Hearts and Minds: what education debate?

Top of tonight’s Hearts and Minds is a curious debate on proposals that the Education Minister Catriona Ruane has yet to disclose to the education committee, never mind make public. Basil McCrea was the politician who made public an internal Sinn Fein discussion paper which suggested that the Minister will several weeks after the ‘real deadline’). In truth the Minister is being forced to adopt sub optimal measures because without support in Executive or the Assembly, she cannot hope to get the legislation necessary of abolish selective education. It has been suggested to Slugger by one senior Sinn Fein source that the exam services currently being provided by CCEA could simply be withdrawn to force the hand of wavering grammars.

This would leave individual schools like the Catholic grammar Lumen Christi College in Derry to find sufficient resources within their budgets to run their own entrance examinations: budgets that the Education Minister could be minded to squeeze in order to prevent such re-deployment. The head teacher Pat O’Doherty was clear that his was a provisional move to fill the gap left by absence of legislation:

“The legal position is that academic selection will remain, subject to a vote by the Assembly, and obviously all the arrangements we have put out are interim arrangements in the expectation that there will be some form of academic selection accepted by the Department. If that is the case, obviously we will fall in line with whatever academic selection process they advise.”

Yet if such a move were construed as “discriminating against children”, as the Minister of Finance put it in back in February, budgetary constraints in turn might be applied to the department. Alternatively, it might be countered by a decision to move responsibility for CCEA away from Ms Ruane’s department, possibly to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

DUP sources say that a compromise could be hammered out, if Sinn Fein is prepared to deal. The Bain report has highlighted huge duplication and over resourcing in the schools sector, so there could be some amalgamations under a new regime. There are also a sub set of Northern Irish grammar schools that already accept mixed ability students, who might happily adjust to official comprehensive status.

But as Basil McCrea remarked tonight, the Minister, at the moment, only seems to have one plan: the abolition of all academic selection with pain, or without. Clearly, the Minister is planning to keep her opponents squarely in the dark right up to last minute. Without firm legislative proposals, her guidelines will lack teeth, and could lead to incoherent and untested reforms. Since the clock is ticking for the schools themselves, the next two to three months should see the issue climaxing and, hopefully, coming to some kind of conclusion.

Blame game anyone?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty