As the application deadline closes for new entrance exams, Education Minister Caitriona Ruane answers questions from the Belfast Telegraph's online readers
Q: The point of removing the 11-plus was to reduce stress and labelled as failures on children. With the 11-plus gone and a quagmire in its place, have you reduced or increased stress and the pressure of being labelled a failure on young children?
Caitriona Ruane: Children have been labelled as failures over the years as a result of how they have performed in the 11-plus.
The use of the breakaway tests by some schools is perpetuating this process, which I am totally opposed to and it is a matter for those schools to answer for their actions in placing pressure on children and parents. Thankfully we are now moving forward with the publication of the Transfer 2010 Guidance for schools.
Q: I have been reading the various articles about this mess and have one question which I have not yet read an answer for. Can you tell me how in a democracy that one minister has the power to inflict a single will on the people of Northern Ireland? I just don’t understand how that can happen.
CR: As Minister of Education I have responsibility to reform the education system for the benefit of all children, irrespective of their community or family background.
I and my officials have had hundreds of meetings and met thousands of teachers and parents over the past 28 months. The vast majority of those people were opposed to the testing of 10-year-old children. The policies I am implementing reflect those views and will introduce equality to the core of our education system.
Q: Can Ms Ruane please explain how she intends to rescue the educational system within Northern Ireland after she has helped to plunge it into the chaos that is now unfolding in front of all of us. It is not acceptable in the 21st century to simply do away with the transfer test system, allow schools to be left to do their own thing and for her, as Education Minister, to play Pontius Pilate and wash her hands of the legal tsunami that will undoubtly follow. In her defence we cannot simply blame her alone for this unholy mess. Her colleagues within the Executive and indeed the wider Assembly must also bear the responsibility for creating this situation.
A dis-enfranchised parent
CR – I have repeatedly said that I wanted to legislate for my proposals and on two occasions tried to have them discussed at Executive meetings, but this was blocked by both unionist parties. That is why last February I published Transfer 2010 for consultation.
Over 3,000 responses to the consultation were received and the overwhelming majority of these were opposed to academic selection.
The final Transfer 2010 Guidance published in June sets out a clear path for schools to follow without subjecting children to entrance tests.
If schools follow the Transfer 2010 Guidance we can keep families together and keep communities together as children will not be travelling many miles to school. The vast majority of education systems around the world do not use any form of academic selection.
I do not accept your assertion that our education system is in a mess. We face challenges, however I have full confidence that our educationalists will continue to educate all our children in a stable and caring environment.
Earlier this year I welcomed the report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which recommended the abolition of the transfer test and the inclusion of all children in admission arrangements in post-primary schools.
Q: Why could you not have kept the 11-plus as it was until a satisfactory solution was found and everyone had agreed on the new system? Look at the mayhem this has created. My child has to sit both the GL and AQE exams. It is a disgrace.
CR: If schools follow the transfer 2010 guidance there is no need for any child to sit an entrance test. Towards the end of the last school year I held a number of meetings with several hundred primary principals. The vast majority voiced their opposition to any form of academic selection. The minority of schools setting tests to select and reject children are responsible for putting children through unnecessary testing.
Q: Why do secondary schools not get a mention in this debate? There are some very good all ability schools in Northern Ireland.
CR: Sections of the media have concentrated the debate on the grammar schools, presenting a false argument that only grammar schools are capable of offering an academic education. Across the north of Ireland we have many non-selective post primary schools producing excellent results across a range of academic and non academic areas.
They have shown how they can provide excellent education across a wide ability range without the use of entrance tests. I have always focussed on the very good work many of our secondary schools are doing in spite of the inequalities in the education system. I have recognised and applaud excellence in education and am working to make this available to every child and young person through a range of progressive reforms.
Q: Would you accept a compromise involving academic selection at age 14 when key decisions are already being made by young people?
Brian, Co Antrim
CR: I believe that 14 is a more appropriate age to decide upon educational pathways through discussion between teachers, parents, and the young person without having to use any form of selection.
Through the development of area based planning we can provide a schools estate to match the educational needs of the local community without thousands of children passing each other in buses every day, travelling many miles to get to school.
Q: Why don't you accept that no-one has any confidence in you and resign now?
CR: I have never shied away from difficult decisions. The debate around the 11-plus has gone on for over half a century. I have acted and removed it.
For too long the inequalities in our education system have been ignored and I was not prepared to let this continue. I will not be resigning and will continue with the task of modernising our education system.
The vast majority of educationalists are opposed to academic selection as are all the teacher unions. We have over 1,200 schools across the north of Ireland and we cannot let a small minority opposed to change block much needed reform.