N Ireland politicians disagree over grammar schools

The leaders of Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive have disagreed over grammar schools during questioning by school-age reporters.

First Minister Peter Robinson insisted they should be protected while Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the selection they represented was "morally wrong".

The issue of grammar schools remains a potent one in Northern Ireland.

The leaders were questioned as part of the BBC News School Report project.

It was one of a series of high-profile interviews by young reporters of UK party leaders and leading political figures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party's Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, of Sinn Féin, were interviewed by pupils at St Catherine's College Armagh and Bangor Grammar.

Two-tier system

The 11-plus exam, which used to determine entry into Northern Ireland's selective grammar schools, was abolished in 2008 but new unofficial exams have since been introduced.

Mr Robinson, who attended a grammar school himself, defended the two-tier system, insisting that the education provided by comprehensive schools was "every bit as good as grammar schools".

But, he added, "if you're wanting to stream pupils for an academic career then very clearly the best you can do is send them to grammar schools - and that's why we have protected [them]".

That was challenged by Mr McGuinness, who claimed the "strategy of dividing young people at such a young age... is morally and absolutely wrong".

"Those systems of education that come out top every year for the last 10 years have been non-selective," added Mr McGuinness, who left school at 15.

"I think that proves comprehensively that change must happen here."

Mr Robinson rejected the notion put forward by Cordelia, from St Catherine's College, that young people in Northern Ireland faced the prospect of "rising tuition fees, bleak job prospects and an ever-increasing lack of hope".

He argued that tuition fees had not increased - but that was disputed by Cordelia, who said fees were not frozen for pupils born after 1997.

'Lead by example'

"I don't agree [that there are] bleak job prospects, either," Mr Robinson said, saying Northern Ireland had not been able to escape the effects of the global recession but had the lowest level of unemployment in the UK.

"I believe we have a fantastic future in terms of job creation as soon as we can get into the recovery mode from the recession," Mr Robinson said.

Meanwhile, Mr McGuinness insisted the government was putting in place strategies to overcome sectarianism, saying an all-party working group was working on a "cohesion, sharing and integration strategy".

"But what is critical is for politicians to lead by example," he said.

"To show everybody out there - and we do live in a society where there are different allegiances - that we can work together, be civilised, that we can have good, positive working relationships."

He said he could show this good working relationship with both Mr Robinson and his predecessor, Ian Paisley.

And asked whether the vote should be extended to 16-year-olds - who, after all, could ride a moped, get a job, and join the army - Mr McGuinness said he agreed "absolutely".

Click here to see pupils' impressions of the interviews on the BBC2 Stormont Today website.

School Report is an annual BBC project which helps young people make their own news reports for a real audience.

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