Time for Action on Education Reform

Is there any matter which more clearly points up the inability of the Executive to take forward important legislation than the stop-start progress of the bill to establish the Education Skills Authority?

This legislation is meant to provide an administrative body to replace the five Education boards, a measure which by common agreement was badly needed four years ago when it was first announced. However the delay in implementation has created uncertainty that has led to the boards losing key staff in large numbers to the point where despite the sterling efforts of those who remain, the Boards are barely able to fulfil their functions.

Originally ESA, was to be introduced in two stages due to its complexity, by the then Minister Caitriona Ruane. However, due to DUP suspicion that this was a means of getting the first bill through before all the nasty bits were revealed in the second bill, they refused to allow the first bill to progress until we had sight of the second one.

With some delay the second bill was produced for scrutiny and the first bill went to the Executive for approval.

In November 2010 it was to be introduced before the Assembly, but it was withdrawn by the Executive, apparently because Unionist Ministers were afraid to allow it to be debated despite all the safeguards and blocking mechanisms they have at their disposal

Now I concede there were matters of difference, particularly around the independence of the Voluntary Grammars and the role of the Protestant clergy (Transferors) who ceded control of their schools to the State back in the 1940’s, but I am convinced that by debate and amendments brought forward in a normal Parliamentary way, those concerns could have been addressed.

As it was, the bill never came before us and we, as a supposed legislative Assembly filled the time discussing frequently irrelevant private members motions, binding on nobody, to the obvious dismay of the people who sent us to Stormont and who are entitled to better.

The present Minister John O’Dowd made it clear when he took office that he would only reintroduce ESA legislation if he was reasonably certain that the same thing would not happen again but he did indicate early this year that progress had been made and he was hopeful that a bill could be brought forward. Positive signals came from Unionist quarters also and even Mervyn Storey as Chair of the education Committee appeared to soften his “ESA is dead in the water” stance.

Incidentally, establishment of an ESA body was a commitment in the DUP manifesto for the May 2011 elections, but on 26th June 2012 the Minister told the Education committee that the bill which he had presented to the Executive on 7th March was in trouble.

Lo and behold however, on 18th July the First Minister announced that they had reached agreement and ESA would be brought to the next meeting of Executive, the same announcement they made after the May 2011 elections, fifteen months previously.

We will watch with interest what progress is made, because while the two main parties play their parliamentary games, the education of our children is suffering and it is absolutely imperative that we streamline the system and realise the savings that ESA will bring.

ESA is one of the best examples of the paralysis which has for too long gripped our Executive. Would it surprise people to know that for two full years during the last Assembly, no discussion on any matter relating to education was allowed at Executive meetings?

The most often asked question from the man in the street is “what are you doing up there” and it is unfair to those Assembly members who are prepared to find ways forward by negotiation and discussion, to be held back by deadlock at the highest level.

Frankly as an Assembly we have run out of excuses, the “building trust” and “getting to know each other” ones are no longer are valid. Northern Ireland is sorely in need of responsible government and the present Assembly needs to prove it is relevant to that need.

“Shape up or ship out” should be our mantra, otherwise I would question whether we should be there at all, certainly under the present system.

Original version of article which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 17 August 2012

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