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EDITIONS
Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Consensus needed over Burns Report

It takes the threat of a major shake-up in education to concentrate the mind.

The publication of the challenging document known unofficially as the Burns Report has kicked off an unprecedented discussion on the future of post-primary education in Northern Ireland.

A team led by former ombudsman Gerry Burns drew up the proposals.

They originally thought that having reached unanimous agreement among their group the wider population would soon see the virtues of the package.

Not so. All who have commented say they appreciate the motives and the general aims of the report, but the "devil is in the detail".

Some of the issues have caused much disquiet.

About a third of the pupils go to grammar schools, with the rest going to secondary schools

To recap: This is a proposed solution to the acknowledged problems in deciding to which schools pupils should transfer after primary school.

At the moment, about three quarters of the age group sit the 11-plus tests. The top grades may win coveted places in the academic hot houses - the grammar schools.

About a third of the pupils go to grammar schools, with the rest going to secondary schools.

Academic selection

The vast majority of those in grammar schools are from non-manual working backgrounds.

The majority in secondary schools are from manual backgrounds.

The grammar schools are told they can remain specialist schools for the academically gifted

That social division is one issue the Burns team tried to address.

The Burns package would alter the power base of the grammar schools.

It would mean:

  • The 11-plus would be scrapped and no academic selection would be permitted
  • A pupil profile compiled throughout primary school would help parents choose the best route for their child but would not be available to post primary schools choosing pupils, because that could be used for selecting on academic grounds
  • Schools would be grouped together in area clusters called collegiates which would be expected to co-operate and allow pupils to swap from one to the other, either permanently or for occasional classes.
The most active campaign on the Burns proposals has come from the massed opposition of the grammar school lobby.

They have a number of objections:

  • The grammar schools would probably have more applications than places, so they would have to choose between them, without using high exam grades as a deciding factor
  • As the proposals stand, children living nearest to a school would get priority
  • That has brought accusations of "selection by postcode", and estate agents are expecting increased demand for houses close to popular schools.
'Unwieldy and unworkable'

The grammar schools are told they can remain specialist schools for the academically gifted, but if they are forced to take in all abilities, they will have to change their teaching approach.

It now looks as though most of their proposals are open to amendment

That would, they say, mean lowering their academic expectations.

Secondary schools are broadly in favour of the changes, because they feel grammar schools are poaching the best, and more recently, even the middle-range pupils.

But even those schools are concerned that the collegiate system is unwieldy and unworkable.

The consultation will continue until the end of June, and it is now predicted that the Burns proposals will not be accepted in their entirety.

From a starting position of the Burns team saying there should be no "cherry picking", it now looks as though most of their proposals are open to amendment.

This may be the only way to reach the consensus necessary for major changes to go ahead.

See also:

22 May 01 | N Ireland
24 Oct 01 | N Ireland
24 Oct 01 | Education
10 Feb 01 | N Ireland
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