A little more application of politics from the Minister would do it…

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 Craigavon’s 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 Ruane’s 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 Ireland’s 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.

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  • fair_deal

    When someone is right don’t argue.

  • In another life I was twice involved in the plotting planning of total school re-organisation in one or other London borough. Not on the scale of a six-counties job, but the issues and the interest-groups were remarkably parallel.

    Thanks, therefore, to Mick for bringing Newton Emerson’s fine piece out from behind a subscription wall.

    The political process should have been exactly what Emerson describes:

    1. poll the local educational “experts”: since many are driven by ambition and hopes of aggrandisement in a new structure, they’ll tell you what you want to hear;
    2. define the desired end (particularly important in a power-sharing executive);
    3. produce a “White Paper” that doesn’t quite spell that out in its full detail;
    4. take as many public soundings and “public consultation” as is necessary (a mail-in pro-forma is a great idea, particularly if the “tick-the-box” options are professionally constructed and susceptible to the Zimbabwean solution);
    5. express public concern, making trivial concessions which do not alter the main architecture (it particularly helps to “save” the odd school which will collapse shortly through poor admissions);
    6. impose what was agreed behind those closed doors in the first place.

    Start-to-finish, a few months. It is, of course, crucial not to give the forces-of-reaction time to organise.

    Sad but true, the present mess is the consequence of the caucus-race that was the d’Honte system of executive appointments.

    Meanwhile, don’t get too excited about the development of a “private” school system in NI. That could be £15,000 of fees per head per annum in anyone’s money. Many of the second-tier UK “private” Public Schools are filling their desks with Russian and Hong Kong Chinese new money: good for the short-term balance sheet; but less so for the league tables.

    Yep, I’m a cynical bastard.

  • Cynic

    I wonder what grade the Minister would get in GCSE Government and Politics?

  • nmc

    What I find most staggering is that SF seem to not realise that Ruane’s antics could cost them dearly. If she were operating in, for example, Westminster, she’d be in Gordon’s office and told to expect her P45 by return of post.

    The most infuriating thing about Ruane’s antics, as pointed out by Mr Emmerson, is her refusal to explain her actions/plans/performance to the committee charged with scrutinising her dept. SF I feel are locked into the idea that we are pavlovian voters who when faced with a polling sheet will automatically put an X in their box, regardless of our kids being locked in limbo, or indeed society degenerating into chaos around us.

    I hope, and believe that one of these days all our politicians will be held to account by the voters for their performance, and not given our votes solely on their constitutional stance.

  • DC

    “The political process should have been exactly what Emerson describes:

    1. poll the local educational “experts”: since many are driven by ambition and hopes of aggrandisement in a new structure, they’ll tell you what you want to hear;”

    Hold a referendum with educational options, something so vital is worth it, that would soon put-it-up-em to sort it out.

  • Shore Road Resident

    A referendum? Not likely and not necessary. This should all have been sorted out inside the Stormont system by now. Most ministers inheriting the kind of consensus that Ruane inherited at her appointment would have fallen down on their knees in thanks at their good fortune. Instead, her hectoring arrogance has turned a near-agreement into a total catastrophe in a matter of months.

  • Come on chaps, is this really about education or has this mess evolved because the northern administration has no democratic footings. This matter will probably be settled by the DUP and SF doing a deal that is totally divorced from education, for example standing the army council down.

    That is how they system works, as to Ms Raune being called into the Prime Ministers Office etc, yeh right on, the Shinners are going to allow one of their ministers to get a dressing down from Paisley or Robinson.

    If you agree to a mockney democracy, do not be surprised when you get mockney politics. As to people changing their vote come the next election, forget it, people are more likely to vote along sectarian lines today than at any since the statelets inception. Not only has the statelet been set in stone by the GFA but so has its sectarian politics.

    I wonder why we discuss politics as if the north was some sort of normal democracy, almost every decision that comes out of the assembly has had a sectarian input into it, why should education be any different, it never has in the past.

  • joeCanuck

    Another failing of our Frankenstein Monstormont. Inability to have a cabinet reshuffle.

  • willis

    “When Ms Ruane inherited the education portfolio a year ago”

    How so? Genuine question.

    Wily Barbie eased the Undertaker into the Health portfolio.

    Agriculture moved from SDLP to Sinn Fein.

    So how come Sinn Fein got Education again? Are the DUP just playing silly buggers?