Alliance conference speech from Trevor Lunn MLA on post-primary transfer

I don’t think I need to go over the events of the last two years which have led to the persistent impasse in our education system. Caitriona Ruane has led from the front, determined to implement Sinn Féin policy ably assisted more recently by John O’Dowd and the immoveable object of the DUP has stood in their way, mainly in the person of Mervyn Storey, although the real blockade is at Executive level. Personally, I believe that O’Dowd, Mervyn Storey and myself could sort it out but we won’t get the chance.

We are where we are, delegates looking over a cliff into uncertainty, no proper regulation, P5 and P6 children and their parents, confused and depressed, primary heads under pressure from the Department and unions to have nothing to do with independent tests while the grammar schools rough them up trying to force them to do the opposite.

As we meet today, children in the same areas are facing the prospect in November of sitting up to three separate entrance tests, in three different venues, probably grammar school premises, not in their own schools in familiar surrounding. They face the prospect of having to pay for preparation and coaching if the primary schools do as the Minister has demanded and teach only the revised curriculum. They face serious uncertainty about the levels of achievement needed for the schools of their choice and the inevitable inconsistency if different schools use different tests. Conference, we are talking about 10 year olds, very young children, this cannot be right. The Minister talks about our system being child-centred, but she, with the help of the DUP have brought us to a position where the rights and feelings of children are secondary to their party political battles.

Our core policies have not altered, they are clearing stated and updated recently and I acknowledge the work done by Martin Gregg and his group and our effervescent Europe candidate Ian Parsley in this area. We are clear what our objectives are but in the present circumstances we have sought to build consensus.

To do this, we realised we had to move beyond the Assembly, as the Assembly had refused even to discuss how to reach the consensus we are looking for. Thus, our MLAs have contacted school principles, the unions, and others in the field to promote a temporary compromise to avoid the unregulated chaos that we now face. For now, Conference, the choice is not between an academic, and a non-academic system, but between a regulated system and an unregulated system. Given that choice, there should be no doubt of which side we are on as the unregulated system would serve to only leave more children behind, only to re-entrench class divisions, only to deliver a system based on luck. That is not remotely sustainable.

The response was perhaps summed up by the Transferors’ council this week which, while not naming the Alliance Party, sent out a statement agreeing with our position. The only way to ensure that pupils, parents and teachers enjoy some certainty is, for two years, to put in place a regulated test in line with the curriculum. We have also received broad support from those who we have spoken to and, notably, even those who did not agree with us expressed admiration that we at least were acting, not talking.

Conference, soon we will also see the response of the Bishops to our proposals, and there is every reason to suppose that they will be equally positive. An Alliance Party idea has now become the fundamental point of departure for all those who are in our educational system. Once again, the Alliance Party has taken the lead, and it is left to others to catch up.


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