SDLP and UUP make joint education call

SDLP and UUP minsiters, Reg Empey and Margaret Ritchie, have a joint article in today’s Belfast Telegraph calling for action on the education crisis. (Full text below the fold)

We are now proposing a range of actions to end the chaos in our schools.

Both the UUP and the SDLP are committing themselves to working with the other parties involved in the ongoing cross-party talks. The failure of Sinn Fein to engage in these talks is a disappointing abdication of responsibility. However, with the Alliance and DUP, we will work to urgently find a way forward.

We are also calling for a single-item agenda Executive meeting to be held before the end of November to allow the Executive to at last discuss post-primary transfer. As P7 children, parents and teachers begin to go through the difficulties of the unregulated tests, it is time for the Executive to show leadership.

That meeting of the Executive must deliver a pledge to ensure that an interim statutory transfer process will be in place for next year’s P7 pupils, pending a longer term solution.

The Executive should also set up a sub-Committee – with representation from each of the four parties – to address other educational issues: the scandal of educational underachievement, the stalled Education and Skills Authority Bill, and the public spending challenges facing education over the next decade.

Finally, we are pledging that both our parties will work with the other parties to ensure that our proposal of an interim statutory transfer process moves quickly through the Assembly.

Joint article by Reg Empey and Margaret Ritchie

We are now more than two years into this Assembly – two years in which, despite all the promises and rhetoric, people on the ground have become increasingly disillusioned with devolution’s ability to deliver.

A large number of significant issues have not been addressed by this Executive. Others remained sidelined or stalled. The DUP and Sinn Fein stagger between running the Executive as a two-party carve-up rather than a four-party coalition and using megaphone diplomacy to verbally abuse each other.

We have said before that this Executive is being run like a ‘huckster’s shop’. This is an understatement. Meetings between Minister’s special advisors – necessary to the smooth working of government – have not taken place for over a year. Important Executive papers are not tabled until minutes before meetings begin and agendas are often produced after the meetings have started. This is not the way to do business in government.

And, while Executive Ministers have managed to discuss animal health on 11 occasions, no discussion has taken place on education and the future of post-primary education since January 2008.

The chaos now being experienced in our schools is a disgrace. This Executive came into being in May 2007. It had two years to arrange a sensible system for the transfer of children from primary to post-primary schools. It has failed.

Now current P7 children, parents and teachers have been abandoned to a chaotic unregulated transfer system. Teachers have been placed in a ridiculous situation of having to manage the consequences of this. To add to the disgrace, unregulated testing systems are now in place along broadly denominational grounds.

This cannot be allowed to continue.

We are now proposing a range of actions to end the chaos in our schools.

Both the UUP and the SDLP are committing themselves to working with the other parties involved in the ongoing cross-party talks. The failure of Sinn Fein to engage in these talks is a disappointing abdication of responsibility. However, with the Alliance and DUP, we will work to urgently find a way forward.

We are also calling for a single-item agenda Executive meeting to be held before the end of November to allow the Executive to at last discuss post-primary transfer. As P7 children, parents and teachers begin to go through the difficulties of the unregulated tests, it is time for the Executive to show leadership.

That meeting of the Executive must deliver a pledge to ensure that an interim statutory transfer process will be in place for next year’s P7 pupils, pending a longer term solution.

The Executive should also set up a sub-Committee – with representation from each of the four parties – to address other educational issues: the scandal of educational underachievement, the stalled Education and Skills Authority Bill, and the public spending challenges facing education over the next decade.

Finally, we are pledging that both our parties will work with the other parties to ensure that our proposal of an interim statutory transfer process moves quickly through the Assembly.

Our education spokespersons have been working hard on this issue and we urge the other Executive parties to join with us in bringing the educational chaos to an end.

If we achieve this, we can begin to restore public confidence in the devolved institutions. If the Executive shows that it can function as a proper four-party coalition then other issues can also be confronted.

Both of our parties have been warning for some time of a dangerous shortfall in the Northern Ireland budget. After attempting to deny it, others have at last joined us in recognising reality. Alongside this shortfall, we must also recognise that the public spending situation will inevitably worsen this year and in the years to come.

Burying our heads in the sand is a betrayal of everyone in Northern Ireland. People are right to expect more of their politicians. Because of the gravity of the situation, both our parties have urged the establishment of an Assembly Committee to re-examine the budget and look at the options for public spending.

This would be no mere talking-shop. It would be an exercise in honesty and leadership, and at a time when the public are questioning the work of politicians this would be a prime example of Assembly Members doing what they are paid to do. Hard choices lie before us. The time for cheap politicking is past.

There is also the issue of a shared future and community relations. The murders of Kevin McDaid, Constable Caroll, Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey, and attacks on ethnic minorities have highlighted the pressing need for the Executive to address sectarianism and intolerance. We have been promised a shared future and community relations strategy for nearly two years. We need it now. If we are to achieve proper reconciliation we must continue to apply ourselves to achieving a truly shared future.

Our parties are determined to push an agenda for progress on the issues that matter – education, the economy and our shared future. We are willing to do all in our power to ensure the Executive functions as a proper government, working as a proper four-party coalition for the common good of all of us.