ACADEMIC selection in schools is working against children’s human rights and maintaining the gap between rich and poor, Northern Ireland’s new Children’s Commissioner has said.
Koulla Yiasouma told The Detail that academic selection in Primary seven is “not in the best interests of all our children”.
In an outspoken interview, the commissioner cited her own children’s experience of academic selection describing it as “traumatic”.
She has called for academic selection to be replaced with an all ability integrated education system in Northern Ireland.
"We have yet to move on integrating on ability. It's a gap that's too huge and I can't sit by and see our education system failing so many children. It's just not right in this day and age.”
The Children’s Commissioner welcomed efforts to integrate children currently separated by religion, but she said our society needs a new debate on how to tackle social divisions to allow all children to fulfil their potential.
She said: “In 2008 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said to Northern Ireland: ‘You have to stop your selection, look at what you are doing to your children’.
“The best education systems in the world are fully integrated. They are integrated on ability, they are integrated on religion and race and they are integrated on gender. Why are we not learning the lessons? Why are we not having a clearer plan?"
Ms Yiasouma also spoke about the issues she planned to address during her time as Children’s Commissioner including children’s mental health inequalities, child poverty and issues for young carers.
She said she was aware of criticism that her office had received in the past about its goals being too broad and was determined to change this perception.
"When I speak to people about the issues our children and young people are facing my heart breaks and I want to do as much as I can. So I can see why there's been criticism of previous Children’s Commissioners in Northern Ireland, but also of commissioners generally. You try to do too much and you don't focus. And I'm determined to focus.
"Children's rights is not some wishy‑washy liberal woolly thing. It's about achieving the best for our children and young people.
"The thing I would say to people, this is a public office. I am a public appointment. I am their commissioner for children and young people. So they need to also make sure that they engage with our office and they tell us where the need is.”
Last year The Detail reported on the findings of Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring report which highlighted educational underachievement among Protestant boys from deprived backgrounds.
Compiled by Paul Nolan for the Community Relations Council, the Peace Monitoring Report is an annual ‘x-ray’ that captures data on life in Northern Ireland.
The report used free school meals as a measure of deprivation.
In terms of educational achievement, it showed Protestant working class boys were the worst performing grouping in Northern Ireland.
When their exam results were put in a UK-wide context, Protestant boys performed as poorly as children from marginalised groups such as the Traveller and Roma communities – placing them at the bottom of a league table of more than 30 social groups.
The same data showed that Northern Ireland’s top-performing school group, Catholic girls who were not entitled to Free School Meals, are near the top of the UK table.
In a special report in The Detail today, that uses infographics to look at divisions in education, data shows that the education system impacts negatively on children from all communities who are entitled to free schools meals.
Referencing the findings of the Peace Monitoring Report the Children’s Commissioner said the uncomfortable truths raised by the figures can’t be ignored.
“This is a huge children's rights issue. I am not for one minute saying that the Catholic girls need to reduce in their achievement but that every child should have the opportunity to achieve these percentages and the schools they go to should not dictate their pass rate.
“We cannot in 2015 have such a huge gap between our boys and our girls and our haves and our have‑nots. It's just not right. It can't be right. And the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, when it hears from the UK government next year will crucify our government if we don't do something about this.”
The Department of Education figures for the 2013/14 academic year show that 94.5% of grammar school pupils achieved 5 GCSEs including English and Maths grades A* to C. Only 44% of non-grammer school pupils achieved this level.
In her interview with The Detail Ms Yiasouma also spoke about her own family's experience with academic selection and the difficulties it caused.
She said: “Regrettably my children did do transfer tests. They both did very well and both went to grammar schools but the system forced us to make a choice. It was a traumatic experience.
“We cannot have a system that puts our 11-year-olds through that. But we do, and I had to do what's best as a parent. But don't for a minute think that my husband and I did not think about this and did not worry about this, but that's the system we had to play with.
“It was inappropriate and it wasn't right but it was what was best for our children and it was what met their educational needs.”
In Northern Ireland today if a P7 pupil sits all the transfer tests, they would sit five papers.
One of the testing systems is run for schools mainly catering for Protestant pupils and the other is run by schools mainly within the Catholic maintained sector. Both exams are priavtely run.
This dual testing system has been in operation since the state-run 11-plus test was abolished in 2008.
The Children’s Commissioner said she believes that if her children’s education had been fully integrated on ability, their education would not have suffered.
She said: “I am very confident that if we removed academic selection and we had a good integrated system on the basis of ability that my children would have got just as good an education as they are getting now.
“So, yes, my girls did transfer exams and, yes, they both go to grammar schools. Am I sorry that happened? No, I'm not, because they have had a very good education, but I wish it had been different, not just for them, but for all the children in Northern Ireland. And that's what I have to be concerned about."
Ms Yiasouma also discussed what she hoped to achieve during her time as commissioner.
She said: “As well as the vast education inequalities that we have for our children here, I will be very keen to focus on certain issues such as child poverty.
“Figures show that 96,000 children in Northern Ireland live in absolute poverty and if we don't do anything about it they're going to be joined by another 31,000 in the next five years. That is unacceptable.
“Another issue I want to focus on is the mental health and well being of our children and young people. We are not serving our children in the best way we can. We are not ensuring that they get through their lives feeling safe, emotionally, and we are not doing everything we can do."