A blow against educational inequality
A blow against educational inequality

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

On Tuesday December 4 minister for education Caitriona Ruane rose to her feet at 11.15am in the assembly. She told the members: “Next year will be the last year of the 11-plus.”

With those words she signalled her intention to end 60 years of educational inequality against 11-year-old children. She finally sat down again at 12.42pm.

In the intervening 87 minutes she was barracked, harassed and questioned some 40 times on her proposals -- the most ambitious educational plan within her present scope, given restrictions imposed by the British government’s decision to retain academic selection in the St Andrew’s Agreement as a concession to the DUP.

Under very difficult circumstances it was a bravura performance.

This was a sure-footed, confident minister, in command of her ministry and the detail needed to back up her argument to bring to an end academic selection and to replace it with a post-primary all-ability system.

The announcement was important but so too was the manner in which it was delivered and defended. Substance and style would be scrutinised for signs of coherency and fluency. Caitriona Ruane passed both tests impressively.

In the face of unionist belligerence the education minister was courteous and articulate.

This was Sinn Féin at its radical best; delivering on its promise of equality for all citizens while heralding the maximum degree of change for society.

If confirmation was needed that Sinn Féin was right to choose the education ministry to carry on the work of the previous education minister Martin McGuinness then Ruane’s announcement provided such evidence.

Martin McGuinness’s decision was decisive and bold. Ruane’s announcement was visionary.

The philosophy informing and underpinning the minister’s decision is based on equality, the need to address and redress disadvantage and respect for all children in primary and post-primary schools.

The education system is being opened up for the first time to ensure equality of access and equality of educational opportunity irrespective of class or creed.

Caitriona Ruane’s intention is to replace academic selection -- which she rightly described as a “life lottery” -- with academic excellence; to develop over the shortest period of time an educational system with, at its core, “Every school a good school” worthy of attendance.

Compare that with the outlook at the moment where only certain post-primary schools, usually grammar, receive such appreciation.

For decades, under British direct rule, education ministers talked about dealing with the 11-plus but lacked the nerve to follow through, to take on the challenge, to face down those with a vested interest in maintaining a two-tier culture that branded so many children failures at the age of 11.

Those vested interests will be implacable opponents of the minister’s intentions in the coming months as the plan to implement her announcement unfolds.

The unionist parties, some elements of the media and the pro-selection lobby will lead this backlash. Unionist motivation is in part driven by the arrogant assumption that they own the education system.

But it would be wrong to characterise the reaction to the minister’s announcement as neatly dividing between unionists and nationalists.

It was publicly welcomed by Betty Orr, head of the Shankill Road Principals Consortium, by the head of Ashfield Girls’ School, the head of Inst in Belfast, schools and colleges in Portadown among others. Some unionist MLAs privately support the proposed changes.

There is significant support from the teachers unions and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

Parents whose children are affected by these educational plans are understandably concerned about the precise transfer arrangements.

After 2008 there will be no more transfer test. Election at 14 will replace selection at 11 for secondary and grammar schools.

The transfer of children to post-primary school in September 2010 will be increasingly based on criteria such as family preference for certain schools, community interest and location, in much the same way as now.

Where to, career wise, after 14 will be influenced by a structured educational assessment of the previous three years involving the young person, teachers and parents.

Novelist Victor Hugo said: “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

For our times Caitriona Ruane spoke powerfully when she said: “Let the construction of a new education system now begin.”

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© 2007 Irish Republican News