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Saturday, 30 December, 2000, 01:47 GMT
Changing times for NI education
maggie taggart
The state of play in Northern Ireland education at the turn of the year.

New, home-grown government ministers, with one department each to run and their own constituents to please.

That has been the single biggest change in education this year as Martin McGuinness and Dr Sean Farren settled in to their new roles at the Department of Education and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.

This time last year schools in the state sector closed for the holidays after weeks of protest at the appointment of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, a man they considered an IRA terrorist, as Minister for Education.

Martin McGuinness:
Martin McGuinness: Not welcome everywhere
The protests have ended, but in schools with a Protestant population, there is still unease at his position and power.

Previous ministers have crossed Northern Ireland, visiting schools for all denominations, now Martin McGuinness is publicly seen only in Catholic, Irish medium and special schools. Invitations from the state or "controlled" sector are not forthcoming.

Both ministers have been busy negotiating for a greater share of the overall budget to carry out measures they want to see, such as better school properties and more help for further and higher education students.

Transfer test

The highest profile issue for McGuinness is, once again, the 11-plus.

New research appeared to show the whole marking system was unreliable, with very few marks separating the A from the D grades.

That was followed by the release of the government-funded study into the effects of what is called the "transfer procedure". It contained few surprises, but did contain five suggestions for the future - a mixture of other UK solutions, and European practice.

That is being weighed up at the moment, with an independent review body collecting public opinion with a view to making recommendations by May 2001.

Student finance

Further and higher education has been waiting to see if the widespread calls to scrap university tuition fees and restore grants would be successful.

The minister finally revealed a basket of measures which, although they do not grant everyone's wish list, have met with qualified support.

Funding boost for Queen's
In short, tuition fees remain, although fewer people will pay them and grants will be restored to some students from low income families.

The universities here benefited from a competition to win research funding. About 20m came from government, with the condition that matching funding must be raised by each university.

Queen's University won more than the University of Ulster, but both seem pleased with the new opportunity to pay for research in fields like physics, medical research, culture and music.

Teachers won some recognition for their efforts in the classroom, with the first Northern Ireland section of the Teaching Awards. In fact one, Mary Campbell from Belfast, went a step further to win the National title of Best Special Needs Teacher in the whole of the United Kingdom.

There are still worries, though, that singling out teachers for nomination may cause disharmony within schools.

No shortage of teachers - yet

Monetary rewards for teachers are a contentious issue, with negotiations still continuing on how to award a possible 2,000 each to qualifying teachers.

Unions and employers are trying to find a way of giving the money to around 13,000 teachers, while avoiding the most controversial elements of the scheme in England and Wales which is seen to reward teachers for pupils' exam success.

Employers in Northern Ireland say they are prepared also to count in teachers' efforts to encourage pupils' other achievements such as personal triumphs, sporting success and attendance at school.

When agreement is reached the money can be distributed, backdated to September 2000.

The shortage of teachers faced by schools in England and Wales is not a problem in Northern Ireland. There is still heavy competition for training places, and thus high academic standards for successful applicants.

However, the staffing crisis in other parts of the UK is affecting training colleges, now called university colleges here.

The incentives of thousands of pounds to student teachers offered in England and Wales is attracting more than usual from Northern Ireland to apply for places outside Northern Ireland.

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See also:

28 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
NI education debate begins
28 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
Criticism of 11-plus selection test
15 Dec 00 | Northern Ireland
Student grants revival in NI
30 Nov 99 | Northern Ireland
Q&A: McGuinness's education challenge
Links to more Correspondents stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Correspondents stories