By Kathryn Torney
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
The Belfast Telegraph can today reveal details of the confidential memo circulated to Executive members by Caitriona Ruane outlining her plans to ban academic selection.
The 48-page document reiterates her proposal to phase out academic selection over three years, outlines the legislation this requires and also gives details of the non-academic admissions criteria she would like to see used by all schools.
The paper — which has been obtained by the Telegraph — calls on the Stormont Ministers to agree that academic admissions criteria should be abolished from July 31, 2013.
It is due to be debated by Executive members tomorrow.
The DUP has already strongly criticised the document stating it offers nothing new — making it highly likely that it will not receive the political support it needs to become reality.
In her memorandum, which was circulated to Ministers on Monday, the Education Minister says that to proceed with the legislation required for her “compromise proposals” she requires Executive approval.
Her document states that final legislation will need to be operative by autumn 2009.
And she warns: “If the Executive cannot agree these proposals, I will withdraw them and given the urgency with which clarity on post-primary transfer is required, bring forward guidance.”
This is the most likely outcome and would result in a chaotic unregulated education system for Northern Ireland with many grammars opting to set their own entrance exams rather than following non-academic admissions guidelines suggested by the Minister.
In her memorandum the Minister says her reform package would lead to all pupils having equal access to a high-quality post-primary education.
Under the Minister's proposals, once selection is banned, all schools would be required to give first priority to applicants who are ‘Looked After Children’.
They would also be required to accept a proportion of children entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) equal to the proportion of total first preference applications received — for example if 20% of first preference applications are FSM children, then 20% of the schools places should be allocated to children within this category.
Under the current system children on free meals gain admission to grammar schools at a rate considerably below other children.
Finally, all schools would be permitted to use geographical criteria of parish or school catchment area as long as they give equal priority to applicants for whom the school is the nearest suitable school.
Other criteria which could be used include siblings, eldest child, feeder primaries and random selection.
Under Ms Ruane's plan, pupils would go on to make informed choices about the post-primary school best suited to their needs at age 14.
By Kathryn Torney
Caitriona Ruane's document will do nothing to end the serious confusion currently felt by pupils, schools and parents across Northern Ireland, it was claimed last night.
Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea said that if the document contains no new proposals, it is destined to fail.
“I think she will end up doing her own thing which means issuing admissions guidance to schools,” he said.
“It is likely we will end up with an unregulated system which will be a disaster for everyone.
“From what I have heard about it so far, this paper will do nothing to end the confusion facing parents, children and schools about how this year's P6 pupils will transfer next year.”
The DUP has already criticised Caitriona Ruane's memo as offering nothing new.
A spokesman for the party said: “These are the same plans which members of the Executive have previously told her were unacceptable. She appears simply to have wasted the entire period since then.
“She has made no effort to reach consensus on this issue.
“The DUP has made a number of suggestions for resolving the matter in the context of the legal position that placing pupils on the basis of ability or aptitude cannot be abolished. The minister has ignored them all.
“At St Andrews and subsequently in legislation the DUP secured academic selection. We will not be countenancing any proposals which seek to remove the legal entitlement for pupils to be matched to the most appropriate school.”
However, Sinn Fein education spokesman John O'Dowd called on Executive members to “set aside the sectarian and party political point scoring that has marked this issue up to now”.
“It is now time for clarity and a decision on replacing the 11-plus,” he said.
“There has been a prolonged and extensive consultation with stakeholders and political parties but parents, teachers and children need a clear decision.
“It is now time to bring the discussions to a conclusion,” Mr O’Dowd added.