Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Is it Miss Ruane or is it Miss Ruin? Education in total Disarray

I have expressed grave concern about what the Minister for Education, Miss Ruane sees as the increasing disarray in our education service. Her comments were prompted by the latest debacle when the Minister Caitriona Ruane announced that it would not now be possible to establish the new Education and Skills Authority - the ESA - by the target date of 1st January 2010.

Pointing out that this was just the latest example of the Ministers inability to come to terms with the realities of her responsibilities Cllr Smith said, “The problems being created by the complete shambles of the transfer system are already well known. Parents are increasingly being upset and confused by what is going on. Schools in this area at both secondary and primary level have been left in a very difficult position of trying to balance the legitimate expectations of parents with the advice they are getting from the Department. The Minister is becoming increasingly strident in her attempts to bully schools into accepting her dictates - and that is what they are - about the way she wants to run the system. She is entirely overlooking the fact that much of the advice being issued by her and her Department has no legal foundation. The existing education legislation quite clearly allows grammar schools to take into account the aptitude and ability of pupils and they are doing nothing unlawful in spite of her propaganda to the contrary. Under our present system it is up to her to persuade the NI Assembly if she wants to change things.

Equally worrying is her inability to bring forward the legislation to set up the new Education and Skills Authority - ESA- which will replace the Education and Library Boards and several other existing bodies. The creation of ESA represents a major upheaval of the whole education service but one, which was generally accepted as being necessary. Work on its creation has been ongoing for some time and was one of the major reorganisation issues to be tackled when the Assembly was first established. Doubtless there were important points of detail, which had to be sorted out, but the fact that this has not happened is a sad reflection on both the Minister and the Assembly.

As part of the announcement the Minister has indicated that the Education and Library Boards and other bodies will remain in existence in the meantime - but with significantly reduced membership. This is simply a face saving exercise and it would have been much simpler to extend the life of the existing bodies. It will be interesting to see how she strikes an acceptable balance with these new proposals.

Also she does not make any mention of our own South Eastern Education and Library Board and presumably she proposes to continue with Commissioners. That is a real opportunity lost. Leaving aside whether or not the Board should have been suspended there can be no doubt that in the interests of some sense of democracy it should now be reinstated in the new format. That is particularly so given that I understand there is now an acceptance by virtually all Board members that they would work to ensure that the issues which led to the original suspension of the Board would not reoccur.

I have every sympathy with the unfortunate position in which the staff of the Education Boards and other bodies now found themselves. She still believed that there was a need for the new Education and Skills Authority to be established as soon as possible and hoped that all concerned would continue to work towards this stressing that It is in the interests of everyone that this new body is established. What is really needed is an outbreak of common sense by the Minister the Executive and the Assembly to ensure that our entire education service does not drift into a state of complete chaos which could undermine the good work of our schools in making the best possible provision for their pupils. .

I suggest that the problems in the education service are but one example of the increasing ineffectiveness of Ministers and the Assembly to resolve issues. This did not auger well for the whole community. One example - and I stress it was only one - was that, at the very last minute, there appeared to be problems in taking forward District Council reorganisation. This again was a matter where there was broad agreement and which had been under consideration for some considerable time. Indeed in this case most of the detailed problems had been resolved and she was at a complete loss to understand why entirely practical and sensible proposals were now apparently being stalled.