Catriona Ruane has an interview in the Belfast Telegraph. Unsurprisingly she is completely unrepentant about her time as Education Minister. She says she regards the abolition of the 11 plus as her “proudest achievement” and that she has achieved “about one of the most progressive and radical reforms of education since the Partition of Ireland”.
On issue of academic selection she states:
“Well, first of all, the old system has gone and one of my proudest achievements is ending the 11-plus. The breakaway tests operated by the grammar schools should not be happening, they should not be doing those tests and they should not be placing barriers in front of children to prevent them from getting into their schools.
“What I would say to the schools is stop doing it. What I would say to the parents is tell the grammar schools that they should not be erecting barriers for their children to have to climb over.”
Ruane argues that all sectors apart from the state grammar schools have moved or are moving away from academic selection:
“The academic selection debate is over. The direction of travel is now moving towards a flexible, modern education system in terms of how our children transfer from primary to post primary, but even more importantly, how our children learn in post-primary.”
“Change has happened, it is happening and further change will happen,” she stated.
“The Catholic sector in its entirety is moving away from selection. In the Irish medium sector there is no selection and in the integrated sector, by and large, selection is not operating.”
She does find time, however, to blame the grammar schools for the large number of children failed by the education system, but accepts no blame for herself:
“I attribute it to the very unequal system we had in the past. Our curriculum was totally and utterly distorted by the 11-plus and one of the biggest successes of the last four years has been to bring in the revised curriculum and to support principals, teachers, unions who were opposed to the distortion of the curriculum.”
Going forward Ruane wants all schools in Northern Ireland to teach Irish and the system here harmonised with that in the RoI.
Although Ruane said she would like to remain Education Secretary after the next set of assembly elections there is significant speculation (mentioned here in the Telegraph) that Sinn Fein would be more interested in taking the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry which would allow another party to take Education. Indeed such is the controversial and uncompromising nature of Ruane’s interview and her claimed desires for the future direction of education, that one might suggest that she knows that her days in power are numbered and that she is getting in one last swipe against her opponents. This may be with the support of her party but it has, at times, looked as if she is actually a bit of an embarrassment to others in Sinn Fein. In that context her grand vision of ensuring all schools teach Irish and a harmonised education system might be seen as an attempt to up the ante and her popularity amongst SF hard liners to such an extent that getting rid of her proves harder for SF. Of course so difficult to read are the internal machinations of SF for all outsiders that it is a form of Kremlinology to establish who and what the different factions within the leadership are. However, for what it is worth with Gerry Adams, seen as her chief supporter, now in the Dáil it is possible that her star had waned and McGuninness has at times seemed less than enamored of her style (though he began the end of academic selection). That said of course knifing Ruane could play into the narrative of McGuinness being the more progressive and helpful of SF’s leadership: just as long as no one mentions assorted murder victims.