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Ulster's new schools authority won't be meeting its timetable
28/06/2007 The Belfast Telegraph
The new Education Minister Caitriona Ruane faces huge challenges over the creation of a single education authority and the end of the 11-plus.
Since taking up her role as Northern Ireland's Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane has barely stopped to take a breath. Her diary has been packed full with school visits, meetings with key education stakeholders, conference speeches and two brave early appearances before the Assembly's cross-party education committee.
Our interview in her office at Parliament Buildings was sandwiched between events in the Assembly chamber and a meeting with one of her senior Department of Education officials.
The education portfolio is seen by many as one of the most challenging of all of the departments within the new Northern Ireland Assembly and Ms Ruane is taking to it with great enthusiasm.
She argued "passionately and strongly" for the job of Education Minister during a meeting with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and got her wish.
The tight timescales associated with the creation of a new single education authority and the long-standing debate over finding a replacement for the doomed 11-plus exam are two issues likely to continue dominating the education agenda.
The minister admitted during the interview that the deadline to establish the new single education authority for Northern Ireland by April 1 2008, was now highly unlikely to be met - an admission which will create serious concern for the thousands of people affected by the creation of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA).
She also didn't hold back when it came to her views on academic selection - branding it unfair and a system which treats the majority of P7 pupils as second class citizens.
Add to this teachers' serious concerns about training and funding for the revised school curriculum, fears of hundreds of school closures and claims of a shortage of funding for schools, and the serious workload facing the Sinn Fein minister becomes clear.
"The timetable laid out by Direct Rule ministers for the ESA to be established is going to be very difficult to meet and I'm not even sure that trying to meet that timeframe would do justice to the review of public administration (RPA)," the minister said. "I would rather take my time and get it right."
She revealed that she plans to bring forward some "suggested approaches" to the Executive meeting next week. However, she would not go into detail about what the new ESA timetable may entail, except to say it would possibly involve a phased approach.
Ms Ruane said that the RPA had been launched with great fanfare by Direct Rule ministers who "came in with their Scottish, English or Welsh hats on".
She said: "The legislative process under the Assembly is very different. I do believe that the RPA is the best way to go, but I need to work out the best timing.
"I would say to staff and teachers that change can be a difficult time, but managed well it can also be a very creative time.
"There is going to be a lot of change in education over the next three to 10 years and we will manage that change as creatively and carefully as we can."
The minister was very critical of academic selection as a means of determining entry to Northern Ireland's post-primary schools. The need to find a replacement for the 11-plus exam is gathering pace as children entering P5 this September are set to be the first to transfer under a new system.
The Department of Education has already confirmed that failure to reach political consensus will mean that schools can set their own entrance tests - including entrance exams. However, the minister insisted a "free for all" system will not emerge.
She said: "I don't believe that academic selection is the way forward for our society. I think it has created a tail of disadvantage in our system and has failed many of our children.
"I do not like the 11-plus. It has been extremely unfair to children and has told far too many of them that they are failures."
The minister said that Northern Ireland needs to "move with the times" .
She said: "Most other countries in Europe are appalled at academic selection. What we need to do is move forward with a system that is fair to everybody and gives every child a fair chance.
"At the moment what academic selection is doing is entrenching division and disadvantage.
"Secondary schools are feeling very disadvantaged at the moment and I can understand why they are. They are being treated very unfairly.
"There is a very strong body of opinion that the system is geared towards 25% to 35% of children and the remainder are being treated like second class citizens. This is in no way being disrespectful of the work of the secondary schools - they are doing a tremendous job against all the odds. "
When asked how she planned to convince the DUP and UUP to back away from their long-standing support for selection, she said: "The first thing I would say is that the DUP and UUP need to listen to their base.
"Sometimes the DUP and UUP present this debate as if the entire Protestant community are pro-academic selection, and the entire Catholic community are 'anti', but that is not the case.
"The churches are anti-academic selection, so are the unions, the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the majority of primary school principals, the majority of secondary school teachers and an increasing number of teachers in grammar schools.
"The DUP and UUP need to listen very carefully.
"Many principals are saying to me that they do not support Sinn Fein, but are glad to see a Sinn Finn Minister for Education. This is because they see what our policy is in relation to academic selection.
"There should be an academic way forward for children who are academically gifted, but we should not create an artificial division between so-called academic and the rest.
"We need confident, creative and articulate children coming out of our schools."
Should work on this not have started years or even decades ago?
"Of course it should," she replied.
"I have been in this job for seven weeks and we need the right solution rather than a rushed solution.
"If I was coming forward with watertight proposals now, I would either have been listening too much to my officials or not listening enough to society.
"Let's not create an artificial panic. What we need to do is get the right solution that gives every child a fair chance. All schools need to be good schools and I believe we can do that, and that we can create criteria that reflect that.
"There will not be a free for all. Parents should be assured that we are moving to create a world class system that treats every child in a fair way.
"Let's not presume that the only parents that are worried are the ones who want to retain grammar schools."