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Squaring the circle Unions debate the Burns report

On Saturday the 23rd March two of the main teaching unions in the north of Ireland (the Ulster Teachers union organised in the mainly Protestant state sector and the Irish national teachers organisation, organised across the island and mainly in the Catholic maintained sector in the North) met in Belfast to discuss the Burns report. The report advocates the scrapping of the eleven +  selection process and its replacement with a new "collegiate" system which, it argues, would bring a new era of equality in education in the north of Ireland. A consultation process around the report has been opened by the Stormont government, but the grammar schools and the two major unionist parties have already rejected it.

Despite the presence of two of the main researchers involved in drawing up the report and initial enthusiasm from the trade union bureaucracy, close examination began to show up the lack of equality in the proposals and their essentially unworkable nature. More and more, a section of the audience began to reassert their long-standing support for a secular and comprehensive system.

Just as the Good Friday agreement overall speaks the language of Human Rights without delivering, so the Burns report is full of condemnation of selection and promises of equality in the education system, but dodges away from any radical reform.

The spokespeople for the report were quite clear about the foundations on which they based their recommendations. They would find a consensus that preserved the best of the old while bringing in quality for all.  So "the best" of an elitist and sectarian system was to be transmuted into a new egalitarian system. The main mechanisms for this changeover were to be pupil profiles and a new secondary collegiate system.

The teacher trade unionists expressed scepticism. Pupils would benefit from individual teaching based on a profile of individual strengths and weaknesses, but no education system anywhere had invested the massive amounts which would be required to implement this. In the absence of these resources a pupil profile would either be a back door eleven + or meaningless form filling.

One of the speakers gave the game away, indicating that the collegiate system, essentially an geographical grouping of schools in the secondary sector which will include Catholic, state, integrated and Irish medium schools, was expected to see the withering away of the grammar school. It was not clear why this should happen, but it became clearer as the discussion progressed that it would create a new layer of bureaucracy around a principals forum that would run the local collegiate. The proposal was that this would be paid for by dismantling the existing education and library boards. The fact is that this has been attempted before and has failed because the boards are too handy a source of the patronage essential in the running of a sectarian state. There is not even the suggestion that one of the main sectarian structures - the Catholic council for maintained schools - should be dissolved.  The belief seems to be that class privilege is some sort of optional add-on to the sectarian structure rather than the a major motor for maintaining sectarianism.

The new scheme would generate quangos galore, eroding what little there is in the way of democratic checks - a point made with approval by the authors who indicate the ease with which Private Finance initiatives would be inserted into the system  It also became clear, however, that the new system would cut across all existing pay structures, regulatory agreements and workers rights.  Given that the justification for the agreement is avoiding conflict it could hardly justify the major convulsion that would result.

The trade unionists and, more reluctantly, some of the bureaucracy began to take their distance from the report.  The conference ended with two issues beginning to clarify themselves.

There is one simple way in which the Burns report can be got to work.  The pupil profiles can be back-door eleven+ selections.  Even more useful is the infinitely malleable concept of the collegiate.  They can be big or small.  Have all of the component schools or only some.  Be loose with only minimal contact or tight with close linkage.  They can be sculpted to give the impression of change while nothing changes.

The other issue was the extent to which a section of the trade union base supported a secular and comprehensive system.  "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" one union leader pleaded,  but a number of the union activists were less than enthusiastic about guarding stale bathwater while their own programme for radical change went unmet.



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