Four of Northern Ireland’s main political parties are on the brink of agreeing a way to solve the long-running school transfer row in the hope of forcing the Executive to discuss it for the first time in nearly two-and-half years.
It is hoped the four-party talks which began in October— following the launch of the Belfast Telegraph’s Sit Down, Sort it Out campaign — will come up with a consensus by the end of this month or the beginning of June.
The parties — the SDLP, UUP, DUP and Alliance — will then watch with interest to see the response from Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane whose party has refused to take part in talks despite an open invitation.
They are intending to force a discussion on their agreed way forward, when it is published, at an Executive meeting — even though the matter has not been put before one in over two years.
The Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign launched a petition last September calling on Northern Ireland’s political leaders to sort out the school transfer crisis amid a long-running stalemate over the best replacement for the now abolished 11-Plus.
The major campaign urged the Executive to come to an agreement on the way forward in time for this year’s P6 pupils to transfer to post-primary schools in 2011.
Seven months after four parties began talks off the back of the campaign, the Belfast Telegraph has put five questions to each of the five main political parties on what progress was being made.
Trevor Lunn, Alliance Party education spokesman, said a “greater understanding of everyone’s point of view” had been reached.
“But we have not cracked the nut so far on an agreed transfer process,” he added.
However, as Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea pointed out, the question will then be how Sinn Fein reacts to any proposals brought forward. Any proposed solution is likely to have to go through the Executive.
In their replies, the SDLP, UUP, DUP and Alliance Party all criticise Sinn Fein for refusing to engage with the other parties on the issue.
The SDLP’s Dominic Bradley warned that academic selection “will not be ended by intransigence” and said Ms Ruane was now an obstacle to ending it.
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd said he hoped all schools will “move away from a system which has no proven educational benefit”.
Brendan Harron, from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, called for schools using their own entrance tests to instead follow Caitriona Ruane’s guidance.
“The grammar schools currently cater well for 40% of children but going all-ability would mean they could serve all children well,” he said.
“The current situation is definitely causing uncertainty for primary schools. They don’t know whether to prepare children for tests or not. The unregulated system is unfortunate but this is happening because some schools are persisting with elitist tests.”
Ms Ruane is strongly against academic selection and has warned grammar schools against using it as a key transfer criteria.
But many children moving schools in September were forced to sit a number of unregulated tests after many grammar schools decided to use academic selection against the minister’s wishes.