Thursday, 5 February 2009

Education NI: From Wreck to Ruane

Last week we heard the Education Minister Ms Ruane provide some 'clarity' to the post-primary education debate. The only thing the Minister made clear was that she is not clear about what will happen to the education system under her proposals.

For months now, if not years, teachers, parents, students and anyone else involved in the education sector have been kept in the dark about Ruane's plans for post-primary transfer arrangements in light of her decision to remove the 11+.

The pressure on the Minister to provide clarity has been mounting steadily over this time.

People hanging onto the hope for clarity on the issue must be extremely disapponted by the Ruane's display last week in the Assembly. Her constant foot-dragging and politicisation of the education debate has been tough to swallow for many.

I for one agree with the Minsters intentions. The 11+ is a failed system. It fails so many young people. It simply does not offer a progressive management of the futures life chances of our children.

Yes the current education system, underpinned by the 11+ transfer test, has had many victories in its time. Children in the north have consistently topped UK league tables for performance in all key levels of the curriculum.

However, whilst the north has dominated the top tiers of educational performance for so long, there remains an untold and untrumpeted underbelly of underperformance.

Whilst it is true that young people in the north may achieve the highest levels of educational attainment in the UK with the highest proportion of students achieving A grades and above- we also have the very dirty prize of being home to the lowest educational attainers in the UK.

In the north more people as a percentage leave the education system with little or no GCSEs, much lower than the government standard of 5. This portrays an education system of extreme disparity. The variance between the top achievers and the lowest is simply not acceptable.

But really can the removal of the 11+ improve this situation? I believe it can but only if its removal is backed up by investment in children and their respective socio-economic circumstances at home. That perhaps is a debate for another day. But any movement towards a comprehensive style system like in England may not necessarily address the fundamental issue of gross disparities in educational attainment. Ruane's assumption that it will is extremely hap-hazzard.

Simply put- lumping all children into the same school will not in itself create an automatic level playing field for attainment.

Ruane's discision to remove the 11+ however receives my endorsement. But how the Minister has gone about the business of replacing the transfer test has left alot to be desired.

Her constant foot-dragging, politicisation and confrontation on the issue has done much damage to these noble intentions. By not achieving any sort of political consensus on her proposals she can not legislate for an end to the selection issue.

If she can not legislate then we are staring down the barrel of an unregulated and anarchic system. A system that could do more damage than good. Guidelines are not worth the paper they are written on and do not legally enforce compliance from schools. They are not sufficient for a sector that is so vitally important and therefore require the strictest form of regulation.

Applying the soft law option will not bring all schools onto the same page and could create an even worse monster than the 11+. It is simply impossible to predict the outcome of the proposed system as there are so many unanswered questions and potential variables. This creates so much uncertainty for those involved.

This uncertainty will no doubt led to considerable legal challenge - not just to the Minister's decision - but to the unregulated and unstandardised transfer tests that most schools will adopt. This could also prove to be an expensive legal minefield.

In life I have learnt the hard way that you can not convince those who have diametrically opposed views from you by shouting at them and squaring up to them at every opportunity. Politics is about the art of persuasion and in this test I give the Minister a F-.

She is the Education Minister so it is up to her to build consensus around her proposals, build political and sectoral support and get the required people on board in support of her plans.

Ruane's failure afterall is a failure for our young people.

She clearly wanted rid of the 11+ from the moment she became Education Minister without even thinking of alternative arrangements. By running to the media to announce that she was ridding us of the 11+, but she would tell us of her alternative plans at a later date, the Minister bought herself time but at the considerable expense of placing enormous uncertainty and pressure into the lives of parents, pupils and teachers.

I would not care if this time was spent divising concrete proposals and then building consensus around them but she failed to do that.

The lack of clarity over her plans for post-primary transfer has been the major issue for parents, pupils and teachers trying to plan ahead for the future. They have been let down.

The lack of consensus around her plans has been a major issue for politicians. Ruane has tried to rail road her plans through the Assembly without any consultation- simply listening to other parties is not good enough. But she didnt even listen. Proper consultation means listening to other views and incorporating conflict into final proposals through compromise.

Yes there are other parties, such as the DUP, who wished to scupper the Ministers plans from the get go regardless. If Ruane said black they would say white. Her constant evasiveness and confrontational style did not help this and only served to give the DUP clear reason to object.

The Minister needed to build compromise proposals in order to provide a way forward out of this gridlock by placing the onus on other parties to move towards her position. She needed to bring the SDLP on board first and foremost- and then address unionist concerns but she failed to do that. Even though the SDLP have the same position on academic selection Ruane was intent on going it alone and side-lined them.

Last week the Minister failed to compromise and clearly showed that she was prepared to confine the next batch of primary school children to an uncertain future simply in order to show that she means business and will not back down to intransigent unionism.

This is playing politics with childrens lives and for that reason Catriona Ruane fails every test in my book.

1 comment:

  1. Good blog man! Yeah I wonder what she has in store for the schools. I wouldn't be so hard on her though because it wouldn't surprise me if the people she's working with, within her department, are deliberately dragging their heels on this or trying to block it or delay it using any pathetic
    and trivial tactics at their command - such as losing documents or delayed replies to emails! That can't be helped. Therefore, it may not only be the DUP trying to scupper attempts at reform. No doubt, there are many within her own department who would love to see a confident, female, Sinn Feiner fail at this! There are some itching to see it happen!! Ask any manager in the education and library boards and they'll tell you it’s not the soundness or quality of ideas and policies that messes things up - it’s the people you work with (whether they do it deliberately or because of incompetency). People's egos, personal agendas, and relationships with one another seem to be the things which run the Northern Ireland Assembly and its departments. In other words, I don't know what Ruane has had to deal with, or who she has had to work with to try and get this done. Regardless, I wouldn't be so hard on her considering no other politician in history has had the balls to tackle such a complex issue!

    Whatever she offers will be a disaster for a few years. It's a disaster now anyway! But every education system that has been introduced into this country has been disaster to begin with! New systems are always a mess at the start - remember the introduction of AS levels and what a mess they were for a while!! And of course Labour's introduction of tuition fees in the late 90s and the resulting back log of student loans not paid to students which lasted years too!

    Anyway, I admire her passion and commitment to end such a terrible education system - I reckon she can and will provide more clarity as time rolls on. But remember that the present system doesn't provide any clarity either!! Even if you get a D in your 11+ you might get into a school which doesn't have enough A, B and C students. Alternatively you might not get into a school with a B grade if there are too many A students so it's a complete post-code lottery and pupils and parents, despite going through the entire system, are completely unclear as to where they stand until their local school gets back to them! Unless Ruane proposes the removal of electricity from the school classrooms I can't see how anything she proposes would be worse!!

    I wouldn’t expect clarity until the water has been firmly tested for a few years to come! She can offer great ideas and provide crystal clarity in all her documentation and every press conference she goes to - but that doesn't mean her ideas are going to work!! Clarity does not automatically equal success! It's the people she works with and the schools and local boards who will decide how successful her ideas are and if they choose to be awkward and obtuse that's not her fault!

    Everybody has their own agenda in this and as a result, this year's, and probably next year's, primary students are going to be sacrificed for that horrible phrase "the greater good"! Once a good or bad system is up and running it will be a few years before parents and students are clear as to what is expected of them. As always, it's going to be a trial and error process. I'm not expecting Ruane to provide anything like the finished product - even if she did, unforeseen problems will need to be ironed out which may completely change the system so it may be impossible for her to be clear at this point!