Caitríona Ruane interview: a woman not for turning

Stormont’s most controversial subject is also the one that is most important in shaping Northern Ireland’s future. Peter Cheney talks education with Caitríona Ruane.

“Is it fair to say that the lady’s not for turning?” Caitríona Ruane laughs at the comparison with another headstrong politician not often associated with her party, after fielding questions about academic selection. “I consider myself a woman rather than a lady. I like the word woman, it sounds stronger.”

She adds: “I’m not prepared to preside over educational apartheid. I am prepared to look at all the different options available to me. I’m not prepared to continue watching children fail because it’s not fair. And the reason I took this job is to bring about the necessary change that’s needed.”

Education is undoubtedly the most controversial issue in the Executive and Ruane’s first year in office has been dominated by the continuing dispute over post-primary transfer. She was speaking to agendaNi just after a stormy Assembly exchange on funding for primary schools where the transfer issue again raised its head. The tone of the interview, lasting just over half an hour in the Minister’s Stormont office, is often combative – the Minister for change setting herself against her opponents – but it also touches on some of the stories of success by teachers and schools which have struck a chord with Stormont’s Iron Lady.

Her own experience of education has been a varied one as her family lived in several places around Ireland. She attended a primary school in Dublin before moving to another in the Dublin Mountains and then enrolling at St Angela’s Primary School in Castlebar, County Mayo. From there, she went to the nearby St Joseph’s Secondary School, which was “big into sport”. Ruane took up a one-year scholarship to study in Connecticut, USA, where she pursued her tennis, and returned to do a Leaving Certificate short course in Dublin. While working abroad, she also studied Spanish and is a fluent speaker of the language as well as Irish.

Since taking up her seat in the new Executive, Ruane has rarely been out of the headlines and has come under much criticism in the media. Education has become the key dividing line in policy between Sinn Féin and the other parties, especially unionists. Yet she still finds her role as Minister an enjoyable one.

Two particular highlights of the job are visiting schools and also the “cut and thrust” of politics at Stormont. She remarks: “I love visiting the schools. I love meeting the kids. The younger kids are fantastic, they’re so spontaneous, just full of life. I enjoy meeting the teachers and the principals and boards of governors because they’re very committed people and the work that they do is phenomenal.”

Change is a constant theme in the Minister’s words and it also explains why Sinn Féin took up the portfolio again last year. “We chose it because we knew we could bring about the maximum amount of change for all our young people,” she explains.

Some party members wanted to take a more economic portfolio but she “argued passionately” that the party should go for education as Northern Ireland was emerging from conflict and had a “deeply unequal” education system.

Transfer

The hottest topic on her desk has been how to replace the 11-plus. While all parties are agreed that the present system must change, battle-lines are drawn over whether academic selection should continue. In her view, a selective system is wrong because its results are bad for society: “We have a two-tier system, we’ve a deeply unfair system, we’ve a system that is disadvantaging our working class children by and large.”

She also considers it unnecessary as other countries such as the Republic, Finland and Scotland enjoy educational success without selection. And while her plans allow for a short extension for academic selection, she is clear about her final destination. The transition test is a temporary measure and she expects few schools to take it up: “There are 226 post primary schools in the North of Ireland. Thirty-one have set their heart against change; that’s a minority of schools and there are questions that they need to ask themselves.”

The political deadlock, though, remains. At the last election, Sinn Féin committed itself to “finally end academic selection” while the DUP promised to “ensure that schools are free to select on the basis of ability”. Ruane says the final 11-plus test this November is already focusing minds and, as with the grammar schools, she says that unionists have questions to answer.

“Not changing isn’t an option and to those politicians that have set their hearts against change, I would ask them to examine that. I would ask them to go to schools in their constituency. I would ask them to go and talk to secondary and primary principals, and go in and see what the system is doing to a huge number of our young people.”

The province’s children, she emphasises, are not failures but the system has failed them. She recalls that other Ministers have refused to discuss her proposals at the Executive. The DUP maintains that the proposals are “entirely unacceptable” as they will eventually remove selection. Ruane insists that the alternative to her course of action is a “hierarchical, unequal system” especially in the secondary sector.

“In some cases, there are schools who say they are going to do breakaway tests and they’re undersubscribed, so who are they going to test?” After a moment of silence, she adds: “There’s a lot of posturing behind this debate and I think people need to look behind the figures.”

Asked if her changes have the backing of teachers, Ruane points to the support she has received from their unions for abolishing academic selection, and also securing extra funding for education. “When I mention academic selection [at union conferences] and the abolition of it, there’s spontaneous applause,” she states. “Teachers are the ones who know. They watch a child coming into their school, full of hope, full of the joys of being a child in a primary school and they watch as many of those children leave, broken children despite their best efforts.”

She adds: “I have been in different schools where teachers have said to me: ‘I have taught for 30 years. I dread the day to watch those white faces go in to do that test and I dread even more the day when I get the results and I watch the children coming in the Monday morning after.’ It can’t continue to happen, it’s wrong.”

The new admissions criteria for schools, which have yet to be finalised, will include a menu of non-academic factors – based on geography, family situation or social disadvantage – and it will be up to schools to decide the order in which these should be applied. She wants to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution and adds that the right criteria for a rural school, for example, may be different from those needed in an urban one.

Turning to the rest of her brief, the Minister sees Sinn Féin’s goal of the “total eradication of illiteracy and innumeracy” as a realistic one: “It’s not acceptable in this day and age that anyone leaves school without knowing how to read and write.” In tackling underachievement, the department will be “focusing continually on the theme of school leadership because all the research shows that if you have good school leadership, you can make a big difference in schools.”

As well as appointing a task force and publishing a strategy on literacy and numeracy, she has put the issue on the North/South Ministerial Council’s agenda. On this and other issues, she is keen to learn from best practice in the Republic and, in turn, share lessons learned in the North. A committee for traveller education will be set up, following the South’s example. The Middletown Centre for autistic children is funded by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government.

She also points out that the Republic has many more Irish language secondary schools than Northern Ireland and is keen to see more of these developed. Some of the South’s best schools, she adds, are Irish medium.

Ruane continues: “The Irish medium community is a relatively new one. What you need to do is create your naíscoileanna, which are the pre-schools, then your bunscoileanna, which are your primary schools so then you have a base for your post-primary [manscoileanna].” Many parents of primary school children in the sector are “very frustrated and angry” that their children have no Irish language school to go to after Primary Seven.

Improving the state of the schools estate is also a priority: “The two sectors that have entire schools in pre-fabs are Irish medium and integrated. Also, in the controlled and Catholic sector, it appals me sometimes – some of the conditions that our children are learning in.” Ruane has seen the benefits that extra space in new school buildings has made and hopes that the department’s investment programme and frameworks agreement on procurement will result in more progress and quicker builds.

Equality

Having previously been Sinn Féin’s Equality Spokesperson, she sees the concept as an important one in her current role. Pressed on what this means in practice, Ruane points to “historical patterns of disadvantage” where some parts of the system received less funding than others. She explains that she has targeted more funding where the needs are greatest – for example to help working class areas and children from ethnic minorities – and equality impact assessments are carried out on all policies to make sure they treat each sector fairly.

Asked if this assessment was carried out on whether Protestant church representatives, or transferors, should sit on area planning groups, she replies that discussions on the issue are currently taking place. “I’ve said that I want to make sure that the transferors are part of the school governors’ system,” she adds. In essence, Ruane summarises equality in education as “every child should get a fair chance”. The Minister has “huge respect” for the integrated sector and also places a high importance on getting schools from different sectors to work together in ‘learning communities’ while keeping their separate ethos.

Success stories in education which have impressed her since taking office include St Patrick’s High School, Keady, and its feeder primary schools which have worked without the 11-plus for the past 25 years, plans for an ‘eco-school’ in a forest near Seskinore, County Tyrone, and a number of post-primary schools which try to focus on the needs of each child rather than just their academic performance.

The work of those involved in special needs education is, she comments, “phenomenal”. While some children need to attend separate schools, she wants to see more pupils with special needs taught in the mainstream education system with, for example, the provision of special classrooms for autistic children and then allowing them to rejoin the rest of the children for other activities.

“It’s been a very exciting year, it’s been a difficult year, very challenging,” she says, looking over her first 13 months in office. “But if you’d ask me now whether we should choose education or one of the economy departments, I would say: ‘Education, education, education’.”

Ruane is determined to see her plans, especially on post-primary transfer, through to completion. Her opposite numbers in the Assembly Chamber and around the Executive table, though, take a different view and the final shape of the education system by the next Assembly election is far from clear. Asked on whether she will stay the course until then, she replies: “I plan to but that’s Gerry Adams’ decision, not mine.”

Profile: Caitríona Ruane

Born in Swinford, County Mayo, in 1962, Caitríona Ruane lives in Omeath, County Louth with her husband and two daughters. She was a full-time professional tennis player before working in human rights and international development in Latin America.

Ruane rose to political prominence as Director of the West Belfast Festival (Féile an Phobail) and Chair of the Bring Them Home campaign, which sought the release of three Irish republicans imprisoned in Columbia.

In November 2003, she was elected as an MLA for South Down and was returned again in 2007. She also stood as Sinn Féin’s Westminster candidate in the constituency at the 2005 general election, coming second. Her interests are hill walking, sport and languages, and she has travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Third World.

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