Change in the Air?
Shared education is not the only innovation in Northern Ireland’s education system and most policymakers, experts and politicians recognise that currently, reforms ‘are all in the air’.188 However, McCallister warns that current reforms may only be ‘reinforcing what you’re trying to move from’: the fragmentation of Northern Ireland’s education system.189
For example, during direct rule, the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) was planned as a technocratic body. It was expected to rationalise and streamline the structures of educational management in Northern Ireland, provide consistency of access to services and tackle educational underachievement.190 Yet its establishment fell hostage to clerical and political interests. In 2007, the ESA governing board and wider structure were reframed to reflect the interests of owners of school buildings (the Methodist, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Catholic Churches) and political parties.191
Further reforms to the ESA structure were presented to the Education Committee in 2012. However, the 2012 Education Bill encountered the staunch opposition of Unionist parties. Controversies mounted over the exclusion of integrated and Irish-medium schools from the ESA governing body and over the extent of autonomy of voluntary grammar schools.192 Political representatives also debated the creation of a unified body to represent state-controlled schools within ESA. On the one hand, a unified controlled governing body could redress the fragmentation of the state sector and improve its performance. On the other hand, it appeared to further ‘this other thing, that never existed before’ in state schools: a Protestant ethos.193 Through its governing board and supporting structures, the proposed ESA appeared to consolidate rather than erode the barriers between different education sectors.
By September 2013, Kinahan summarised that ‘the Sinn Fein Minister knows that when the bill comes through we [UUP] will put in massive amendments, the DUP will put in massive amendments, and so the negotiations are going on’.194 In April 2014, after a seven-year stalemate, Education Minister O’Dowd sounded the ‘death-knell’ for ESA and ordered DENI to stop working on its establishment ‘at this stage’.195
The continuing stalemate over ESA exemplifies the difficulties in eroding the structural barriers between institutions affiliated to different communities in a consociation. It also highlights the failure of Sinn Fein’s approach to education policy. As with the abolition of the 11-plus test, Unionist parties resented that Sinn Fein had ‘decided education is going to be one way and one way only, and they’re going to get there, whatever means they need to choose’.196 While Sinn Fein eroded the resistance of all professional and educational bodies, Unionist parties still maintained that they would veto the Bill.197 No educational considerations explain the
ESA stalemate: the Belfast Telegraph summarised that ‘what this shambles demonstrates is the dysfunction of politics at Stormont when it comes to compromise over party dogma or vested interests’.198