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Education at the heart of parties’ future strategies

By Lindsay Fergus

Northern Ireland’s main political parties have vowed to put education at the heart of the Assembly during the next four years.

Alliance, DUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein and UUP have all made pledges to progress our education system in their 2011 Assembly manifestos.

That will be welcome news to parents, pupils, students, teachers and unions who have been frustrated by the lack of progress in education since 2007.

If the parties’ commitments on rationalisation, shared education, transfer, special educational needs and early years are true, then in the next term children will be at the centre of debate and political point-scoring out of the door.

But voters will of course be sceptical of the political parties’ claims after the Executive’s poor record of achievement in regard to education during the last four years.

While the manifestos address key issues there are few indications of how the parties plan to achieve their objectives or where the resources will come from to fund them, particularly in the current economic climate.

There are a number of striking features in the manifestos, not least in Sinn Fein’s, whose south Down candidate Caitriona Ruane is the outgoing Education Minister .

Having declared an interest in retaining the education portfolio, Sinn Fein devotes just half a page to education — the least of all the Executive parties.

It makes a few vague commitments on education listing objectives such as promoting its education reform programme, harmonising the two education systems on the island and promoting Irish medium education.

Sinn Fein also expresses its desire to build more new schools — ironically just weeks after the Education Minister reallocated £41m from the capital to resource budget — but gives no indication as to where the extra cash to do so will come from.

It also states it will cut back on bureaucracy — again no details in its manifesto where the cuts will come. However, Education Minister Ms Ruane did champion the Education Skills Authority (ESA), which was tipped to save £21m annually.

An education skills authority is about the only area where all the manifestos are in agreement.

Alliance says it will support the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority and will work to introduce the necessary legislation.

SDLP will seek to adopt legislation to establish the Education and Skills Authority while the UUP remains committed to a single Education and Skills Authority, though adds that it is committed to ensuring that the positions of transferor’s representatives are protected in any new authority. This was just one of the stumbling blocks the ESA has encountered during the last Assembly.

The DUP vows to rationalise immediately the five education boards into one, followed quickly by a single body subsuming the functions, assets and liabilities of education boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, Staff Commission and Youth Council. Like the UUP it also states that it will preserve the legislative entitlement of the Transferor Representatives’ Council to membership of the ownership body for controlled schools.

The Executive parties are in broad agreement about the controversial issue of tuition fees, which has seen fees soar at some universities in the rest of the UK to £9,000.

Sinn Fein and SDLP both pledge to totally oppose any increase to tuition fees while Alliance wants ‘no unfair rises’ and the DUP is against any rise ‘beyond the routine year-on-year inflationary uplifts’.

Not surprisingly, the only party to make no reference to tuition fees in its manifesto is the UUP.

Last month the UUP’s Department of Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy launched a consultation on higher education tuition fees and student finance arrangements, which could see fees here rise from the current £3,290.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in education — transfer — is also addressed by all the parties in their manifestos.

However, as in the past there is no consensus on the best way forward.

Both the DUP and UUP voice their commitment to academic selection and a single assessment for post-primary transfer.

Neither give any detail on their vision for that process of testing.

Alliance vaguely says “we believe that the system of unregulated transfer tests should not be allowed to continue; it places an unfair burden on both children and teachers”, while SDLP opts for transfer at 14 — but again no clues as to what that process would involve.

Sinn Fein makes no reference to transfer in its manifesto but it states “finally ended the 11-plus academic selection test, and now using parental preference and a pupil profile to inform parents of children transferring to all ability (11-18) post-primary education”.

There is evidence that perhaps the parties are ready for some grown-up conversation in relation to education — all make passing reference to the need for the sharing of resources.

Only Alliance and DUP are prepared to go one step forward stating the need for integration within our education system.

Alliance says: “We believe that moving forward integrated and mixed education must become the norm. We are committed to ensuring that 20% of our children are taught in integrated education and 40% in mixed education by 2020.” The DUP states the need “for a comprehensive long-term plan for the education sector including a roadmap to create a single education system”.

Other issues featured in the manifestos include early years and special educational needs.

All parties agree there must be a new policy on addressing special educational needs and that more resources must be spent on early years provision — again, no party explains how that will be funded.

As the saying goes “the devil’s in the detail”...

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