10 July 2008 Edition
Caitríona Ruane implementing a new vision in education
IN the North, Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane is battling against elitist vested interests and a hostile media to transform the exam-based education system into a more equitable one where children are no longer effectively classed as failures at just 11 years old simply because they have not passed one exam, the 11-Plus.
IN THE FACE of fierce resistance to progress, Sinn Féin will persist in transforming education in the Six Counties into a quality system based on equal rights for all children, Education Minister Caitríona Ruane told An Phoblacht this week.
While the political and public debates have focused on the transfer from primary school and the abolition of academic selection, this is only one aspect of Sinn Féin’s broader reform agenda, Ruane says.
Sinn Féin’s aim is to replace a discriminatory system based on academic selection, which brands the majority of children failures at 11, with one that can deliver opportunities to every child through greater choices, more co-operation between schools, and area-based planning where all children will be helped to realise their full potential.
The need for fundamental change in the North’s education system is stark: each year, children at the age of 10 or 11 sit the 11-Plus test that will determine whether they will be accepted into a grammar school, with an academic focus, or attend a secondary school. This discrimination so early in life has a disastrous impact on disadvantaged and working-class communities: children on free school meals have less than half the chance of being accepted into a grammar school as other children.
While up to 40 per cent of students receive their education through the grammar system, there is a major problem of under-achievement in the broader system. The Education Minister points out:
“Every single year there are 4,000 young people leaving school after 12 years of compulsory education who do not have the appropriate basic literacy and numeracy skills.”
Each year, approximately 12,000 pupils (47 per cent) leave school without GCSEs in English and Maths. Ruane has branded this 60-year-old, two-tier system “education apartheid” and points out that leading educationalists around the world view academic selection as unnecessary. They are especially opposed to reducing the opportunities for pupils later in their education.
The Sinn Féin minister has also inherited serious structural problems in education.
Demographic decline has meant that there are currently 50,000 empty desks in classrooms, hitting the secondary sector disproportionately hard, where empty desks means these schools struggle for money, staff and to deliver the range of educational pathways our young people are entitled to. These problems make the current system unsustainable and make structural reform of education in the North unavoidable.
Since taking up her position as Education Minister in May last year, Ruane has explained Sinn Féin’s vision for transforming education and has embarked on a thorough consultation process with all stakeholders in the education sector so as to be able to reach specific reform proposals that have the broadest possible support.
The minister’s ambitious reform package aims to:–
• Abolish academic selection over a transitional period of three years;
• Replace selection at 11 with informed election or choice about their educational pathways by students at age 14 (in much the same way as young people choose their GCSEs now);
• Move towards area-based planning of sustainable schools where students will be accepted on community, geographical and family criteria;
• Expand the curriculum so students have more choice in subject selection (through the Entitlement Framework);
• Embark on a school-improvement campaign centred on literacy and numeracy.
These reforms will dramatically improve the quality of education for all children in the North. Caitríona Ruane says:
“For the first time, all children - not just some - will be helped to realise their full potential. In doing so, academic excellence must be kept in the system while ensuring that different pathways are kept open for all children at every possible point.”
Martin McGuinness first announced the end of the 11-Plus transfer test in 2002 in his capacity as Education Minister; Caitríona Ruane has been building on the work he began.
EVERY SCHOOL A GOOD SCHOOL
The Executive is now committed to investing £3 billion into a Schools Modernisation Programme over the next decade. The Department of Education also began introducing a revised curriculum in September 2007 which offers more subjects and choice to students.
The Entitlement Framework, which the Education Minister wants to have fully in place by 2013, aims to overcome the limitations many schools face in delivering educational choice. It will ensure that all young people have access to a much broader choice and educational options, delivered by collaborating schools, when it comes to making decisions at 14 (with entitlement to 24 choices or options from academic, vocational and professional courses) and again at 16 (with 27 options).
In June, Caitríona Ruane launched the Every School a Good School/Gach Scoil ina Scoil Mhaith programme, a strategy for literacy and numeracy improvement to be implemented in September.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
These reforms and proposals – in particular the abolition of the 11-Plus transfer test – have met deep opposition from unionist politicians, the Establishment media, and certain elitist grammar schools.
The Democratic Unionist Party has stated that it will prevent the passage of legislation in the Assembly that abolishes academic selection.
What is most frustrating is that while the outdated system of academic selection fails all children, it is particularly failing many children from a working-class unionist background. Far from providing a route map to academic achievement, recent figures highlight the reality that many unionist politicians seem happy to ignore.
Taking its cue from the unionist political classes as usual, the media in the Six Counties, which is dominated by many who went to grammar school, has engaged in an enthusiastic and sustained campaign of personal vilification of the Education Minister. Unfazed, Caitríona Ruane points out:
“Look at who controls the media and in whose interest the media works.”
As well as their ideological commitment to the elitist system of academic selection, unionist politicians seem to be particularly infuriated with a Sinn Féin woman leading change - especially one who insists on speaking in Irish so often in the Assembly! Ruane says these politicians “have chosen to personalise the debate, rather than positively engage on the need for reform”.
While the media attempts to portray Sinn Féin’s proposals as being unpopular and isolated, they are in fact supported by virtually the entire spectrum of professional opinion.
Speaking in the Assembly, Sinn Féin Education spokesperson John O’Dowd said:
“The list of people that are opposed to academic selection includes: the Association of Head Teachers; teachers’ trade unions; the vast majority of educationalists; the Catholic Church; some grammar schools, which have indicated that they are leaving the system; and the SDLP.”
Ruane highlights the fact that children from working-class unionist communities are among the worst-hit by the current discriminatory system and that unionist politicians should pay attention to what their constituents are saying.
She says she has the backing of teachers from the Shankill to Ballymena.
“What they are saying to me is that we don’t support you as Sinn Féin but we support your education policies and we don’t support the DUP education policies.”
The Education Department’s figures show that, in the current academic year, 40 per cent of those children in the North eligible to take the transfer test will be admitted to grammar schools. But the data for children educated in Protestant working-class areas shows: –
• In the Rathcoole area of Belfast, the figure is 15 per cent;
• In the Sandy Row area of the city, the figure is 14 per cent;
• In the Shankill area, the figure is 10 per cent;
• In the Kilcooley area of Bangor, the figure is NIL.
“I have said consistently to the politicians in the unionist parties that they need to look at disadvantage in their own areas,” Ruane says.
“They need to look at the impact of the selective system on areas of greatest need.”
In response to the Education Minister’s announcement that this year is the last time the 11-Plus will be sat in primary schools, a group of 30 grammar schools across the Six Counties have said they will establish a new entrance test independently of the Department of Education.
The ‘Association for Quality Education’ (AQE), led by the former head of the civil service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, has delivered information packs about the independent tests to every primary school in the North. All five teachers’ unions active in the Six Counties immediately instructed all members not to have anything to do with it.
After meeting with Caitríona Ruane in May, the five teachers’ unions condemned the AQE plans for an independent test, and also called on unionist politicians to “stop living in the past”.
Ruane explained in the Assembly that while the Department of Education is responsible for the delivery of the current 11-Plus transfer test, the Government asks “a dedicated, expert, independent, professional body to ensure that every aspect of its delivery is as watertight as it can be”.
She points out to those schools wishing to go down the AQE route that it is “fraught with administrative and litigious perils”.
So as to provide schools with time to adjust to the changes in admissions procedure, Ruane announced in May that there would be a transition period of three years where bilateral admissions could take place on a limited and declining basis. That means schools can apply to be allowed to select up to 50 per cent of their students on the basis of academic assessment in 2010, declining to 30 and then 20 per cent over the following two years before academic selection is completely eradicated in 2013.
A new test will be put in place by the Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment (CCEA) for this interim period but it will not disrupt the new revised curriculum being taught in primary schools. The minister stated: “It will not be sat in primary schools”.
She hopes that only a small minority of schools will apply to use academic selection through the interim period.
Despite the announcement of this transition period, the association of 30 grammar schools has stated its intention to continue with the independent test. Frank Bunting, Northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, slammed their decision on 12 June, saying:
“The possible introduction of entrance tests will have a very negative impact on the primary school curriculum. It will harm pupils and confuse parents.
“The Education Minister has already made proposals for a three-year period of testing for those schools seeking a transitional route to new non-academic selective arrangements... Opportunistically grafting onto these proposed CCEA-designed tests additional entrance tests is a nonsensical step too far by the rebels.”
Caitríona Ruane informed the Executive on 25 May that, to implement her proposals, she will “begin a robust legislative process, which will include public consultation and an Assembly vote”. Ending academic selection requires a cross-community vote in favour.
As it stands, the introduction of new admissions criteria requires a resolution on the future of academic selection. Without the necessary underpinning legislation, the transfer system would be unregulated by law. This would not safeguard academic selection, however. The current system operates according to specific legislation that will lapse in 2010 and through the Government’s provision of the transfer test.
Speaking to An Phoblacht this week, Education spokesperson O’Dowd explains:
“Sinn Féin intends to build on and expand the broad professional consensus and support from across all sections of the community for the abolition of academic selection. The challenge is for these broader forces to voice their support for change alongside Sinn Féin and show up the DUP’s and UUP’s opposition to change for being the isolated, elitist dogmatism it is.
“We also need those who support change to expose and challenge the media bias and complicity in fostering hostility to reforms and fear of change”.
FUNDING NOT ENOUGH
The latest tactic of the unionist politicians in the Assembly has been to try to counter-pose Sinn Féin’s reforms to increased funding for primary education. The DUP has said primary schools “need fewer initiatives and more core funding”.
O’Dowd tells An Phoblacht:
“This is a cynical attempt to blame Sinn Féin for the historical problems the Assembly and Executive have
“Sinn Féin is committed to reducing the discrepancy between funding for primary and post-primary pupils; it is something we have already begun addressing. We will also continue to campaign for more resources in general for education. But our vision extends far beyond gaining the necessary increased funding for schools, to reforms that get to the heart of the problems of inequality and under-achievement.”
SINN FÉIN VISION
At the centre of the Sinn Féin vision for education is equality. Ruane says:
“I’m going to end academic selection. It’s unnecessary and it is unjust.”
She said that for people to have confidence in the value of maintaining the institutions, the Assembly and Executive must be vehicles for delivering real social change, not frustrating it.
The minister says that Sinn Féin understands the vital role that education plays in society and how ambitious reforms in the system can help overcome the legacy of discrimination and inequality in the North of Ireland. Unionist politicians obviously also understand its strategic importance in advancing the equality agenda and social progress, hence their horror at the reforms.
Caitríona Ruane says:
“Sinn Féin chose the Education portfolio - and I am proud that it did. We chose that portfolio because we care about the education of our children. We are going to bring in a system in which every child gets the same chance.”