News analysis - Northern Ireland locked in schools stalemate

22 May 08
'A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.' That was Winston Churchill's description of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It could equally well describe Northern Ireland's post-primary education policy. An alternative choice of words might be: 'chaos, wrapped in a conflict, inside a mess, that represents a shambles'.

23 May 2008

'A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.' That was Winston Churchill's description of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It could equally well describe Northern Ireland's post-primary education policy. An alternative choice of words might be: 'chaos, wrapped in a conflict, inside a mess, that represents a shambles'.

Confusion about how grammar and secondary schools will in future select children has recently been heightened – just when it was expected to ease. A meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive on May 15 failed to agree proposals from Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane to change the system. It also refused the option of further meetings to resolve the deep-seated row that has become the Executive's biggest crisis in the first year of its resumed existence.

Northern Ireland's administration is the only one in the UK that still systematically uses the 11-plus exam to select pupils for grammar schools. Academic selection is despised by Sinn Féin but strongly supported by the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2002, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, then education minister, controversially announced the abolition of the

11-plus just before the Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved, avoiding consideration of the move by either Assembly or Executive.

That decision was confirmed by direct rule ministers while Stormont was suspended – and used by then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain as an inducement for unionists to agree to power sharing. Part of the St Andrews' Agreement that led to Ian Paisley's DUP entering government with Sinn Féin recognised that academic selection represented the status quo, and that abolishing it would require bi-community approval in the Assembly.

For the past 12 months, Ruane has been trying to find ways to replace the 11-plus, which will be used for the last time this year to determine next year's post-primary admissions. Grammar schools and unionists have grown increasingly impatient as uncertainty about the future continues.

Leaked internal Sinn Féin papers have shown that Ruane considered using departmental orders to get the measure through the Assembly. But in an interview with Public Finance, Peter Robinson – the finance minister who is soon to take over as first minister – revealed that the Executive had effectively instructed Ruane that proposals must be brought to it for approval before implementation.

There is no sign of any grounds for a compromise that could lead to an Executive decision. The Northern Ireland schooling system is praised by many as producing some of the best educational outcomes in Europe – for those who attend grammar schools. But school drop-out rates and levels of literacy and numeracy are among the worst in Europe for those who go to secondary schools.

While the DUP (and the Ulster Unionists) seek to protect the vocal grammar schools, Sinn Féin (and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, with the backing of Catholic bishops) argue that the 11-plus is stressful, divisive and fails most children.

Matters have been made more complex still by the reality of Northern Ireland's 50,000 spare school places, which threatens the viability of many secondary schools – including some that are achieving good 'value added' results for the weakest pupils.

There is also a recognised need – accepted by both Sinn Féin and the DUP – to integrate schooling across the religious divide.

Amid uncertainty, about 30 grammar schools – a mixture of state and state-funded 'voluntary' schools – have announced plans to set their own entrance exams from next year and have formed a company to administer the tests. One Catholic school – despite the outspoken opposition of a bishop who is a trustee – says it will adopt its own intelligence-based test.

Ruane believed that she had found a compromise that would steer a solution through this quagmire. 'This has been a difficult move for me to make as I maintain entirely my opposition to assessment-based transfer at 11,' Ruane said, before presenting her case to the Executive.

'However, I have in sight a system which has moved beyond academic selection, and I am prepared to work with colleagues to make the steps necessary to realise that vision.'

She proposed a test that would be adopted for three years, providing a limited intake to existing grammar schools. In 2010, under her proposals, up to 50% of admissions could be made by academic selection. The next year this would fall to 30%, then in 2012 to 20%, with academic selection eliminated altogether from 2013.

Non-academic selection criteria would be based on parental choice, proximity, family connections and a 'tie-breaker' to determine otherwise equal cases. There might also be a duty on all schools to select a minimum number of children entitled to free school meals.

Ruane has instructed Northern Ireland's examining body, the Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment, to prepare an academic test that she hopes all grammar schools will accept as part of the interim arrangements.

Alongside these reforms, Ruane wants to change the structure of post-primary schooling. This would involve more co-operation between schools. Key schooling choices would be made at age 14 to fit pupils' GCSE preferences. Some children would move school at 14 while others would receive academic lessons at one school and vocational training at another.

Local post-primary schooling would be organised through area-based planning, with poor-quality school buildings replaced under a £3bn modernisation programme. A new Education and Schools Authority would replace the regional education and library boards to provide leadership.

But this whole package of reforms is now in limbo. Ruane's ministerial colleagues rejected the proposals, with the unionists unwilling to see an end to academic selection whether phased or not. Ian Paisley – who steps down as first minister in the next few days – said: 'The DUP position is that academic selection must remain as part of the transfer procedure. Schools must have the right to select pupils on the basis of their academic ability. The minister for education's proposals, as currently framed, are totally unacceptable and do not form a basis for moving forward.'

Paisley added, in terms less friendly than Northern Ireland has become used to: 'The education minister can make any suggestion she wants to – however it will not come into force unless she has the support of the DUP and the endorsement of the Executive.'

The stalemate remains, without any obvious resolution in sight. In the meantime, about half the grammar schools intend to proceed with their own entrance exams, which Ruane ominously refers to as 'a prospect fraught with administrative and litigious perils'. What it comes down to is that education has been the most challenging test of the Executive members so far – and, like most children who sit the 11-plus, they risk being marked as failures.


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