Caitriona Ruane came under fire from angry parents and teachers during a debate on future school transfer arrangements in the Sinn Fein heartland of west Belfast
The Education minister was criticised by parents of P6 pupils — whose children will be the first to transfer under the new system after the 11-plus is scrapped later this year — during last night’s event at St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road.
The panel discussion organised by the West Belfast Partnership Board was attended by more than 200 people and also featured grammar school spokesman Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, former secondary school principal Michelle Marken and Professor Tony Gallagher, head of the School of English at Queen’s University.
One P6 mother walked out of the hall during the discussion shouting at the minister: “You are failing our kids by the way. Just so you know.”
Another emotional parent said: “My son is not being traumatised by the transfer procedure. He is being traumatised by the lack of answers that we are getting. He asked me as I was leaving tonight: ‘Mummy will you ask am I going to be sitting the test?’ I just need a yes or no answer.”
A father of another P6 child said: “This is an absolute shambles. I feel such anger that I do not have a clue what is going to happen to my child next year.”
A teacher, also the parent of a nine-year-old, said: “This is more than a vacuum. It is a mess and chaos and I think what the Department of Education is doing is close to child abuse.”
The minister outlined her proposal to phase out academic selection over three years, but admitted that this needs cross-party support within the Assembly.
If no political agreement is reached she said non-academic admissions criteria would be set by schools’ board of governors but confirmed the education system would be unregulated.
“Unionists have sought to make it as difficult as possible to go down the Executive route,” Ms Ruane claimed. “In the absence of legislation I have to plan for all eventualities and that is what I am doing. We will manage the change and set fair admissions criteria for schools.
“If there is no political agreement, we will also manage enrolment numbers to make sure that secondary schools do not suffer the brunt of demographic decline. Your children will get a good education and a much better education than under the current system.”
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after the debate, one woman said: “I came with a group of P6 mothers and I expected answers but we didn’t get any. We are extremely frustrated and would have liked the minister to clearly answer our questions.
“Because of the current political vacuum there is no forum where this issue can be sorted out. They are using our children as pawns in a political battle between the two main political parties and children are the ones that are suffering.”
Sir Ken, who represents 30 grammars already working on establishing their own entrance tests, said: “The minister threatens us all the time with various legal sanctions but we are not complete fools and have taken very heavyweight legal advice.
“Unless the Executive and then the Assembly makes academic selection unlawful, it will remain lawful. There is no prospect of the consensual agreement in the Assembly that would be needed for this.
“We would prefer the politicians to hammer out an agreement. We are establishing a common entrance test only because of the vacuum in policy.”
Ms Marken, former principal of St Joseph’s College, said: “It is a fallacy that only grammar schools can provide a good education. It is also folklore that secondary schools are filled with unruly pupils and inferior teachers.”