Newton Emerson argues that a little more of the art of politics from Education Minister Catriona Ruane could crack the impasse over selection that has often served to obliterate from pubilc view some of the more subtle aspects of the on-the-ground reality in schools. He suggests decisiveness first, then consultation and engagement after.
When Ms Ruane inherited the education portfolio a year ago there was universal agreement on abolishing the 11-plus and only technical disagreement over what should replace it. The Catholic sector had already spent five years preparing for a more comprehensive system and the integrated and Irish sectors already operated one. A grammar school lobby had emerged but it was merely honing its arguments for a negotiated compromise.
Rapidly falling pupil numbers were undermining grammar schools in any case while offering unprecedented and relatively painless restructuring opportunities.
There was also growing interest in Craigavons comprehensive system, with transfer at 14, which looked very similar to the model Ms Ruane subsequently hinted at for everywhere else. The popularity of this system among unionists in north Armagh had not gone unnoticed by the DUP. In short, there was every scope for a sensible settlement which would have given Ms Ruane cross-community backing for almost everything she wanted.
Instead, the minister made a sacred totem out of abolishing all forms of academic selection. There was no need to do this when academic selection at 14 can be largely consensual and academic selection for further education at 16 or 18 is not even an issue. But Ms Ruane stuck to her unnecessary absolutism and as a result, one year on, we have a minister and a committee that are barely on speaking terms, a grammar school sector planning to set up its own entrance exam and a department in meltdown for want of even basic decisions.
This is a spectacular political disaster and there is no end in sight. The minister will not explain how her new transfer system works although the pupil profiles it is based on have been officially under development for four years. She will not tell schools how to prepare for the new system although she does insist that they deliver the curriculum. Her policy on delivering the curriculum, known as area-based planning, raises more questions than it answers and Ms Ruane will not answer them. So other answers are now filling the vacuum, posing a serious risk of further fragmentation just when more rationalisation is required. The latest DUP proposal for fewer grammar schools with tougher entrance tests is the ideological opposite of Ms Ruanes position yet her position is so confused that the DUP is seriously offering this to her as a deal. For the first time in Northern Irelands history a significant private school sector is a serious possibility.
Disaster could still be avoided by a little decisiveness, such as that shown by Martin McGuinness when he abolished the 11-plus in the first place, followed by a willingness to engage, such as that supposedly advocated by Sinn Fein at every turn.
Instead, he argues, she’s gone something close to what one Slugger commenter called a ‘barrack-busting’ strategy which has immersed both herself and her DUP opposite number in a stand off which only looks to have the capacity to create chaos, rather than the orderly and rationale solution that presumably most parents (and politicians) are looking for. In the end it comes down to one thing he argues:
There is nothing inherently wrong with a confrontational approach but it does require something to confront your opponents with. It is sobering to think how different things might be today if David Trimble had ever learnt the fine art of schmoozing. It may be time for Sinn Fein to soberly assess how different things might be today if Caitriona Ruane had ever learnt the fine art of politics.
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