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Sinn Féin will block DUP plan to bring back the 11-plus

Martin McGuinness and DUP leader Arlene Foster chat ahead of Wednesday's UTV election debate. Picture by Hugh Russell

SINN Féin will resist all efforts to reintroduce an 11-plus-style exam in the event of the DUP taking the education portfolio in the next executive, party sources have told The Irish News.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has fuelled speculation about the possibility of her party opting for the education ministry with comments during Wednesday's UTV election debate.

In the aftermath of the past two assembly elections, the DUP has used its position as the largest party to select the finance portfolio first, leaving Sinn Féin to plump for education.

However, Ms Foster has hinted that control of the Stormont purse strings may not be her first choice when ministries in the new slimline executive are divied up after next month's election.

During the televised debate, the DUP leader said in the past her party had always placed a priority on finance before adding: "I'm not saying that this time."

However, she also noted that people had urged the party to take the agriculture portfolio and the enhanced Department of Economy.

DUP sources have insisted no decision has been made on whether the party would seek to break Sinn Féin's ties with the Department of Education but they said members of the public had urged the party to take the portfolio.

"There's no doubt that people are disgruntled with the way Sinn Féin has handled education and they believe the DUP could do a much better job," a party source said.

"Certainly we will give careful consideration to the message we are getting on the doors."

The source also indicated that Simon Hamilton was "in no hurry" to relinquish the health portfolio.

A number of periods of direct rule not withstanding, Sinn Féin has held the education portfolio since the reinstatement of devolution in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement.

Arguably the most controversial policy move was the decision by then education minister Martin McGuinness to abolish the 11-plus transfer test in 2008. Mr McGuinness had hoped scrapping the test would signal the end of academic selection but grammar schools have devised their own independent tests to determine intake.

The DUP source said the party had no desire to reintroduce the 11-plus, but he did not rule out advocating some form of official testing for 11-year-olds to determine what school they went on to.

However, Sinn Féin has insisted that it will resist any efforts to copperfasten academic selection by the reintroduction of a test for 11-year-olds overseen by the Department of Education.

"We won't allow anyone to roll back progress on equality," a Sinn Féin source said last night.

"Anything official test that looks anything like the 11-plus is a non-starter."

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