HE stands tall, taller than you might expect, and every inch the minister in the regulation dark suit, pale blue shirt, and conservative tie. For years, he was a more familiar image in loose polo-neck, jeans, his sandy curls framing a handsome, but wary, face, standing in a ramshackle doorway in the Bogside in Derry.

This is Northern Ireland's education minister - a man who in fewer than two years in post (and much of that interrupted due to the suspension of the Assembly) has grasped the thorny nettle of the Northern Irish education system - the abolition of the 11-plus exam and selection on the basis of

academic ability.

Martin McGuinness, the man everyone in Northern Ireland believes to have been the leader of the Provisional IRA, is now responsible for the education of all children in Northern Ireland - the Catholics, Protestants, ethnic minorities, atheists. The schooling of the sons and daughters of the most committed loyalists is now directed by this man - the man they once dubbed the Butcher of the Bogside, the man whom British security sources have claimed authorised the killing of Lord Mountbatten and a host of other major IRA operations.

Perhaps it is his personality, perhaps it is the easy Irish way, or perhaps it is simply cynical manipulation of the media, but he is more open than most Scottish or English ministers would be meeting a journalist for the first time.

Asked about his own schooldays, he is frank about the horrors of his secondary years.

''I went to St Eugene's Primary in the Bogside and I enjoyed primary school very much. From there I went to do the 11-plus - we were taken to another school, two miles away, and it was like being on another planet. I

didn't get the 11-plus. Failed is the term they use.''

This much is widely known - that the education minister failed the

11-plus, that he went on to the Christian Brothers' technical school, and left at the earliest possible chance, at the age of 15.

His school was directly beside St Colm's College, the principal boys' grammar school in the city. And his education at the hands of lay and religious teachers at the Christian Brothers' school was not a happy one. In today's parlance, his teachers did not unlock his full potential. Far from it, in fact.

''The vast majority of teachers were good, decent people, but a number of teachers there, both lay and religious, in my opinion were a nightmare. They were certainly a massive disincentive for quite a number of people,'' he says.

''Pupils feared them and they were violent. Corporal punishment was quite liberally applied all over the place, and that was a huge turn-off for me to see this kind of attitude within the teaching profession.

''Monday morning was a nightmare. There was one particular Christian Brother who we had three periods with - I won't name the subject - and for many people it was terrifying. Not for me, but I certainly took no pleasure at all in going to these classes, so I couldn't get away from school quick enough. As soon as I could, I was out the door.''

The first job he tried for was with a local garage. As soon as they found out he had been to a Catholic school, the interview was terminated. Instead, he was taken on by a local butcher.

''I worked every day right through until the day the British government introduced internment on the 9th of August, 1971, so I was never without work,'' he adds.

By the time McGuinness was 18, the West Belfast MP, Gerry Fitt, and others had received beatings by the RUC in the Waterside march. It was the turning point. From then on, McGuinness would go rioting in his lunch-hour, go home, change his clothes and go back to work. After work, he would resume rioting.

Soon after that came the Battle of the Bogside and James Callaghan's decision to order in British troops

to restore order. Within months, McGuinness had joined the IRA.

One can only speculate what route his life might have taken had he passed that 11-plus exam and gone to St Colm's Grammar instead of the Christian Brothers. The point is that even without qualifications, he is now one of the most influential politicians in Northern Ireland.

He jokes that while some people went to UCD (University College Dublin) or TCD (Trinity College Dublin), he went to UCB - the University College of the Bogside.

''I actually believe my education began after I left school. Effectively, it began on the streets of Derry and through the discussions and debates about the political situation which pertained at that time . . . that is where I was educated: in this maelstrom of political activity which existed in the aftermath of the civil rights protest. That was the greatest education I believe I ever had.''

At one level, it is almost unthinkable that a man who has spent most of his adult life plotting how to remove the British from Ireland should now be relishing the fact that he has spent more than (pounds) 200m of British government money on the biggest capital spending programmes seen in Northern Ireland to renew and modernise its schools.

On a daily basis, he not only rubs shoulders with the educational establishment, he calls their tune, takes advice on, and makes decisions about, the provision of facilities for children with dyslexia, autism, and Asperger's syndrome. He has even taken the audacious step of abolishing the publication of school league tables.

When Martin McGuinness talks about Northern Ireland's ''legacy of neglect and underfunding'' of school buildings, he could almost be Jack McConnell only a few weeks ago, announcing in his then role as Scottish education minister a new fund to try to repair what he saw as Scotland's legacy from the Tories of a crumbling schools' estate.

For at another level, it seems perfectly natural that Martin McGuinness should be running the education system of Northern Ireland.

Even those on the opposite sides of the political and religious fences acknowledge that intellectually he is obviously up to the job - and it is quite a job.

Most people expected him to become agriculture minister in the division of portfolios among the various power-sharing parties.

''I chose education,'' he says ''because I thought that there were things within education we could do something about. The whole issue of the 11-plus, needing to have a look at our post-primary education system, and the primary education system, and the implications of that for higher and further education - this was a

real challenge.''

His early days in the job were turbulent. Pupils in the ''controlled

sector'', as the Protestant schools are referred to in Northern Ireland, walked out of school in protest.

To defuse the situation, he invited the youngsters to come to see him. Some of them accepted his invitation. Within a short time, the protests

had ended.

He blames Unionists opposed to his participation for manipulating the situation behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, he admits that ''what does present a problem are the

obvious and very clear divisions within the Unionist community and political establishment about the Good Friday agreement''.

He adds: ''I think pressure is being put on people within the controlled sector over visits by myself. There have been visits to schools within the controlled sector, but not as many as I would have liked.''

However, those Unionists who do endorse the Good Friday agreement are, he says, coming to see him in very large numbers.

''I don't have any difficulty with that section of Unionism. They recognise that change is coming and they're right to be part of that change. The trick for all of us now is to bring about political institutions that are increasingly accepted by more and more people within the Unionist community. And I am absolutely convinced we can. It won't happen overnight, but with a steady course. I think I can say with considerable confidence that we are moving forward in an often very sensible way,'' he says.

He will need all the support he can find if he is to achieve reform of the current selective system - a system which, although of benefit to some, is generally acknowledged to have failed many, many others.

McGuinness acknowledges that in the socially deprived areas such as the Bogside where he grew up, and where he brought up his own family of four children, grammar schools offered an opportunity for children of working-class parents who passed the 11-plus.

''This debate has been for 25 years out there in the ether. People have been struggling with it for a very, very long time. They have seen successive ministers come and go to this department down the years and had no hope or sense that the issue was going to be faced up to.''

In fact, it was the Scottish MP Tony Worthington who, while at the Northern Ireland Office, commissioned some research on the impact of the 11-plus. But it was Martin McGuinness who set up a review committee under Gerry Burns to come up with recommendations for reforming post-primary education in Northern Ireland.

After many months of taking evidence, including an examination of the comprehensive secondary school system in Scotland, the Burns Report produced three key recommendations: the abolition of the 11-plus transfer tests and the ending of selection on academic grounds; the development instead of a progressive ''pupil profile'' based on a system of assessment; and the creation of a

''collegiate'' system of schools across Northern Ireland.

Each ''collegiate'' or network would include the former secondary and grammar schools, denominational, non-denominational, integrated schools, and provision for Irish medium education, with each school retaining its ethos, mission, and autonomy, but each school being required to work in partnership and collaboration with the others in its group. Each school within a collegiate would be on equal rank; pupils would continue to apply to individual schools, with parental preference being the most important criterion for admission.

McGuinness is careful not to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation period on the report, due to end in May. But when asked for his views on integrated schooling, he points first to the fact that one of his first decisions as education minister was to grant-aid two integrated schools, and he then outlines the opportunities offered by the Burns Report for greater integration among schools in the collegiate system. Such a system would, he says, mean that pupils shared resources, shared teachers, and moved up and forward among schools.

''These are Gerry Burns's proposals, not my proposals,'' he says quickly, but reading between the lines, he likes many of the ideas contained in the report.

''What was really important about the Burns proposals was that the Burns committee effectively put children at the centre of their thinking and the message that comes across very loud and clear is that the interests of children are far more important than buildings or structures,'' he says.

Whatever the outcome of the consultation, he has other matters he must attend to. The unions representing teachers in the various sectors of Northern Irish schools have been demanding that he set up an independent review of teachers' pay and conditions along the lines of the McCrone Committee in Scotland. They do not want to be part of the English teachers' pay settlements any longer. McGuinness has promised them an answer in the new year.

And the time is fast approaching when the problem of worsening

discipline will have to be addressed. Like most countries in the western world, Northern Ireland has suffered from the problems of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as other ailments of modern society. Yet, at the same time, because of the particular disciplines imposed on its strife-ridden society by terrorism and conflict, school discipline has not degenerated to the extent it has in other parts of the UK.

Now, however, things are changing. Fear of knee-capping and other summary forms of rough justice kept drugs and other areas of criminality pretty much under control. The kind of justice meted out by courts now seems a comparatively soft option to many youngsters.

At the age of 51, McGuinness is a grandfather. The decisions he makes as education minister will shape the future of his grandchild and other children as they enter the school system. His vision, he says, is of ''a modern education system that enables all our children to reach their full potential. That is the right of every child and is an objective that I believe is widely shared. I want to see a system which focuses on our children and their futures, and allows us to enable all children to fulfil their potential, whatever their background or circumstances.''