Sinn Fein to tackle selection;News;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Education minister Martin McGuinness faces a new struggle - against the vested interests supporting Ulster's 11-plus, Rosie Uffindell and Nicolas Barnard report

IF SINN FEIN wanted to ensure it captured the spotlight in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, it could not have chosen a better way than to propose its chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, for education minister.

Mr McGuinness's appointment shocked Unionists at the opening of the newly-devolved assembly at Stormont this week. It raised the immediate potential for conflict in an education system already long overdue for change.

He wasted no time in going to the Department of Education's headquarters - nor in reassuring Unionists. A school-leaver at 15, he defended his credentials for the job, saying he had had "the political education of a lifetime".

He added: "I am fully aware of the responsibilities that I have, and the ability we have to ensure that there is the quality, that there is justice in education."

Sinn Fein had fourth choice of a portfolio in the Assembly, and education was always likely to be a key position after trade and finance. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party - which chose third - passed it up in favour of regional development.

But Sinn Fein had been widely expected to give the post to its other representative, former teacher Bairbre de Brun. Instead it went to the alleged former IRA chief of staff, a man intimately associated with 30 years of armed struggle.

The second education ministry - higher education, further education, training and employment - is also in Nationalist hands. It went to Sean Farren of the SDLP.

But Unionists hold the top two posts on the education committee which will provide checks and balances, "advising and assisting" Mr McGuinness. The Ulster Unionist Party's Danny Kennedy is chair, with the DUP's Sammy Wilson as deputy.

Education is now centre stage in a way it has not been for the past 30 years. And it is a system which most agree is long overdue for change after decades of what critics have called "English solutions for English problems" .

The system's critics hope the new minister will have the courage to tackle Ulster's selective education system. The odds are good: Sinn Fein favours abolition of selection and most other parties support some sort of reform.

The demand for change is set to intensify with the publication in January of major research into the impact of selection. Interim findings revealed in last week's TES suggest that Ulster's working classes felt grammar schools were not "for the likes of them". However, campaigners concede that change will not be easy as so many parents have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

"The biggest problem is selling it to the parents," said Billy Tate, primary principal and executive member of the National Association of Head Teachers. "My gut feeling is that the majority of parents would be worried about a comprehensive system."

Inevitably devolution will bring problems. Many of Northern Ireland's teachers are worried it could detach them from the UK's national standards in pay and qualifications. Given higher levels of teacher unemployment in Northern Ireland, the ability to work elsewhere in the country is seen as important.

One of Mr McGuinness's first jobs will be to set up a general teaching council, while an immediate concern will be school funding. A strategy document due in the New Year is expected to propose merging the seven existing school funding formulas into one.

Further disruption will be caused by Northern Ireland's five education boards - the equivalent of local education authorities - now having to be accountable to three new ministries.

Local councillors and churches are unlikely to give up their influence without a fight.

The Rev Sam Allen, chair of the North-eastern board, said: "I am a churchman not a prophet... but whoever our new ministers are I hope they think long and hard before trying to make a name for themselves."

McGuinness profile, 25

Rosie Uffindell writes for the Irish News.


Education minister Martin McGuinness faces a new struggle - against the vested interests supporting Ulster's 11-plus. Rosie Uffindell and Nicolas Barnard report.

State education has, until devolution, been administered centrally by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland and the five education and library boards - the equivalent of local authorities.

Schools are largely segregated on religious lines but integrated schools, which take Protestant and Catholic children are growing in popularity. They must ensure that sufficient numbers from both religions enrol.

Controlled schools are owned by the boards and attended by mainly Protestant pupils.

Maintained schools are owned by trustees and most come under Catholic management through the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

There are a few Irish-medium schools and a handful of private schools.

Secondary education remains largely selective. In some areas about 40 per cent of children go on to grammar school at age 11.

Under devolution, the education system will be administered by two departments, Education, and Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment..

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