After all the sunshine and bonhomie of recent times the clouds descended on Northern Ireland towards the end of the week when the Executive reached a complete deadlock over post primary education. Almost exactly one year from the start of the devolved Executive the Sinn Fein Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane brought her proposals on a new system of secondary education to the Executive on Thursday.
The proposals had been ‘leaked’ the day before and contained an apparent concession by the Minister. Previously Ms Ruane had insisted that academic selection would not be allowed to continue after 2008. Now she was suggesting that schools could – during a three year transition period - have a ‘bi-lateral’ intake whereby 50% could be selected by academic selection in the first year, 30% in the second year and 20% in the third year. After that the system would switch to entirely comprehensive all ability schools.
The pro grammar lobby and the DUP were quick to reject this idea as a mere ‘stay of execution’. Following the St. Andrews Agreement any attempt to remove academic selection has to be done with cross community consent. This is highly unlikely to be forthcoming.
Ms Ruane seems determined to proceed without or without Executive or Assembly approval although it is unclear how she could do so. She may issue Guidelines, warn primary schools to stick to the official curriculum and attempt to tempt schools with promises of extra money for schools who collaborate under the new system.
The risk in this is that the new Finance Minister whoever that may be (Jeffrey Donaldson?) has the legal authority to essentially cut funding to a Department if he feels the money is being used in an inequitable manner.
With the pro grammar lobby, the Association of Quality Education, apparently planning to reveal details of their new test in June a continuing stand off seems extremely likely and court action possible.
Some, including Basil McCrea MLA, think this issue has the potential to bring down the Executive. Newspaper commentators such as Liam Clarke in the News Letter and Dan Keenan in The Irish Times think a compromise can still be found.