8 June 2006 Edition

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Defending progress in Education

With those in favour of academic selection in the Six Counties upping the ante, Sinn Féin education spokesperson, Michael Ferguson, has sought to defend the process of change initiated by Martin McGuinness.

The pro-11+ campaign, pioneered by Robert McCartney of the miniscule United Kingdom Unionist Party, has moved up a gear in recent weeks receiving generous amounts of publicity in sections of the Belfast-based media.

The 11+ exam, which determines the academic future of children at primary school age, was officially scrapped by Martin McGuinness during his time as Education Minister in the Six-County Executive and the British government has pledged that this process will be completed by July of this year. Ferguson, who is also an Assembly Member for west Belfast, is determined to ensure that this is the case. "Martin McGuinness began a process to bring about a system of educational reform that would promote and celebrate all intelligences with a view to increasing educational opportunities for all children and young people and to deliver quality education through equality of access', he says.

"There is a very small but vocal middle class lobby that cuts across the traditional fault lines who are defending academic selection in order to maintain a system of educational apartheid that supports a minority to the disadvantage of the majority and amongst this lobby are the two main unionist parties, particularly the DUP, who are completely disregarding the interests of their working-class constituents", says Ferguson.

The West Belfast Assembly Member says the arguments of the pro-selection lobby are based on the distortion of reality. "Those who are opposed to the new education order are afraid of change. They argue that the 11+ has given us the best education system in the world, that it helps children from low income families escape from poverty and that it is the best route to university and a good job- none of this is true.

"The 11+ is nothing more than a route to grammar schools, which only serve eight per cent of working-class children. Over 50% of the University of Ulster's students come from a variety of learning routes to university other than with A Levels and through grammar schools. Our education system performs less well than the world's best such as Finland, Canada and New Zealand, all of whom have non-selective systems. Indeed, the Six Counties has a system in which the gap between the highest and lowest achievers is falling amongst the worst in the world", says Ferguson.

While the restoration of the power-sharing institutions and increasing all-Ireland co-operation has the potential to further improve the education system, Ferguson points out the correlation of interests between British Ministers and the pro-selection lobby. "The biggest threat to the educational entitlements of our children and young people are those who would increase the social segregation of our children and British Direct Rule ministers who are eroding our children's rights before our very eyes. The pro-11+ campaign want to maintain class privilege in our education system and the British government are prepared to facilitate this through their cuts that will ensure only those who can afford a decent education will get a decent education."

An Phoblacht
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