The riddle of Northern Ireland’s education policy
By Paul Gosling
“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, was Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It equally well describes Northern Ireland’s post-primary education policy. An alternative choice of words could be ‘chaos, wrapped in a conflict, inside a mess, that represents a shambles’.
Confusion around how grammar and secondary schools will in future select children was heightened this month, just when it was expected to be eased. A meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive failed to agree proposals from Sinn Fein education minister Caitríona Ruane – and also refused the option of further meetings to resolve a deep-seated argument that is the biggest crisis the Executive has faced in its first year of resumed existence.
Northern Ireland is the only nation in the UK in which the 11 Plus is still systematically used to determine admissions to grammar schools. Academic selection is despised by Sinn Fein and strongly supported by the Democratic Unionists. Martin McGuinness, when education minister in 2002, controversially announced the abolition of the 11 Plus in the dying moments of the Northern Ireland Assembly before it was dissolved, avoiding consideration by the Executive or Assembly.
That decision was confirmed by direct rule ministers while Stormont was suspended – and used by then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain as an inducement for unionists to power share. Part of the St Andrews Agreement that led to Ian Paisley’s DUP going into government with Sinn Fein specified that it recognised that academic selection represents the status quo, requiring bi-community approval in the Assembly if it is to be abolished.
For the last 12 months, Ruane has been trying to find ways of replacing the 11 Plus – which is to take place for the last time this year to determine next year’s post-primary admissions. Grammar schools and unionists have grown increasingly impatient as the uncertainty continued about what would happen to academic schooling after the abolition.
Leaked internal Sinn Fein papers showed that Ruane considered using departmental orders to get the measure through the Assembly. But in an interview with Public Finance, finance minister (and soon to be first minister) Peter Robinson revealed that the Executive had effectively instructed Ruane that proposals must go to the Executive for approval before implementation.
But there is no sign that there are any grounds for a compromise that could lead to an Executive decision. The Northern Ireland schooling system is praised by many as leading to some of the best educational outcomes in Europe – for those who attend grammar schools. But school drop-out rates and levels of illteracy and innumeracy are among the worst in Europe for those who go secondary schools. While the DUP (and the Ulster Unionists) seek to protect the vocal grammar schools, Sinn Fein (and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, with the backing of Catholic bishops) argue that the 11 Plus is stressful, divisive and fails most children.
Matters have been made more complex still by the reality of 50,000 spare school places, which threatens the viability of many secondary schools – including some that are achieving good ‘value added’ results for the weakest pupils. There is also a recognised need – accepted by Sinn Fein and the DUP – to integrate schooling across the religious divide.
Amidst uncertainty, about 30 grammar schools (a mixture of state and state-funded ‘voluntary’ schools) have announced plans to set their own entrance exams from next year and have formed a company to administer the tests. One Catholic school – with the outspoken opposition of a bishop who is a trustee – says it will adopt its own intelligence-based test.
Ruane believed that she had found a compromise that would steer a solution through this quagmire. She proposed to the Executive a new test that would be adopted for three years, providing a limited intake to existing grammar schools. In 2010, under these proposals, up to 50% of admissions could be made by academic selection. The next year this would fall to 30%, in 2012 it would fall to 20% and then be eliminated altogether from 2013.
Non-academic selection criteria would be based on parental choice, proximity, family connections and a ‘tie-breaker’ fallback, with a possible duty on all schools to select a minimum number of children entitled to free school meals. The Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment (the examining body for Northern Ireland) has been instructed by Ruane to prepare an academic test, which she hoped all grammar schools would accept as part of the interim arrangements.
Alongside these reforms, Ruane wants to change the structure of post-primary schooling. This would involve more co-operation between schools and some children taking some lessons from different, specialist, schools. Key schooling choices would be made at age 14 under the minister’s plans, to fit GCSE preferences. Some children would move school at 14 and others would study academic lessons at one school and vocational training at another. Organisation of local post-primary schooling would operate through area-based planning, with poor quality school estate replaced under a £3bn modernisation programme. A new Education and Schools Authority would replace the regional board to provide sector leadership. But this whole package of reforms is now in limbo.
“This has been a difficult move for me to make as I maintain entirely my opposition to assessment-based transfer at 11,” said Ruane, before presenting her case to the Executive. “However, I have in sight a system which has moved beyond academic selection and I am prepared to work with colleagues to make the steps necessary to realise that vision.”
But ministerial colleagues rejected the proposals, with unionists not prepared to see an end to academic selection whether phased or not. Ian Paisley – who steps down as first minister in the next few days – said: “The DUP position is that academic selection must remain as part of the transfer procedure. Schools must have the right to select pupils on the basis of their academic ability. The minister for education’s proposals, as currently framed, are totally unacceptable and do not form a basis for moving forward.”
Paisley added, in terms less friendly than Northern Ireland has become used to: “The Education Minister can make any suggestion she wants to – however it will not come into force unless she has the support of the DUP and the endorsement of the Executive.”
The stalemate remains, without any obvious resolution. In the mean time, about half the grammar schools intend to proceed with their own entrance exams, which Ruane ominously refers to as “a prospect fraught with administrative and litigious perils”. What it comes down to is that education has been the Northern Ireland Executive’s most challenging test so far – and, like most children who sit the 11 Plus, they risk being marked as failures.