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1 October 2010

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Education in the North | Removing academic selection is an equality issue

BY John O’Dowd MLA
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education in the Assembly

Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane

ONE of the most quoted lines from the 1916 Proclamation states that republicans “will cherish all the children of the nation equally”. The Ireland we live in does not do that. As republicans, this presents us with one of our greatest challenges.
The education system in the North is a case in point. At the age of 11, a minority of schools insist on dividing children into two groups: those they consider to have potential and those they believe to have less or even none. These schools, ‘grammar schools’, select the children they want to teach and they reject the rest. Survival of the institution rather than education of children is the driving force.
The method used to select and reject children is known as ‘academic selection’ and is a throwback to a bygone era when the workforce was neatly divided into blue-collar and white-collar workers. It is a system abandoned long ago by most European countries, including Scotland, England and the rest of Ireland. In the North, however, successive British ministers ignored the need for change for fear of antagonising the local establishment.
Sinn Féin representatives, however, were elected to the Stormont Assembly on the clear understanding that they would target inequalities and social need to counter the disadvantages many children face. This is a responsibility we take very seriously and, despite the opposition of some unionist politicians, media commentators and others, Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane has begun the process of change.
State-sponsored testing is now gone and the Catholic bishops have declared that all Catholic schools must move away from the use of academic selection. The iceberg has started to melt.
At its core, the issue in the Northern education system is an equality issue. It is a civil rights issue.
Sinn Féin holds that it is wrong and unacceptable that any child’s education and life opportunities should be affected adversely by their socio-economic circumstances.
It is wrong and unacceptable for one group of well-resourced schools (grammar schools) be allowed to pick and choose the children they want to teach and to reject those they don’t.
It is wrong that 95% of the children from the middle-class Malone area but only 20% of those from working-class New Lodge are allowed through the gates of this group of publicly-funded schools.
Our responsibility, as the 1916 Proclamation says, is for all children, not just the most advantaged.
A system that perpetuates the gap in achievement between our most disadvantaged and our most affluent is clearly not cherishing all of the children equally.
A system that achieves for some pupils at the expense of others is not one we in Sinn Féin can tolerate.
Education in the North has been falling short in far too many cases so, when we took over that particular department, we had no choice but to move to end the old two-tier system.
Our party - along with teachers, parents and pupils - is building an education for the 21st century which embraces academic excellence, pastoral care and vocational skills for all. We are constructing a pupil-centred system which encourages and develops the learning and confidence of all pupils throughout their educational journey.
As republicans we have an obligation to not only bring about change but also to communicate the need for change. To do this effectively we need to understand the basis for and the nature of change. As with every other aspect of struggle, we need to be prepared to endure and overcome the onslaught of those who inevitably strive to defend the failed status quo.

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