Five questions parents want answered on the future of post-primary education in Northern Ireland
Alliance: Trevor Lunn
SDLP: Dominic Bradley
UUP: Basil McCrea
Sinn Fein: John O’Dowd
DUP: Mervyn Storey
Q Do you feel you have let parents, schools and children down by the| failure to reach political |consensus on a way forward for school transfer?
TREVOR LUNN (Alliance): Yes. I don’t think that the political process has fulfilled its purpose over the last 10 years when it comes to this issue.
DOMINIC BRADLEY (SDLP): No, far from it. We took the |initiative to approach the other parties for talks seeking consensus.
BASIL McCREA (UUP): Yes, I think all politicians in Northern Ireland bear some responsibility for the failure to reach consensus. The Ulster Unionist Party is firmly committed to grammar schools and a transfer procedure based on academic criteria. But we are also fully committed to working with others to find an acceptable solution. However, Caitriona Ruane and Sinn Fein have refused to engage at any level — this makes finding a solution very difficult.
JOHN O’DOWD (Sinn Fein): The continuation of an 11-plus examination would have been a greater let down to parents children and society. It is worth noting that thousands of parents chose not to put their children through unnecessary testing.
MERVYN STOREY (DUP): The DUP recognises the frustrations for pupils, parents and teachers, and has sought day in, day out to find a solution. In order to find consensus, though, there must be a willingness from parties to engage. Unfortunately, the Minister and her party |have run away from finding |consensus. The DUP has consistently sought discussions around the Executive table but Sinn Fein seek to avoid this.
Q What has been achieved during the weekly political talks on transfer?
TREVOR: We plan to merge the work done by the educator group with our work and hope to come up with a consensus view by the end of May or beginning of June. We have achieved a greater understanding of everyone’s point of view but we have not cracked the nut so far on an agreed transfer process. We have, however, all agreed that a department organised test should be used for two years to allow breathing space to reach agreement.
DOMINIC: All parties except Sinn Fein have now accepted the approach of establishing an educator-led panel, both to seek a time-limited compromise to end unregulated testing and to seek a stable long-term |consensus solution based on best educational practice.
BASIL: Despite the fact that there are clear differences of opinion between the parties and indeed the educationalists we are working with, we have a common purpose and determination to find a way forward — |I do not think this should be |underestimated.
Like any issue that provokes so many different opinions, consensus does not happen overnight. The question will be how Sinn Fein reacts to any proposals brought forward.
JOHN: It would appear that other than press opportunities for those who attended, very little. Their brief report was full of ‘what ifs’, ‘maybes’ and ‘we are not quite sure but we will ask someone’.
MERVYN: Although maybe not generating a great deal of media attention, meetings between the DUP, UUP, Alliance and SDLP have been taking place on a weekly basis. Meetings have been constructive and the four parties have agreed that a regulated selection test ought to be
provided until a longer-term |solution can be agreed. The group of education professionals was set up to advise the |parties on possible long-term solutions. This group also meets on a weekly basis.
Q What have you/your party done to push for focused Executive talks| on the issue?
TREVOR: We have pressed for the Executive to discuss education matters for the last two years but not having been a member of the Executive we were limited in what we could do. It does seem outrageous that there has not been a substantial discussion on any education matter for the last two years. That is absolutely incredible. This goes back to your first question. The political process has failed on this.
DOMINIC: Two years ago when Education Minister Caitriona Ruane got into a stand-off with the Executive over her short-lived compromise proposals, SDLP Development Minister Margaret Ritchie offered to |facilitate the creation of an Executive committee to consider her proposals and seek agreement. Minister Ruane rejected the offer, but ultimately a solution has got to go through the Executive one way or another.
BASIL: It is shameful that the Executive has not discussed the issue of transfer for nearly two and a half years.
Sir Reg Empey has repeatedly called on Sinn Fein and the DUP to sort it out but they have refused. We have called for an entire Executive meeting to be set aside to discuss the issue and for a Ministerial sub group to be set up. It is a direct reflection on the dysfunctionality of the DUP-Sinn Fein led Executive. I also think it was a big mistake by the DUP not to put the transfer issue on the table during the Hillsborough negotiations.
JOHN: In May 20008 the Education Minister presented a policy document to the Executive which the other parties refused to discuss. Since then, a new policy has been put in place — Transfer 2010 — which the vast majority of schools use.
MERVYN: The DUP has |consistently sought discussions around the Executive table, but Sinn Fein seek to avoid this. The legal position is 100% clear — academic selection has been preserved.
We have confidence in our position and are therefore willing at all times to enter into discussions to seek to find the optimal solution.
Q How long do you think unregulated transfer will continue to operate?
TREVOR: It is set to operate next year but I would hope that this will be the last year.
DOMINIC: It will not end of its own accord. We share the Minister’s objective of ending academic selection which is educationally unsound and socially unjust, but it will not be ended by intransigence. If the Minister abandons confrontation and returns to the path of compromise and consensus she will have our support.
BASIL: We have repeatedly called for an interim CCEA test to be introduced for up to two years. This would give parents, schools and teachers the certainty they need and it would give the politicians time to agree on a lasting solution. Again Sinn Fein has blocked this proposal. With such an intransigent Minister and such an ineptly-led Executive there are concerns that this situation could go on until the next Assembly election.
JOHN: The Catholic sector is moving away from academic selection, others have indicated that they wish to seek a pathway out of the system. I would hope all schools move away from a system which has no proven educational benefit.
MERVYN: Our goal is to deliver a single assessment under the auspices of the Department of Education. We cannot give a precise timeframe for this but clearly a new Minister in the post would offer up fresh opportunities. In the event that the Minister continues to stand in the way of progress, we want to ensure that the fall-back option is as attractive as possible. The DUP is keen to see a single test agreed. We want to see an academically robust single form of assessment, ultimately back under the auspices of the department, and we will continue to work to this end.
Q How do you think the situation can be resolved and what will you| do to make this happen?
TREVOR: We would hope to bring forward substantial proposals at the conclusion of the political talks. Sinn Fein has criticised our meetings but we have kept going and this is the only show in town. It is a long, hard road but a lot of people are trying very hard to produce a solution. Our educators group has worked extremely hard and their work will soon be released into the public domain.
DOMINIC: All parties except Sinn Fein are now seeking consensus, which is what broader society wants and is in fact the only way the problem will be resolved. The Minister has now become an obstacle to ending academic selection.
BASIL: There are genuine differences of opinion within Sinn Fein about Ruane’s performance and a General Election result can have a big impact on a party’s decision making. So I think the public has a vital role to play — I am confident that they will send Gerry Adams the right message on Thursday.
We also need better leadership from Peter Robinson; the First Minister has failed to tackle Sinn Fein on this issue. The UUP will continue to work hard to find a solution with anyone who genuinely wants to engage.
JOHN: Those minority of schools which use academic |selection should stop testing 10 and 11-year-old children, enter into partnership with the rest of the educational institutions around them and offer an education system which meets the needs of the pupil rather than the institution.
MERVYN: It is important to remember that education would have been in a much bigger mess without devolution.
Academic selection would have been banned and grammar schools destroyed. We will |continue working to deliver |our ultimate goal, seeking to build the broadest possible |support.