Testing times — 24,000 10-year-olds are studying hard without knowing what kind of exam or assessment awaits them next year
I don't think the Stormont Executive was ever invented to survive your education policy and it is worth asking the question: Can it? People are saying they are confused. They don't understand what you, as Education Minister, are doing. Primary school children don't know what will befall them next year. What kind of exam or assessment awaits them? How many of them will be admitted to grammar schools? And then there are the 11-year-olds of 2010 and 2011. What's their future?
This confusion could have been avoided if the 11-plus had been retained for another two or three transitional years. You are engaged in the complete meltdown and remoulding of the existing secondary school system. It is obvious that such a radical reform cannot be achieved overnight, if at all.
The other day, the parents of a little P6 girl asked me, as a journalist, if I knew what lay ahead for their daughter. None of us know, I replied, and that goes for the schools, the teachers and even those who supported the end of the 11-plus. Ironically, parents, teachers and children face even more imponderables when the 11-plus goes. My friend's P6 daughter is one of 24,000 10-year-olds. Of this figure, 16,000 would normally sit the 11-plus with the expectation that close on 50% would go to grammar school. But who will and who won't in the coming years is far from clear.
Having said that, let me acknowledge that I have no difficulty understanding where you are taking our education system. Anyone confused has only to log onto the Department of Education website. There they will find all your statements and commitments over the past year, emphasising your determination to reach your goal, irrespective of what the rest of us may say.
For all the huffing and puffing of your unionist opponents, I see not a hint of climb-down or any step-back. On the contrary, you are on the offensive, attacking grammar schools, which plan their own admission criteria and, more lately, threatening primary schools that might dare coach pupils taking such entrance tests.
You intend to sweep away forever any idea of academic selection. You want grammar and secondary schools to collaborate and combine like educational cooperatives within defined neighbourhoods and districts of Northern Ireland. You want pupils to be free to choose which school they can attend and what they can study, without recourse to their academic abilities or failings.
This is not simply a question of building a comprehensive school here or there. You are in the process of converting all our grammar and secondary schools into a huge province-wide totally comprehensive network. That would take us far beyond the very questionable experience of comprehensive schools in Great Britain and flies in the face of the high approval ratings which the existing Northern Ireland system attains.
The unionists at Stormont claim and assure us that they will thwart your plans, but how and when? As the minister in charge of education you are in the privileged position of directing the civil servants and officials in your department to pave your pathway to pan-comprehensive education. They are charged with taking your plans forward towards 2013 and you say you have teams working to that end. Your comments in recent months underline the deadlines to which these officials must adhere and the considerable steps you have already taken.
As your plans proceed behind the scenes virtually unhindered, who, if anyone, is going to draw you up short? Any reading of your speeches and comments suggests to me that the momentum for change is gathering pace to a point of no return. No matter what anyone says, you are forging ahead and so is the Department of Education. And the unionists' assurances that you will not get away with your plans may turn out to be worthless.
Of course, it can be argued that the unionists deserve all they get because they failed to recognise the importance of education. It was the Ulster Unionists who allowed Martin McGuinness to take on the education portfolio in the first Stormont Executive and the Democratic Unionists have afforded you the same post in the current one. They sold the pass and now they face the consequences even though your proposals have absolutely no consensus, perhaps even less than there was for abolishing the 11-plus. Surely there is no more important or fundamental political issue than the education of our children. Many parents might well argue that the row over justice and policing is not in the same league as the debate over the future schooling of around 120,000 children in our grammar and secondary schools
Where does that leave the Stormont Executive? We know what Caitriona Ruane wants and we know how single-minded and determined you are to achieve your "vision". But what of the collective will of the Stormont Executive? Where does it stand? Isn't it time, we knew?