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Sinn Fein's O'Dowd says bright kids must rise to the top in Northern Ireland education system

Schools chief John O'Dowd today signalled a fresh approach to education as he declared "bright kids must be allowed to rise to the top".

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the Sinn Fein minister said he does not wish to stifle talent and wants a system of continued assessment and streaming to ensure gifted pupils are allowed to excel.

He said he wants to see a fully functional comprehensive schools system across Northern Ireland and rules out any return of the 11-plus.

While Mr O'Dowd stressed that he is simply reiterating existing Sinn Fein policy, critics of the reign of his predecessor Caitriona Ruane will take comfort from today's interview in that it clearly signals a change of tone over schools policy.

They will hope that a way can now be found to move out of the transfer test crisis which has seen children facing up to five unregulated exams.

Responding to questions that many parents saw Sinn Fein policy as a one-size-fits-all regardless of ability, Mr O'Dowd insisted that he had never been in favour of all-ability classes.

The minister said: "I'm not looking to stifle anyone's talents: if a young person is academically gifted, why would a minister of Government want to stifle their talents? That person is an asset to this society and an asset to this economy."

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The Sinn Fein man explained that the brightest pupils would be academically challenged through a process called streaming.

He said: "That currently happens, in all our schools young people are streamed. The difficulty we have with academic selection is that it has been used as a barrier to prevent young people accessing schools.

"The streaming of a young person once they get into a school is recognising the abilities of that young person, so the school can do everything within their power to build on those abilities.

"At no stage throughout this debate have we ever referred to all-ability classes. Not only does that disadvantage the child who at that moment in their growth is academically gifted, it also disadvantages the child who at that moment in their growth is not academically gifted." However, Mr O'Dowd stated that he wanted to again instil "the confidence of parents and educationalists in our education system".

He said: "I think we have to have an honest debate about comprehensive systems.

"Comprehensive is almost a bad word because of experiences in England.

"But we don't have to look to failing schools in England, we have examples of schools that are not serving the needs of young people here.

"When I talk about comprehensive, I talk about a system where young people go into their local school and the school assesses the needs and abilities of that young person on a regular basis."

Mr O'Dowd added: "If a school wants to refer to itself as a comprehensive, a college, an all-ability centre of excellence, whatever the terminology that school operates under, I am happy to work with that school."

The minister wants all pupils from 2013 to have access under the Entitlement Framework to a minimum of 27 subjects, including academic and vocational, to meet the individual needs of all children.

However, the constraints on budgets mean that pupils may not be able to access all their choices at one school.

Mr O'Dowd said: "Our budget dictates that area learning communities and sharing services will become vitally important and all that leads to our educational outcomes."

Although maintaining his opposition to academic selection at 11, Mr O'Dowd claimed he was not proposing to call time on the grammar sector and said he understood many parents' desire to ensure their child received the best education available.

"I understand the perception. I meet parents whose children have sat the tests, who want their children to go to grammar school.

"I understand why they do it, and that is to do with perception that the grammar school is a better school than the high school, senior school or comprehensive school across the road.

"Let's break that perception down and let's instil confidence in all parents.

"For your child to receive a first-rate education, it does not and should not have to go through five tests.

"That can be achieved within a collegiate of local schools and a suite of policies that have been put in place which will ensure that young people receive the education that they deserve."

He continued: "Parental choice dictates that we will have Irish-medium schools, that we will have the controlled and the maintained sector.

"In terms of what the future of grammar schools are, I am not looking to close down grammar schools.

"What I am saying to grammar schools is open up your doors to your local community and ensure that you are part of a wider education system, rather than sitting in isolation with an outdated entrance process.

"I think we have to get away from labelling all-ability schools as a lesser school than a grammar school.

"I have said on many occasions that the nameplate on a school does not tell me whether the school is a good school or not. I look at the leadership in the principal's office, the classroom, the young people, and that is what provides us with good schools.

"We need to plan our education system, and that includes the grammar sector. I want to work with the grammar sector, but I don't want to see a two or three or any other tier system.

"I want to see an equal system across the board where we have area planning, where we can look at our schools in a sustainable way, where we have a fair and level playing pitch for all our schools in terms of entrance.

"I have a significant responsibility in this to create confidence among parents that the education system before them offers a number of choices for young people and we have a wide range of policies to ensure that education improves year on year."

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