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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 18:19 GMT
Q&A: McGuinness's education challenge

BBC Northern Ireland education correspondent Maggie Taggart looks at what Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness is taking on.

What are the new minister's policies?

When Martin McGuinness arrived to take up office he said that he had left school at 15 and spent 30 years going through "the political education of a lifetime".

Stressing that he was on a "learning curve", he said that his priorities would be to ensure "accessibility, excellence and choice" in an atmosphere of "equality, respect and justice" for all of the community.

He said that those who feared that his policies would favour the catholic or nationalist population "could not be more wrong".

"The community that I come from was discriminated against for many years," he said. "The last thing that we are going to do is treat another section of the community the way that we were.

"This job is about children," he said. "I have never believed that our children are taught to hate in our schools.

"I am prepared to motivate the whole department to understand inclusivity."

How does education differ from the rest of the UK?

The vast majority of children in Northern Ireland are educated in a school associated with a particular religion.

But these schools are not called catholic or protestant schools, rather maintained and controlled. Controlled schools are essentially protestant and most of the children attending are protestant.

Maintained schools are essentially catholic.

This system, which has existed for half a century, starts during primary years and continues through to secondary and grammar level.

In the last couple of years there has been a move towards more integrated education.

The government has been aiming to have 10% of Northern Ireland's children in integrated schools within 10 years.

So the communities chose segregation?

Some members of the protestant population would say that there could have been an entirely integrated system if the catholic population had wanted to buy into the system.

But the catholic community wanted to set up its own schools with an ethos which would preserve and protect their community's values and beliefs.

Northern Ireland has an integrated schools movement but it has complained that is has suffered hostility from both sides.

The catholic church has refused to nominate anyone to represent their congregations in integrated schools.

The Democratic Unionist Party has claimed that the movement threatens protestant jobs as controlled schools transformed to integrated.

What is the big education issue?

Political accountability. In the past there have been a lot of complaints that Northern Ireland's education has suffered because of direct rule from Westminster.

Critics say that policies were handed down second hand from England and Wales which led to the wrong policies for the wrong people.

In the last few years there has been some more openness in the education department in Northern Ireland and moves to better tailor policies.

But that has never been enough for many people who have said that it is time that the policies were decided locally by local politicians.

The previous ministers responsible for education have had constituencies outside of Northern Ireland.

That meant that whatever policies they pursued, the Northern Ireland electorate would ultimately not be able to make their voice heard at the ballot box.

What are the other major issues?

Martin McGuinness is in charge of primary and secondary education. The SDLP's Sean Farren is responsible for higher and further education and training.

One of the main issues that Martin McGuinness will have to wrestle with is selection.

There is a great deal of division over the "Transfer Test", more commonly known as the 11-Plus, which decides whether a child goes to grammar or secondary school.

Nearly 40 per cent of children go to grammar schools and those in favour of the system say that it boosts the academic performance of children, whatever their social background.

Other people say that the system leaves other children with low self-esteem meaning that they often leave the system with little or no qualifications.

So has the new minister said where he stands on this?

Mr McGuinness used his first day at the education office in Bangor to make clear that he is opposed to selection and the "trauma" of the 11-Plus, an examination he failed himself.

However, because of the cross-community arrangements within the assembly, Mr McGuinness cannot impose new policy and will have to seek broad agreement.

Furthermore, he said that he recognised that education experts were carrying out a full review of selection and he did not wish to pre-empt their conclusions.

His work on the executive is also subject to scrutiny from the assembly's education committee, headed by Danny Kennedy, an Ulster Unionist.

His deputy is Sammy Wilson of the anti-agreement Democratic Unionists, a teacher by profession.

What else will he have to deal with?

Funding. A lot of schools are angry at how funding arrangements work with some saying that grammar schools get additional money.

The grammar schools say that they don't, but they do seem to have better facilities.

The other key element is that there is a dispute over how the budget is shared out between the different levels of education.

There is strong evidence that the primary years are the most important school years.

But the bulk of the money goes to secondary education. There is a campaign to see this reversed.

Another important issue is how to fund integrated and Irish language schools.

Critics say that both can be a waste of resources when there are empty places in other schools.

But the right to attend an integrated or Irish language school is protected in the Good Friday Agreement.

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See also:
22 Jul 99 |  Northern Ireland
Hostility claim over integrated schools
05 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Pupils sit first 11-plus paper
01 Feb 99 |  League tables

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