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British entice unionists with move on grammar schools

JM Thorn

17 June 2006

The cynicism of the of the British Government was on display again last week when it put off the final decision on whether to remove academic selection until after the November 24 deadline for the restoration of devolution.  Its redrafted education bill, while still containing a commitment to remove post-primary selection, linked its implementation to the restoration of the assembly and executive.  Critically, it allows for the assembly, if functioning, to make to the final decision on future education policy for the North.  The abolition of selection would therefore be subject to the approval of the assembly.  As unionists have a majority in the assembly, and they are in favour of selection, they could effectively block any change.  Under a devolved administration selection would stay. 

This manoeuvre by the British really shows how devoid of principle their policies are.  Up until the publication of the Education Order, ministers had been trumpeting the importance of the changes to post primary education, the centrepiece of which was the ending of selection.  Only last month the new education minister, Maria Eagle, was insisting that the reforms “must happen”.  Now they have put in place a mechanism that allows unionism to prevent them happening. 

This move is yet another sop to reaction, offering unionists the retention of grammar schools as an enticement to share power with nationalists.  Since the very start of the debate over the future of post-primary education, unionists have been lobbying for the continuation of academic selection.  That the government should concede to their demands at such a late hour shows its desperation to restore devolution.  With agreement an unlikely prospect, the British government is throwing in every concession it has to win the unionists over.  These range from lifting what minor restrictions there are on parades, to peerages and throwing money at unionist paramilitaries. 

British desperation was best illustrated when secretary of state Hain decided not to call meetings of the assembly, only to back down when Paisley threatened to pull out of the process. Press reports indicate that the Paisleyite threat was issued at 5-10 and the British retreat announced at 5-40 the same evening! However, none of these sops are likely to move unionists.  They are happy to pocket these concessions, and demand even more, but they are unhappy that these are linked to the restoration of the power sharing executive.  The concession on selection at 11+ is a perfect example of this. 

Ultimately, the carrot approach won’t work, because the unionist veto on power sharing with nationalists is their most prized privilege of all.   They are not going to trade this in.  Of course, that will not end attempts to accommodate them.  For example, it is not certain that the education bill will be implemented in the event of an assembly and executive not being formed.  The Secretary of State has left open the possibility of the deadline for devolution being extended. Even if the bill does go ahead, the government has inserted a number of clauses that could allow selection to continue in another guise.   Among amendments to the bill is one allowing parents to share their child’s Pupil Profile with post-primary schools to help in making their choice of school.  This will also allow the school to see the educational performance of pupils, as set down by their classroom teacher, when they are deciding who to admit i.e. “academic selection”.

The manoeuvres over selection in education demonstrate once again the precarious nature of the “reforms” achieved under the peace process.  When pressed on what they achieved in the short lived power-sharing executive Sinn Fein usually point to the decision of Martin McGuiness to abolish the 11-plus when he was education minister. But politics – even reformist politics – don’t work by ministerial fiat.  This is especially the case when the minister concerned is on his way out of a puppet colonial administration.  Even if the Sinn Fein reform had been immediately enacted it contained no proposals, nor was their any significant political movement, to abolish the grammar schools and reform secondary education.  In fact as Sinn Fein itself moved to the right it firstly endorsed Church control of education – a major cause of class stratification – and then endorsed a review of public administration (RPA) that will enforce major education cuts.

Now the 11+ reform is in jeopardy, the response by Sinn Fein is muted.  Given the choice of abolishing selection or restoring an assembly and executive that will maintain selection Sinn Fein will choose the latter.  As their whole strategy is based on resurrecting some semblance of the Good Friday Agreement, they are compelled to do anything that will accommodate unionist demands and get themselves into government with the DUP.  Everything, including the life prospects of local children, is subordinated to this goal. 

This means that any future executive, if it is ever formed, will effectively be implementing the agenda of the DUP.  The thought that anything progressive could be produced from this source is nonsense.  It would be Ballymena Council writ large, a bastion of reaction, a bulwark defending sectarian and class privileges.  Under this we would still have an education system that left a quarter of the population functionally illiterate; a system based on the pseudo science of eugenics that divides children along sectarian and class lines; and one that fails the children who are most in need.  This is just one example, but it illustrates well the reactionary nature of the peace process, and the degree to which has degenerated when its few “reforms” can be discarded so easily.


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