Education: fair trade or Colombian?

The Education Minister’s unveiled her proposals to make educational transition at 14 rather than eleven (even as some English authorities are resiling from such arrangements) got her something of rough ride, not least from the DUP’s education spokesman, who nevertheless evinced a rye smile from the Minister herself with a reference to Colombian coffee. Never the less, the proposals seem long on words, but extremely short on detail. Indeed, there is not even a draft timetable for the reforms.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that those who advocate the retention of academic selection have a very narrow and elitist agenda that enables only a very few to succeed? [Interruption.]

It would be far better if those people advocated the promotion of academic excellence rather than academic selection. Does the Minister agree that rather than lowering standards, abolishing academic
selection would raise standards in our schools?

Ms Ruane: I agree. It is very important to find a way of matching our education system with children’s needs. At the moment, children must sit two one-hour tests at a very young age. As I said, I would prefer that children make their selection at 14. Our young people naturally make choices at that age; Members who have children will know that it is at that age that children decide whether to choose maths or science or which vocational courses they should take. There are some very innovative models and there is collaboration between schools. Rather than make a political football of the issue, people should work to create a system that best meets the needs of all our children so that no child is left feeling that they are a failure as a result of two
one-hour tests.

Mr B McCrea: Northern Ireland has the best education system in the world, and it does not need to be broken by people who do not know what they are talking about.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr B McCrea: Does the Minister agree with CCEA that 31 January 2008 is absolutely the last date by which a decision can be made on a transfer test or alternatives to it? Will the Minister say whether she intends to bring proposals to the House before that date, or will she simply let the clock run out so that there can be no discussion on the matter?

Ms Ruane: I am very disappointed by Basil McCrea’s remarks. I wish that he had been with me the other day in Coleraine or three weeks ago on the Shankill Road; I wish that he had been with me when I met principals in north Belfast or when I was in Mount Vernon. People need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Mr S Wilson: Is that Colombian coffee?

Ms Ruane: It is fair-trade coffee.

Basil knows that we fail 4,000 of our young people every year and that they leave school with poor qualif­ications, poor literacy and poor numeracy skills. What chance do they have? If we have such a
world-class education system, why do we fail so many young people? We need to create an education system that provides every child with a fair opportunity. I will do that.

Some Members: When?

Hmmm… ‘Basil’: isn’t there a protocol for speaking through the Ceann Comhairle Speaker?

This contentious issue is unlikely to garner support even within the ruling Executive cartel of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Unionists simply will not accept that selection should come down to parental choice alone. Such a move would go far beyond the scrapping of the unpopular (and creakingly ancient) 11+ exam, and finally put an end to Northern Ireland’s Grammar School system.

Although this legislation has been tipped in some quarters as a candidate for horse trading on a possible Irish Language Act. Neither is currently in an acceptable state to buy the other team’s approval.

So, Colombian stand off or ‘fair trade’ deal anyone?