Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has caused fury after claiming that every school pupil in Northern Ireland should be given the opportunity to learn the Irish language.
In an outspoken interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the controversial minister also claimed that she wanted the local schools system brought closer together with that in the Republic — which would mean the scrapping of GCSE and A-level exams.
And in remarks that will anger thousands of parents whose children are caught up in the confusion of the unregulated testing system for entrance to secondary schools, Ms Ruane declared that “the debate on academic selection is now over”.
In 2009 the Belfast Telegraph launched its Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign which appealed for the Executive to put their differences aside to reach an agreed solution over transfer. This followed the decision to scrap the 11-plus without any agreed and regulated system of transferring between primary and secondary schools put in its place.
But far from showing any contrition over the uncertainty which surrounds the transfer process, Ms Ruane instead claimed that ending the 11-plus was her “proudest achievement”.
Ms Ruane also blamed the grammar system for the high level of Northern Ireland pupils leaving education without basic qualifications — remarks which are sure to poison the relationship between schools and the minister even further.
The minister told the Belfast Telegraph: “Well, first of all, the old system has gone and one of my proudest achievements is ending the 11-plus. The breakaway tests operated by the grammar schools should not be happening, they should not be doing those tests and they should not be placing barriers in front of children to prevent them from getting into their schools.
“What I would say to the schools is stop doing it. What I would say to the parents is tell the grammar schools that they should not be erecting barriers for their children to have to climb over.”
Ms Ruane also indicated that she would like to remain as Education Minister after the May election and set out some of her priorities in a new Assembly term.
She said: “I would like to see the option to learn Irish. I do think we are moving to a situation in our society where more young people from the Protestant community will be learning Irish.”
Some controlled schools, which mainly serve the Protestant community, already offer Irish as part of the curriculum.
She continued: “Obviously I would like our system harmonised across the island because I think there are benefits for us and we should remove all obstacles through mobility.
“Leaving Certificate pupils in the Republic study six core subjects for two years but have the option to take up to eight, with six counting towards university entrance.
“Junior Cert and GCSE are very similar, post Junior Cert and post GCSE we have big differences. When you start your Leaving Cert cycle this is where I think the Southern system is better than the system here in the North.”
Although Ms Ruane's reign as Education Minister has been controversial and provoked severe criticism at times, she has no regrets, makes no apologies and would relish the opportunity to continue in the post despite the major budgetary challenges facing education.
“I would love us (Sinn Fein) to choose Education again but that will be a discussion for our party and then among the various parties. I'd love to be (Education Minister) and I would love to continue the reforms in education,” she said.
One of her greatest achievements, she said, has been bringing “about one of the most progressive and radical reforms of education since the Partition of Ireland”, which included axing the 11-plus.
“The system I inherited when I came in here in May 2007 was a system designed for the 1940s. We have had to dismantle that system, it was passed its sell-by date, if ever it was the system that should have been in place, and that's basically what we did brick by brick. We have created a new system of education.
“The academic selection debate is over. The direction of travel is now moving towards a flexible, modern education system in terms of how our children transfer from primary to post primary, but even more importantly, how our children learn in post-primary.”
And she warned those who were continuing to resist the reforms that their efforts were pointless.
“Change has happened, it is happening and further change will happen,” she stated.
“The Catholic sector in its entirety is moving away from selection. In the Irish medium sector there is no selection and in the integrated sector, by and large, selection is not operating.”
However, the Education Minister has conceded that grammar schools in the controlled sector continue to ignore her decision |to scrap academic selection by |offering what she calls breakaway tests (AQE and GL) to determine admission.
She has also laid the blame for poor literacy and numeracy skills and the 9,588 teenagers in Northern Ireland who leave school every year without attaining five GCSEs at the door of grammar schools, who admit pupils based on academic selection.
She claimed: “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.”
Accepting no responsibility for the thousands of young people who are failed by the education system, Ms Ruane said: “I attribute it to the very unequal system we had in the past. Our curriculum was totally and utterly distorted by the 11-plus and one of the biggest successes of the last four years has been to bring in the revised curriculum and to support principals, teachers, unions who were opposed to the distortion of the curriculum.”
It is widely believed that Sinn Fein will not retain Education following the Assembly elections but Ms Ruane has no concerns about a new unionist minister overturning many of her decisions.
She said: “It will be very difficult for them to do that. First of all Sinn Fein will not be supporting the reintroduction of the 11-plus, and you need cross-community support in the Assembly to bring in regulations.”