| 11°C Belfast

Northern Ireland school transfer debate: ‘We’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about’

It could be argued that the first words uttered by John O’Dowd sum up his party’s attitude to the long-running school transfer debate.

So, where do we start John?” I asked the education spokesman at the beginning of our interview.

“Why Sinn Fein was right,” was the immediate response.

He wasn’t joking.

During our hour-long discussion in Sinn Fein’s advice centre in Lurgan he went on to criticise the role played by the 68 grammar schools setting entrance tests, the unionist parties, Executive ministers, the SDLP, the Association for Quality Education and also the weekly meetings attended by the four other main parties.

I asked if Sinn Fein accepts any responsibility for the unregulated tests running this year?

“Why?” was his immediate response. And he continued: “The people responsible for tests running are the boards of governors of the schools who decided they would sign up to a test.”

Even though they are legally entitled to do this, Mr O’Dowd — who attended Lismore Comprehensive — said that does not make it educationally and morally correct.

“This claim, or theory, or myth maybe, that you need something to replace the 11-plus, in my opinion does not stack up. There is a transfer position in place. The majority of our schools, even while the 11-plus was in place, didn’t use academic selection and transfer ran smoothly. The grammar school sector have, in my opinion, set themselves aside.

“They have decided that they will do whatever they want, when they want, and they hope that the politicians will either carry the can for any problems that arise or that certain politicians, in particular the unionist parties, will ride over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save the day for them.”

Could it not be argued that what he is accusing the grammar schools of doing is exactly what Sinn Fein has done? Gone off on their own, done what they wanted to do and expect everyone else to pick up the pieces.

He replied: “Well, what we have done is what the responsibility of politicians is about. We have made a decision. We were told that we were taking too long, that we were causing confusion and mayhem for parents, teachers and pupils.”

He said his party has ended state-sponsored academic selection and denied that we now have a worse transfer system in place.

“People talk in the media about confusion and mayhem. They need to bring me to the school where confusion and mayhem reigns because I don’t believe that school exists,” he said.

The Sinn Fein MLA feels pressure should be put on grammar schools “who refuse to budge an inch” from their position.

“I am not divorcing politicians’ responsibilities but I am not going to become involved in a process which is simply pointing the finger at the politicians, allowing the grammar school sector to remain unchanged, as it has done so for over 50 years, and allows politicians who support academic selection to continue to set the pace of educational reform.”

He agreed that an unregulated transfer system could be in place for 10 years.

“It could be. I believe that many schools in the Catholic sector are prepared to move. St Michael’s Grammar in Lurgan has announced that it is ending academic selection. So, it can happen.

“I am also aware of schools in the other sectors having frank discussions among themselves about what future direction they are going to take.”

When asked if we could end up with a horrendous Catholic/ Protestant split, he said: “It would be horrendous not simply because it’s a Catholic/Protestant split, but I think it would be horrendous because I don’t believe there is a need for any school to be doing it. But I’m not sure if I’m comfortable just boiling this down to a simple sectarian argument.”

Mr O’Dowd attended the presentation of the Belfast Telegraph’s Sit Down, Sort It Out petitions to the education committee at Stormont last month but said that he still felt the weekly talks taking place between the DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party were a “media stunt”.

“These people are Members of the Legislative Assembly, they are elected to make decisions.They are not elected to go into highly publicised talks, meet for an hour a week, come out and produce a document which is full of ifs, maybes and whatabouteries.”

The Sinn Fein MLA confirmed that there are no talks taking place between the DUP and Sinn Fein “at this time” on transfer.

“Our door is always open to any party to have discussions around any issue but I don’t want to present that Sinn Fein is up for a renegotiation around academic selection. Decisions have been made. Education has moved on.”

He went on to deny rumours that his party had considered him replacing Ms Ruane as minister.

“It was never discussed. There were several lines of attack on Sinn Fein in relation to transfer and one was to undermine Caitriona Ruane personally and politically. Caitriona is the Education Minister and will remain the Education Minister.

“Clearly we are disappointed about transfer. We would have preferred to have seen the minister’s proposals being adopted by the Executive but I believe that in a number of years’ time people will look back and say ‘what was the fuss about?’”

Ruane ‘personally insulted’

John O’Dowd claimed that Caitriona Ruane was “politically and personally insulted” at an Executive meeting two years ago when she attempted to bring forward proposals to phase out academic selection.

“She was politically and personally insulted at a level which shocked not only the politicians in the room, but the civil service observers in the room,” he claimed.

“Ministers bring ministerial proposals to an Executive to be discussed. All ministers do it and all ministers expect to be treated firstly with common courtesy and with some political maturity — all of which was absent from Caitriona Ruane’s proposals.

“They were dismissed out of hand and the commentary of some of the unionist politicians at it... I think they should hang their heads in shame after what they were involved in on that day.

“Just because parties do not like the proposals is irrelevant. Mature politics dictates that you discuss those proposals in a mature way.”

It is understood that the minister was unwilling to consider proposals from other parties at the meeting. “That is a different subject,” Mr O’Dowd claimed when asked to comment on this.

In response, Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said: “My view and the view of my colleagues is not unreasonable and is one that the Executive should itself be taking on this extremely important issue — rather than throwing it into the no man’s land created by the mutual deadlock between DUP and Sinn Fein.

“Framing a proper education policy means going beyond the vested interest of AQE or any other lobby, however how is this possible when no discussion has taken place?” And he added: “Why is our education system allowing so many children to advance through school without learning basic reading, writing and counting? Until this is addressed, then our education system will continue to fail many children.”

In October Sir Reg and Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie called for a single-item Executive meeting to be held. It still has not taken place.

Belfast Telegraph