. It is a scandal.

The last thing pupils need is a happy-clappy education minister who is content to let his department pump out self-serving propaganda.

To be fair to Mr Givan, the quotes in his inaugural release were almost certainly written for him.

Yes, we may have “some of the top ranked primary and post-primary and grammar schools throughout the United Kingdom”. But where we really compete with the UK is in the number of young people let down by a system which assigns them to the educational scrap-heap at 11.

Nature does not distribute academic prowess on the basis of class (Eton is proof of that), yet a disproportionate number of young people from working class or economically-deprived backgrounds fail to get into grammar school.

Children sat the transfer tests n November and December last year
A disproportionate number of young people from working class or economically-deprived backgrounds fail to get into grammar schoo

It’s not the young people who are at fault – it’s the tests and a cabal that sustains such an iniquitous system.

It is hard to understand why the DUP – given the breakdown of its electorate – seems so wedded to selection. Studies of educational underachievement demonstrate that those most affected are boys from a Protestant background.

While the impact of the pandemic on schooling has not yet been properly researched, it is clear that it has worsened the situation, with wealthier parents better able to ensure their children had access to educational tools and resources.

Indeed, as highlighted by a report from Stranmillis’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement, published in 2021 but relevant still today, there are many facets of this problem that have not been adequately researched, including: the impact of wealth and class; male underachievement; impact of faith-based education; fairness of assessment, including the transfer test; the impact of Covid; and the evaluation of early years education.

Early years leaders have warned parents could ‘miss out’ on the Government’s flagship childcare offer in April as many councils have not yet published the funding rates needed by settings
Early years education is where we can best make the difference (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The last in the list is critical. As the late May Blood – a true champion for better education – knew, early years is where we can best make the difference: giving children from working class and economically-deprived areas the ability to compete on an equal footing with better-off peers.

One final issue to confront is the dysfunction between higher education, the responsibility of the economy department, and primary and secondary education, which comes under Givan. This break benefits Queen’s and UU, it promotes research at the expense of teaching, and inhibits the ability to create an integrated education system.

If Givan wants to ensure “children of all backgrounds and abilities are provided with every opportunity” to be “happy, learning and succeeding”; he needs to knock his department out of its complacency. Stop the puffery, begin urgent reform.