Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Assembly schools debates bring insults, not results

Political Correspondent Noel McAdam examines how the structures at Stormont have dealt with the tangled transfer tussle

Assembly debates on the vexed schools transfer debacle have tended to generate more heat than light.

Exchanges on the floor have produced insults rather than results. Were a principal present some MLAs would undoubtedly be in detention.

At one stage, for example, Gerry Adams referred the DUP chair of the education committee Mervyn Storey to the Speaker for calling out ‘Mein Kampf’ — the historic tome by Hitler — when Education Minister Caitriona Ruane was speaking.

Not to be outdone Ulster Unionist Assembly deputy Danny Kennedy nick-named Ms Ruane the “Minister for Mediocrity”. But while it has repeatedly reached the floor of the chamber since devolution was restored two and a half years ago, there has been no full discussion of the issue on the Executive and compromise at all levels of the devolved administration has proved impossible.

The Assembly last flared up over the transfer dilemma almost six months ago — and there has been virtual silence since.

Parties combined on an Alliance initiative on March 24 to attempt to circumvent the growing inevitability of an unregulated system — without success.

But the Education Minister insisted her plan to end academic selection to provide a fairer education for all pupils was the only show in town.

The last full-scale showpiece showdown came after weeks of behind-the-scenes work on the Assembly’s education scrutiny committee, however, with a key session just a few weeks earlier on March 10.

Members voiced the concerns of parents of primary six children as well as key education organisations and argued there is a broad consensus that an unregulated transfer system is the least desirable outcome and the committee’s proposal that the minister allow the CCEA test to be used on an interim basis pending political agreement on arrangements for post-primary transfer.

But Ms Ruane said she was disappointed that the committee has failed to reach a consensus and accused chairman Storey of attempting to misrepresent its position.

In the debate which then followed a fortnight later, she argued: “The motion is yet another attempt to block or slow the process of change that I have set in motion.

“That process is designed to provide a first-class education for all of our children.

“The system that the proposers of the motion wish to keep in place was a failed one, and I have already made it clear that the status quo is not an option.”

And she repeated her statement to the committee that the 11-plus the year earlier would be the last.

Nonetheless the final motion set out: “Schools may choose to use an examination as part of their entry criteria under the Minister of Education’s 2010 guidelines; calls on the Minister of Education to re-commission the CCEA test she abandoned on February 2 2009, that schools may then use for a maximum of two years; and calls on the Executive to agree new, legally binding guidelines for post primary transfer for use from 2011.”

Four months earlier, in November last year, an Ulster Unionist motion called on the Minister to end the uncertainty by continuing with the existing post-primary transfer test until a replacement is designed and piloted by CCEA. An SDLP amendment demanding the issue be dealt with the Executive was defeated.

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