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22 October 2009 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

‘Gang of Four’ seek to thwart progress in education

Representatives of some of the parties – the Alliance, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP – a sort of  ‘gang of four’ met in Stormont this week to find what they describe as a ‘solution to the current educational chaos’. Translated this simply means how to reverse the decision by the Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane, to abolish academic selection and the infamous 11-plus.
The meeting of the gang of four is part of a campaign by a powerful lobby of vested interest groups in the North to retain academic selection by feeding a culture of fear and insecurity among both parents and children.
Long ago, before partition, Pádraig Pearse prophetically described the education system in Ireland as ‘the murder machine’. It is an apt description for the class-ridden, sectarian system that followed partition and which since its inception has declared 60% of the North’s children as failures.
Those who sat down in Stormont this week to undermine the Education Minister’s decision to abolish academic selection, were not interested in the efforts by Caitríona Ruane to reach a consensus that would enable replacing 60 years of academic selection with a transfer process that would guarantee equality of educational opportunity in all schools for all children. Nor were they interested in the £715 million capital investment she has directed to schools and the youth service, or the major works on over 100 hundred schools including those of special needs, or the investment in accommodation for the North West Regional campus.
Their agenda was simple – to undermine a minister who had the guts to accept the educational brief that they had declined.
What has been clear for some time is that the process of change envisaged by Caitríona Ruane, has been deadlocked by those who want to retain academic selection in the class interest of an elite minority from both communities whose reactionary politics have always supported the status quo in the North.
Anyone reading pro-unionist newspapers this week could be forgiven for thinking that the 11-plus was a success story for the educational achievement of children in the North especially in the Shankill Road, an area of West Belfast reputed to have the lowest pass rate in all the years of the 11-plus history. 
What Unionism and its media supporters, including the gang of four, appear to have forgotten is that all the teachers’ unions support the minister’s position. In addition, various reports since the decision to abolish the 11-plus, including Burns and Costello have recommended that no school should be permitted to use academic selection criteria for children’s admission to second level education.
There is no doubt that the abolition of the 11-plus has caused a rush of blood to the heads of some of the more powerful vested interests, the grammar school lobby led by the quaintly named Association for Quality Education who have been joined in their pursuit of ‘paradise lost’, by some of their Catholic counterparts.
Nowhere else in Europe is there a system of education that has perpetuated such inequality and division that many would argue has contributed in no small way to the conflict of the past 40 years.
To put it simply, the transfer system in place for the past 60 years has given up on generations of children, a scandal that the grammar school lobby refuses to concede.
In this respect there is no place for selfish values and individualism or the preferential treatment of the more affluent. Instead of wasting time trying to undermine the Minister, by maintaining the status quo, the gang of four should devote their energies to ensuring that all children are given the opportunity to achieve the academic excellence promised and promoted by Caitríona Ruane. 

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