Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Dear Caitriona, do you have to be so dismissive of anyone who disagrees?

The clock ticks on and still we wait. No 11-plus and little or no idea from you as to what will take its place. Just to remind readers, this is the peg upon which you have hung your hat ...

"I repeat that no amount of shouting, sniping, bully tactics will stop the progressive reform process that is under way and moving forward. I will not be swayed, because I am not prepared to fail our children.

"Pupils transferring to post-primary school in September 2010 will do so overwhelmingly on the basis of their preferences for schools — in much the same way that they choose their primary schools and pre-schools now. From 2010 the criteria will include: Community, Geographical and Family criteria."

Regrettably, the issue of what replaces the 11-plus has now exploded into a deeply divisive debate. Divisive enough to threaten possibly the very stability of the new Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

As rancour and dissension have grown, so this has become a much greater concern than simply educational reform. It has the potential to strike at the heart of the new political system at Stormont. Can it survive the unapologetic, unbending fundamentalism of Caitriona Ruane on this vital issue for the future of every child in Northern Ireland?

Why do I say that? Because it has become increasingly evident that like Margaret Thatcher (admittedly a cruelly ironic comparison for any Sinn Fein minister to accept), this lady is not for turning. Like Mrs Thatcher, seeing off the trade unions — or even confronting the hunger-strikers — you show no sign of compromise, no willingness to turn back, no admission that, even after months of talking, you have not achieved the necessary agreement.

In response to the media's inquiries about what you are doing, you keep saying you are "consulting all the stakeholders". This sounds a rather cosy and amicable process, but the longer the 'consultation' drags on, the more bitter it has become.

As far back as last November I recall questioning your ability in this column to carry through such a purist, doctrinaire policy in such a short time span. Too much to grasp? In too short a time? At too great a price?

The debate has taken a turn for the worse since then. Now, you are abrasive and increasingly dismissive of anyone who challenges your vision. Schools which have served this community superbly, some for hundreds of years, are accused of "elitism" and told to wise up. I have to steel myself as I hear a Northern Ireland minister of education attacking schools whose pupils over many generations have done so much to build this society and continue to do so.

The tone of your rebuff to the Lumen Christi College in Derry, followed by a terse one paragraph dismissal of the rebel grammar schools last week, betrays little or no room for compromise. So, the mood hardens and the prospects for any education or political consensus looks remote.

Perhaps, at the outset, there was a feeling that Caitriona Ruane might bend a little or that even your colleagues in Sinn Fein might temper your enthusiasm for such drastic change.

On the contrary, I get the sense that you are not on your own. That this is as much a Sinn Fein cause celebre as it is your personal crusade.

Some people engage in wishful thinking and suggest to me that your party will ditch you in due course if you cannot resolve the arguments. I think otherwise for I can see no public evidence of any dissension among the Sinn Fein hierarchy.

So that brings me back to the challenge facing the entire political system over your stewardship of education.

Just as your predecessor Martin McGuinness shook the Trimble-led Executive with his unilateral decision to abolish the 11-plus, so you are now doing likewise to the Paisley/Robinson-led Executive of today.

If the arguments are not resolved, then where does that leave the other parties to your Stormont coalition? Can it really have credibility if it cannot even reach agreement on the education of our children?

The grammar school lobby may only represent a minority of secondary schooling but it still accounts for a hugely influential section of this community. Without doubt, it punches far above its weight.

That is down to the obvious fact that the products of the grammar school system hold positions of responsibility and respect throughout our society. They inhabit the corridors of power in virtually every discipline.

Wherever you look around you, Caitriona, you will see these people. They retain a great sense of pride and gratitude for the grounding in life given by the schools they attended. And when you attack the ethos of those schools, you indirectly insult them as well.

This significant section of society see a minister of education from a party that has never had much, if any time for them. That considers they are an elitist bunch from elitist schools. Not to put too fine a tooth on it, in dismantling the two-tier education system, Sinn Fein may even believe another obstacle has been removed towards its goal of a socialist Ireland.

You, Caitriona, are the means of achieving that goal. Having said that, I think you deserved credit for proposing that 14 is a more mature and appropriate age to decide on future schooling. But had you accepted that some form of selection was necessary still at that age, then we might not be having the acrimonious debate of today.

Support for change should not be taken as acceptance of wholesale dismantling of the existing system.

What is evident is that change which threatens the excellence of our grammar schools is not acceptable to a large section of this community.

Life, itself, never mind, school days, is about selection and assessment at all stages. It lies at the heart of our Western culture and it begins in the classroom and continues thereafter into adulthood and virtually any pursuit we follow.

As a boy, I attended, heaven forbid, one of your rebel grammar schools. I passed the iniquitous 11-plus and when I arrived in Form 1, I found there were other boys in my year who had come through the back door of the preparatory school, as was the tradition in those distant days. Even with my 11-plus, I found it hard enough to keep up with the pace of grammar school teaching. I recall many of the prep boys just couldn't. They fell behind swiftly and they didn't come from areas of deprivation or social neglect.

So, now I ask myself how much worse is your plan to lump everyone together, from the brainy to the brainless, in the same school? It doesn't work.

Why do you say all the educationalists are with you, when they are clearly not?

Teaching without some method of differentiating between pupils will not work.

But will you listen rather than 'consult'. I think not.

Yours, Ed

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