Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A political party with a position paper on post primary transfer ... why are other politicians so surprised by what Sinn Fein think?

It’s rare to get an insight into the contemporaneous machinations of a political party. Usually, it’s only when the memoirs are published that the political thinking and dark arts are revealed.

Most organisations write position papers (or briefing notes) about various subjects. It’s a way of getting the experts to put the state of an issue plainly down on paper, so that it can scribbled over and changed, discussed and debated.

Belfast Telegraph logo

So when Sinn Fein’s recent internal briefing on Post Primary Transfer found its way into UUP MLA Basil McCrea’s hands, and then onto the front of this morning’s Belfast Telegraph, it’s interesting to see the party process in action.

It’s pretty factual, stating the party policy, the options and then going on to explain the lay of the land in terms of the breakdown of grammar schools, the current views of major stakeholders and even the DUP. No surprise to read the analysis about the Governing Bodies Association which represents Northern Ireland’s 52 Voluntary grammar schools:

This group is unable to speak with one voice because of the different views within it.

Whatever the ins and outs of how the post primary transfer changes are currently being negotiated (or not), and whether there’s enough transparency in the process, some of the points in Sinn Fein’s briefing show the inequality and imbalance of the current system.

Of the 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland, the paper claims that 26 have at least one third of their intake coming from grades B2, C1, C2 and D. Only 7 restrict their intake to grades A and B1.

Grammar schools are sucking more and more children in through their gates—40% of children, rising to 45% by 2013/14—at the cost of secondary schools, who then suffer from falling rolls, fewer staff, smaller subject ranges. One set of schools bunged full and another set decaying.

Maybe the grammar sector will suggest expanding to take in all pupils and completely eliminate the secondary sector!

The DUP’s education spokeman Sammy Wilson favours the A/B1 restriction:

... Sammy Wilson has suggested that grammar schools should only be allowed to accept pupils who reach a high academic standard - rather than continuing to fill to capacity at the expense of secondary schools.

UUP education spokesman Basil McCrea said: “Under the DUP's proposals, a third of grammar school places could be axed. This would lead to the destruction of the grammar school sector.

If the number of pupils going to grammar schools is cut to just pupils achieving As and B1s, many grammar schools will be unable to survive unless they ask for financial contributions from parents or go all-ability to increase their intake.

We could see a time when there could be as few as seven grammar schools in the whole of Northern Ireland if only the top academic pupils are given places.”

Caitriona Ruane

The last section of the paper looks at the factors working against those who are still trying to retain academic selection.

18. Those opposed to the abolition of academic selection are adopting an entrenched position at present.

This is to be expected while they seek to bring about a reversal or significant dilution of the current direction.

19. They are, however, all fully aware that in the context of the introduction of new guidelines, consistent with the direction set by Caitriona, a number of factors will cause them to adopt a more pragmatic approach. These are:

  • Continuing decline of children numbers entering post primary education
  • The legal power to commence Entitlement Framework
  • The finance required to fund alternative academic selection examination
  • The Department's power to set admission and enrolment numbers
  • Sustainable schools
  • Area Based Planning

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Kathryn Torney spells out Caitriona Ruane's potential path or persuasion going forward:

“No complicated legislative changes, no need to have the backing of the Assembly or Executive and she wouldn’t even need to worry about officially banning academic selection forever from Northern Ireland.

The Sinn Fein briefing paper states the party would seek to ‘persuade’ the majority of grammar schools to adhere to the department guidelines - which would of course not include academic selection as an option for schools.

This persuasion would include any school that refuses to fall into line being forced to pay for their own entrance tests and they would also have to fund any legal challenges arising from this - risks already stressed strongly and publicly by the Education Minister.

Added to this are a number of other factors - many introduced under Ms Ruane’s leadership - which will helpfully encourage reluctant schools in favour of selection to ‘adopt a more pragmatic approach’.

These include the decline in the school-aged population and the department's power to set admission and enrolment numbers at schools. Schools are funded on a per pupils basis so could grammar schools’ intake be capped at such a low level that it may put their future in doubt?

From 2013 all schools must provide access to a minimum of 24 subjects at GCSE and 27 subjects at A-Level - this also may be difficult to do if your school has a reduced intake.”

Given the dysfunctional power-sharing nature of our Stormont Assembly (consociationalism if you want to be precise), it is wholly unsurprising that Executive cannot yet determine a joint position on education.

Maybe the Minister for Education is a wiser strategist than many imagine, knowing that it’s a debate that can never be resolved by in-public debate or by seeking formal cross-party consensus. But a third way, with a set of tensions set up by the department but self regulated by the grammar schools themselves may still be possible to pull off; one that delivers a more equal educational system in each region that won’t kill either the grammar or secondary sector.

And maybe the other local parties would like to publish their most recent paper on post primary transfer so we can all see how their thinking differs.

To be continued ...

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