As O’Dowd plans exit, unionists hoping for ‘change in direction’ on education

Mr ODowd pictured at the opening of the new �1.3million Gaelscoil Ghleann Darach, Crumlin, in 2015. He is set to step down from May 2016.
Mr ODowd pictured at the opening of the new �1.3million Gaelscoil Ghleann Darach, Crumlin, in 2015. He is set to step down from May 2016.

There will not be “too many tears shed” over the Sinn Fein education minister’s decision to stand down from his post, according to a unionist MLA.

Peter Weir, DUP education spokesman, said John O’Dowd’s period in office since 2011 has been marked by a politically-motivated “onslaught” against the idea of academic selection.

Meanwhile his UUP counterpart Sandra Overend said Mr O’Dowd was just the latest in a long line of republican ministers who had “disappointed people right across Northern Ireland, and not just in unionist circles”.

Both expressed the hope that this coming Assembly election and its associated shake-up of the Northern Irish Executive will result in Sinn Fein finally losing its grip on the education department – which has been in the party’s hands ever since the Assembly was set up.

Mr O’Dowd was quoted by the BBC late on Friday night as formally announcing his intention to step aside from the role after the May ballot (see below).

Mr Weir told the News Letter that while he was reluctant to attack Mr O’Dowd personally, he hoped “in the next mandate that we see some change in direction in education”.

Asked which policies he particularly disagreed with, he said there had been an “ideological onslaught” against academic selection and grammar schools, and cited the “battle over the grading system” which has come to the fore in recent months.

Ultimately, he concluded that “I don’t think there’ll be too many tears shed” over the education minister’s pending departure.

Mr O’Dowd has been extremely hostile to academic selection and in 2013 he vowed to “strive to make it irrelevant, and to limit the damage that it does”.

Sandra Overend, UUP education spokeswoman, said Mr O’Dowd has previously suggested on the floor of the Assembly that he was reaching the end of his tenure in post.

“We’ve had a Sinn Fein minister for 17 years now,” she said. “No matter which Sinn Fein minister had the position, education hasn’t been in good hands.”

Instead, what really matters is whether “they’re going to have the education ministry” after the election.

She cited issues such as his decision to approve an Irish language school with a miniscule number of pupils at a time when English-language schools were closing, and said that “for as long as Sinn Fein hold the education ministerial position I have serious concerns about our children’s education and the employment of teachers”.

The BBC quoted Mr O’Dowd as saying: “My party rotates its ministers at the start of each new mandate – a policy I fully support. I have greatly enjoyed my time as minister for education and, if re-elected to the assembly, I look forward to a new challenge.”

In recent years, he earned the ire of unionists when it was revealed that Colaiste Dhoire school near Dungiven had just 14 pupils. He also approved the move of the 38-pupil Bunscoil an Traonaigh to the site of the old Lisnaskea High School – which he had previously closed because it only had 140 pupils.

Last November he said he was opting to maintain the traditional A-to-G style grading system for GCSEs; a move that puts the Province at odds with England, which has opted to move to a numerical 9-to-1 system.