Northern Ireland has much diversity in its educational options.
The permutations are complex, given the grammar school ethos, comprehensive schools, the integrated sector, church establishments, Irish Language learning and this area’s unique Dickson Plan.
They are not without their controversy, given that one Minister seems to have the whip hand over which systems are acceptable and which are coming under pressure. The Dickson Plan is under the microscope, while the Irish Language schools are the latest in a long line of issues to cause friction between unionist and nationalist.
The diversity is costing impoverished Northern Ireland dearly, with some estimates of the diversity being as high as an extra £1bn per annum. But that’s democracy, and people are entitled to campaign for the various methods they feel are right for their children. Which brings us to the plight of pupils with learning difficulties, whose later training needs seem to be ignored in the perennial storm buffeting mainstream education.
Special education is a shining example of all sections of the community being united. All religions are educated together, and one has to look at the top end of education (the universities) to find another focus on the all-religions aspect.
But there is a part of special education that does the various departments at Stormont no credit whatsoever. That is the lack of training facilities for the 19-plus range, after children with learning disabilities leave excellent schools like Ceara. Too often, it all shudders to a halt when they reach 19. And unless parents, charities or other voluntary groups take up the reins, they are left to languish at home. This causes emotional and mental health problems for pupils who have, thus far, been educated to their full potential.
A member of staff of this newspaper taught in the then ‘special care’ schools system half-a-century ago, when it was under the health authorities and not really up to scratch. Years later, education took over and transformed the system, but the over-19s vacuum pertained then and still persists. Projects like the 180 Degrees Restaurant in Portadown (reported in this week’s paper) show what can be done. It is run by a charity - it is a rare exception – and it is time for government to grasp the nettle.
It reflected badly on the Assembly that its group with responsibility for children with educational disability called a meeting last week with parents, carers, Mencap and other professionals – yet, only one of the Assembly Group (chairman Pat Ramsey SDLP, Foyle) turned up. He has apologised and has promised a follow-up meeting involving the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
The 13 members of the group hail from constituencies all over Northern Ireland, including Upper Bann – all affected by this issue – and they really should have been at the meeting.
Let’s hope the Ramsey initiative is productive and that specific, comprehensive training is afforded to those with learning disabilities. The time has long passed to introduce a better deal for these special students.