People’s passivity over schools deadlock must end

I see The Irish Times has at last discovered the academic selection row and has run a long, mainly factual and descriptive piece by Dan Keenan. (Incidentally, its about time the much vaunted newspaper of record for the whole island upped its game in reporting and commenting on NI social and economic issues – but that’s another post). What is truly amazing about the academic selection crisis is that civil society ( that is, “ordinary citizens”) remains largely mum about the deadlock, whichever side of the argument they’re on. Throughout the long drawn out dispute with no end in sight, the unions and the massed ranks of the voluntary sector, and the academics have been as useless as the politicians. Perhaps they feel intimidated by fears of funding cuts from both sides of a divided Executive if they dare to speak out? No wonder the political parties feel under little pressure to resolve the crisis. But it’s no good the vested educational interests piously opposing selection and then sitting on their hands in a “job well done” mode. This dreadful passivity must end. To make any kind of impact at all, they have to work to win agreement on a replacement for selection. As Keenan points out, the political split is not confessional but class and ideology-based ( to put it kindly– I would suggest blind prejudice too). The Catholic church establishment took a big hit when their grammars peeled off off in dribs and drabs from the bishops’ lofty declaration against selection. But why haven’t the Catholic and (de facto) Prod-ethos grammar schools managed at least to agree on a uniform test?

I reiterate my own approach, which is to apply the Bain and Costello reports to every local area, describing the proposed revised character and curriculum of every surviving secondary school and publishing the results for consultation in local forums. Only when parents can see, touch and smell the choice of schools which might be available to them – and argue for something different if they don’t like what’s on offer – can the whole vexed issue make any sense and – perhaps – begin to end the deadlock. The party battles and the coy little legal threats from both sides are wholly irrelevant to a decent outcome. No change is possible without pubic consent and this is not forthcoming. That’s the elementary lesson of democracy. And parent power is increasingly the name of the game – if only the parties realised it, locked in their introverted arguments . As the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools says in response to Transfer 2010:

It is unfortunate that this consultation is taking place before parents and others have an appreciation of the new kinds of post-primary arrangements which might emerge in the course of the next few years. New arrangements in curriculum, necessary re-organisation arising from demographics changes and the end of selection will totally transform the environment in which admissions take place. Much of the initial reaction to the consultation has been limited because those responding have assessed the proposals based on the current provision in schools and current parental wishes. Council would urge the Department to seek to increase both professional and general public awareness of the new environments which may emerge under the ‘Entitled to Succeed’ initiative.

In other words, if only you knew the choice that was available to you, you mightn’t cling so firmly to academic selection, as the least worst option.

Our children deserve better.

Well, has anybody come across a road show anxious parents might attend? If you’ve spotted one, please let us know and claim a prize from Caitriona..

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London