School principals today reacted with anger to a letter from Caitriona Ruane criticising them for speaking out publicly about their mounting frustration at the lack of information on her transfer plans.
The Education Minister penned the letter after reading the article in the Belfast Telegraph last month — however, she still has not written a letter which she promised in February she would send to all parents and teachers, “given the scaremongering in the media”.
Ms Ruane’s two-page document was sent to David McCartney (principal of Brooklands Primary in Dundonald), Geraldine Regan, (principal of St Columba's Primary School, Straw, Co Londonderry) and Wilma McMaster, (parent of a P6 pupil and chair of the board of governors at Fair Hill Primary in Kinallen, Co Down).
Ms Ruane wrote: “I was surprised, and a little disappointed, to read the comments relating to my proposals for changes to transfer arrangements attributed to you in the Belfast Telegraph.”
She said she has given numerous public statements on her proposals for new post-primary arrangements — which involve the phasing out of academic selection over three years.
The Minister also warned that if she does not receive the support needed for a legislative approach “then transfer in 2010 will be unregulated”.
She concluded: “I believe that by working together we can build an education system that helps you ensure our young people are able to meet the demands and challenges of a rapidly changing world.”
David McCartney, who was pictured with his P6 class on the front page of the Telegraph and confirmed then that he still plans to prepare his pupils for a test, said: “I was disgusted when I received the letter. I couldn't believe it. I am going to write back to the Minister and will ask if she is going to write to each of the children who appeared in the newspaper as well.
“What she wrote about her proposals in her letter just regurgitates what she has said before. However, they are just proposals and will not get through the Executive.
“We are still left in limbo and the bottom line is that we still do not know what is going to happen next year. It does not seem to get through to the Minister that we need years of advance notice to change the system. After the last article I had many calls of support from other schools agreeing that what we were saying about the confusion had to be said.”
Mrs McMaster said: “I was rather surprised in the middle of all this educational chaos that the Minister of Education had time to send me a letter.
“As an individual I was just giving my personal view in a democratic society. This view is shared by many parents of children at primary school.”
And Mrs Regan said: “I was more than surprised and a little disappointed to receive a letter from the minister in response to my comments.
“While I was grateful for the minister's clarification of the situation, I certainly did not appreciate the reprimanding tone of the letter.
“I attended a public meeting with Caitriona Ruane in Draperstown just a couple of weeks ago at which she tried to explain what was happening. I was none the wiser after this meeting and I cannot understand why the minister was not as clear in explaining her intentions that night as she is in this letter.
“The minister also seems to miss the point that I don't oppose what she is trying to do. I am not a fan of academic selection so that is not why I spoke out.
“I was merely trying to convey the widespread confusion and frustration among teachers, parents and children. I don't need to be reminded about the importance of helping children reach their fullest potential.”
Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea said: “These people were very brave to come forward and speak out. It is outrageous for any politician to say to the people that they cannot voice their opinion. If the Minister plans to force her proposals through, this will be a recipe for disaster.”
Ms Ruane wants grammar schools to select 50% of their pupils based on their academic ability in 2010, 30% for the intake in 2011 and 20% in 2012. In 2013 all admissions would be based on non-academic criteria. However, her ministerial colleagues refused to discuss this proposal during a heated executive meeting in May.
Last month the Minister announced she would “take action” against schools who skew their teaching away from the curriculum to help pupils prepare for an entrance exam being set by 30 grammar schools.
A Department of Education spokesman said the minister was seeking a legislative framework for her plans, “developed to bring much-needed reform to the post-primary system — but they are also compromise proposals that allow for time and transition”.