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Labour takes on Ulster mandarins

The Labour party has pledged an overhaul of education policy in Northern Ireland, where it claims civil servants have too much power.

Tony Worthington, the party's spokesman on education in Ulster, has said the local input into education policy was not as great in the province as it should be.

Speaking at the annual Northern Ireland conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, he said: "The power of decision making by civil servants is too great and the power of patronage is too high. Sir Humphrey would be in his seventh heaven with ministers who had to be told by civil servants what was happening."

Labour has already committed itself to reviewing the controversial 11-plus selection procedure, but in a move which will add to the confusion over the direction of Labour education policy, indicated for the first time that this would not necessarily mean the abolition of Northern Ireland's 52 grammar schools.

Mr Worthington said he was an opponent of selection at 11 but added if the system was to be removed in Northern Ireland it had to be with the "solid co-operation and clear will" of the people.

He said he was deeply concerned at the state of further education in the province which was being squeezed by schools, higher education, the private sector and the Training and Employment Agency.

"Northern Ireland lags behind Great Britain in the level of qualifications in the workforce and we cannot go on neglecting this sector. I am not against self-management of the colleges but I am against simply handing over colleges to yet another quango without looking in detail at the whole sector of further education," he said.

The MP for Clydebank and Milngavie in Scotland, a qualified teacher who has taught in a young offenders' institution and the FE sector, said the real heroes of the education system were teachers in poverty-stricken areas of mass unemployment who daily brought hope and determination.

NASUWT delegates voted to boycott any attempts to impose statutory assessment of pupils at the end of key stage 2 but also criticised new guidelines on the suspension and expulsion of pupils as a retrograde step given the increased level of severely disruptive classroom behaviour.

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