Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has come out fighting after being challenged about her controversial decisions on school buildings and transfer and a call from this newspaper for her to resign.
Following a lengthy eight- month review of planned capital building programmes across Northern Ireland, the minister has admitted that she won’t be able to build any new schools this year without extra money.
She has put in a bid for millions for pounds to the Assembly’s June monitoring round but it seems unlikely that much — if any — additional money will be available.
Sixty-nine schools have been waiting since October to hear if their new-builds and extensions will get the go-ahead from the Department of Education.
Speaking to Frank Mitchell on his U105 radio show yesterday, Ms Ruane said: “Unless I get funding from the Executive there will be no further schools built this year.
“We have to continue with our successful school-building programme and continue to spend any money we get.”
The minister was asked how many of the schools have been told they will get a new-build.
“Some schools are ready to go if money becomes available, some have minor issues to be dealt with and some have major issues,” she said.
“I cannot comment on the number because we are contacting schools and are in discussions with schools.”
She added that “a major issue” could involve now having to amalgamate with another school.
Despite 67 schools setting their own entrance exams this year and already planning for similar tests next year, the minister also insisted that “the 11-plus has gone and is not coming back”.
And she defended her party’s decision not to take part in weekly talks involving the four other main parties who are attempting to find an agreed way forward for the thorny school transfer issue.
“The place for discussion in the Assembly is the education committee and Sinn Fein is at the education committee,” the minister said.
“Because some parties did not get their way in the committee, they decided to set up another group.
“There is a myth in society that grammar schools are providing the best education but some schools in the secondary sector are doing tremendous work.
“Major questions need to be asked about why so many young people are being failed by a so-called world-class education system.”
The minister was also asked by Mr Mitchell about the call from the Belfast Telegraph last weekend for her to resign.
This was backed by politicians from the unionist parties, and Ms Ruane’s leadership was also strongly criticised by the SDLP and a union representing school leaders across Northern Ireland, although they did not go as far as calling on her to resign.
She claimed last Saturday that the resignation call was part of “a concerted and often personalised campaign” by the Telegraph against her.
Speaking yesterday, Ms Ruane said: “I do not make policy based on right wing newspapers or personal attacks against me.
“If some newspaper wants to attack me, that’s their prerogative.
“The Belfast Telegraph and the editor can do their job. I have a different view.
“I am not afraid to deal with the tough issues. I was elected on a mandate for change.
“I love my job and I am glad that I am Minister for Education.
“I am really proud of many of the decisions I have taken and I know I can make a significant difference.”