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Ruane: my plans won't be stopped


07/08/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Belfast Telegraph

Just weeks before the start of the new school term, Caitriona Ruane today pledged to push ahead with her plan to phase out academic selection -- despite serious stalemate at Executive level over the highly contentious issue.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the Education Minister said it was "all systems go" in relation to her highly controversial proposal to ultimately outlaw selection. But she refused to be drawn on what she will do if Ministerial approval is not given for new legislation.

She wants grammar schools to select 50% of their pupils based on their academic ability in 2010, 30% for the intake in 2011 and 20% in 2012. In 2013 all admissions would be based on non-academic criteria. However, Ministers refused to discuss this proposal during a heated Executive meeting in May.

A Sinn Fein paper leaked to the Telegraph indicated that the fall back position would involve issuing guidelines to schools which they would be strongly encouraged to follow.

As P6 pupils prepare to return to school not knowing how the transfer system will work in their P7 year, Ms Ruane's Executive colleague Employment and Learning Minister Reg Empey today accused her of preventing debate and claimed she is "playing for time" to get her own way.

"I think her plan is just to do her own thing and leave the Executive to sit there. I have said that all along," the Ulster Unionist party leader told the Telegraph.

"She will issue guidelines to the schools and the grammars planning to set their own tests will have to consider the legal and financial implications.The Minister would be operating within her own powers and would be entitled to do this. This is what I have been trying to get through to Executive colleagues."

Sir Reg said Ms Ruane offered individual meetings with Ministers and he accused her trying to prevent the issue being debated properly at the Executive.

"That has been going on all year. I think her plan is to run the clock down. The Sinn Fein paper set out the strategy very clearly and nothing has changed. She has simply sat everybody out. When the new school term opens there will be a clamour for decisions.

"There are statements coming out about taking on policing and justice powers but we cannot even exercise the powers that we have or have a sensible debate in the Executive on these issues. What does that tell you?" he said.

"What is the point of having devolution if we are having to run to Gordon Brown to deal with the matters that are the responsibility of Stormont.

"Here is an Executive that has not actually sat and had a proper, mature, constructive debate on education. It has just turned into an arm wrestling contest between Caitriona and the rest. We are moving into the new academic year and sadly we are none the wiser."

However, DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said he hoped a resolution could still be reached.

"I have had discussions with stakeholders over the last few weeks and these are ongoing. We have also been involved in talks with Sinn Fein to see how we could resolve this problem.

"I am hoping over the next few weeks to try and get a resolution. If things stay as they are we will have an unregulated system and I don't think that is in the best interest of the children."

Ms Ruane said: "I want to have a legislative basis for my proposals and that is what I am working towards. I have made a legislative bid to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, I have brought forward my proposals and it is all systems go.

"I have written to the First and Deputy First Minister to say that I want an Executive discussion on this and I have written to all of my Executive colleagues saying that I am available to have discussions with them."

She confirmed that one or two Ministers have taken her up on this offer "but the majority haven't".

"I am tasked with bringing about changes in the education system, so the person they need to deal with is me," she continued.

"I am not prepared to preside over educational apartheid and a system which fails thousands of children every year. These proposals are sensible proposals, they are common sense and are by and large the system operating in most European countries. Not changing our school system is not an option."

The Minister said she has written to the "breakaway schools" planning to introduce independent tests to ask them to consider very carefully the legal perils.

"There will be serious responsibility for the boards of governors because parents will take cases," she claimed.

When asked if an Assembly vote on her proposals will definitely take place, she said: "We will take this one step at a time. I want discussions at the Executive in relation to this.

"I brought my proposals to the Executive and the Executive, apart from some exceptions, did not engage seriously with these proposals."

When asked what she would say to teachers and parents of pupils starting their P6 year in a few weeks time, Ms Ruane said: "I would say to teachers that they should teach the revised curriculum. There will be no further distortion of the primary curriculum to prepare for tests. And I would say to parents that the change we are bringing in will be change that will benefit their children. It will also be well managed change."



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