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The 11+ debacle, Sinn Fein, Stormont and the prospects of social justice

John McAnulty

2 January 2008

Some years ago a play screened by the BBC examined the rise of New Labour in Britain by looking at the career of a Kinnock – style politician.  He buries early radicalism to gain position.  When he is in power, he promises himself, he will be in a position to put into practice his youthful ideals.  The play ends with a pre-election victory rally.  The politician rises to re-state his commitment to socialism.  His mouth opens, but nothing comes out, nothing is left but a hollow shell draped around a vacuum. 

We witnessed a similar moment in real life on December 4th, when Sinn Fein education minister, Caitriona Ruane, issued a statement outlining her policy on the 11+ transfer test from primary to secondary education.  Nothing came out. We were told that the examination would be held for the last time in 2009, but there were no proposals to end selection or to institute a comprehensive education system.  In fact the policy was worse that nothing, containing thinly disguised support for selection and arguing that educational equality would emerge from British plans to build sectarianism even more firmly into every nook and cranny of the education system and their plans to savagely force children into ‘vocational’ areas that would sharply restrict their education and life chances, all within a pro-capitalist economic policy and savage attacks on the working class.

Since Martin McGuinness signed an order abolishing the exam in 2002 as he was being forced out the doors of his ministerial office with yet another Stormont executive collapsing around him, the 11+ has had an iconic significance for Sinn Fein and its supporters.  In limbo because of the absence of an executive, the decision has represented the progressive and socialist nature of Sinn Fein Nua and the possibilities for equality under a new Stormont administration – equality both for nationalists and for the working class.

All this has come crashing to the ground with Caitriona Ruane’s statement.  At is core is one bare proposal that selection at 11 will be replaced with selection at 14. Ruane claims that the system will be elective – that the pupils will select the schools, but anyone with any experience of the deregulation of education in Britain or of the elective system in the 26 counties will give this the horselaugh. While this proposed change in the selection age may satisfy those concerned only with the emotional pressure of separation into winners and losers on very young children, it does nothing to enhance educational equality and is yet another decision marking out Sinn Fein as a party of the right.


Any suggestion that there is some kernel of reform remaining in this statement fades away when we examine the context.  Absolutely no proposals are put forward to restructure the education system to allow for a movement from selection at 11 to selection at 14.  Even this modest proposal would involve the creation of a whole layer of ‘middle schools’ that don’t exist at the moment.  Any proposal to end selection would involve the restriction or abolition of Grammar schools.  There is no such proposal.  In fact, the new education body involves a new structure and new powers for the representatives of grammar schools – hardly a sign that there are any proposals to end selection!

The whole issue got a lot more embarrassing when it was revealed that DUP ministers Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson had met Ruane before her statement to the assembly. Their opponents immediately alleged that they had cooked up a deal. Allegations of a deal on the 11+ are only wide of the mark in terms of the date.  The deal was done before the current assembly was set up, in the negotiations initiating the St. Andrews agreement.  The DUP had already decided that they would not accept an end to selection and stated this publicly before going into negotiations.  Their representatives have reiterated that position many times since. Sinn Fein entered the assembly knowing that they would be allowed to press ahead with abolition of the transfer test but that they would not be allowed to interfere with selection and class division in education.

The recipe for a new system proposed by the Education minister indicated that in 2010 entry to secondary school would be by pupil preference. Where schools are oversubscribed, “community, geographical and family” criteria would apply.  This is clearly even more unjust than the existing system.  Freed of the need for exams, middle class families will fill the grammar schools either because they already have children there, because they are part of the (overwhelmingly middle class) community that the school draws its pupils from or, if the worst comes to the worst, because they are willing to buy a house near the school. 


Pressed for clarification, Caitriona Ruane asserts that other changes in the education system will, in combination with the abolition of the transfer procedure, bring equality for all. The problem is that the other changes are even more reactionary than her existing proposals and are designed to increase injustice and privilege rather than reduce them. 

An immediate proposal is that area committees will be established to oversee transfer. By itself this would represent a bearpit of sectarian and class interests.  This effect is magnified onethousandfold by the existing proposals to restructure education enthusiastically supported by Caitriona Ruane, by Sinn Fein and by the majority of assembly parties.  The proposals replace the idea of integrated education with the idea of “integrating” education.  In this system all the old sectarian, class and cultural divisions are frozen in place inside local areas that, instead of trying to unify education, share out sectarian and class privilege. 

As the BBC reported: “In future, Sir George, said schools should be planned to cover the needs of a geographical area rather than at present when a range of schools, Catholic, State, Integrated and Irish Language can all exist within a small area. 

The report highlighted the problems created by an education system in a divided society where there are Catholic, Protestant and integrated schools at both primary and post-primary level. It advocated the promotion of sharing and collaboration between schools but made no recommendation for enforced integration.”

In Ireland the idea of a secular, democratic education system has never seen daylight.  In the North integrated education has been a tiny sector rather than a goal for all, a lifestyle choice for a section of the liberal middle class. Although a number of integrated schools have been launched since the foundation of the Stormont executive, not one has been funded from the state education budget.

A commitment to integrated education contained in the Good Friday agreement has been abandoned and replaced with the idea of ‘integrating areas’. This concept, born from the demands of DUP bigots in the St. Andrews negotiations and enthusiastically adopted by Sinn Fein, represents a major step back from even the reactionary status quo.  Each area will contain Catholic, Protestant, Grammar, secondary and further education sites, with a minor theme of integrated and Irish-medium schools. The claim will be that a sharing of resources and specialist courses amounts to an ‘integrating’ atmosphere. It is not difficult to realise that this mixture of schools will each need their own quota of pupils and that sectarianism and class privilege will permeate every tiny sector of Northern society – just as intended by the authors of the St. Andrews agreement. 

As if this carnival of reaction were not bad enough, Caitriona Ruane and the Stormont administration have signed up to the latest New Labour offensive on schools and in the process of importing their latest plans into the North. These plans will embed more firmly the savage class discrimination between the schools inside the schools themselves, with children assessed as being less able shunted into job training, while simultaneously being subject to new draconian laws demanding their presence in a training course until they are 18.  The language is the language of empowerment and (favourite word of New Labour) choice, of an entitlement framework. 

The Education (NI) Order 2006 requires that all pupils at grant-aided schools be provided with access to the Entitlement Framework (EF).  The department of Education spells out the details as follows: 

“The EF will guarantee all post primary pupils aged 14 and above greater choice and flexibility by providing them with access to a wide range of learning opportunities suited to their needs, aptitudes and interests, irrespective of where they live or the school they attend, including a minimum range of vocational courses.

The target date for the full implementation of the EF is September 2009. From that date, schools will be required to provide pupils with access to a minimum number of courses at Key Stage 4 (current target 24) and minimum number of courses at post-16 (current target 27). In both cases at least one-third of the courses must be general (academic) and at least one-third applied (vocational/professional/technical). The remaining one-third of courses is at the discretion of each school and provides schools with an opportunity to develop a unique and distinctive curricular offer. Of equal importance to the range of courses is the coherence of the offer which should enable young people to choose from a package of courses that leads to progression to further education, higher education, training and employment”.

Anyone confused by this language would do well to visit a secondary school and view the new system in pilot form.  The first step for a pilot school is disapplication.  This means that previous education regulations, ensuring that pupils are entitled to a minimum of five core GCSE courses, no longer apply.  Under the language of entitlement pupils are stripped of their legal rights and the main claim of the common curriculum – that pupils would have equal access to education, is removed. 

It is possible to visit schools today where pupils perceived as less able spend three days in school, one day in a technical college and one day on unpaid work experience with an employer!  Before our eyes the school system is moving backwards into the 1930s and half-time school!

Added to the integrating areas and the entitlement curriculum is a third dimension of reaction – the Education and Skills Authority (ESA).  This was originally proposed as a method of rationalising education, removing the local library boards, Further Education bodies and all the local interest groups to produce a single centralised authority that would control all aspects of education and training.  It was an idea endorsed with enthusiasm by the local unions, who believed that the British were about to free them from the shackles of clerical control in education.

They were badly mistaken.  After open threats of a mobilisation behind Bell, Book and Candle from the Catholic Church and rather quieter background pressure from all the usual suspects, the British capitulated and bolted all the existing sectarian and class interests unto the authority.  Rather than a move forward we are seeing a leap backward in the administration of education.  The new ‘single’ authority will have at least 6 advisory authorities attached, all funded by the taxpayer and all with statutory powers to interfere in the provision of education. 

All that is modern about the new authority is the removal of the Education and Library boards and the rather thin veneer of democracy that they represented.  Thin as that veneer was, it was important in the sense that it represented a forum in which questions could have been asked about the transfer of resources from public to private hands and the tendency to hand the resources of education to the business sector. The new quango is perfectly placed to advance a privatisation agenda without any public debate or democratic discussion.


And that is what it intends to do.  Thatcherite researchers carrying out the preliminary agenda for the new authority were among the first to advance the dogma that a new Jerusalem would arrive if the administration was to slash public services.  It was they who trialled the entitlement curriculum, proposed the removal of the statutory right to 5 GCSEs and supported the integrating areas.

The new authority will propose a system that maximises delegation of school budgets.  The existing Local Management of Schools (LMS) was a mechanism where quite savage cuts in services could be imposed and the schools blamed for mismanagement of funds.  The overall outcome has been a cut in services and the transfer of costs to parents as money gets tighter. In the new system schools will notionally get more money but will be forced to tender for services and to accept the lowest bid without any qualification about the quality of service.  The outcome will be that centralised public provision such as the special needs services provided by education boards will disappear and there will be a huge transfer of funds to private hands.

The new structure will have extra powers to extend the regime in England to the North.  It will have powers to inspect schools, to suspend principals and sack boards of governors, bring in its own management team under special measures and close schools if this treatment, as it usually does, further demoralises them.

A sense of the new culture was demonstrated by the ESA head. Gavin Boyd, when he met the unions recently.  After a long rant the bureaucrats asked humbly when they would meet again.  Gavin replied that he saw no further need to meet the unions.  They need not ring him. He would ring them.

Specifically educational reforms are subsumed within a broader frame of swinging cutbacks.  The Bain report, presented as a rationalisation of the school estate (school lands and buildings), produced the idea of integrating areas and, in addition, moved the previously accepted figures for viable schools upwards, putting under threat many well established small schools.  This report, without the requirement of democratic debate at any stage, has mysteriously moved from statement to policy.  In addition, the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools (CCMS), always conscious of its own sectarian interest as having primacy over the needs of teachers, parents and pupils, has drawn up its own closure plan to maximise its area of control.

Review of Public Administration

The majority of the above cuts and restructurings are included in a broader Review of Public Administration (RPA). 

Its policy statement is couched in the language of choice and accountability: 

“The Review of Public Administration represents a real opportunity to revitalise public services in Northern Ireland, to replace current structures with a new, more accountable public sector, working together with a common purpose to meet the needs of the 'on-demand' lifestyles that people now lead and have rightly come to expect from our public services. It is an opportunity to realise the vision of a world-class Northern Ireland”.

The reality is very different. In addition to restructuring of local councils, there is a major centralisation of Health Services which again reduces any pretence of democratic accountability, slashes jobs and services provided by the civil service and introduces an internal market structure that will accelerate privatisation.

The RPA has now been subsumed into the first Stormont budget, with the overall thrust being a transfer of massive elements of public finance to the private sector and cuts across the board.  Thousands of public service jobs are to be slashed.  The Health budget will see the loss of at least 600 nursing jobs, despite the lower levels of health in the six counties. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Employment and Learning, as well as the Department for Social Development and the Department of the Environment, will all face cuts in spending. Water privatisation is a fait accompli, defused by delay and subsidy. Workers will face increased taxes through local rates, with a cap protecting the rich from the necessity of paying their share. The crunch will come in housing, with 36,000 on a waiting list that is growing and a shrinking budget. Mind you, it is hardly surprising that a housing crisis that arguably sparked the ‘troubles’ should re-emerge with the defeat of the republicans.

A first step

To some readers it might seem laboured to connect the entire social and economic strategy of the new Stormont executive to the decision of a Sinn Fein minister on educational selection.  Yet the 11+  sums up the expectations of many workers in relation to the new executive. They believe that the new assembly is a progressive development and that local capitalist parties (especially Sinn Fein) will, because of their localism, be responsive to workers needs.  The purpose of this article is to explain in detail that the reality is the inverse of what the majority of workers believe it to be. The first step is to bring workers to a realisation that this is the case.

At the moment we are far from that realisation.  Caitriona Ruane has suffered a collapse in personal popularity.  Sinn Fein have seen a more gradual decline in support, but most people see the problems in education as being caused by personal failings rather than the policy of the party.  More generally support for the assembly and executive remains strong, with support being fought over with the smaller parties rather than shifting from the current settlement. A mechanism that helps in this stability is the Irish trade union bureaucracy, who have invested heavily in support for the Stormont settlement and in their ability to lobby local politicians and gain concessions.  They are now the dog that does not bark, aware of the futility of their lobbying but opposed to awakening the working class from its slumber. A recent example was a declaration by the Department of Education that it was cancelling, without consultation, an early retirement scheme for teachers.  Only one union, INTO, bothered to protest and it had no proposals for action.

This article is intended to be a first attempt at a socialist policy statement that could be presented to socialists and trade union militants.  I would ask readers to study it, to criticise it, to propose alternative formulations and, at some stage, be prepared to endorse a form of this statement that could be distributed more generally.

But organised groups of workers learn more effectively through their own actions. A good example is the industrial action of the classroom assistants.  Their action, though unsuccessful, did a great deal of damage to the education minister, to Sinn Fein and, to a lesser extent, to the whole idea of Stormont as a beacon of progress.  For that reason future developments in their main union, NIPSA, are of some importance. Is there the possibility of a rank and file movement that could break free of the constraints of the bureaucracy? Can the framework for such a movement be built more generally, in local unions or in Trades Councils?

We must however face the reality that the sectarian state in the North has seen off workers initiatives a thousand times stronger than the current movement.  A successful movement in the North is dependent on a revival of the workers movement in Ireland as a whole.  We will write a more detailed analysis of the possibility of such a recovery in the near future.


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