Yes, Minister McGuinness
Bringing the equality and all-Ireland agendas to education
In an exclusive interview with An Phoblacht's PEADAR WHELAN, Sinn Féin Six-County Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness, discusses his brief and issues including the impact of Sinn Féin's equality agenda on his work, measures to assist Irish-language and integrated schools, the 11+ exam, discrimination against the Travelling community, and how he dealt with the DUP-led protests that greeted his initial appointment. The Mid-Ulster MP also highlights Sinn Féin's all-Ireland vision for education.
Phoblacht: Sinn Féin chose the Education portfolio in the Executive. Why did the party opt for that brief and what does Sinn Féin bring to it that other parties cannot?
The fact that we have established an all-Ireland approach to education and are making enormous strides in improving the educational opportunities for children throughout Ireland is immensely significant
Martin McGuinness: Abraham Lincoln, in the first speech he ever made, said that the most important issue facing the American people was education. I agree with that, because the most important issue facing the people of Ireland is putting in place an education system which takes into account the changing world in which we are living.
From our perspective in Sinn Féin, we are connected to local people in local communities and we are very conscious that outside of the constitutional question, education and health are the most important issues for people.
Also, from our perspective it was important to take on departments that directly impacted on the vast majority of people, and Education and Health do that more than any others.
The review of the 11+ selection process will spark the biggest debate in education we've seen here in 100 years
AP: I assume that the Equality agenda that Sinn Féin argues for is something that you would be pushing for and promoting within the Education Department?
MMcG: Obviously the Equality Agenda underwrites our participation in the political process. Everybody knows our role in instigating the peace process, and we set out to make it absolutely clear to everyone - the British Government, the Dublin Government, the US Administration and the Unionist leadership, that we wanted equality and we would not settle for anything less. We intend to represent our people.
In terms of taking control of education, it was my view and the view of the Sinn Féin leadership that by taking on the education brief, we would be taking on a department that has a huge impact on the lives of people because education is vitally important.
It is well known that I have strong views on education and the views of the party on issues such as the 11+ are also quite clear. We are opposed to the 11+, and before becoming a minister I made my position quite clear and I believe that that issue alone showed the inequality of the education system which was on offer here in the North.
It is only when the Irish people, as a whole, are working together and free from outside interference, that we will be better able to address the neglect that has been the hallmark of British government policy in Ireland
I also believe there has been a legacy of neglect here in the provision of services, that successive British governments have treated the people in the North - unionists as well as nationalists and republicans - as second class citizens. The funding that goes into the North is well below what is spent on education in England, Scotland and Wales.
I have been told authoritively that of all the regions of Europe the North of Ireland has the least amount of money spent on education and health. So tackling that is a major issue for the Executive, as well as for us in Sinn Féin.
One of the first things we did was to review the criteria which applied to Irish schools and indeed to integrated schools, criteria which actually prevented the development of these schools
AP: Why is that the case?
I think it has a lot to do with the way the British government looked on the North. When I first went into the department, I asked the officials how often, under Direct Rule, the Minister spent there, and I was told it was on average half a day a week or at most a day. That begs the question as to what attention was being given to the hugely important issue of education.
As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, I am now giving my full attention to education. In fact, I am dealing with issues that the British government ran away from.
I am not just talking about the review of the 11+ selection process, which will spark the biggest debate in education we've seen here in 100 years. We also have to deal with the state of the primary schools, many of which are over 100 years old, and the secondary schools have been underfunded over many decades. There is a history of neglect which has to be redressed. I believe that the environment in which children are taught impacts tremendously on the psychology of any child going through the school system.
If schools aren't warm, dry or clean, or if children can't eat their meals properly in canteens or if they haven't the space to play properly and socialise with their friends, then they are not being educated in a proper atmosphere conducive to a proper education.
We are also dealing with the link between social disadvantage and educational underachievement, something that is very close to my heart.
other crucial area that we dealing with is around the question of the special educational needs of children with learning difficulties. We have a substantial number of children who suffer from dyslexia and dysphasia. Any society and its education system will be judged on how it deals with the weakest in society and I see my job as protecting the interests of the weakest in our society and providing an education system where equality rules.
AP: Do you see a lot of your efforts being directed towards working class children, given that private schools would be adequately funded?
MMcG: First of all, let me say that I see it as my responsibility to every single child no matter where they come from and to make sure they get a proper education. Whenever I took the post I made it clear that the foundation stones of the administration, from a Sinn Féin point of view, would be accessibility, choice, excellence and equality. I've been reminded by people - on plenty of occasions - that I should have included affordability. We will do what we can to ensure that there is proper funding and that whatever Targeting Social Need (TSN) programmes are put in place within the department, they are targeted at children whose backgrounds may restrict them from receiving a proper education.
yone who comes from a working class background knows that in housing executive houses where big families are being brought up, there may not be the space for children to get the quiet they need to study. It will take time to get to grips with these problems.
The years of neglect, the result of the Thatcher years and the Tory assault on public spending, meant that standards were in fact pushed down and in reality we can't forget about the history of unionist discrimination that have still to be addressed.
From a republican point of view, we still need to put on record that we want political and economic sovereignty, nor are we ignoring the role of the British government in our affairs. It is only when the Irish people, as a whole, are working together and free from outside interference, that we will be better able to address the neglect that has been the hallmark of British government policy in Ireland.
AP: What about changes to the curriculum in the present climate?
MMcG: In the changing world we live in, education needs to change, so obviously there needs to be constant reviews of the curriculum so we can stay ahead of the posse.
We also need to recognise that in a city like Belfast, which is losing its heavy industry, that we have to look at other strategies to secure children's future employment.
In Pittsburgh in the United States, where industry collapsed, the city's political and civil leaders moved away from traditional industry to an IT and educational approach and made the city a `city of learning'. The Belfast Educational and Library Board are now involved in a similar strategy to make Belfast a `city of learning'.
d we should remember that when we educate children, we are not just producing cogs for industry that there is more to education - that we should value pupils' development in drama, art and music.
Since I've been in the job and been visiting schools, I've been struck by the talent that is there. It is absolutely incredible; they are the most creative, imaginative and talented people in the world. So we need to make sure that education is as enjoyable as possible and that we encourage children to believe in themselves.
d given that we are coming out of 30 years of conflict, we should be using education to encourage a culture of human rights and equality.
AP: Returning to the curriculum, does it fit all the needs of pupils?
MMcG: There is a facility that allows schools to dis-apply the curriculum and to include subjects that fit the needs of students who might not be attracted to the normal subjects being taught. It is all about keeping children interested in education and making sure the system caters for the needs of everyone.
AP: Last week you visited a Travellers' education project in West Belfast to discuss the educational needs of Travellers. How focused are you on the condition of Travellers throughout Ireland?
MMcG: First, let me say that the situation with Travellers in Ireland is bigger than education and the provision of resources. We are engaging with Travellers' representatives and are trying to ensure that the Department is not found wanting in its responsibilities, but there is the bigger question of racism in our society. I have listened to the debate throughout Ireland over recent times and to the attitudes of some Irish people to refugees and I have to say I was ashamed, as were the vast number of Irish people, at the attitude adopted by some towards refugees. I thought, given our experience of emigration, it was particularly sad that a small number of Irish people took such a negative attitude.
So a key issue regarding Travellers is the need to accept that there is a racist attitude that needs to be challenged.
AP: There have been important developments around the promotion of Irish language education. Are you happy with that progress?
MMcG: Yes, I'm satisfied that within the department everyone accepts the need for equality in education and are very conscious of the department's responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to encourage and facilitate the teaching of Irish. But largely that is a battle that has been won and there have been big developments in Irish-medium education.
Comhairle na Gaelscoiliochta has been established and Iontas na Gaelscoileanna will soon be running alongside it to fund Irish-medium education.
Sinn Féin said that we were concerned to bring equality to education and that includes promoting Irish language education. One of the first things we did was to review the criteria which applied to Irish schools and indeed to integrated schools, criteria which actually prevented the development of these schools. So we've reduced the intake for these schools to 12 in rural areas and 15 in urban areas.
AP: You must have been saddened and disappointed at the DUP-led protests against you after you took on the Education job?
MMcG: Anybody who watched the antics of the DUP in the aftermath of the formation of the Executive will know there was a very determined and orchestrated attempt to use schoolchildren for political purposes to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions. I was aware that there would be an attempt by these people to focus on me but I was always confident that we would see off that challenge. We have done that. And the more the DUP got involved in the protests, the more they damaged themselves, and I think they realised that in the end.
The interesting thing at the minute is that apart from the fact that the work I'm involved in is going ahead, I am also meeting with people from the Controlled Sector who are progressive and concerned about the way things are being done and want to have an input into that. Also we have actually held meetings with some of the pupils who were involved in the protests initially and these were open discussions about all the issues involved. I think they cleared the air a lot.
AP: Where do you see the most progress having been made to date?
MMcG: I think the fact that we have a minister who is giving his full attention to the Department is the main thing, but the fact that we have established an all-Ireland approach to education and are making enormous strides in improving the educational opportunities for children throughout Ireland is immensely significant. Officials from both the Northern and Southern departments have gone about their task with tremendous enthusiasm and it is worth noting that they are tackling many issues of concern to pupils, parents and teachers.
Having said all that, I am, as an Irish republican, still focused on the fact that the people of this country would be better off working in a united Ireland without the interference of the British state. We are still struggling to achieve the goal of an independent and free Ireland where Irish people will have control of their own destiny.