Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The left hand makes a statement to bemusement of the right

“Joined up government” is a political neologism which has been overused and misused until it has become hackneyed cliché. The term can be useful shorthand to describe the element of consistency and coherence which we as an electorate expect from politicians when they come together to form an executive.

The Northern Ireland Executive is the archetype of an administration failing to deliver “joined up government”. In many ways this is inevitable as the constituent parties of the mandatory coalition do not have a coherent platform on which they can agree. If an example of this were needed, we have a perfect one with the publication of Catrione Ruane’s “vision” for the future of the education system.

Ruane’s document has not been discussed by the Executive, it was not provided for in the Draft Programme for Government or in the Draft Budget proposals and Ruane did not even consult with the Minister for Employment and Learning, whose remit is intrinsically linked to that of the education ministry. All this before we even examine the contents of the document.

Leaving aside the substance of the contentious issue of selection for post-primary education for the moment, we can take it as a given that any system which replaces the status quo, must provide for an alternative. It is somewhat shocking therefore, to read the amorphous document, lacking any substantive detail, full of the usual empty Sinn Fein platitudes, which Ruane has delivered.

After sanctimoniously condemning others for fixating on selection in discussions about education, Ruane’s document lingers on this subject throughout with single-minded obsession. When the document claims it will weed out inequality in education by ensuring “no child will be at a disadvantage because they can’t afford tuition or coaching” it is of course myopically concerned with the 11 Plus. Unless Ruane plans to achieve this “equality” by simply abolishing all testing from 11-19!

The gist of Ruane’s document is that selection at 11 will be replaced by “election” at 14. There is scant detail on what this entails and how it can be delivered by our current schools. “Structural changes” are hinted at, and post 14 schools are mentioned, but no mechanisms are outlined and how existing 11-19 schools may adapt to these changes is not considered. Furthermore, there is no cost analysis and the only criteria to replace selection in the interim, before the new system is introduced are community, geography and family.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, is an advocate of selection at 14 but his analysis of the document is as follows:

"For many years, we have called for selection at age 14. Unfortunately, having waited so long for this statement it is both short on detail and short of financial certainty.
"The Minister seems somewhat complacent about the numbers of children who will be able to get their first choice school. The potential implications of this have already been flagged as an issue in the northwest, where demand outstrips supply for schools.
"Careful scrutiny will also have to be made of her proposed criteria of community and geography and what these will mean in practice. The SDLP is particularly concerned that disadvantage will not be reinforced through a postcode lottery.”

With this nebulous statement, for which she has sought no approval from her colleagues, Miss Ruane cements her reputation as one of the least effective ministers in an ineffective executive. More fundamentally she has exposed the lack of coherence and scrutiny being delivered by the administration.

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