Post-Primary Transfer

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 24th March 2009.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 3:15 pm, 24th March 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that schools may choose to use an examination as part of their entry criteria under the Minister of Education’s 2010 guidelines; calls on the Minister of Education to re-commission the CCEA test, she abandoned on 2 February 2009, that schools may then use for a maximum of two years; and calls on the Executive to agree new, legally binding guidelines for post primary transfer for use from 2011.

I am pleased that we now have an opportunity to return to this matter, which is, without doubt, the most vexing within the education debate. Indeed, of all the current issues before the Assembly, it is one of the most important.

I do not want to review in detail the history of how we got to where we are today, but I will make a few points. For the Alliance Party to recommend a system of academic selection, even on a temporary basis, is a major shift in its thinking — I nearly said “shame”. I emphasise that our basic long-term approach is unaltered. Our commitment to end selection at age 11 is solid, as is our preference for age 14, à la Dickson plan, as the age at which educational choices are made.

The Alliance Party wishes to raise the standards of secondary schools to such a level that parents will opt for them by first choice and not as second best. We have no desire to lower the standards or destroy the ethos of any school. Indeed, it would be completely counterproductive to raise one standard at the expense of another.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

No, not yet. Let me get into my stride. Come back in an hour.

We are offering a short-term fix to allow all parties — political or otherwise — to reconsider the way forward. In particular, we are asking the Minister to revisit, in an amended form, the compromise arrangements that she offered last year: a CCEA-formulated test based on the literacy and numeracy components of the revised curriculum, to be available as a standard test to all schools and all pupils.

That initiative has wide support from educationalists: they are not unanimous, but it has wide support. We have consulted widely, and it is fair to say that even those who do not agree have at least acknowledged the fact that we are trying to do something to avoid the looming confrontation caused by the Minister’s current refusal to compromise and the threat of independent action by the grammar-school lobby, aided, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by her political opponents.

I believe that if the Minister can be persuaded to run with our proposals, the problems she had with her previous compromise offer, over the legislative basis for the application of a test and the necessary conditions to be attached, could be overcome. No doubt, the Chairman of the Committee will refer to that when he rises to speak shortly. It must be clear that no legal basis is required to commission the test: the legal basis is required to apply the test. The Minister could give the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) the go-ahead this afternoon to complete the work, which, I believe, was largely completed anyway when she last asked it to do the same thing. Given that the Education Committee has also asked for a compromise very close to ours, it is hard to imagine how it could oppose this. Equally, one would think that, in the circumstances, the Executive would not block the issue either — but who knows.

We are reminded constantly that it is all about the children. I am speaking on their behalf in appealing for common sense to prevail.

I have been asked whether the Alliance Party would be content for grammar schools to use the test to provide 100% of their intake. The SDLP amendment makes specific reference to that question. We do not wish that situation to develop any more than the SDLP does, so we are suggesting a combination of the test results and the best of the Minister’s guidelines to provide a balanced intake to all schools, including grammar schools.

We do not wish to be prescriptive about the criteria to be applied; that is a matter for further discussion when framing the legislative basis for setting the criteria. For that reason, although we recognise the merits of the SDLP amendment, we want to keep the terms of our motion simple. Therefore, we will not support the amendment.

We find ourselves in a strange position. If the House had accepted the Minister’s 50%, 30%, 20% proposals some months ago, or if the Minister would now accept our proposals or the suggestions of the Committee for Education — which are practically the same — we could make progress. Two offers of compromise have been made at different times, but those, apparently, are unacceptable. Currently, however, we are considering the departmental guidelines — or our compromise — as the way forward.

The Alliance Party could work with the guidelines, but it is abundantly clear that others cannot. The question is whether the guidelines are enforceable. Legally, they probably are, but are we prepared to countenance enforcement actions against schools or head teachers who allow preparation time for grammar-school tests or allow their premises to be used in a way that contravenes those guidelines? Will we really take legal action? What sanctions will we apply against those head teachers? Will we cane them? Will we affect their funding in some way? The situation is ludicrous and unnecessary.

Are teachers expected to defy the advice of their unions and suffer the wrath of parents who want their children to be prepared for, perhaps, several different tests? Do we really want all that pressure to be heaped on 10-year-olds? Do the Association for Quality Education and other groups want to go down an unregulated road that is strewn with legal minefields? I do not think so; we do not need to do that.

The motion, if accepted by the Minister, will resolve the confusion for parents, pupils and teachers, and it will provide the Assembly with two further years to deliver democratic consensus. There is a feeling that that just cannot be done, but there are plenty of things around this place that people said could not be done. People are sitting in Government together who were — as they keep reminding us, no less so today — sworn enemies just a few years ago, and they are reaching agreement. Sometimes they sulk for a few months, but they get back to business. Things are being done that would have been unheard of a few years ago, so this issue can also be resolved.

We think that we have the support of large sections of the educational establishment, including the Churches, headmasters, the general public and the Transferor Representatives’ Council. The SDLP amendment also refers to a group of educators to try to find a way through this situation, which could be helpful. In fact, that is probably inevitable. However, it is the Department that eventually has to make the decisions, which is why I am appealing to the Minister. I do not think that I am breaking any confidence by stating that I believe that the Catholic bishops will also broadly support what we are doing.

Today, for varying reasons, I believe that we will receive the support of most of the parties that are represented here. I am under no illusions: different agendas, ambitions and endgames are involved. However, I do not care. If we are prepared to put our core principles on hold for the greater good, it is reasonable to ask the rest of the parties to do the same. It is fair enough if they have different agendas, but we can co-operate for the next two years and try to bring some order to the situation — otherwise, confusion and unacceptable pressure will be placed on our primary 5 and primary 6 children.

To reject the motion is to reject the only route away from chaos. Everyone involved with education, which means pretty much our entire population, will be watching carefully to see how we deal with the situation. Minister, it is over to you — join with us. The Minister is often quoted as saying that it is all about the children. It is time for her to prove that she means that. I ask her to support the motion.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 pm, 24th March 2009

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “2010 guidelines” and insert

“; calls on the Minister of Education to ensure the provision of a CCEA test, as she previously proposed, for a maximum period of two years; believes that no school should be allowed to admit its full year 8 pupil quota using the outcomes of that test alone or using any other test; recommends the admission criteria as outlined in the Minister’s statement on transfer 2010 on 2 February 2009 and welcomes the first criterion as a means of ensuring that all schools help tackle social deprivation; and further calls on the Minister of Education to set up a new educator-led working group tasked with building a sustainable consensus on non-selective transfer whose recommendations the Executive and the Assembly would use as the basis for legally binding regulations from 2011 at the latest.”

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím leis an leasú don rún a mholadh. The SDLP’s position on post-primary transfer is, and has always been, unambiguous. Since the party’s foundation, its members have campaigned for the abolition of the 11-plus. We believe it to be academically unsound and socially unjust. We welcome the fact that it has been confined to the dustbin of history. However, we cannot stand by and tolerate a situation whereby eight years after the 11-plus was abolished, we are less than eight months away from chaos and anarchy in the education system.

The SDLP is not afraid to show leadership on the issue. We have listened to what people have said, and we will continue to engage. At this stage, we are all aware of the public uncertainty about the transfer issue. We cannot afford to ignore that. It behoves us all to do everything within our power to ensure that parents, pupils and teachers have clarity on the issue. It is for that reason that our party has tabled the amendment.

The 2006-08 report by the chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate, which we debated earlier today, echoes the public’s views when it states that:

“The uncertainty about the practical implications of DE’s outlined proposals for the review of post-primary education remains a concern for individual schools, parents and pupils.”

To my mind, the Alliance Party’s motion is somewhat unclear about whether it seeks to support the original proposed use of the CCEA test. To some extent, Trevor Lunn has clarified that in his speech. We were unsure whether the motion supports the use of the test to admit a percentage of pupils — a different percentage each year — with all children in year 3 being admitted by application of admission criteria only, or whether it supports the use of tests to select 100% of the intake for grammar schools. Trevor now confirms that it supports the former, so I do not know why he cannot support our amendment.

Not only that, it was unclear whether the Alliance Party’s motion precluded the use of other tests, and we have clarified that in our amendment. Moreover, the motion does not point towards the future. Given those ambiguities, it was difficult for us to support the motion, which is why we tabled the amendment. I appeal to the Alliance Party to join us in supporting the amendment, because, as Trevor outlined, they are largely in agreement with major parts of our amendment.

The clear consensus is that an unregulated system is not desirable and that an interim regulated system is needed. The SDLP amendment offers that regulation as a short-term solution, pending agreement on a longer-term outcome. Our party’s amendment supports the continuation of such a regulated system for two years, but a system that is not solely dependent on a test.

As outlined in our policy, our party members would prefer that transfer take place without the use of test. However, given the exceptional prevailing circumstances, we believe that the partial use of the CCEA test is preferable to the use of an unlimited number of other tests in an unregulated system.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am interested to hear the Member outline what is now, presumably, SDLP policy. Has that policy been explained to the largely middle-class parents of Our Lady’s Grammar School, Sacred Heart Grammar School, Abbey Christian Brothers’ Grammar School and St Colman’s College in Newry? Those parents do not support the policy that has just been outlined.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I doubt whether those parents, whose views Mr Kennedy seems to know so intimately, vote for his party: they are more likely to be supporters of our party.

We know from the chief inspector’s report — which was debated earlier today — that many post-primary schools, particularly in the non-selective sector, are continuing to feel the effects of demographic decline. Enrolment figures have dropped by almost 4,000, and more than one third of schools have fewer than 500 pupils, which is potentially disastrous. Demographic decline is going to worsen over the next few years, which will lead to unplanned outcomes in the form of school closures in some areas. We need to act now before that situation occurs.

The arrangements for Key Stage 4 pupils must be fully in place by 2013 to ensure that schools can deliver the range of choice needed to fulfil the requirements of the entitlement framework. Area-based planning needs to continue in order to ensure that each area has an opportunity to shape its future educational provision. That does not mean a one-size-fits-all solution or one that is imposed on local areas from on high; it means a solution that best suits local circumstances, whether in Newry, which Mr Kennedy mentioned, Omagh, Derry, Lisburn, Enniskillen or anywhere else.

The chief inspector put his finger on one important aspect of the public pulse on this issue, namely the uncertainty about the practical implication of the Department’s proposals. People want to know what the outworking of those proposals will be for their local area, and it is only through the area-based planning process that they will see what those local outcomes will be. That is why it is so important for the process to continue and for local plans to be agreed in each sector and between the various sectors.

We can build parental confidence by telling parents what their local schools will be, how those schools will co-operate and collaborate and how their children will access those schools. In addition to the immediate problem of transfer in 2010, there is lack of knowledge and information about how education will be delivered in each local area in the years that will follow, which is compounding the existing uncertainty.

If parents are to have a degree of confidence in the system, they need to know the results of area-based planning and be able to see — in the words of the chief inspector — what “practical implications” the Department’s proposals will have for children in their local area. The SDLP believes, and proposes in the amendment, that an educator-led working group will be well placed to find sustainable consensus that will lead to a permanent solution for the future. That proposal and, indeed, all the main aspects of the amendment, have support in the wider educational community, and that will be confirmed in the future.

There is no doubt that we need change in our education system in order to meet the demands of the global economy, particularly during the economic downturn. We need change in order to address the shortcomings so clearly outlined during the debate on the chief inspector’s report. We need change to tackle the long tail of underachievement and the large number of pupils who leave our schools without proper qualifications. We need to bring certainty to pupils, parents, teachers and schools, and the proposals in our amendment will help to do that. I commend the amendment to the House and ask Members to support it. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 3:45 pm, 24th March 2009

I rise to speak as Chairperson of the Committee for Education. The debate is timely for two reasons: it provides an opportunity for the Committee to put on record its position on the unregulated system of transfer that is before us and, more importantly, it provides Members of the House with a last-minute opportunity to give a clear and unequivocal message to the Minister of Education so that primary-6 pupils, parents and teachers are not subjected to further unnecessary uncertainty and stress.

Immediately after the Minister of Education’s statement to the House on 2 February 2009 on the transfer 2010 guidance, the Committee requested that she come to a meeting of the Committee as soon as possible to discuss her proposed guidance. Having received no reply, the Committee discussed a widespread and growing concern about an unregulated transfer system at its meeting on 18 February, and agreed to write to the Minister. The Committee’s letter of 20 February to the Minister — and a follow-up letter of 2 March, written after the Committee had received confirmation that the Minister was prepared to appear before it — made crystal clear the extent of the Committee’s concern about an unregulated transfer system. There was a consensus within the Committee that that was the least desirable outcome for children, parents and schools. Both letters are available on the Committee’s website, under the heading “Committee Responses”.

Those letters are important and are central to today’s motion because they set out the Committee’s proposal to the Minister to reconsider the use of her own CCEA test as an interim compromise arrangement. The letter provided evidence of widespread concerns over an unregulated system, and asked the Minister for full and urgent consideration of the core principle of using a regulated test for an interim period, which would not distort the primary curriculum. I stress to Members that no other conditions were attached to the Committee’s proposal. Clearly, the detail of an interim solution required further work.

However, just 30 minutes before the Committee met the Minister of Education on 10 March, the Committee received the Minister’s briefing note for the meeting. At the second bullet point, it stated:

“I will not agree to the Committee’s request.”

The note went on to say that the CCEA test had been cancelled, and that it was commissioned as a contingency measure. After nearly two hours of robust discussion, as Chairperson of the Committee, I asked the Minister of Education whether she would allow the Committee to flesh out proposals. I also put to her a final question. The Hansard report shows that all parties represented on the Committee stated their positions on the Committee’s proposal. My question was as follows:

“Is it your intention to reflect on those considerations, or are you telling the Committee that you will not consider its request as outlined in the letter of 20 February?”

The Minister’s answer is all important to today’s debate:

“I always reflect on everything that the Committee says to me. I have been clear about Transfer 2010 — it is the Department’s policy. There will not be a CCEA test. We have to move forward now under Transfer 2010 in the interests of all our children.”

As Chairperson of the Committee for Education, I shall end by listing the evidence of concerns about an unregulated system, which we put to the Minister in the Committee’s letter of 20 February. Those are —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am deeply concerned that the views of the Education Committee are not being fairly reflected by the Chairperson in this debate. I ask you to examine the Member’s speech because it does not reflect the Education Committee’s stated position. No position has been agreed by the Education Committee on this matter.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I certainly did not call the Member as Chairperson of the Committee.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Member has consistently referred to himself as Chairperson of the Education Committee. He is speaking as Chairperson of the Education Committee, and I contend that his remarks do not reflect the agreed position of the Committee.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I will look at the Hansard report, and I will come back to the Member directly, or to the House. To clarify that point: from the Chair’s point of view, I certainly did not call him as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education. He may have reflected that himself as a Member.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I made it abundantly clear. It seems as though some Members have difficulty with their hearing. I am speaking as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education. The Member is quite entitled to raise his concerns. If he is questioning the accuracy of the Hansard report, the accuracy of the letter that was sent to the Minister of Education — and the Member was present when that letter was approved — or if he has a difficulty with his own intelligence, that is his problem not mine.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

On a point of order. The Member has just confirmed that he is speaking as Chairperson of the Committee for Education. There is no agreed position from the Education Committee in relation to this matter. There is no agreed statement from the Education Committee on this matter. I maintain that the position that is being given by the Member is inaccurate.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

As I said to the Member earlier, let me look at the Hansard report and I will come back to you directly, or to the House.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Obviously this is an issue that has caused grave concern — and I speak now not as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, but as a Member. However, obviously, I am glad that the Minister

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I am just glad that the Minister of Education finds this issue so funny. Well, it is not funny whenever she has —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Well, I will say this, Mr Speaker: it is not funny for the Minister of Education, who allows a situation to develop —

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Minister said that she will not continue with academic selection. We will see by the end of this week, when other statements are made, as to whether that is still her stated position.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I must insist that the Member takes his seat.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Storey has confirmed that he was speaking as Chairperson of the Committee for Education. I would like to place on record that in the letter of 20 February, from the Committee to the Minister on the issue of CCEA tests, I expressed the reservations that our party has on that issue. I said that we feared that it would become a permanent fixture, and I reiterated that point at the Education Committee’s meeting on 10 March. I just want to record our party’s stance on that issue.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order, order. I have said so many times in the House that I would prefer it if Committee business was not discussed on the Floor of the Chamber. I have made that absolutely clear on many occasions. Whatever happens within a Committee should stay within a Committee. It should not come onto the Floor of this Assembly for any debate.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i gcoinne an rúin agus an leasaithe. I am against the motion and the proposed amendment. It is worth noting that among the letters to the Minister — which have been so referred to in the debate — was a letter from a principal in Lisburn, speaking against academic selection, upon which the Chairperson of the Committee for Education failed to reflect.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No, I will not give way.

Is there an agreed position in the House on the unregulated system, I wonder? I have taken a leaf out of Mr McCausland’s book and delved deep into the libraries of this institution, into the dusty alcoves, and found many an interesting speech, which, I suspect, will not have me thrown out, but I will repeat it. These are interesting words:

“I think that there’s not a stalemate and let’s dispel this myth that somehow if we went into an unregulated system that the wheels would fall off the educational cart, that’s not the case. I have every confidence in the educational system, in the teachers in that system who have had to take, I have to say, a huge amount of change over the years.”

Those are not my words, but those of Mr Storey, speaking in favour of an unregulated system, if I am quoting him correctly, and I am quoting him correctly ― from ‘Stormont Live’ on 21 December 2008.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No.

I also find it interesting that the Alliance Party and the SDLP, which have again stated in the Chamber that they are opposed to academic selection, bring forward motions which enshrine academic selection in our future. The SDLP tells us that, since its foundation, it has been opposed to, and campaigned against, academic selection. That is very admirable indeed; but it is decision time.

It is time to stand up and be counted on the issue, because for 40 years —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No.

Those who support the grammar-school system have got off the hook on every occasion. Forty years ago when the SDLP was formed, many people were lobbying to have academic selection ended, because, in the words of the SDLP, it is “socially unjust and academically unsound”. Why, in 2009, are we talking about continuing for another two years with a system that a majority of people accept is wrong? The SDLP is really saying that it wants to continue with it for another two years, when it has already continued for 40 years from 1967.

On Sinn Féin’s watch, the system will not continue. The state will no longer sponsor academic selection in any way, and we will not allow the small minority of schools to dictate to the majority of schools how the education system should be run.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No.

It will not happen on our watch.

On many occasions, I have listened to and debated at length with the DUP on academic selection. I remain somewhat bewildered about why that party supports it. I do not understand why it brought the issue of academic selection into the constitutional negotiations at St Andrews. Where was the demand in the unionist community to bring that matter to St Andrews? I do not remember marches, protests or any sort of demand from any community or sector to bring such an issue to St Andrews. The DUP brought the matter to St Andrews — [Interruption.]

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The DUP got crumbs off the desk of the British Government.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No.

The DUP has achieved a political stalemate on the matter. It believed that it had secured the future of academic selection. It may have done so in the legislation somewhere, but it has not done so in terms of the Department of Education funding or supporting it. We have to move beyond selection. In the earlier debate, Miss McIlveen outlined the fact that education underachievement is most prevalent in deprived working-class areas. We all have such areas in our constituencies, so why did the DUP make academic selection one of the issues at constitutional negotiations?

In many cases, the very reason for education underachievement is that children are told at age 11 that they are a failure. There is no point in supporting children at the age of three with extra resources if, when they get to 11, they are told that they are a failure because of two one-hour tests. In the future weeks and months, the pressure should be applied to the small minority of schools who insist on continuing with academic selection. They should be told that the game is over.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I rise to bring a bit of calm and decorum to this overheated House. I have a vision. I see a runaway train, driven by the Minister of Education, hurtling towards Cassandra crossing. The Minister of Education has taken away the bridge and said not to worry because the train will jump the chasm anyway. Have I ever heard anything as ridiculous in my life?

When I heard John O’Dowd pontificate about failure, I was struck by the abject failure of the House to get any possible solution. Compromise was mentioned, but there is no such thing as compromise in this place. The Minister of Education said that she wanted to see leadership. When one has leadership with no followers, one gets dictatorship. This is a dictatorship; it is going nowhere and it will bring this place down. The Minister should think about the political consequences of her action.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way — I am not sure which Member, but I am grateful anyway. Does the Member agree that, sadly, the Minister of Education is now the Minister of mediocrity?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I cannot agree more. This is about mediocrity and about make-do and mend. This is not about the future or about vision.

That is a disgrace. The Minister of Education will leave her legacy, on which people will look back. I am not sure whether Members have seen the film called ‘The Age of Stupid’. Now is the age of stupid: the age of inability to find compromise and to provide genuine leadership.

We are in the process of bringing out facts and figures. People refer to “a privileged few”. Let me say that 42% of children attend grammar schools. That is not a privileged few. A significant number of children attend secondary modern schools. They have a perfectly good, fantastic education and love their schools. They are not a privileged few. However, 25% of the school-aged population has problems with educational underachievement. That has nothing to do with the 11-plus; it has everything to do with social deprivation.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 4:00 pm, 24th March 2009

I thank the Member for giving way. One of the previous Members to speak said that there is no demand for academic selection. Is it not the case that a survey carried out by the Member’s predecessor as Minister of Education, and who is from the same party, found that 64% of parents who responded wanted the retention of academic selection? That nails the myth that there is no desire among the public for academic selection.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Absolutely: Mr Weir makes a good point very well. It answers precisely Mr O’Dowd’s position.

I do not read from notes often in the Chamber. However, I was given some notes, which, when I read them, I thought were good. I have, therefore, decided to share a few of them. One issue that they raise is that since the Minister has taken up office, she has, unfortunately, presided over a dysfunctional and ill-thought-out set of reforms that have caused much angst, confusion and even anger in the Chamber.

It is time for the Minister to adopt a different, less abrasive style, like mine. It is time for a new period of sensible consensus to emerge on post-primary transfer. That will not be easy. However, it is the Assembly’s duty to try to do more. It is on the record that the Ulster Unionist Party, although it recognises why grammar schools have set out their own entrance tests, does not believe that that is a sustainable basis for transfer into the future.

The claims of victory that come from certain quarters appear ludicrous to parents, children and teachers who face educational chaos. The Minister must realise that if she continues on her current course, parents, teachers and, above all, children will suffer. In reality, we, politicians, suffer little. We can have fun with our little political rivalries and postures. However, children and the public will hold us to account.

The motion is sensible and will give the Assembly, the Minister and the Executive the vital breathing space that they need to move forward with some form of consensus. Make no mistake: unless everyone agrees, nothing happens in Northern Ireland. To that end, I welcome the recent input of the three main Protestant churches. They want a sustainable solution.

My party also accepts that the 11-plus has had its day; it was designed for a different time. In the past, my party argued for the test’s limited retention in order to ensure some continuity and balance in order to deliver schools from chaos. However, it is now happy to support the recommissioning of the CCEA test, which the Minister unwisely abandoned. There will be serious issues with regard to its design and piloting, but the Assembly must come up with something.

Even at this late hour, it is within the Minister of Education’s power to prevent the education system from falling further into chaos. She can set aside her ideological prejudice and put children’s welfare first. She can support the motion’s principles.

My party supports the substantive motion.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

I, too, support the motion. I welcome the fact that colleagues in the Alliance Party have brought it forward.

The first part of the motion reminds Members:

“That this Assembly notes that schools may choose to use an examination as part of their entry criteria”.

That is the situation, which, I am aware, is difficult for some members of Sinn Féin to acknowledge and accept. However, it is a reality. They have not managed to abolish academic selection.

They have failed utterly and miserably to do that. That is because during the discussions at St Andrews, the DUP addressed the issue of selection, and the current provision whereby it is possible to select children for a grammar school on the basis of academic criteria was retained. Therefore, that provision will not be given away, and Sinn Féin is impotent in that it is incapable of taking it away.

John O’Dowd told the House — very forcibly — that a minority should not dictate to a majority. I am glad to hear that. However, the point was made that survey after survey has made it clear that the majority of people in Northern Ireland favour the retention of an appropriate form of academic selection. In one survey, even a majority of Sinn Féin supporters said that they favoured the retention of academic selection. Therefore, it is not a case of a minority dictating to a majority. The position is absolutely clear: the majority of people in Northern Ireland support the DUP view, which is shared by the Ulster Unionist Party.

The motion recognises the reality, rather than the unreality and the pretend world in which Sinn Féin wants to live. It calls on the Minister to recommission the CCEA test — which she abandoned on 2 February — in order that schools may use it for a maximum of two years. In other words, there should be a two-year breathing space that will provide an opportunity both for proper debate and real discussion and for calm reflection on the issue, rather than the confrontational and bullish approach that we have seen the Minister and her party demonstrate. I remember her party leader’s comment to the effect that the Minister’s role is to implement Sinn Féin policy. The Minister is trying to implement a policy, but it is one that she is incapable of implementing because of the provisions of the St Andrews Agreement.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Is the Member telling us that after two years of quiet reflection, the DUP will agree to abolish academic selection?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention, because it gives me an extra minute in which to speak.

The key point is that reflection is not about predetermined outcomes; it is about consideration. The fact is that the DUP is prepared to sit down and have a proper discussion, but not one that involves the head-to-head confrontation in which the Minister has indulged over what we were told earlier has been the past two years. She has indulged in a confrontational, bullying approach through which she has told the House that she is the Minister and that that is that. That is not the way in which to get the consensus that we need on the issue.

At the moment, there is no consensus even in the academic world. I could speak to one academic in the field of education in Queen’s University who will give me one view, but another in that sphere will give me a contrary view. The Minister tells us that everybody except Sinn Féin is out of step. However, that is not the case. She does not recognise the reality of the legislative position or the reality of the variety of views on the issue.

Over the years, there has been no proper discussion of the matter. If we were given the opportunity to have that interim period, some security for parents and children would be provided, there could be debate on the matter, and the issue could progress from the current stand-off. However, an unregulated selection system is in place, regardless of whether the Minister likes it. I acknowledge that it is not the best system, but it is much better than her other option of having no selection. The Minister has acknowledged that a CCEA test that would not have an impact on the teaching of the revised curriculum could be introduced. Therefore, there is no justification for the Minister’s position and every justification for supporting the motion.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé sásta labhairt ar an rún agus ar an leasú inniu.

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate on the motion and the amendment, although I will be unable to support either.

I believe that the Alliance Party’s proposal is a complete departure from that party’s policy position. I listened carefully to the explanation and rationale that was offered by the proposer of the motion, but the proposal lacks any coherence or detail on how any interim or compromise position would work in practice in relation to grammar-school intake. For example, the absence of any reference to social deprivation fatally undermines the proposal.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

I would rather get into the argument, if that is OK. I will see how I get on and will, if I can, leave some space for an intervention.

The absence of any reference to social deprivation seriously undermines the entire rationale for dealing with the inequities that exist in the current system, and to argue for preserving that system, in many ways, betrays that party’s position.

I took the trouble to read the Alliance Party’s position; it supports the abolition of the 11-plus, and it argues that schools should not be allowed to use academic ability to decide who should be given a place. That party’s policy is also that children should progress to study a common middle-school curriculum for three years and argues that existing schools could provide what it describes as a middle-school education; that is an important point.

The policy position of the Alliance Party is also, importantly, that the election of a particular educational route should be deferred until the age of 14. Those views are the basis of consensus and agreement. It is regrettable that the Alliance Party should depart from that. I am reminded of the day that the Alliance Party Members re-designated themselves in the Assembly to provide support to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. I also recall that, in relation to that episode, the Alliance Party promised to never again abandon its principles; I suppose that this is a case of “déjà vu all over again”.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

No. Please allow me to develop the argument.

I will explain my opposition to the SDLP’s amendment. Although the middle section of the amendment is drawn directly from the guidelines produced by the Department, the opening statement sits curiously against the SDLP position, as defined by Dominic Bradley 18 months ago. He described the compromise proposals as a clear climb down from the Minister’s stated position on academic selection. He railed:

The Minister has caved in to pressure from those who are opposed to reform.”

He also said that bringing forward compromise proposals was:

“the thin end of the wedge for the continuation of the 11-Plus into the future”.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

No. I hope that I am annoying you, because I am quoting the facts.

Today’s amendment can only be described as yet another U-turn, and a betrayal of the mandate to abolish academic selection that the SDLP, since its inception, has sought from the electorate. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Before I was interrupted, I was making the point that the SDLP is abandoning its mandate. We heard some reference today to that party’s consistency; where is the consistency? Some people will see that party’s position as contradictory and illogical, and that is probably the kindest remark that could be made about the SDLP argument that we heard today.

It is important to state that the process in which we are now involved is a one of necessary change — it is not change for the sake of change. It is a process of change with the sole aim of developing and building on the successes and the good, strong points of the current system, while addressing the serious inequalities and weaknesses that also, undoubtedly, exist.

What I have heard from across the Floor is that all parties are articulating a desire to have an education system that delivers and produces the sort of educational outcomes that we need, as a society, in order to face the challenges that will emerge in the years ahead.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

If Members have private conversations to hold, please hold them outside the Chamber.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP 4:15 pm, 24th March 2009

It looks like this council is still trapped in groundhog day on this issue. It should be clear to all of us by now that it simply does not matter what Dominic Bradley and Mr Lunn say about post-primary transfer — or whether Basil McCrea takes a heart attack in the middle of the debate — the Minister will simply ignore us.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Which council is it?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

We can continue to put forward motions, but she will still pay no attention whatsoever, because they do not fit in with her party political agenda.

The DUP has been very clear on this issue. We fought to retain academic selection: it is what parents want, and it is clear that it is what more schools and teachers across the communities are willing to now say that they want, despite the bullying tactics of the Minister, who has now left the Chamber. The Department —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Will the Member withdraw the remarks that have caused the Minister of Education to walk out of the Assembly? [Laughter.]

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Indeed. Despite the Minister’s bullying tactics, the Department and her friends in INTO, it will not make a lot of difference.

We believe that academic selection is best for our children’s education and for having an effective and well-equipped workforce for the future of Northern Ireland. On that basis, it is obvious that the DUP cannot accept the SDLP’s amendment. I had to laugh when I read that one of the political bloggers — a former SDLP special adviser — had suggested that the amendment represented an attempt by the SDLP to seek to break the 11-plus deadlock. Unfortunately, if this amendment is the best that the SDLP can do then I am disappointed at its lack of imagination and understanding of the position of the two unionist parties and of the legislative reality that is in place.

Surely the SDLP knows that the DUP will not back the amendment, as the retention of selective transfer remains a key part of our education policy. The Minister

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

No; I have plenty to say. The Minister, Sinn Féin and the SDLP must accept the fact that academic selection is staying and that nothing can be done without the agreement of those on the Benches on this side of the House. Only when that is accepted can we move forward. The problem that Northern Ireland faces time and again is that some parties work towards aspirations rather than dealing with political realities. Given that academic selection has been retained through legislation, it would have been a much more productive use of the SDLP’s time to put forward a proposal incorporating that fact in a way that would be of benefit to children across Northern Ireland.

In February, the Minister told us to think of the children.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I have plenty to say.

We do think of the children; we also think of the education system, parents and society in general. We think about what the Minister is doing to children, parents and schools through her intransigence. We think about the emotional strains that are being placed on families throughout Northern Ireland while the Minister plays party political games with our children’s futures for some ideological aspiration.

The parties should be working together to formulate a system of academic selection that addresses the flaws in the old 11-plus. I am not wearing rose-coloured glasses and thinking about the wonderful system that it was; but its problems can be addressed, and the Minister must remove her own blinkers on the matter. She previously said that the CCEA could produce a test; if that is the case, then it should be done. I do not agree with claims of chaos and scaremongering about entrance tests, but I do feel that the current unregulated system is not ideal.

The DUP has always been clear on that point; we previously proposed that a CCEA test — to agreed specifications — should be set for a period of up to three years, and that such testing could and should be carried out in primary schools. That period could be used to settle on a long-term method for transfer, and for any new system to allow for the continuation of academic selection. Any replacement test would have to address criticisms of a high-stakes nature; susceptibility to coaching; poor differentiation of results, and the time delay in waiting for results. Such problems are not insurmountable, given the progress of technology.

The DUP had also proposed the establishment of an agreed panel of experts with experience of transfer procedures, which would advise the Department of Education and the Assembly on the development of the best arrangements for us in Northern Ireland.

The Minister chose not to listen and not to seek consensus; she continues to plough her lone furrow — and stuff the consequences. I back the Alliance Party’s motion —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I fear that the Minister will once again ignore the will of the Assembly, the will of parents and the common will of our children.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

In addressing the motion, it is interesting to reflect on where we have come from. On 10 November 2008, the Assembly passed an Ulster Unionist Party motion, which stated:

“That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to end the uncertainty facing parents and teachers of children in Primary 6 by continuing with the existing post-primary transfer test until a replacement is designed and piloted by CCEA.” — [Official Report, Vol 35, No 1, p4, col 2].

That resolution is guidance. Of course, the Minister recently issued her own guidance, for which schools must have regard; they cannot disregard it. That means that a board of governors can simply put the guidance on the agenda of a meeting, read it, have regard to it, decide that the guidance is not for that school and then move on. The guidance that the House gave the Minister last year, however, is slightly different. The Minister is subject to the ministerial code, which contains a Pledge of Office.

On 8 May 2007, the Minister told the House:

“Yes, I am willing to take up the office of Minister of Education, and I affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 22, p7, col 2]

Paragraph (f) of the Pledge of Office states that the Minister affirms:

“to support, and to act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly;”.

Is the Minister, therefore, in breach of the Pledge of Office, and how many votes will the Minister ignore before she is finally willing to engage?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Will the Member join me in considering the supposed advantages of the St Andrews Agreement that there would be no solo runs by any Minister and that academic selection would no longer be an issue?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I agree with the Member’s sentiments. Unfortunately, we are now in educational gridlock, which is in nobody’s interest.

The close similarity between the motion in today’s Order Paper and our motion of last year means that my colleagues and I are happy to endorse the motion; however, we cannot support the SDLP amendment. It is too prescriptive, particularly as it appears to rule out entirely a role for academic criteria in a post-primary transfer process. If there is to be consensus, it must ensure that concern for social justice is united with, and not set in false opposition to, concern for academic excellence. The amendment, although well intentioned, unfortunately fails that test.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member recall that Mr Lunn clarified the Alliance Party’s position when he outlined the terms of the motion? He said that the motion is not intended to be test-dependent alone and that the Alliance Party also wants non-academic criteria to be contained in the guidance. Therefore, any party that supports the motion will be supporting the view of the Alliance Party as Mr Lunn expressed clearly.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I accept the Member’s point; however, that is not established explicitly in the motion. It may be implicit, and that might have been the intention of the motion, but when and if the motion passes it will not include an explicit reference to such a system, unlike the SDLP’s amendment.

The debate over post-primary transfer has been ongoing for well over a decade, perhaps longer. If the Minister and her party still do not recognise that consensus and give and take are the only ways forward, I am left wondering whether they want our education system to be thrown into complete and utter chaos as they act out their bizarre Che Guevara fantasies of class strife. Sometimes, I think that the Minister’s views were fashioned in the jungles of Colombia.

However, we are where we are. The motion is reasonable, because it attempts to guide the Minister out of the hole that she has dug for herself. The Minister’s cancellation of the CCEA test that she commissioned has left our education system in a mess. Restarting the process to develop that test on a short-term basis is the only realistic way out of that position and would provide clarity for schools, parents and children. The unregulated system that the Minister has left us with is unsustainable — she should accept that and seek to improve the situation.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

The terms of the motion provides that the Minister should offer a short-term solution while the Executive get to grips with the issue.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the amendment. The SDLP totally supports the abolition of the 11-plus, which is socially unjust and academically unsound, irrespective of some of the comments that we heard during the debate.

The 11-plus can segregate and be the cause of much undue stress for pupils, teachers and parents. Our amendment allows for the end of the 11-plus and, essentially, the end of academic selection. It will also allow for an early resolution and a more unified way forward for the transfer of children from primary to post-primary education. There is much confusion about that issue, which has been caused by the bickering and the political point scoring over the past year or so. It is time that we made the scenario educator-led. After all, the educators will be thrust into the middle of whatever system is eventually put into practice, and it is they who will work to teach and mould the children who may well be the high achievers of tomorrow.

It is essential that children, parents and teachers alike are given some sort of solace amid all the confusion. There needs to be a general test set by CCEA, and no matter where schools are in the league table, they should not be allowed to meet their intake quota from the result of that, or any other, test. That will give all children the chance to excel.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I am sorry.

We agree with the first criterion referred to in transfer 2010, which should, in essence, help to tackle social deprivation. However, we have a concern about area-based criteria in situations where there are post-primary schools sited in the heart of residential areas that are graded as being socially deprived. That is particularly relevant in my constituency. Under the Minister’s proposals, children from those areas will be forced into schools in which the bulk of pupils are classed as underachievers and linked to social deprivation.

We commend the amendment to Sinn Féin and ask its Members to support it if they are serious about the abolition of academic selection. Are they going to sit back and allow the top schools to create their own selection process that cannot be regulated, which will allow them to take a carte blanche approach, do as they wish and answer to no one?

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

No; I am sorry, I refused before.

With our amendment, there can still be some control, and guidelines can be issued for all schools to adhere to. Within the past hour, we were discussing the chief inspector’s report, which outlined a mixed bag of standards and quality through primary and post-primary education. If we cannot sort out the mess around academic selection, I dread the next report.

I urge the Minister to listen to the people and commission a standard test for the next few years to allow an educator-led working group to create a non-selective transfer procedure that can be used as a basis for a legally bound regulation. The Minister should give the educational professionals the chance to succeed where political footballers have evidently failed. Our children and the educators are those who suffer.

It is time for it to end. We cannot and should not expect the educators, the children or their parents to go forward with a deregulated system; it is not fair.

I support the amendment.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 24th March 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I acknowledge the support of Trevor Lunn and the Alliance Party for the ending of academic selection. However, I am disappointed that they and he are not following through on their party policy on the matter.

I am also disappointed that the Education Committee has failed to reach a consensus to date. I note that the Chairperson of the Committee is attempting to misrepresent the Committee, as he did previously when I appeared before them, when he claimed to speak for all of the members when making statements. It was obvious that he did not speak for everyone, as my colleague John O’Dowd has stated.

The motion is yet another attempt to block or slow the process of change that I have set in motion. That process is designed to provide a first-class education for all of our children. The system that the proposers of the motion wish to keep in place was a failed one, and I have already made it clear that the status quo is not an option.

As I stated to the Education Committee two weeks ago, last year’s test was the last 11-plus. That system was designed 60 years ago, and it is clearly not fit for the modern world. Not only was it outdated, but it was fundamentally wrong, based on academic apartheid, and it condemned the majority of our children as failures. In my opinion, no child is a failure. For that reason alone, there will be no further state-sponsored testing at 11 years old.

Cur chuige neamhoiriúnach agus neamhleor is ea an roghnú acadúil; cur chuige éagórach amach is amach atá ann. Tá córas oideachais uainn atá bunaithe ar an bpáiste agus a fhreastalaíonn ar riachtanais shaol an lae inniu.

Academic selection is an inappropriate and inadequate approach to education. It is also unjust and fundamentally wrong. We need an education system that is child-centred, and meets the needs of our modern world. I am anxious to see change that delivers for all of our children, and allows each of them to develop their own individual strengths and talents — a system that builds on the individual strengths that every single one of our children possesses, whatever that strength is. The singular focus on academic ability must be replaced by a focus on all talents and aptitudes.

In the absence of regulations, I have issued guidance. The policy of the Department of Education is transfer 2010. Schools will be obliged, in law, to have regard for the guidance. On equality grounds, and also because of risks of dysfunction, the guidance strongly recommends that schools do not use academic admissions criteria. If a school chooses to do so, it must provide for itself the robust assessment mechanism and procedures that such criteria require.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Department strongly recommends that academic admissions criteria are not used because of the fundamental inequality and injustice of academic selection.

That brings me to the second part of the motion, which calls on me to recommission the CCEA test to enable schools to use it for a maximum of two years. I proposed the test for three years, not two. I proposed a legislative framework accompanying a test that would limit its use across that three-year period, thus phasing out academic selection. That would have been a transition with a very clear outcome, ending the inequality that is academic selection.

I sought engagement on that proposal over a period of eight months. That opportunity was not taken up, and, because of that failure, and the blocking of discussion on two occasions by the DUP, I took the decision to move on. We are where we are.

People say that I have no power, but the 11-plus is gone for ever, and I welcome and celebrate that. The amendment contains elements that are helpful, notably in their support of the free school meals criterion, and other criteria recommended by the guidance published by my Department on 2 February 2009. However, I find it strange that an approach is being proposed that was condemned as a climbdown last year. My colleague Mitchel McLaughlin has stated that better than I can. The song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ comes to mind.

The amendment proposes another working group, as if Burns, Gallagher, Costello and the non-selective systems that dominate the PISA tables have not told us enough already.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When the Minister makes political comments about the SDLP, is she speaking as a member of Sinn Féin or as the Minister of Education in the four-party mandatory coalition?

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I made it clear when I called the Minister to speak that I had called the Minister of Education.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Speaking as the Minister of Education, I will not reinstate the failed system for two more years. Many of those who are seeking interim arrangements are merely seeking an extension of the status quo.

Agus sin an fáth nach mbeidh síneadh ar an tesist teipthe, nó ní dhéanfadh sin ach páistí atá faoi mhíbhuntáiste eacnamaíochta a chur faoi dhá bhliain eile den roghnú sóisialta agus an neamhionannas a bhaineann leis.

Let me be clear about why there will be no extension of the status quo. It would mean two more years of economically disadvantaged children suffering the inequality of social selection.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I will not. How did the 11-plus serve this year’s admissions process? For admissions in the 2008-09 school year: 77 out of 135 children in Holywood’s four primary schools transferred into a grammar school; in the seven primary schools serving the Malone Road area, 214 out of 235 children transferred into a grammar school; in the two primary schools serving the Stranmillis area, 62 out of 93 children transferred into a grammar school. However, in the three schools that largely serve the Sandy Row area, 11 out of 79 children transferred into a grammar school; in the three primary schools that largely serve the Shankill area, 10 out of 104 children transferred to a grammar school; in the seven schools serving the Falls area, the figure was 49 out of 284. Members must represent their constituencies.

Two more years of the status quo would mean two more years of appalling figures, which are clear indicators of profound and damaging inequality. Do the proposers of the motion want me to continue with that socio-economic determinism? Are they really urging me to maintain an admissions process that, with grim certainty, leads to the appalling statistic that, although one in four children in non-grammar schools is entitled to free school meals, the ratio in grammar schools is one in 17?

What would two more years of the status quo mean for primary schools? Do the Members who tabled the motion recognise the fact that they are urging me to allow the continued distortion of teaching in primary schools, as normal lessons are abandoned in order to put children through practice papers in preparation for a test? Some schools begin conditioning at P5. However, those who do not take the test — one third of all children — are left out of preparations and are, therefore, in danger of losing interest and falling behind in achieving basic levels of literacy and numeracy.

Although 10-year-old children in Europe and the rest of Ireland — and in every other part of the world — improve their literacy and numeracy skills, learn languages and participate in drama and sport during the next two years, the Members who tabled the motion want our children to be prepared for a test.

What would two more years of the status quo mean for children who attend non-grammar schools? [Interruption.]

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I shall tell Members what it would mean for children in Fermanagh. There are 14 post-primary schools in Fermanagh, four of which are grammar schools and 10 of which are secondary schools. Pupil numbers in Fermanagh have fallen to such a degree that its four grammar schools now educate half of the county’s post-primary schoolchildren. The other 10 non-grammar schools educate the remaining half. Consequently, one quarter of the desks in the 10 non-grammar schools are empty.

Of the children who attend those non-grammar schools, 20·3 % are entitled to free school meals. Those 10 schools educate 109 children who are in receipt of a statement of special educational needs. In contrast, the four grammar schools are full, and 7·1% of their children are entitled to free school meals. Only nine of their children are in receipt of a statement of special educational needs. Thanks to the 11-plus test and the selection process, Fermanagh has a fundamentally divided post-primary school system, in which 10 schools absorb all the area’s various challenges.

An bhfuilimid ag iarraidh dhá bhliain eile den chóras sin a bheith ann do pháistí Fhear Manach? Tá an rud céanna le feiceáil i mBéal Feirste, i nDoire agus in áiteanna eile. An é sin an córas atá moltóirí an rúin ag iarraidh a bheith ann go cionn dhá bhliain eile?

Do we want two more years of that for the children of Fermanagh? The same can be observed in Belfast, in Derry and elsewhere throughout the North of Ireland. Is that the system in which supporters of the motion would like to continue?

I have heard suggestions that the Catholic Church proposals may contain a request for the Department to recommission the test as an interim measure for a set period of years before academic selection would end after some future debate. Any attempt to construct another test would, in my view, be totally contrary to the principles of social justice to which the Catholic Church is publicly committed. [Interruption.]

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Order.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

It would be in conflict with the policy of the whole Catholic sector, which is to move away from the current process of academic selection to a more just, modern and fit-for-purpose system.

The third and final part of the motion calls on the Executive to agree new, legally binding guidelines for post-primary transfer for use from 2011. I sought to do just that. Indeed, the commission for the CCEA test — now cancelled — was a specific contingency to provide options that might enable agreement on a legislative framework for transfer 2010 and beyond — the challenge presented to us all by the St Andrews Agreement.

I twice brought forward proposals to the Executive for just such a legislative framework. Those proposals reflected my party’s opposition to academic selection, but also acknowledged the views of educationalists with whom they were developed, and the views of pro-selective colleagues in Government. Why else would I propose three more years of academic selection, even on a declining basis? Those proposals were not even discussed. That is why I abandoned them, that is why I decommissioned the CCEA test, and that is why I decided to proceed with the guidelines.

The absence of a test and regulations is a result of the refusal to engage politically — and the blocking of any discussion of my proposals at Executive level — by the DUP. Twice I brought proposals to the Executive. That failure to engage caused uncertainty for parents, teachers and children, and was the most pressing reason for any decision to move forward on guidance.

I reiterate that in the absence of political agreement there will be no state-sponsored test: I will not reinstate the status quo. I have set out the criteria that will be used to transfer children to post-primary education from 2010. The Department’s transfer 2010 guidance provides admissions criteria that are already widely used and which promise clarity, and — for the first time ever — fairness.

Any entrance test that operates outside that guidance is in a legal minefield, as some grammar schools proposing such an approach are finding out. If they continue, they will generate a damaging confusion for parents and pupils. Therefore, I again urge them to consider carefully the consequences of standing outside the system and of breaking away.

The transfer 2010 guidance has been issued for public consultation, and I have written to parents of primary-6 pupils to explain the content. The guidance is not preferable to regulation; however, if it is followed, it will deliver an effective and fair system of post-primary transfer. It will also deliver a system of post-primary transfer that will help to answer the wider and desperately urgent reform agenda of embracing demo­graphic decline and schools sustainability, the delivery of the entitlement framework and underachievement. If departmental policy and the guidance are followed, we will have, for the first time, a system of transfer based on social justice, equality and excellence.

Rather than continue to knock on doors that have already been shut in our faces, rather than revisit ideas of proposals blocked, then blocked again, I call on those genuine people who support change to grasp this opportunity to end once and for all the practice of forcing 10-year-old children to sit tests in order that some can access the education to which all should be entitled.

The train has left the station. Transfer 2010 is departmental policy, and I look forward to working with every Member to build an education system of excellent quality for all children.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 24th March 2009

The debate addresses an issue of fundamental importance to society. If we were living in a normal society with a normal Government, the failure to bring forward a regulated method for the transfer of children from the primary to the secondary sector of education would, undoubtedly, cause the fall of that Government. That is the challenge facing the Minister, and she has not answered it.

I do not deny that the Minister’s task has not been easy, given that the unionist parties, who fundamentally oppose the removal of academic selection, occupy precisely half of the seats in the Assembly. However, many people in the community to whom I speak, including educators and parents, are reflecting with great anxiety on how the Minister has confronted this difficult task.

The SDLP amendment is a serious attempt to get the Assembly out of an extremely difficult situation. It is a substantial and comprehensive amendment that deserves the serious consideration of the Assembly.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member agree that the test referred to in the amendment is the same one as originally proposed by the Minister? At that time, the SDLP had reservations, but she reassured us that the test could be used without distorting the primary-school curriculum in any way.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I certainly found the comments of the Minister, and of Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on education, strange, and I will probably refer to that later.

Let us consider the party positions on the motion and the amendment. The SDLP supports the motion, as amended; the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party support the original motion; and Sinn Féin supports neither. The Alliance Party supports the motion, having brought it forward — its members seem to agree with much of the amendment, from what they said, but essentially the original motion is the position that it wants to sustain.

Those party positions demonstrate the weakness of the original motion. The parties that support the motion are those that are absolutely opposed, in principle, to academic selection and those that are adamant that it must continue. The motion is not a compromise, as one Member attempted to say. It would not deliver a solution; it would not be an instruction to the Minister to create a workable system.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Does the Member agree that Sinn Féin’s isolationist position today is indicative of what it has done on education before? Martin McGuinness went down the route of privatisation through PFI, and Caitríona Ruane is now going down the route of privatisation through having a private test set for academic selection.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

There is no doubt that we are walking into an unregulated system. However, I do not find the position of the Member’s party any more constructive than that of the Minister’s party.

The fundamental failure of the Alliance Party’s motion is that it does not specify the proportion of pupils to be admitted using the test. That is why parties with quite different principles were able to support it. The motion gives no indication of a pathway or timetable towards creating a system of regulated transfer without academic selection. All of those things are provided in the SDLP’s amendment.

I will comment on the remarks that were made by Members. Dominic Bradley argued that the amendment was required in order to address the uncertainty. He pointed out the weaknesses in the Alliance Party’s motion and he argued the potential for the entitlement framework and for area-based planning to deliver a system that would have the confidence of parents. I listened carefully to speeches from Democratic Unionist Party Members, including Mervyn Storey, Nelson McCausland and Michelle McIlveen. I struggled to discover what they might contribute to a consensus, but I did not find it.

Nelson McCausland made some reference to sitting down and giving due consideration, but he gave no indication whatsoever as to what he would bring to the table in such discussions. Without that offering from the Democratic Unionist Party, we will not begin to break the current stalemate.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

As the Member is a former teacher who taught in a grammar school in Ballymena —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

What advice does the Member have for parents whose children are facing entrance tests for schools in Ballymena?

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Time is up. I call Dr Farry to conclude the debate and make a winding-up speech on the substantive motion.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

This has been an incredible debate on probably the most important issue on which the people of Northern Ireland are looking to the Assembly for answers. In the Assembly, we have to deal with real-world choices. The choice facing us is not about whether to abolish the 11-plus and move to a situation in which there will be no academic selection. The real-world choice facing us is whether to have a regulated system that includes academic selection for an interim period, to provide some breathing space, or to have an unregulated system that includes academic selection. That is the choice facing us, and we must face up to that reality. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and deny what is happening in the wider world.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

With regard to the specific point that was made about social inequality — and I agree with the Minister that there are issues concerning selection and social equality — does the Member agree that it will be more socially divisive to have an unregulated system in which people who are already most advantaged will be best able to negotiate their way through that system?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Absolutely. The Minister made great play of quoting figures in relation to what happens in different communities across Northern Ireland, and she laid down the challenge to people in the Assembly. However, that challenge must be handed back to the Minister — come back this time next year, after the test has been introduced for a year, and quote the new figures. What we will find is that social inequality in the system will be even worse, and things will not have changed one bit for the better.

We cannot have the situation whereby a Minister opts for ideological purity and says that what she has done is Sinn Féin’s position, while, at the same time, washing her hands of the consequences of that policy for the rest of our society. As Mr O’Loan said, we must have a regulated system for Northern Ireland, and to not have that is an act of rank irresponsibility.

The Alliance Party is perfectly clear about its policy and preferred option. We have had that policy for many years throughout the debates on the issue, and I thank Mitchel McLaughlin for setting it out so well. However, we have to adjust our views to meet the realities that we face, and, when facts change, it is only right that opinions change to meet those facts. I dare say that, at different times, virtually every party in the Chamber has shown some degree of responsibility in changing their policies to reflect the new circumstances facing them. Indeed, if we go through the history of Sinn Féin, it has changed policies on many occasions, and we would not be in the situation of power sharing today had it not changed its position on a number of issues.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Not only is the Alliance Party looking to realities, but the person whom Ms Ruane liked to quote — Stanley Poots, the headmaster of Dromara Primary School — was not speaking on behalf of 30 schools in the Lisburn area and is actually having pupils taught and prepared for tests in his own school, as well as in the other schools that he purported to represent.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am grateful to the Member for his intervention. I may come to that point in a moment.

I want to be quite clear about what the Alliance Party is trying to do today. First and foremost, we are trying to avoid a complete disaster facing the education system in Northern Ireland due to an unregulated system; and, in doing so, to provide a breathing space for a consensual solution to emerge. We will keep our fingers crossed on that, because we have not reached it thus far. However, that is our ultimate responsibility, and we should not lose sight of that.

An unregulated system is a damning indictment of the failure of the Assembly to deal with the most important issue facing our society. There will be massive consequences for children and parents from an unregulated system. There will be increased trauma from this system, even more trauma than is currently faced through the 11-plus. Some children will face not two tests, but, potentially, three tests under the Association for Quality Education’s (AQE) system. Indeed, the Catholic system may introduce its own tests at some point in the near future. It is not beyond the realms of possibility for some children to take tests under both systems. How many tests are those children going to be facing? Therefore, children will be facing not only more tests, but they will be doing them in a different environment from their own primary school, adding further to the trauma.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Can the Member confirm — as was outlined earlier by Mr Lunn — that the motion means that only the CCEA test should be used, and used in conjunction with other, non-academic admissions criteria?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I can give a “yes” to both of those points, and I will come to that in further detail, too.

Primary schools are placed in a totally impossible situation at the moment. They want to follow the guidance from the Minister and be responsible, but they are also listening to the views and demands of parents. In practice, many primary schools will be trying to facilitate parents’ wishes on this issue. Some parents will opt for additional, external coaching. When that happens, it will play into the hands of those who have the money to pay for that coaching, further increasing the inequality in the system. Is that fair?

There are huge problems for the grammar schools that will be conducting the tests. No doubt there will be an increased risk of legal challenges occurring —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Member has spoken quite eloquently about parents who want their children to take three or four tests. What about those parents who do not want their children to take tests? What about those parents who are, in some circumstances, forced to have their children take tests because they believe that those tests will lead to their children going to the best school, even though that may not be the reality. What about those parents? Do those parents not have rights?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. Certainly, no one is forced to take a test, and I have a lot of sympathy for what the Member is saying. That is why the Alliance Party wants to work with Sinn Féin to achieve a consensual solution that does not involve academic selection in the longer-term. However, we must deal with the realities at the moment. Although I believe that grammar schools would be foolish to go down the route of independent testing, the reality is that they are determined to do so, and I cannot stop them from doing so.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Minister cannot either, nor can anyone else in the Chamber. Therefore, our responsibility is to meet that reality in the best way possible, through a regulated system, which is offered by the CCEA test.

I accept the abolition of the 11-plus. That is the difference between the motion tabled by the Alliance Party today and that tabled by the UUP last autumn. The Department itself has devised the CCEA test, and that is a point worth stressing. Therefore, when the Minister talks about matters of principle, the Minister has already conceded the point through commissioning a CCEA test for development. She has referred to it as a contingency option, but that point has already been conceded by the Minister. The CCEA test will be based firmly on the existing curriculum. It does not involve any skewing of teaching in primary schools.

In relation to what Dominic Bradley said, I believe that the CCEA test should be used as one option for schools with respect to admission, alongside the best of the other options in the transfer 2010 guidance set out by the Minister. I do not dismiss that document one bit ― there is certainly value in it. However, we must use that guidance in line with the realities of what is happening on the ground ― in particular, the socio-economic criteria within that are of some importance.

We must also bear in mind that what the Alliance Party is suggesting is a time-limited breathing space. That time must be properly used to try to find some consensus. Indeed, if people are talking about a new working group of educationalists, that is something that is worthy of consideration.

The Minister has talked about compromise proposals not being accepted. The Alliance Party has always been prepared to engage on those proposals, and I encourage the Minister to put those back on the table, if she feels that that would be a better way forward. We are more than happy to talk about them, and I am sure that other parties would do likewise.

The Minister says that the compromise proposals were taken off the table because other parties would not engage. That means that the children of Northern Ireland are being punished because there is a lack of political agreement; it does not strike me as being a lack of leadership.

The SDLP amendment is a matter of tactics. Our motion is, deliberately, general in nature. It is based around the principle of putting the CCEA test back on the table as an option, for use by receiving schools. Tactically, we are trying to build as much consensus in the Chamber as we can, rather than being specific.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I will not give way. I am sorry, but I am running out of time.

The consensus that the Alliance Party is trying to achieve is one that is supported across society in Northern Ireland. Our consensus is more widespread, and I do not suggest that there is consensus around the proposals outlined by the Minister. The Catholic Church and the Protestant churches will reflect that later this week.

This is our last chance to take a step back from the brink. I urge the Assembly to use this chance wisely.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes that schools may choose to use an examination as part of their entry criteria under the Minister of Education’s 2010 guidelines; calls on the Minister of Education to re-commission the CCEA test, she abandoned on 2 February 2009, that schools may then use for a maximum of two years; and calls on the Executive to agree new, legally binding guidelines for post primary transfer for use from 2011.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]