Viewpoint: Ruane silence allows confusion to reign
If Education Minister Catriona Ruane is refusing to panic about the replacement of the 11-plus, then she is one of the few who is not alarmed by the present impasse. Parents, pupils and teachers are demanding to know how popular grammar schools are to award places from 2010 if they have too many applicants and no means of assessing their ability.
The minister says she needs more time, but there are so many hurdles to be cleared - even after she makes her decision - that there may be no alternative to delaying the abolition of selection. Her department has been working on the problem ever since Martin McGuinness, the then minister, announced the ending of the 11-plus in 2002, but there is still no agreement, among educationists or politicians, on a replacement of academic selection.
Matters have come to a head with the proposal by the grammar school lobby group, Association for Quality Education, that 40 grammar schools could combine to set their own entrance examination, in the absence of the 11-plus. It would be another test of academic achievement, so that over-subscribed schools could make an informed choice between pupils, rather than relying on selection by postcode, which would otherwise be the norm.
While the minister, appointed in early May, consults with a wide range of conflicting opinions, inside and outside the school system, confusion reigns. Teaching unions are concerned that the new curriculum in schools cannot be taught alongside preparation for the 11-plus, and that retraining will be needed for the new regime. Meanwhile, parents who want the best schools for their children have no idea, yet, how they can qualify for them.
Most people agree that the 11-plus selection method is too blunt and inaccurate an instrument, and that, in an era when practical, as well as academic, skills are needed, schools should offer a wider range of subjects. Although the present selection system works well for the most able pupils, producing the best results in the UK and high levels of university entry, it leaves too many feeling excluded. Huge comprehensive schools, catering for all, are not the answer - as the Labour government's encouragement of specialist colleges suggests - but finding a middle way, without reducing the standard of our best grammar schools, has been elusive.
Even if Ms Ruane, still living in the Republic, comes up with a non-selective solution satisfactory to Sinn Fein and the SDLP, she faces a battle with the DUP, strong supporters of selection and opponents of the enormous cost of introducing a comprehensive-type system. It was always going to be difficult to convert idealistic schemes into practice - especially when 40,000 surplus places mean wholesale school closures - so extending the limited life of the 11-plus may be unavoidable.