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Basil McCrea’s speech on education…

Caitríona Ruane has forced our education system into utter chaos. Children, parents and teachers have been placed in a ridiculous circumstances that no decent, properly functioning government should ever have forced upon them.

The pressure to teach to the curriculum, the pressure to prepare children for multiple tests and the pressure of not knowing how the transfer process will pan-out is immense.  All of us in politics owe an apology to children, parents and teachers.  Some of us have tried our best in the Assembly to end the chaos.

The Minister of Education, however, isn’t listening.

The Minister doesn’t want to listen.

The Minister’s right, everyone else is wrong.

The Minister has no interest in partnership or powersharing – just in her own private ideological crusade.

Let us be clear – this Minister for Education does not want consensus.  She does not want agreement.  She simply wants everyone else to capitulate to her far-left wing ideology. 

Time and again, she has been defeated in the Assembly – often on the basis of Ulster Unionist motions.

Democratic accountability, however, is not something that interests her.

Her narrow ideological prejudices tell her that removing academic criteria from the transfer process, rejecting any attempt to match educational ability and need with delivery, will bring somehow about total equality – this, of course, is completely wrong.

The Minister’s believes that if you ensure a proportion of pupils on free school meals are in each school, everyone will leave post-primary education with equal qualifications and life chances – this is again wrong.  In fact, it shamefully fails to even address the real causes of educational underachievement.

The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to breaking cycles of educational underachievement. We believe this is a foundation for renewing our communities, society and economy.

The Minister thinks that we can forget about children in primary school and then magically, mystically change everything at 11.  Ulster Unionists know that this is patent nonsense.  We believe that breaking the cycle of educational underachievment is an ‘11 minus’ rather than an ‘11 plus’ issue.

Best practice across the globe has demonstrated that you improve educational outcomes for children not through a narrow focus on what happens at age 11 – but through investment in early years and primary education. 

For a Minister who talks so much about ‘equality’, it is interesting to think about what Catriona Ruane as actually done in office. 

She has presided over the removal of the cross cutting children’s fund which has resulted in reductions in after schools clubs and breakfast clubs; she has presided over the widening gap between funding for primary schools and post-primary schools; she has failed to produce an early years strategy; and, worst of all, her downright incompetence and intolerance has resulted in chaos in our primary schools, disadvantaging those very children she tells us she is most interested in.

So what is to be done?

I am sure you like me were greatly encouraged by the joint statement made in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph from our leader and Margaret Ritchie. I heartily support the calls for a single item Executive meeting to be held before the end of November to allow the Executive to at last discuss post-primary transfer. It is a disgrace that this has not already happened.

I also welcome their calls for an Executive sub-committee, with representatives of each of the four parties, to address this and other educational issues. The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to working with all parties to resolve this issue.

Sinn Fein sit in stony faced denial as the rest of Northern Ireland grows angrier and angrier at the Minister’s incompetence.

All of a sudden, Sinn Fein appear to be afraid to talk.  Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on them.  After all, they are new to democratic politics.  And it is quite a leap to move from campaigning on the side of international terrorists to running the Education Department.

We realise that a long-term sustainable solution will take time to develop, which is why we are calling for an interim statutory transfer test to end today’s chaos.

Did you notice how Sinn Fein responded to the joint article from Sir Reg and Margaret Ritchie?  John O’Dowd – who now appears to be the Minister’s bodyguard – said that the initiative from Sir Reg and Margaret undermined the Minister.  Well, at least John can read.  Undermining an incompetent Minister is precisely what parliamentary democracy is about.

Caitríona Ruane believes that the Minister knows best.  Better than the Assembly.  Better than parents.

She wants a one-size-fits-all education system, where the Minister tells children that they must send their child to the nearest school. 

Ulster Unionists have a different vision for education.

We believe in an education system that provides equal opportunities for all, an education system which fosters children’s talents and provides the appropriate support for those who need help. This means tailoring an education system towards need and choice. One size cannot and does not fit all.

Our party has said for over a decade that the 11 Plus has to be replaced.  We are no defenders of the status quo.  We have greater ambitions for our education system.  We have immense pride in the fact that Northern Ireland’s schools produce year-on-year the best A Level and GCSE results in the UK.  But there is more to be done.  Every child in our schools must be given the opportunity to flourish.

Yes, we do think that academic criteria must play a part in matching ability and need in post-primary transfer. And, yes, grammar schools have a role to play in our future, but they are not the only and final answer. Northern Ireland lags far behind England when it comes to what in England are known as specialist schools; these are non-grammars with a distinctive identity and an ethos that have a proven track record of increasing educational achievement. A radical expansion of the specialist schools programme in Northern Ireland would dramatically increase diversity, excellence and choice in the post-primary sector.

However, I am afraid that with her blind faith in a one-size-fits-all education system and the creation of her super ESA super-quango the Minister is moving in the opposite direction.

It is not the Ulster Unionist Party that is opposed to change, it is Catriona Ruane. The major obstacle to progression in our education system is an outdated and ideological Minister.

Politics in Northern Ireland is about reaching consensus. The people of Northern Ireland voted for their MLAs on the understanding that they would share power – genuinely share power – with other parties. It is Caitriona Ruane has broken the trust of the Belfast Agreement.

In any other system of government, having lost vote after vote in the Assembly, the Minister would have resigned in shame.  She is the cause of the chaos in our schools.

There is, however, one thing she could still do to radically improve the situation – resign.

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Filed under: UUP conference

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