Entrenching or ending selective education?

Paul Butler, one of two Sinn Fein members of the Education Committee:

“This is a briefing paper outlining the factual position relating to post-primary transfer at this time. It is no secret that the Minister Caitriona Ruane has sought to achieve the maximum consensus among stakeholders, educationalists and political parties on the way forward. She is currently concluding this process. When this happens the Minister will bring forward detailed proposals on the way forward within the framework set out in her December statement to the Assembly.”

Hmmm, that would be why the Minister again refused to answer any questions relating to this particular ‘information gap’ in the Assembly today. She stonewalled a question from Mark Durkan asking her what she intended to do about the uncertainty in primary schools about new procedures for gaining entry into post primary schools, saying that primary schools had no other duty other than to deliver the new curriculum.

Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s point man on Education:

“Schools will not be surprised that they have to pay for their own tests but it seems a bit odd to me that the Minister would consider abdicating responsibility for the transfer of one section of the school population to post-primary schools.

“As Reg Empey has indicated, two can play at this game. The Minister could find others imposing sanctions on her if she goes down this road and that could include funding allocated for transfer being taken away from the department.”

Mr Wilson added that it was his view that grammar school places would be reduced by a sixth under his party’s proposals. Up to 30 grammar schools are currently considering signing up to a common entrance test for pupils.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, from the grammar school group the Association for Quality Education, said:

“We have already accepted that reality that the government was not going to pay for a private test. The only way out of this impasse may be to let people do their own thing – as long as schools wanting to retain academic selection can do so.”

The capacity for Grammars to do just that depends on the degree of coercion the Minister can bring to bare on them. In theory she can do almost anything within her department without reference to the Executive, short of legislation. Here she is proposing guidelines, rather than hard rules. It’s similar to the distinction between a deadline (enforceable by law), and a timetable (enforceable only by consent).

There are few ‘carrots’ available to a Minister with limited capital to invest, and struggling with fiscal pressures to make closures in schools where there are falling rolls. What ‘sticks’ there appear to be (potential legal action) are still indistinct. Interestingly the Catholic sector, in the lone shape of Lumen Christi College, has been the first to pre-emptively opt for selection. It may not be the last. Which is presumably why the Minister has warned them that they have opened “a prospect fraught with administrative and litigious perils.” However she does not specify what grounds on which she believes such appeals might be made.

She has also written to 40 feeder primary schools in the Derry area:

“…in which she told them to concentrate on delivering the revised curriculum. The Minister also told them that no post-primary school can oblige a primary school to prepare pupils for any particular feature of its admissions process.

For want of a parliamentary debate, it looks like this fight is (in the short term at least) to be fought through the school body, rather than in the wider Assembly or the Executive. Yet, short of a negative judgement in a courtroom, the minister may find that in the end, that’s the only place it can be satisfactorily settled. Without such a court judgement in her back pocket, there is little prospect of the minister fulfilling her own promise of ending selective education.

The DUP’s current ‘offer’ of ‘downsizing’ the Grammar sector, by beefing up the grades required for entry, will certainly make more pupils available for other schools: Wilson reckons it will probably force 1/6 of the grammars to seek non-selective status. But it is also likely to entrench selection even more deeply in the system.

Keep watching this space…

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