Admit all the other end of year analyses I noticed this one by BBC Northern Ireland’s Education correspondent Maggie Taggart. Meanwhile Henry McDonald in the Guardian has suggested that education will become the major political struggle of the next few months.
Martin McGuinness has defended Ruane stating “The predominant view of this has to be the view of the minister. Caitriona Ruane is entitled to be respected, just as we must respect other ministers. I think there has been a very vicious campaign mounted against her by the old establishment.” However, he did seem to offer some possibility of a compromise: “Just as we resolved the issue of policing and justice, there is a challenge to the DUP and Sinn Féin to find a way forward on education to ensure that all of our children can reach their full potential, and none will receive letters in the post branding them failures,” he said. “That’s what I see as one of our top priorities.”
Although McGuinness may be correct that Ruane has been the victim of a vicious campaign it is disingenuous to view her as an innocent in all this. Whether or not she set out to sow chaos in education or whether it was an accidental achievement is unclear. Ruane is probably not stupid but she has managed to antagonise large numbers of albeit essentially establishment figures: that much was probably inevitable. However, she has also singularly failed to produce any viable framework other than the vague ideas that transfer would occur at 14, would involve local transfer and that a compromise of decreasing numbers of academically selected children would be allowed for three years. The problem is that none of those ideas are by definition wrong but Ruane has failed to flesh any of them out. Had she instructed her civil servants to develop a plan she could then have put forward a costed organised strategy for post primary education. That might have been defeated by the DUP’s veto on the end of academic selection but it would have meant that Ruane would have been much less open to criticism.
In addition an organised plan might have set up a virtuous circle for Ruane. There is no obvious requirement why unionists must be pro grammar schools: it is not actually in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Whilst many of us have gained from a grammar school education; we all have family members who failed the exam, sometimes when they were actually very academically gifted and we have hence, all seen the inequities which the system produces. In addition I am sure any of us who went to grammar school would remember those children who got there having passed the 11 plus but who quite clearly could not cope with such a school, ended up failing all the class exams, getting told of by teachers (frequently less than sympathetically) and eventually vanished at the end of first or second form; presumably exiled to the dreaded intermediate.
The problem of social mobility (a difficulty throughout the UK) is also (in NI) tied up with grammar schools. Once the 11 plus and grammars offered a way by which bright working class children could advance themselves: both my parents, part of the baby boom were from working class backgrounds, passed the exam and ended up going to university. That social mobility has to a large extent failed especially amongst the most deprived sections of the working class: very, very few children from the Shankill Road go to grammar schools.
Clearly comprehensive education is no panacea for such ills (social mobility has declined markedly in GB despite an almost entirely comprehensive system). In addition there would have been the severe danger of at least some of the Belfast grammars declaring UDI and becoming fee paying (though that could have ended up with many a legal battle). However, a costed, worked out system might have made life at least a bit more uncomfortable for the unionist politicians opposing Ruane. In addition had Ruane tacked some sort of academic selection in somewhere (maybe at 14) it might have weakened the DUP’s veto. In such a set of circumstances the opposition to Ruane would have looked much more shrill, much less reasonable and much more based on bigotry and prejudice rather than on opposition to incompetence and chaos.
Of course Ruane has done none of these things: there is no plan beyond that which could be sketched out on a single A4 sheet of paper, she has few answers in the assembly, apparently fewer when teachers and other actual educationalists receive the opportunity to meet her. I hear that on at least one occasion a meeting with teachers began with a long speech in Irish, it then being translated into English and hence, very little time for such inconveniences as questions. Ruane rarely gives media interviews and other SF members frequently have to be drafted in to answer for her. When she does give interviews these can be bizarre affairs with her failing to respond to questions other than by giving the same formulaic answer and denying Canute fashion that there is absolute confusion amongst teachers, parents and pupils. In Ruane’s case, however, there seems little evidence that her position is an deliberate parable of humility; more likely Pliny the elder’s apocryphal ostrich defence strategy.
We may not absolutely require a solution to the education problem: the grammars can set their own tests, the secondaries can gradually close due to falling numbers and life can struggle onwards. However, if we are to have a properly organised move towards the future there is going to have to be some sort of change in the current impasse.
It may well require the removal of Ruane to achieve any compromise. The problem is of course that for SF to remove Ruane would be seen as a significant political defeat for them. Last time they had an utterly incompetent minister (deBrun at health) SF were able to kick her upstairs to the European parliament in order to get rid of her. With Ruane it is a bit more difficult: SF parachuted her into South Down; exactly why has never been clear but dismissal after so meteoric a rise would be embarrassing In addition the SF defence of Ruane has been pretty complete thus far; as such to knife her becomes increasingly politically costly. The repeated claims, however, that the generalised opposition to her is all an establishment plot or it is because she is a young, female, southerner tend to wear a bit thin. Gildernew for example is all those except from the Republic and it stretches credulity a little too thin to suggest that her place of birth is the cause of her unpopularity.
As I suggested above removing Ruane would be seen as a defeat for SF. There is, however, I suppose one possible way in which it could be done which could assuage this problem. I am not predicting the following scenario but I float it as a possible solution for the DUP and SF. Ruane’s removal could be choreographed to coincide with the devolution of policing and justice. Hence, what would be seen as a major SF victory (and something I expect this year) could be counter balanced with the removal of Ruane (perceived as a DUP victory). For republicans this would have the added bonus that they would get rid of someone whom surely all save their most naïve supporters realise is not up to the job. In addition even a small element of compromise from any new SF education minister could be presented as a great leap forward demonstrating the value of the executive, coalition government etc. etc.
To continue this conspiracy theory; one might see Ruane’s most recent outburst regarding Bobby Sands as her attempting to shore up her support with the most hardline of SF types and present herself as the one in the party with her finger most directly on the pulse of working class disadvantaged republicans. In such a scenario she could then portray herself as having been sacrificed by SF for reasons of political expediency. She could even try rebranding her self as a sort of SF Tribune of the Plebs.
As I have suggested this is simply a conspiracy theory kite I am flying due to the lack of other political goings on. As I mentioned at the start, however, McGuinness seems to be targeting education as an important area for change and practically everyone across the political spectrum seems to feel that the current state of drift needs to be ended. There seems little likelihood that unionists will accept Ruane’s ideas of change: hence, someone is going to have to change something. Ruane seems to be saying The Lady’s Not for Turning and appears to wish to go on and on. Hence, maybe she needs dumped ? Another compromise in the offing? Or if she goes should we all Just rejoice at that news?