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To regulate or 'un-regulate', that is the question at end of 11-plus


04/07/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

Education minister Caitriona Ruane has said she will consider "all her options" if she cannot legislate for her post-11-plus vision. Education correspondent Simon Doyle examines some of the alternatives

When asked in recent months how she in-tended to abolish academic selection without cross-community legislation, Caitriona Ruane would say only that she believed she could achieve consensus on her reforms.

The minister insisted during assembly sittings, education committee meetings and media briefings that agreement on her vision for a system without the 11-plus was achievable.

Asked if she accepted that she needed unionist support for her plans, she would typically repeat that her intention was "to end academic selection".

But with parties remaining at odds on the issue, Ms Ruane now appears to have shifted slightly after indicating to The Irish News this week that she might have to bypass the executive and assembly to see her changes introduced.

She wants to phase out selection over three years, replacing the 11-plus with

a transitional test and restricting the ability of grammar schools to use academic criteria.

Politicians are broadly split along sectarian lines - unionists in favour of some form of selection by ability but nationalists against.

The assembly, therefore, appears unlikely to find the cross-community support necessary to trigger a ban.

During the St Andrews talks that preceded the return to devolution, the DUP said it had secured a veto over proposals that any future minister might introduce, such as excluding educational criteria as a tool for schools narrowing down admissions.

With just months until the final 11-plus, concerns have been growing that the north could be thrust into an ad hoc system similar to that experienced in the Republic in the 1980s when, faced with increased demand, top schools introduced individual entrance tests.

If Ms Ruane's plans are not agreed, 'un-regulation' - where no arrangements are put in place by the assembly and executive - is a possibility after the transfer test is abolished.

This would allow schools to introduce their own entrance exams to continue selecting top-performing pupils, des-pite warnings by Ms Ruane of a potential for legal action.

A group of grammars seems committed to introducing such private testing.

The group fears their schools will be hugely oversubscribed if the minister makes access available to pupils regardless of aptitude and interests.

However, many of these schools are already largely comprehensive in intake as falling pupils numbers mean they are unable to fill up with A grades only.

In the absence of legislation, another option open to the minister is to introduce her plan as a 'regulation', which would not need to be voted on in the assembly.

This would be unacceptable to unionists, who demand that any change to the transfer system be subject to the approval of the executive and assembly.

The minister told the assembly in December that on securing agreement, she would "prepare draft regulations to underpin it" and bring that to the education committee and executive for consideration.

It has also been suggested the minister might bring forward a 'negative resolution', in which her proposals would become law unless the assembly actively moved to annul them.

There have also been claims that she could attempt to introduce changes in the form of guidance sent directly to schools.

However, a leaked Sinn Fein memo suggested that while she could guide schools as to how to admit pupils, she could not force them to abandon academic selection in the face of opposition from unionists.

The minister has said legislation remains her preferred option.

"I have spent the best part of a year engaging with all the different stakeholders," she told The Irish News.

"My preferred option right now would be that there is no more 11-plus. Thankfully this is the last year that we are putting the children through this trauma."

But while Ms Ruane appears to have support from educationalists, she still faces political opposition to her plans.

"Despite having written to the committee and asked for their consensus proposals, I'm still awaiting any response. To date I've had none," she said.

Talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP wil intensify over the summer months with the aim of reaching a deal on a number of key issues before the assembly returns from its summer recess.

But the issue that appears to be the most problematic is education.

Asked if a compromise could be reached within those talks, Ms Ruane said: "The first stage is the DUP accepting that the status quo cannot continue.

"The place that the discussion needs to happen is round the executive.

"We are in discussion with the DUP on all sorts of issues but the status quo cannot continue and as I go out and about, there are many people who vote for the DUP who are openly saying to me: 'I support your proposals. This cannot continue.'"



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