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It’s top marks for smugness, but Caitriona Ruane fails on realism

By Lindy McDowell

With her mortarboard set at a jaunty angle and her gown billowing in the breeze, Caitriona Ruane graduates from the Assembly class of 2011 with a glowing report that talks up her “achievement” and her “success”. Impressive stuff.

Or it would be — but for the fact that Caitriona’s A* in Education is self-assessment, not an independent adjudication of performance.

Whether the teachers, parents and pupils caught up in the chaos she has visited upon the post-primary transfer system would score her quite so highly is another matter. Is she delusional or just in denial when she describes as “progressive” a system which now involves some children sitting more tests, teachers facing more pressure and parents facing even more confusion than ever before?

She says of the former transfer process: “We have had to dismantle that system and that's basically what we did brick by brick.

“We have created a new system of education.”

Er, no. It wasn’t exactly brick by brick.

What Caitriona did was drive the equivalent of a JCB full-tilt into the structure and then try to patch it up with a bit of plaster here, an ugly section of cladding over there.

It is eyesore educational architecture. And the wobbly transfer edifice is now all over the show.

She smugly asserts that the debate about selection is over and that opposition is both futile and pointless.

Yet it is not some small rump which continues to rebel, but a very large section of the schools in Northern Ireland — schools and teachers and parents and pupils whom she is there to serve. Not dictate to.

Bizarrely for an Education Minister, what comes across vehemently in this interview is that Ms Ruane appears to regard the grammar sector — and that includes all those teachers, all those educationalists and all those parents who support it — with such disrespect and contempt (not all the resistance to Ms Ruane’s “radical change” emanates from the state sector either).

She even blames them for the high numbers of children leaving school without qualifications.

“What they are going to do is contribute to the entrenchment of disadvantage and the number of young people who are leaving school without proper qualifications.

“They need to take responsibility. It is not good enough for them to sit by and say ‘we are doing well in our school' and watch while young people are failed by an outdated system.”

Surely it is our Education Minister who might “need to take responsibility” over poor numeracy, literary and GCSE attainment figures?

And how comforting for those who fear for the future of an education system already struggling with funding cuts to learn that Caitriona has an ambitious gameplan which includes alignment with the Republic’s system and “the right of every child to study Irish”.

Not that there is anything wrong with Irish (although Mandarin might perhaps be more useful. Or even a sound vocational training).

In an ideal (and infinitely resourced) world every child would have the right to study any subject.

But in the real, recession-hit world, Ms Ruane’s proposals just sound like petty, party political point-scoring.

Like an Education Minister focused on an upcoming election test.

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