A Sinn Fein MLA has broken ranks with her party and admitted the then Education Minister Martin McGuinness was wrong to axe the 11-plus without implementing a replacement.
Jennifer McCann said that it was wrong for then Education Minister Mr McGuinnness to abolish the test in 2002 without putting something in its place.
However, she insisted that this comment was not intended as a direct criticism of Mr McGuinness.
Speaking yesterday at a debate at St Dominic’s Grammar School in west Belfast, she said: “Whenever we set out to change the transfer system and do away with the 11-plus, I think maybe another system could have been put in place more quickly. I would accept some of the criticism of Sinn Fein on this as well.”
She was then pressed by the chairman, broadcaster Seamus McKee, to be specific on where she thought Sinn Fein had gone wrong.
“Was it wrong to do away with the 11-plus before there was an agreed system to replace it?” he asked
Ms McCann replied: “I would concede that when you take something away you should have something in its place. I concede that.”
It is believed to be the first time a Sinn Fein politician has broken ranks and publicly criticised the party’s handling of the school transfer system.
Ms McCann — who represents West Belfast — said that the issue of selection had become a political football in the Assembly. She restated her total opposition to selection at 11 but argued that the decision on how to replace had now to be removed from politics.
“We need to take this out of the political arena. We need to be saying very, very firmly that we need a system where pupils transfer, but that system has to be based on the equal opportunity for all pupils.”
Deputy chairman of the Assembly’s education committee Dominic Bradley of the SDLP said Ms McCann’s comments reveal a split in Sinn Fein over the issue of transfer.
“What Jennifer McCann has said is in total contradiction to what Caitriona Ruane has consistently said. She has consistently praised Martin McGuinness for ending the 11-plus without any reference to the fact that nothing had been formulated to replace it.
“Obviously there are huge contradictions within Sinn Fein on this issue. Perhaps they are beginning to come to the surface as public pressure mounts.”
When asked later by the Belfast Telegraph about her comments, Ms McCann did not deny making the remarks but said she had been misrepresented.
“Yes, we would have liked to see consensus amongst the political parties on moving this forward and Sinn Fein sought that,” she said.
“However, in the absence of such agreement, as the DUP and UUP both blocked this coming to the Executive on several occasions, the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane was not prepared to leave the issue of post primary transfer in limbo. All that I was doing was conceding that when you remove something you replace it. This was done. The Education Minister replaced this with Transfer 2010, which most schools are now using.”