In his speech to the recent Traditional Unionist Voice conference, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, Robert McCartney, focused on the underlying conflict at the heart of the education debate in Northern Ireland.
His analysis of the conflict at the heart of the education debate is that if a clash of ideology over practical pathways to excellence in education. A demonstration of this was well illustrated on the BBC’s ‘The School Report’ (broadcast 9 November) where Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane and Fiona Millar (Alastair Campbell’s partner) shared the same ideological path. Ms Millar’s and Mr Woodward’s inclusion show that the education debate is a national one, and not a new one.
Bob’s speech outlines the case for selection, the failure of the policy and educational theories that are integral to the Sinn Fein, and the liberal educational, approach. For McCartney, quoting Churchill; “Where is the compromise between the Fireman and the Arsonist”?
Perhaps unsurprising for a speech delivered to a Traditional Unionist Voice conference, criticism is almost solely directed towards the DUP as the Party believed to be ready to give up selection in some deal. He said “The real and ultimate issue is this – will the DUP, having sacrificed its principles to obtain power, now surrender selective education to Sinn Fein as the price of retaining power.“
Bob’s belief that the DUP is ready to do a deal seems to be based on the notion that the DUP/Sinn Fein rocky relationship is based on a ‘deal a day’: having done the deal to gain power, the two are now addicted to dealing to retain dominance. Prior to the European election that might well have been a reasonable proposition. Since then there has been less willingness on the part of the DUP to be… willing. On the face of it, the current policing and justice row would also suggest that doing a deal with Sinn Fein is not necessarily a top priority for the DUP.
Oddly, there was no criticism of the UUP and their Conservative friends. Yet it/they are part of a four/five party grouping trying to find a way forward, which includes the SDLP. The SDLP is equally and implacably opposed to selection as is Sinn Fein. So surely any consensus will necessarily undermine selection. Indeed the UUP are so keen to make wider political points about a Sinn Fein/DUP partnership that it is willing to be seen to take a lead with the SDLP, despite the UUP and SDLP approaches to education policy no less diametrically opposed than Sinn Fein/DUP.
A clear and substantial section of those who would send their children to Catholic schools are in direct opposition to the policy of Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Catholic Church. It would seem an ideal opportunity for the UUP to consult with the excellent Michael Gove and discuss innovative and imaginative ideas to help Northern Ireland onto a new pathway to educational reform. Most certainly the UUP and/or the Conservatives could use the education debate to map out a policy that endorses excellence, promotes meritocracy based on open selection, and take leadership on the issue in support of grammar education for all communities, classes and, most of all, children with academic ability. That hasn’t happened.
If the new UUP/Conservative collaboration cannot make progress in establishing leadership in education, bringing something fresh and new to the debate, it is hard to see where else it can stop out from the pack. At this point it would seem that the UUP is equally likely to succumb to the urge to respond to the Belfast Telegraph’s vacuous campaign to ‘do something’. Doing something, if it is the wrong thing is just as harmful as doing nothing.
While Ruane may well be the ruin of the successful Northern Ireland education system, Sinn Fein is only able to continue because of the inability of any other party to engage with the public. There is a hunger for a dialogue that promotes educational excellence at all levels – building on strengths and addressing the weaknesses. Removing selection tests will not remove the obvious educational underachievement within localities; as much to do with social factors as standards in educational delivery, and at Primary level education int the first instance.
The Education Minister appears to be listening to no-one, and doesn’t really have to – there is no collective responsibility in the Executive and the Assembly clearly has no means of holding the Minister to account. Even if they could hold her to account there is not an ‘opposition’ with a credible alternative to deal with the educational underachievement that is being used to attack selection. Even if there were an Assembly selection next year would education be a big electoral issue; would it result in the removal of the Minister, or a change in the Party taking the Ministry?
Bob’s speech is a good piece of analysis, but was lost in the TUV conference and in his pointed comments on the DUP. The speech provides a start point for a wider discussion. Yet that is not the reason why Bob’s speech gained little attention. In truth, there is no incentive for political parties in Northern Ireland to offer alternatives, and only a marginal chance of any Party with an alternative winning electorally on the issue and then being able to work through their ideas to implementation.
Discussion on educational policy is reduced to throwing blame around the media and scoring political points at every opportunity. Education may be an issue of huge concern to the electorate, and especially to parents, but a debate on the future way forward hasn’t even started, and the references to frame that debate remain undefined.