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‘Naive’ Nesbitt learns harsh lesson on education debate

Ulster Unionist Strangford candidate Mike Nesbitt has stumbled into an education row after suggesting that all children in Northern Ireland should be able to attend an expensive fee-paying school.

The novice politician and former newsreader has been accused of naivety after he suggested that the solution to Northern Ireland’s education problems was to “build 100 more Campbell Colleges”.

Mr Nesbitt criticised Education Minister Caitriona Ruane’s decision to scrap the transfer exam in an interview with the Newtownards Chronicle.

“What we have at the moment is a Sinn Fein minister that is out to wreck the bit that works best, the grammar schools, which is producing people with the best qualifications.”

The former Victims’ Commissioner continued: “We all know that at the other end (secondary schools) we have far too many children leaving school with no qualifications at all — that is the bit that’s broken. Why don’t we go and fix that, instead of trying to destroy the bit that works?

“I send my children to Campbell College. It is a fee-paying school, but it is 100 acres, it has a swimming pool, it has 14 pitches, there is a drama theatre. The child can try everything and find out who they want to be, surely that is what we should do for our children?”

He added: “Caitriona Ruane wants to destroy Campbell College, because not everybody can get access to it, because it is fee-paying. I want to keep Campbell College and build another 100 - so everybody can have those opportunities.”

When asked how the Department of Education would afford his dream, Mr Nesbitt said: “Well that is the challenge. Why destroy the thing that works?”

Campbell College in east Belfast is one of the most expensive in the province and charges fees ranging from £2,090 to £6,000 per year for non-boarding pupils, and up to £8,175 a year for boarding pupils.

Minister Ruane responded: “Mr Nesbitt is fortunate that he is able to afford to pay for his children's education.

“For most, however, this is not an option.”

SDLP education spokesman Dominic Bradley described the fledgling politician’s comments as “patronising”.

Mr Bradley added: “We need all-ability schools which are fit for purpose for everyone and not just the leafy suburbs.”

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