SF plan 'declares war' on schools
Sinn Fein was today accused of "declaring war" on grammar schools after a confidential party paper obtained by the Belfast Telegraph revealed that it is considering bypassing the Assembly to introduce a controversial new school transfer system in place of the 11-plus.
The leaked Sinn Fein briefing paper was passed to this newspaper by Basil McCrea, education spokesman for the Ulster Unionist party, and outlines the possibility of new admissions criteria being issued to schools by Education Minister Caitriona Ruane in the form of 'guidance'.
This would not include academic selection as an option.
Any grammar school which ignores the guidelines and continues to select pupils based on their academic ability would have to finance their own entrance tests and any appeals which result from this.
Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said he would withdraw his department officials from a new process to plan for schools on a regional basis if the Executive does not quickly determine a joint position on education.
The Employment and Learning Minister said: "The Minister is just intending to do her own thing and I am not prepared to lend my name to a process which is drifting us into what I believe is a disastrous situation for the future of our schools."
Mr McCrea also warned today that the DUP proposal to limit access to grammar schools to only pupils who reach a high academic standard could reduce grammar school places by a third.
Sinn Fein has confirmed that the document - dated April 7, 2008 - was prepared by Assembly staff for a party meeting of elected councillors and Assembly members in Co Tyrone.
Party education spokesman Paul Butler said: "This is a briefing paper outlining the factual position relating to post-primary transfer at this time.
"It is no secret that the Minister Caitriona Ruane has sought to achieve the maximum consensus among stakeholders, educationalists and political parties on the way forward. She is currently concluding this process.
"When this happens the Minister will bring forward detailed proposals on the way forward
within the framework set out in her December statement to the Assembly."
Mr McCrea continued: "The Sinn Fein paper shows that the party intends to use the Department of Education's power with existing legislation to force schools to come into line."
The DUP's education spokesman Sammy Wilson said that Sinn Fein was " declaring war" on grammar schools.
"Schools will not be surprised that they have to pay for their own tests but it seems a bit odd to me that the Minister would consider abdicating responsibility for the transfer of one section of the school population to post-primary schools.
"As Reg Empey has indicated, two can play at this game," he said.
"The Minister could find others imposing sanctions on her if she goes down this road and that could include funding allocated for transfer being taken away from the department."
Mr Wilson added that it was his view that grammar school places would be reduced by a sixth under his party's proposals.
Up to 30 grammar schools are currently considering signing up to a common entrance test for pupils.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, from the grammar school group the Association for Quality Education, said: "We have already accepted that reality that the government was not going to pay for a private test.
"The only way out of this impasse may be to let people do their own thing - as long as schools wanting to retain academic selection can do so.
"This is an issue which could divide the Assembly so people are going to have to think constructively."
The Department of Education declined to comment on the Sinn Fein document or confirm if it had carried out any work on admissions criteria guidelines.