General Teaching Council Northern Ireland

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Pupil choice signals a big change for schools


Belfast Telegraph
By Lisa Smyth

One of the biggest issues currently facing the Education Minister is the replacement of the 11-plus - due to be axed next year.

Since taking up her role in the new Assembly five months ago Caitriona Ruane has consistently voiced her dislike for any form of academic selection and confirmed that the 11-plus will go in 2008.

However - despite repeated demands for answers - she has remained tight-lipped as to what will replace the doomed 11-plus saying that she will not be rushed into making a decision on such an important matter.

Increasingly, however, Ms Ruane has spoken of her desire to see Ulster pupils make choices for future career and employment opportunities at 14, prompting speculation that she may be testing public reaction before announcing her decision in the coming months.

In a speech made recently, she said: "I have previously said that 11 is too early an age to make important educational decisions and that I believe 14 is the age when children make their choices for future career and employment opportunities."

But what will a system without academic selection where the pupils are responsible for making their own decisions mean for the education sector in Northern Ireland?

While it is becoming increasingly clear that the Minister is leaning towards a process where choices are made at the age of 14, it is still not exactly clear how exactly the new system may work.

Undoubtedly it will mean a massive overhaul of the current system but some questions remain - will children continue to transfer from primary school at 11 and then refine their subject choices at 14 or will they remain in the same school from the age of four to 14 before moving into the post primary sector?

What does seem likely is that Ms Ruane is determined to hand control to the students rather than giving schools the chance to select pupils.

She has gone on record as saying she is against any system which brands a child a failure - which many opponents of the 11-plus exam claim is the biggest downfall of the current transfer system.

Teaching unions across Northern Ireland have said they will support any move to abolish the 11-plus and replace it with a transfer system at the age of 14, when they say children are more capable of making decisions.

The most likely scenario will involve children beginning school at four and either moving to the post primary school closest to their home address at 11 where they will continue their studies until the age of 14 where their subject choices will be refined.

The emphasis will no longer be on whether a pupil is intelligent enough to attend a certain school but rather whether a school can cater for their subject choices.

As part of the overhaul of the curriculum and implementation of the shared future strategy, pupils across Northern Ireland will have access to a wider range of subjects and some schools will become centres of excellence for certain subjects.

This will mean that, depending on subject choices - as far as logistically possible - pupils could attend a number of institutions so that their educational requirements are met. Schools across Northern Ireland are currently under threat of closure as the recommendations made in the Bain Report are implemented and teaching unions have said that better use of the existing facilities will help ensure that a system where pupils make their subject choices at 14 is possible.

The Minister has the backing of Ulster's teaching unions and while any replacement for the 11-plus which does not include a form of academic selection will prove controversial for some, time is running out.

The introduction of the revised curriculum - which cannot be taught in conjunction with the 11-plus - means a replacement must be found.

The only real question that really remains now is, when will the Minister make her decision public?


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