5 Feb – Education Conference Armagh City Hotel
His Eminence Seán Cardinal Brady
Post Primary Review Conference
City Hotel, Armagh
Tuesday 5th February 2008
It is a pleasure to be here this morning for this important gathering of principals and governors. Last week many of you will have been busy celebrating Catholic Education Week. And, this week, so many of your primary colleagues will be under huge pressure to process their children through the next stage of the current Transfer Procedure, following the receipt of the Test results last Saturday. And these two events focus our attention on the purpose, not just of this meeting, but of the whole Post primary Review process in which you are engaged. We are seeking to develop our network of sustainable Catholic schools into the future – schools which will proclaim and celebrate the Good News of the Beatitudes, and offer top quality educational opportunities to young people of all faith backgrounds and none
Firstly, I would like to thank all of those who have given so much time to this process. I know that it is one more burden on top of a very full programme that you already have. But this is a time of major social and economic change and it is important that we do everything we can to get a system in place which is fit for purpose, and which takes people forward from where they are at present. Schools are integral to the strength and resilience of any society. As we know from the terrible years of conflict, our schools and churches were and are vital elements in holding society together. We have only one chance to implement the necessary changes. If we make a mess of it this time, it is future generations who will pay. If we get it right, we will have made an enormous contribution to the future welfare of our children and of their children.
What we are seeking to do in this Post-Primary Review process is to provide a continuity of educational excellence from a child enters Nursery school or Primary 1, right through till the time when they leave formal education and enter the world of work – and of the many other responsibilities that they will have as adults. Education, however, is not just about the training of people to be good, employable individuals. Education is the process whereby society seeks to enable its members to learn all those skills and qualities that they will need to help them thrive as individuals and as positive members of their communities. It is about helping everyone to develop as human beings, made in God’s image and likeness, whatever their talents and whatever challenges they face.
The Trustees have been very actively engaged in this whole process. The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education represents all the Trustees – diocesan and religious – and it has sought to co-ordinate the work of the entire Catholic managed sector. The Consultative Group for Catholic Education has done a great service in helping all Catholic schools to clarify their shared vision in the new circumstances that prevail in NI. These bodies have enabled the Catholic-managed sector to be proud of both its identity and its achievements – and to have the confidence to face the future along with all our partners in education. The Post Primary Review process that we have established –with financial support from DE – has developed a way of working which is based on partnership, extensive discussions, wide public consultation and consensus. That is the way forward if we are to develop sustainable educational provision and ensure that parents feel included in the development of this.
I know that Governors, principals and teachers have also already undertaken a huge amount of work in introducing a conveyor belt of change. We all owe them our thanks and praise, because the Trustees and administrators know they cannot simply publish edicts and expect things to happen immediately. Change management in a school is a high level skill. The new is always unsettling and everyone needs to be reassured that change will be for the better and not just change for change’s sake. Despite the workload involved, our schools have introduced the new curriculum – and have also had to cope with the downward demographic trend, and the arrival of many welcome guests from other countries, with the attendant challenges that this brings. Many people are weary of implementing these changes.
So in support of schools and administrators, there are just two key points that I would like to make this morning.
Firstly, I have indicated that the Trustees – and indeed all parties in Catholic education – are happy to engage with DE and with all the other sectors in managing the plethora of change that is coming at us.
But it is vital that the Minister ensures that there is root and branch cohesion across all these initiatives. Thus, while it has been important to announce the end of the 11+ and a transfer at 11 based on parental election, this needs to be accompanied by putting systems in place to promote an area planning process and the announcement of the Sustainable Schools policy. Otherwise, some schools face a very uncertain future and will continue to die a slow lingering death. A society is uncivilised if it leaves the educational welfare of its children – and especially its weakest – to the vagaries of Darwinian economics. The survival of the fittest is neither an acceptable method of method nor an appropriate content for education.
We in the Catholic sector – along with many people across civic society – are clear that this is a social justice issue. All our children deserve the best we can give them. That will not happen unless there is a closely woven pattern of coordinated initiatives. am sure that we will all agree that educational structures would have to be based on seeking quality outcomes for all and not on any other basis.. That lies at the heart of the Core Principles which inform and guide all the 21 Catholic post-primary projects across the North. Thus, the Catholic Trustees are working on the key principle of social justice. However, this exemplary Post Primary Review process will not be able to continue unless the Department gives coherent policy coverage.
Secondly, I am very glad that DE has recognised that the need for sectoral support in those areas where sectoral coherence can complement the responsibilities of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA). The Review of Public Administration is not about a structure that will look streamlined on paper. It is based on what delivers quality outcomes and maximises the efficient use of resources. The Catholic sector has shown that ethos adds value. We have only to look at DE’s own published figures to see just how much Catholic schools have been setting standards in achievement at GCSE and A-level and in attendance at Higher Education. That is the proof that targeted sectoral support is money well spent.
There are those who see any sectoral support as part of a horse trading exercise and who want all power to be concentrated in ESA. There are others who would rather that there were no faith-based schools but that they just be blended into the totality of state-owned schools – with nothing but a brief nod to their historical roots. But we have to see what it is that helps to deliver quality outcomes. A sector, which is motivated by a shared vision, which can inspire staff and governors and which can then help to promote social cohesion, is a vital educational partner. Schools are not numbers on a list or dots on a map. They are part of communities. Grant aid which is targeted at the specific contribution that ESA cannot make, is money well spent, not a sop to anybody. The spirit of RPA is that all partners have an opportunity to focus on outcomes and not on empires, on pupils and not on personalities, on individuals and not on institutions. Thus I know that the Trustees are working with DE to see the establishment of a slim-line Trustee support body. I look forward to an early completion of these negotiations and this planning. Pupils deserve not the leanest structures but the most effective structures.
You have many more issues to hear about from others today. It is most encouraging that the Permanent Secretary from the Department of Education, Mr Will Haire is here. This is a tribute to his consultative style in the enormous task that the Department has before it. But I also see it as a recognition of major role that the Catholic managed schools have made to raising standards, embracing change and facing the future.
To all you who are participating today, I thank you for taking the time to be here and for all that you have already put into this Post Primary Review process. This is an enormous undertaking. With support from DE and from the Minister, we have the potential to develop a wonderful, robust system of sustainable schools into the future.
(I would like to finish on a personal note and thank so many people for their kindness and encouragement since my nomination as Cardinal last October. The goodness of so many people has been a sign that there is still a great hunger for faith, hope and love. These are exciting times to be alive in Northern Ireland – and great times to be involved in Catholic education.)
Guím beannacht Dé ar bhur n-obair.