With over 8,000 children registered to take their AQE exams across this month, not including those registered for the GL alternative, and indeed some children sitting both, it is a stressful time for pupils and their parents.

Firstly, I want to speak directly to any young person or parents reading this – these exams do not define you. They are an antiquated system of selection for grammar schools who are concerned with league table results. You can do well no matter what school you attend, and you can choose your own educational pathway, it does not have to be linear journey.

The problem I have with academic selection is that it is not a true reflection of an individual’s academic ability. It is a snapshot of how they perform under exam conditions and how well they can regurgitate information.

In today’s society, we want individuals who are critical thinkers and can engage with their learning, high stakes testing is not the way to measure these attributes.

Many universities are also aware of this, and certain degree pathways no longer take exams. Think about it rationally, if you start a new job they don’t ask you to sit a 2-hour exam, they take you through an induction process where you can ask questions and receive guidance from your supervisor; why should education be different?

There has been much talk of educational reform within Northern Ireland recently, in terms of our segregated education systems, subjects that should or should not be taught in school and how we are failing certain demographics of students.

Earlier this year there was the release of yet another government report “A Fair Start” that produced over 100 recommendations, including adequately funding early year interventions.

What I feel we are failing to discuss is whether we are adequately funding our schools to ensure they can be successful. Grammar schools are able to supplement their governmental funding by asking parents to pay additional school fees, this means that some schools have access to resources that others do not, yet we expect these schools to perform on the same scale.

Another issue is that grammar schools continually seek uplifts in their admission numbers to the detrimental impact of neighbouring schools. There is only a finite number of students each year and the continued uplift for some schools inevitably mean that other schools are impacted.

The amount of funding a school receives is dependent on how many pupils they have enrolled at a given time. By continually allowing these uplifts it puts neighbouring schools at a disadvantage. The Department of Education and the Education Authority lack any clearly defined or logical strategy meanwhile school principals are left to do their best in challenging conditions.

If you speak to anyone, regardless of which community they identify with, we all value the role of education for our children. We may disagree what the education process should look like, but we share the desire our young people should be well educated.

Our current segregated education system wastes millions of pounds annually. It may be a difficult and challenging conversation to have but if we want a world class education system in Northern Ireland we cannot shy away from it.

We need to ascertain an accurate cost of educating a student to inform what a good education budget would look like. There is an abundance of US research examining the adequacy and efficacy of education. Academics have researched what figure would be sufficient in high and low poverty districts to calculate a rate required per student in order to succeed (Baker, Di Carlo & Weber, 2020).

A similar exercise was carried out by the Association of Schools and College Leaders, “The True Cost of Education” in 2019 for the English education system but to date there is none for Northern Ireland. How can we expect an excellent education system if we do not know what it should cost?

There needs to be a serious conversation around the purpose of education. Is it to produce workers for the labour market or is it a social good, where everyone can reach their potential?

Personally, I believe education should be provided to everyone so that they can achieve their potential and not simply to provide a workforce.

The continued under funding of the education system across multiple governments has been detrimental. Our young people are telling us that they have mental health concerns, and we continue to test them, we need to offer a more accurate reflection of their learning and listen to their concerns.

These past two years’ schools have been asked to provide a Centre Assessed Grade for each pupil in absence of traditional GCSE’s. There is no logical reason that this could not continue as there are both internal and external audits to ensure that schools are following the same guidance criteria and, like in their GCSE’s, there is an appeal process if a student feels that they were not awarded the correct grade.

I am the product of a grammar school education, but I do not believe that they are always best placed to educate all students. I also understand that many people I know are advocates for grammar schools, many I call friends, but I will continue to advocate for change.

The Education Authority, Northern Ireland Executive and Westminster government should;

  1. Halt any uplifts to schools that do not include impact reports on the affected schools in their areas
  2. Transition to one public education system in Northern Ireland
  3. Investigate the role of traditional exams in contemporary society
  4. Assess the level of funding required to ensure adequacy within education provisions

Politicians will soon be canvassing again, looking for your vote. With these above policy recommendations, I urge all stakeholders and community members to continue to advocate for the change that is needed in our education system. Our education system could be world leading if only we could be brave enough to make the changes necessary.

By Emma Shaw

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