How thoroughly, fundamentally, demonstrably and serially incompetent must a minister be before Executive colleagues, departmental committee members and MLAs collectively, round upon them and hound them from office? I only ask, because Caitriona Ruane – whose level of ineptitude appears to be incalculable – remains in a job at which she has proved herself utterly unsuitable. And it's not just the fact that the scale of her uselessness is of epic proportions; it's also the fact that every
But, as I wrote in a column a few days before the Paisley dynasty came tumbling down, the scent of blood is in the air; and it is here again. Ruane is clinging on to office because Gerry Adams is too embarrassed to boot her out; which means that the process of removing her must begin with a motion of no confidence tabled by one of the other parties. She is not worth saving. She is not just bad on the transfer issue; she is bad on the whole education portfolio. The damage to her credibility is irreparable. And the credibility of the Assembly itself will be undermined if it proves unwilling, or worse still, incapable, of chopping down and dumping the ministerial deadwood.
Let’s face it, were she a minister in the Welsh or Scottish administrations, or even in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, she would have been forced out of office by now. Sinn Fein has had since 1998, when Martin McGuinness first had the Education post, to come up with a policy. Little meat has been added to the bones since then and all she does now is try and wear us down with platitudes that “all schools are good schools” (which they clearly aren’t) and that she is “searching for common-ground and consensus” (which she clearly isn’t). Indeed, it would take a combination of the Rosetta Stone and the Enigma Machine to decode the gobbledygook which she tries to pass off as joined-up policy. So convoluted are her departmental statements that they make the instructions for IKEA self-assembly bedroom wardrobes look like Nobel Prize-winning literature!
And it strikes me, too, that the DUP isn’t coming out of this present debacle very well. In October 2006 they assured us that the St Andrews Agreement had secured ministerial accountability and saved academic selection. Where is the ministerial accountability when Caitriona Ruane is allowed to yap around like an uncontrolled and unstoppable Duracell bunny? And if academic selection has been saved why have some of Northern Ireland’s leading schools opted for a solo run rather than trusting the Executive to protect their interests? Putting it more bluntly, if the DUP had secured accountability and saved academic selection, then why are they arranging meetings around the Province for parents concerned about transfer processes?
As it happens, I’m not particularly impressed by the antics of the Association for Quality Education, either, and their decision to “proceed to put into place a common assessment system, as fair to all, as economically conducted and as robust against legal challenge as possible”. All very well, if its sole purpose is to create and sustain a group of schools which will cater for the very brightest and very best and which will restrict intake only to those who have successfully passed the new assessment system. I have absolutely no difficulty with elitism in the education system.
But I suspect that that won’t be the case at all. Currently, only a handful of Northern Ireland’s 69 grammar schools restrict their intake to pupils who achieve a Grade A or B1 under the present system. The rest are happy to fill their classrooms with pupils who have scored considerably less than those grades. Where is the promotion of academic excellence in that system?
In other words, I have the suspicion that the grammar schools (the vast majority of whom have a mixed ability intake – albeit internally “streamed”) remain as keen as ever to take the right sort of pupil from the right sort of catchment area, as opposed to ensuring that they take the very best from any and every area. To my mind at least, that approach has little to do with genuine academic excellence and a lot more to do with simple social snobbery.
Devolution was supposed to make a real difference to Northern Ireland. In terms of education, it has; but I’m not sure that it is a difference for the better. At one end of the system we have some very good results from some top notch pupils, and at the other end we have very poor results from pupils whose real needs have neither been recognised, let alone accommodated. It is certainly not possible to bring all pupils up to the same levels of attainment. But it surely must be possible to ensure that each of them strives for and achieves the best they are capable of as individuals. Why else subject them to 12 years of compulsory education?
Caitriona Ruane’s difficulty is that she believes in a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. In that, she is utterly, utterly wrong; and she will cause huge damage if she tries to push through that ideological idiocy. That she has already caused so much havoc and created so much concern for parents and educationalists is entirely due to the fact that no-one in the Assembly seems to have grasped the reality that Northern Ireland’s education system cannot be fixed to suit the needs of one party or one community.
If the Belfast Agreement (or its St Andrews update) really has ushered in a new era for Northern Ireland, then the surest signs of progress and success must be found in the development of an education system which can meet the social, economic, intellectual and employment challenges that lie ahead in the coming decades. Ending academic selection is not the answer. But a mixed ability intake masquerading as academic selection is not the answer, either.
Caitriona Ruane is incapable of thinking through, let alone delivering a realistic answer to our educational needs. She is unwilling to listen to others. A recent internal Sinn Fein paper indicated that she was prepared to bypass the Assembly altogether. She needs to go. And her departure should be marked by a collective effort from the Executive, the Education Committee and the Assembly to finally get to grips with one of the biggest and most important challenges which faces our new government.