Belfast Telegraph

Viewpoint: Ruane facing her stiffest test yet

Sinn Fein's latest tactic for bypassing the Assembly executive and avoiding legislation to replace the 11-plus is to consider post-primary school admission guidelines that grammar schools would ignore at their own expense. If they retained academic selection, they would have to pay for their own tests and any appeals that would follow.

It is a suggestion that Education Minister Caitriona Ruane's party thinks will help her to abolish selection, after the last 11-plus examination this year, without needing cross-community support in the executive or the Assembly.

Nationalists broadly support abolition, while unionists are almost united in defending the right of grammar schools to set their own admission tests.

If that is her aim, because she has been unable to achieve consensus, she will find that it is not so easy to go against the wishes of parents who demand some form of selection. UUP leader Reg Empey is threatening to withdraw representatives from the area planning process, by which the Minister hopes to create a system of schools for the future which will accommodate the new transfer system, and many grammar schools may still opt for a common entrance test.

Her problem is the growing sense of crisis in the schools, caused by her abolition of selection without any set plan or timetable for its replacement. Parents, teachers and governors are worried by the lack of information and the fear that neither schools nor pupils will be properly prepared for the new regime.

The reaction of many of them is a determination to set their own selection tests, after the 11-plus ends.

Up to 30 grammar schools are working on a common entrance exam, and are unlikely to be deterred by the Minister's warning that they will have to finance it themselves, at an estimated cost of £55 per pupil.

The Sinn Fein paper suggests that the Minister means to proceed with admissions criteria guidelines that have no cross-community support. Even for Ms Ruane, that would be a confrontational approach, challenging the unionist parties to oppose her at every turn, and even risking a full-blown crisis within the power-sharing executive.

No-one is arguing for retention of the 11-plus, but everyone in the education system wants to know, in detail, what the new arrangements are to be from 2010, involving transfers at 11 and 14.

With so many interests involved in the planning, area by area, there is no confidence that agreements on amalgamations and closures can be reached in time to meet the Minister's ambitious schedule.

More time may be needed, if a chaotic start to the post-11-plus era is to be avoided.

Replacing academic selection was always going to be difficult £ and highly controversial in view of the enviable exam results of its best products.

The Minister, who speaks in ideological rather than practical terms, has yet to pass her stiffest test.


From Belfast Telegraph