NI 2010 review: the cost of change in education

Image caption,
Catriona Ruane: changing the face of education

The threat of school and college job losses, protests over tuition fee increases, a shortage of money for new school buildings, yet a failure to agree money saving measures.

Good news was hard to come by in the Northern Ireland education world of 2010, says BBC NI education correspondent Maggie Taggart.

February saw the delivery of the first results from unregulated transfer tests which had taken the place of the eleven-plus, scrapped by the Department of Education in an attempt to end academic selection.

Widespread legal action was expected from dissatisfied parents, but time passed and only two court cases were proposed against grammar schools which had refused entry to pupils. One of those was rejected and the second family decided not to proceed.

In November, despite pleas for an official solution, another set of entrance exams began and the two organisations running tests have yet to agree on a single test system.

The minister for education, Catriona Ruane, insisted that academic selection is history and that schools were getting over their resistance to that change.

The minister's enthusiasm for a new single education authority ran aground, in the face of opposition from the Catholic and state sectors and some unionist politicians.

The Education and Skills Authority (ESA) had been an organisation-in-waiting and had recruited staff to run it.

With no resolution in sight, and none likely in the coming months, many of those staff returned to their original jobs.


The minister lost no opportunity to reiterate how much money could be saved if the ESA was created - but so far her pleas to have it formally approved have fallen on deaf ears.

A row over a shortfall in pre-school places forced the Department of Education to release more money.

In September, 1,200 children were without places and £1.3m was offered to a limited range of providers.

Further and higher education also had its problems in 2010.

Some further education institutes suffered cash shortages. The largest one, Belfast Metropolitan College, could make hundreds of staff, mostly lecturers, redundant.

Earlier in the year, its previous management was criticised for its handling of the budget and for running up a sizeable deficit.

University tuition fees sparked street protests, even though the Assembly had not yet decided to approve an increase and, if so, by how much.

The minister hinted that he may find it impossible to avoid some sort of rise, despite an independent report commissioned by his own department, recommending that the current cost of fees be frozen.

The Education Maintenance Allowance was being reviewed here in Northern Ireland but the possibility of it being withdrawn, as in England, brought school children onto the streets in protest.

A threat to remove government funding of preparatory schools was withdrawn, but the subsidy was been reduced and two prep schools decided they could not afford to continue and plan to close.

There was some good news - a celebration for innovation and top quality teaching in Northern Ireland.

For the first time in the history of the Teaching Awards, Northern Ireland won two national prizes in one year- one for a technology teacher and one for a scheme run by a school for children with disabilities.