Sinn Fein pledges 'radical change' as it sticks with education remit
In a surprise move, Sinn Fein has again opted to head the Northern Irish government's Department of Education, with newcomer John O'Dowd at the helm.
Mr O'Dowd was the party's education spokesperson in the run-up to the Assembly elections on 5 May, and his appointment as education minister has been welcomed by teaching unions. It is also expected to secure recent attempts to phase out the 11-plus system.
After emerging as Northern Ireland's second-largest party following the elections earlier this month, Sinn Fein had second choice of government department after the DUP. Party bosses had been expected to pick the business portfolio.
Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane, who was education minister until the polls and will now sit on the policing board with party president Gerry Adams, leaves a controversial legacy.
She will be remembered for her decision to abolish state-sponsored 11-plus exams, despite huge opposition from the DUP and grammar schools, which have now set up their own entrance exams.
Over the last year, cross-party negotiations over Ms Ruane's proposal for a single education authority for Northern Ireland, which would save millions of pounds, have reached stalemate.
Mark Langhammer, director of education union ATL Northern Ireland, said this would need to be the new education minister's main concern. "Given the scale of reductions in the education budget, John O'Dowd's priority, we feel, must be the strategic reconfiguration of the service, through a single education authority and employer," he said.
In the Assembly elections, Mr O'Dowd topped the polls for the second time in the Upper Bann constituency bordering Armagh and South Down, boosting the Sinn Fein vote in what was once a predominantly Unionist area. He is an outspoken critic of dissident republican violence, and his support at the polls is seen as a commitment to the peace process from voters.
Brendan Harron, senior official of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, said he was "hopeful" that Mr O'Dowd would end political deadlock on key issues and direct financial aid to where it is needed.
"We would be in line with Sinn Fein's policy on academic selection, and nobody could take issue with Sinn Fein's policy for targeted support for the most disadvantaged," he said. "But what I would like to see this time is Sinn Fein putting their money where their mouth is."
It was thought the party would choose an economic brief, which would allow it to push forward all-Ireland economic development.
But deputy first minister Martin McGuinness said: "Education is the cornerstone of any productive and progressive society, and we as a party have a strong commitment to protecting and continuing the radical change that Sinn Fein has brought."
THE BIG ISSUES
Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane, the previous education minister, abolished the 11-plus exam in 2008. Grammar schools have established their own entrance exams as a temporary solution.
Education and Skills Authority
All parties are in agreement with Ms Ruane that five education authorities for Northern Ireland are unnecessary, but negotiations about a single authority have broken down.
Political support for shared education between Protestant and Catholic schools has grown, and this could be a key issue over the next four-year term of the Northern Ireland Executive.
All parties, aside from the UUP, have pledged to oppose the rise in tuition fees introduced in England.