"Our young people are drilled, tested, assessed and examined within an inch of their lives"

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By Kathryn Torney

QUOTAS should be set for Northern Ireland’s grammar schools to ensure that they select more pupils entitled to free school meals and with special educational needs to better reflect the communities which they serve.

This is one of the key recommendations from academics at the University of Ulster in their response to an Assembly education committee inquiry on the school inspectorate and school improvement process.

Vani Borooah and Colin Knox also state that shared education programmes encouraged by financial incentives for schools could improve educational outcomes in Northern Ireland.

And they caution against considering schools for closure because of small pupil numbers, warning that the size of a school is not significant when it comes to educational attainment.

The NI Assembly’s education committee is reviewing the effectiveness of the Education and Training Inspectorate’s approach, how “value added” at schools is assessed (the progress individual pupils make between taking assessment tests) and aims to identify the key issues impacting on schools experiencing difficulties. It is also looking at models of good practice in other countries.

The final date for written submissions was Friday and oral evidence is due to be taken next month. The committee is due to publish its report in January.

As well as the academics’ view, we also report today on the written submission made to the inquiry by the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI). This paper has been endorsed by the Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council.

GTCNI is the professional and regulatory body for teachers and responsible for maintaining a register of qualified teachers. The GTC report – entitled ‘Striking the Right Balance’ – is critical of the current approach to school inspection.

The GTCNI document refers to teacher union case study evidence which it says shows that schools can be required to return data up to 700 pages in length for standard inspections and claims that this may be used to “pre-judge” the inspection outcome.

“The inspection process in Northern Ireland appears to be no longer perceived by the profession as a positive and constructive experience it once was but has been characterised as more akin to a judgemental, OFSTED-inspired, model.”

And: “Viability audits associated with school rationalisation have exacerbated fears that a poor inspection grade can lead to negative media reporting, provoking parental ‘stampedes’ away from schools placed in ‘intervention’, beginning a downward spiral to potential school closure.”

The report also refers to research which it says indicates that, as pressure on teachers to meet performance targets and maximise league table rankings increases, there is often a growth in techniques linked to ‘gaming’ the system, spoon-feeding pupils, teaching to the test, ‘nursing’ the coursework and manipulating the grade boundaries.

“In some cases, these studies argue, institutions become so focused on the measures that they begin to deliberately manipulate their data or behaviour to produce the desired results, regardless of potentially adverse effects.”

The council’s registrar Dr Carmel Gallagher said: "As a teaching profession we fully accept that we should be accountable for the effective education of our young people and that robust monitoring and evaluation of schools (both internally and externally) is needed to ensure that young people, parents, politicians and the public can have confidence in our schools and in our teachers.

“The submission is therefore not about whether or not we need an evaluation service.

“Rather it is about the approach to providing that service, the validity of the targets that it responds to, the driving forces underpinning its approach, the nature of the statistical evidence that it uses, the manner in which it reports, the impact that it has on schools in challenging circumstances and whether there is a better way of achieving similar (or better) outcomes.”

The GTCNI report argues that a more genuinely inclusive measure of progress would be to develop a proper system of measuring ‘value-added’ by looking at the progress made by an individual or cohort from entry to exit.

It also refers to evidence that indicates that the cause of differentials in educational performance lie largely outside schools and the classroom and include age, gender, family socio-economic background and community characteristics.


The revised Northern Ireland curriculum was introduced in 2007 but the GTCNI says that: “Unfortunately the assessment and examination system has not been sufficiently aligned with the revised curriculum, inhibiting real changes in teaching and learning.”

“The delay in the implementation of key educational policies is too slow, for example, the delay in implementing ESA (the Education and Skills Authority) and the Review of Teacher Education has been ongoing for over a decade.”

The report states that education support is “now targeted almost exclusively” on schools identified by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) and management authorities as failing to meet the required academic standards.

The General Teaching Council report recommends that NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) census information should be explored as a potential way to calculate the socio-economic intake of schools to enable resources to be allocated more effectively and the calculation of “value added” on the basis of baseline data. It also calls for the development of a system to capture, store, analyse and map educational data.

The council also states that a “light sampling” of 10% of schools would provide “stable and robust information for the purposes of accountability and policy formation”.

The GTCNI is critical of league tables published by the media.

“Tables apparently showing a school high up the charts may just tell us a school takes in well-motivated and able pupils. Even the ‘value-added’ tables that are now produced which do take into account some of the pupils’ backgrounds may not give us a reliable picture of school life, because they average over all pupils and may hide some pupils consistently doing well, others doing worse.”

The GTCNI submission continues: “The education committee and DE (Department of Education) should consider ways to prevent league tables being published or exploited by the media, by requiring that measures of uncertainty are provided in relation to all measures and institutional judgements, and challenging distortion of educational data.

“This may help to reduce deficit reporting and enhance understanding and respect for the important contribution which the teaching profession and schools make to the well-being and success of young people, society and the economy.”

The report quotes research which highlights the influence of a young person’s school friends (the peer effect) as the strongest influence on their attitudes and achievement – stronger than parents and teachers. It states it is important to ensure that schools have a balanced socio-economic mix to give young people from less secure backgrounds better aspirations and influence.

Dr Gallagher stressed: “The bottom line of the report is that politicians, civil servants and parents must understand that schools and teachers are far from the sole cause, and certainly not the sole solution, to the challenges which face our economy, our society and neighbourhoods.

“By all means hold teachers and schools to account, but recognise the communities they reflect and the things they can and cannot control, not least the impact of selection which create wider differentials of achievement by separating young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from the positive aspirations of their ‘better-off’ peers at a vulnerable age.”


Colin Knox and Vani Borooah are based in the University of Ulster’s Institute for Research in Social Sciences.

They state in their submission to the committee that the current system is failing to make any significant impression on the huge education attainment gap which exists between grammar and non-grammar schools.

In 2011/12, around 36% of pupils in non-grammars achieved five or more GCSEs including English and Maths at grades A*-C – compared to over 92% of pupils in grammars.

The authors say: “These results clearly illustrate the differences between education outcomes of grammar and non grammar schools and the fact that there is considerable room for improvement in the latter.”

The academics are also critical of the department’s area planning process.

They say: “Up until now the sense of what is driving the area planning process is that ‘bigger is better’. In other words, treat schools like hospitals – build or amalgamate schools into large units to offer the widest curriculum choice and, as a consequence, pupils will perform better. This will also bring economies of scale and impact positively on school funding.

“Whilst this may have intuitive appeal it is based on little more than a hunch by senior officials in the Department of Education and school managing authorities.”

The University of Ulster academics also analysed the variables which determine educational performance. They found that the top three variables are being a grammar school, the school attendance rate and the proportion of free school meal children in the school.

They say that their analysis shows “it is immediately obvious that the size of a school and its budgetary status are not significant when it comes to educational attainment. Yet, these are the factors most often cited by education officials as important target variables when rationalising the schools estate.”

Knox and Borooah suggest there are two key performance weaknesses in the school system. The first is the performance inequalities between grammar and secondary schools. And, second, is that pupils entitled to free school meals and those with special educational needs are “disproportionately under-represented amongst grammar schools”.

They conclude that the department’s response to school improvement has so far “had limited or no impact on the key problems facing the education system in Northern Ireland and there is a need to consider some creative alternatives”.

Knox and Borooah put forward the following recommendations:

  • Grammar schools should be set quotas by the Department of Education for selecting pupils entitled to free school meals and special educational needs so that they better reflect the communities which they serve.
  • Shared education – encouraged through financial incentives for schools – could improve educational outcomes.
  • Self-evaluation and self-improvement needs to be replaced by a mechanism which explicitly measure added value in schools.
  • There needs to be a shift in focus within inspections to the value which schools add to pupils’ learning. The Education and Training Inspectorate should oversee a new system of peer cross-community networked learning, incentivised through a shared education premium, aimed at raising educational outcomes for all schools.

The GTC report was endorsed by the NI Teachers’ Council, which represents the teaching profession and is made up of four of the main teachers’ unions.

Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland, said: “Our young people are drilled, tested, assessed and examined within an inch of their lives.

“The sclerotic accountability system is in danger of squeezing creativity, innovation, persuasion skills, thinking skills and individuality out of the system. Heavy accountability risks boring pupils and teachers alike.

“To use a Scottish analogy, we can take the high road or the low road.

“The low road is characterised by systems of micro-accountability, league tables, excessive testing, bureaucratic assessment and data driven evaluation, in which teaching is treated as a low skill, low discretion craft. The high road is characterised by a reflective, high skill, autonomous profession, where teachers are recognised and appreciated for their knowledge, expertise and judgement.”

Mr Langhammer said that a new accountability system needs to be developed with broader value-added measurements which can motivate and encourage schools in challenging environments, better identify need and enable resources to be better channelled toward those needs.

“We want to move from being a relatively good education system, to a potentially great or excellent one, on the basis of an informed understanding of what works internationally.

“To progress from ‘good to great’ or indeed from ‘great to excellent’ requires that policy makers support and nurture a high trust, high autonomy, high discretion profession and a broader vision of education that will develop young people with 21st century skills.”

A senior teacher at a Co Down grammar school has given her view on the current inspection and assessment process to The Detail. She asked not to be named.

She said: “The desire for accountability – to prove teachers are working hard to get results and that pupils are producing competitive results compared to other countries – is a very worrying political game using dubious and sometimes rather creative statistics.

“The expectation that schools, who are obliged to report and publish their Key Stage 3 results, should be producing higher and higher results, puts a great deal of pressure on teachers, who in turn put a great deal of pressure on pupils.

“Also there is a great inconsistency in the current system. Not all schools will be moderated every year, so schools that are will be more rigorous in the application of levels and have lower results than those who aren’t being moderated.

“Finally, the burden of this assessment lies with the English and Maths Departments (ICT remains cross curricular) and so many teachers in secondary and grammar schools do not share this increased burden of assessment and administration.

“The assessment procedures are purely bureaucratic, with no proven educational benefits and the people who suffer most of all are the pupils.”

A recent GTCNI survey asked for teachers’ views on new arrangements for the end of key stage assessment of pupils at ages 8, 11 and 14 introduced in 2012.

The key findings included that less than 1% of schools consider the outcomes to be very reliable while a massive 88% said they were of limited or no reliability. Only 11% of schools said the assessment outcomes were helpful to parents.

Last week Education Minister John O’Dowd said that he will make changes to the end of Key Stage Assessment arrangements in response to feedback from the teaching profession and will make an announcement “in the coming weeks”.

The minister said: “I have decided to move to new arrangements that I believe will reduce the pressure on teachers and schools whilst maintaining the primary purpose of the levels of progression – to assist teaching and learning.”


Education committee chairman Mervyn Storey said that the committee is particularly interested in investigating the role of the Education and Training Inspectorate.

He continued: “The Inquiry into the Education and Training Inspectorate and the School Improvement Process stems from the committee’s consideration of issues including area planning, the meaningful assessment of the value-added by schools as part of the school improvement process and appropriate governance arrangements for the ETI.

“The committee wants to ensure that the ETI is fit for purpose, that teachers and the public have confidence in this body and that it helps to deliver quality education in Northern Ireland.

“The importance of this issue is reflected in the number of responses that we have already received to the inquiry.”

The committee had received 21 responses by last Wednesday – two days before the deadline closed.

Mr Storey continued: “We have received submissions from a variety of organisations such as teaching organisations, universities, school principals, individual parents and governors.

“Oral evidence will commence in public session on October 15 when the chief inspector will come before the committee.”

© The Detail 2013