Revealed: The serious concerns of department officials and principals

Caitriona Ruane

Caitriona Ruane

Hundreds of pages of documentation were released to The Detail under Freedom of Information legislation. They show that Caitriona Ruane was told that removing the annual interview with P7 parents would disadvantage the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland and would also be a legal risk. Extracts below show the serious concerns raised by department officials. Letters sent by school principals to the Education Minister also strongly criticise the plan.

June 11th, 2010: A Co Tyrone primary principal writes to the Minister saying he believes the annual transfer interviews with parents are “a wasteful and inappropriate use of school resources”. He estimates the interviews cost the department around £400,000 a year and are dominated by discussion of performance in unregulated tests run mainly by grammar schools. He writes: “It is a great concern that I, as a primary school principal, am expected during interviews to explain and justify outcomes of a test I have never seen and whose process and outcome I do not trust.”

June 25th, 2010: Joan Cassells (School Access Team at the Department of Education) sends an advice paper to the Education Minister and asks her to send a holding reply to the principal.

The paper states: “The interview is a mechanism to support the parents of all children involved in transfer process not just those parents who are seeking a place in a school undertaking unregulated tests”. And “Primary school interviews with parents have occurred for years not because DE has advised that they should but because these, with DE support, have developed as a good practice element of the annual admissions process. Motivated and concerned parents will seek interviews with their primary school principal whether these are ‘sponsored’ by DE or not.”

And she warns: “Even if we advise that a principal should not meet any parents (this would represent a strange position for an education department to adopt), the very real risk is that interviews with motivated and concerned parents will continue, without the support of DE, and interviews with other parents will cease.”

And: “It is likely to be the most vulnerable children, those most in need of help, who will bear the brunt of the adverse impact of such a change. A looked-after child will have no parental support at this important time of transition, the parents of a Traveller child may lack the literacy skills and familiarity with the education system while parents of newcomer children in many instances will not have sufficient knowledge of the language to deal with the complexity of transfer.”

September 7th, 2010: Paul Price (School Access Team at the Department of Education) writes to Caitriona Ruane to ask for approval to issue a first tranche of operational guidance on Transfer 2011. Mr Price states that until the Minister meets with the teaching unions and confirms her views on the role of the primary principal in transfer, the department cannot finalise the annual operational guidance circular or information leaflet for parents.

September 13th, 2010: Paul Price provides a briefing paper for the Private Office before meeting with teaching unions later that week.

He writes: “These interviews happen in such numbers each year because the majority of parents and children (and not just the half of all parents and children who apply to grammar schools) want the advice and help of their closest educational professional when they approach transfer. For primary schools to be able, with our help, to arrange an interview with P7 children and parents, enables them to organise and manage the demand for help and advice that they will always face.

“Actively opposing transfer interviews would be a strange and highly contentious course of action for the Department of Education and may carry legal risks. No cover that we provide to primary schools through circulars could absolve them of their obligation to provide parents with information about their child. It is likely that efforts to reduce transfer interviews may entirely fail in terms of reducing a primary school’s engagement in a child’s application, with special circumstances, to a grammar school, and may only succeed in respect of other children, including those who are disadvantaged in the face of a complex process and for whom the advice of a primary principal is most valuable.”

October 1st, 2010: Paul Price writes to the Minister with the aim of establishing a clear policy for the role of the primary school principal in Transfer 2011. He warns that this must be done urgently and that “any changes to the role of the primary school principal will be controversial, may require extensive consultation, involve significant change to established administrative arrangements and increase their cost”.

In this document, Mr Price refers to a meeting he had with Ms Ruane’s special adviser in September in which the adviser confirmed that it was the Minister’s desire to “detach” the primary principal from the process of post-primary transfer.

Mr Price puts forward four options for presentation of the policy change but also points out associated risks. These include: “There are political risks and these are for you to consider. These are likely to consist of the criticism that you may face from those who feel that the removal of the primary principal from the process is directed at entrance to grammar schools but will only decrease the help and support available to all parents and children. These parties may point to the problems parents and children had in navigating a complex system in 2010 even when their primary principal helped them.”

He also says there are administrative risks in moving to a system entirely reliant on parents and that this opens up the prospect of late or missing applications.

And he writes: “Administrative risks bring increased risks of legal challenge. Parents may claim that their child’s transfer was disadvantaged and suffered because of our withdrawal of the primary school’s support which has been embedded in custom and practice. They may be able to strengthen this claim with aspects of inequality if the outworking of our change is that the withdrawal is patchy and inconsistent.”

Mr Price also points to equality/section 75 risks. “We may under some options give primary schools discretion to offer help where it is needed but this is still less secure that the previous ‘blanket’ provision and will also no longer be funded by our financial support.

“Children of newcomer families who are not familiar with the system, children with parents who have literacy problems or for whom English is not their first language who need support with the documentation, children who have special educational needs but who are not in receipt of a statement and looked after children who need advice on the post-primary school best able to support their needs, may all encounter a reduced service and suffer or allege disadvantage as a result.”

In this letter, Mr Price puts forward an alternative approach – “option 5” – which would not require extensive consultation. Under this option, he says, the department would present support and encouragement for interviews that take place before entrance results issue.

October 13th, 2010: Mr Price responds to five questions put forward by Caitriona Ruane and her special adviser – these include how they could ensure that any interviews take place before the results of the ‘breakaway tests’ are issued.

October 20th, 2010: In a letter to Caitriona Ruane, Mr Price warns “delay in publishing the important documents for Transfer 2011 poses a risk to the functionality of the whole process”.

October 27th, 2010: An email from the Private Office to Mr Price confirms that the Minister agrees with option 5. It also states that the Minister wants the circular to schools to include that substitute cover for the interviews may “cease altogether” next year.

November 8th, 2010: Email from Mr Price to department colleagues to confirm the Minister has cleared the circulars for immediate issue to schools. Her amendments include that any references to “entrance test” should include the term “breakaway”.

November 23rd, 2010: Caitriona Ruane writes to the principal who called for transfer interviews to be scrapped to update him on her plans.

November 24th, 2010: Caitriona Ruane responds to another primary principal’s email to explain her decision. The principal’s email says that they “note with incredulity” the advice regarding the timing of transfer interviews. “How can primary school principals be expected to offer credible advice when many parents will still be waiting for test results before making any decisions?”

December 2010: Ms Ruane replies in a letter to a primary school principal who wrote to her in September and November. The letter confirms that the primary school does not distribute material about the tests and also does not carry out practice tests with pupils. However, the principal states that he has been isolated from other primary principal colleagues, that he is frequently told by parents that he is disadvantaging their children and that parents are considering moving their children to a school where their desire for practice testing will be met. He asks about judicial reviews and also raises concern about the transfer interviews with parents.

In her reply, Ms Ruane said it is “inappropriate and indeed unfair” to expect primary principals to provide advice on any aspect of the unregulated tests or associated procedures. And she confirms that if school inspectors encounter a lesson where children are preparing for unregulated tests they will raise the matter with the teacher and principal and will also advise the department. She also confirms that “none of the threatened judicial reviews that would have considered in detail the independent arrangements made by a grammar school using a breakaway test were heard in full”.

“DE is alert to all such proceedings and continually reviews the need for further guidance in response to any judgements that may ultimately be made.”

December 2010: The Minister responds to another letter from a concerned principal. The principal’s letter states: “Whether or not one agrees with the tests run by grammar schools it is appropriate to give the best advice possible and for some that best advice can only be given after results have been received. There should have been some consultation regarding this significant change to the timetable.” Ms Ruane states that primary principals should not be pressured by parents into providing advice that it would be inappropriate for them to provide.

December 1st, 2010: Joan Cassells states that primary principals are asking for explicit advice on whether they are required to sign special circumstances claims and whether they should provide the comparative data that may be requested in order to complete some forms.

In the ‘background’ section of the document Ms Cassells reminds the Minister that “despite the reservations of officials about wording of certain sections (based on legal advice)”, Ms Ruane had directed the Permanent Secretary in February to issue a communication (as cleared by her special advisor) to primary schools on their obligations in respect of special circumstances claims.

Ms Cassells also says that one primary principal who did not sign the special circumstances form found herself involved in a judicial review which was subsequently withdrawn by the parent. The request for more explicit advice is the result of the concern of a group of principals to avoid finding themselves in a similar situation next year. (note from The Detail: this case involved a family seeking leave to apply for a judicial review after their child was refused a place at Omagh Christian Brothers Grammar School.)

Ms Cassells points out that advice given by the department in February 2010 – that primary schools should not provide performance information to parents or guardians relating to any child other than their own – appears to contradict advice issued by the department three months earlier which stated that parents could request class performance information under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.

She states: “The 9 February 2010 advice, in its current form, could be seen as advising schools to break the law through failing to comply with their duties under the FOI Act.”

And: “Had the Omagh CBS case proceeded it is likely that the advice issued by DE….. would have been examined in court and DSO has already advised that there is a greater than 50% chance that DE would lose such a case.” She concludes that clarifying the issue would not only provide protection for primary and junior high school principals, but would also protect DE from a potentially embarrassing and expensive legal challenge in the future.

In a letter to the primary head who faced a judicial review case, Ms Ruane apologises to the principal that they were caught up in a legal battle “due to the actions of a grammar school that decided not to follow my department’s advice”. “I am appalled that certain schools place primary schools in this position,” she writes.

December 2010 and January 2011: Ms Ruane responds to many letters of concern from what appears to be dozens of primary principals. Several were sent on behalf of primary principal groupings.

December 2010: Ms Ruane writes to one primary principals’ group to respond to their serious concerns about the introduction of the February 4th cut-off date for parents’ interviews.

The letter she received from the principals states: “In an attempt to put an end to breakaway entrance tests, once again, it is the primary principals and the schools they represent that have been unfairly targeted by your department.” And: “We feel we are being bullied and manipulated in an attempt to impact the grammar sector. This is totally inappropriate.”

The head teachers also state that they could be inundated with additional requests for meetings with parents after the interview cut-off date. “We are extremely disappointed to have been used as political footballs in a situation which is not of our making,” they say. And: “Your actions simply make our position more difficult.”

In her response, the Minister writes: “I also agree that you are in a very difficult position, but this is because of the actions of grammar schools, not the Department of Education.”

December 2010: The Minister replies to another primary principals’ group which had stated in its letter: “It is unthinkable that we would not engage in the process of supporting families in their time of decision making.” And: “By penalising primary schools with the removal of sub cover funding after 4th February, we feel that again primary schools are becoming the scapegoats for the ongoing issue of selection between your department and the grammar schools”.

December 2010: Another principal sends an email to accuse the department of “playing silly games with our children and parents when it is the grammar schools who are breaking the guidelines”. They continue: “I will reluctantly follow your wishes, but I am losing all respect for the department who are playing games with our children.”

January 2011: Ms Ruane explains her position to another school principal. This principal’s letter states that the decision on the timing of interviews “will make life much harder and more demanding rather than lift the burden of responsibility.” And: “The complexity of admissions criteria and many parents’ lack of knowledge works against the most vulnerable in our society – the people who will be most disadvantaged by your decision.” He concludes: “I would ask you to reconsider your stance on this as the only people that it causes difficulties to are vulnerable families and primary school principals.”

January, 2011: A P7 parent emails Ms Ruane calling on her to justify her decision in moral terms. They state: “You can imagine my shock as a parent of a P7 child. A Government department deliberately limiting parents’ availability to advice after a certain date.” And: “The political situation is as it is. It is certainly not of the children’s making. So why are you making life deliberately more difficult for them?”