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Principals in the dark over minister's vision for future


30/04/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

When Caitriona Ruane announced in December that "there will be no 11-plus in 2009", she said children in Primary 5, their parents and teachers could now "focus on the job in hand".

This would involve "educating our young people and concentrating on the revised curriculum in a way that allows each and every child the equal opportunity to fulfil their full potential as citizens in the future".

But with just months to go until pupils sit the final 11-plus, many principals say they remain in the dark as to the exact nature of the minister's vision for a system with no transfer test.

In a survey The Irish News sought the opinion of one in every 10 primary school leaders on this and related issues - academic selection, area-based planning and moving decision-making to the age of 14.

Each was read a series of statements and given five possible answers - strongly agree, agree, disagree, strong-ly disagree, or no opinion.

The most emphatic result was to the statement 'I have enough information about the future arrangements to prepare teachers and children in my school'. See Graph One.

Not one principal said they strongly agreed, while just 9 per cent said they agreed.

An overwhelming 90 per cent-plus responded that they either disagreed or strongly disagreed, with some saying they had no information for parents, pupils and staff.

Some also said the announcement by a group of grammar schools that they planned to continue with entrance testing was adding to the confusion, making it difficult for them to know how to prepare P6 pupils next year.

Faced with calls for further information about her plans, the minister has insisted she is consulting carefully with education interests and will come forward with detailed proposals in enough time for schools.

But when the statement 'I have confidence in the minister's ability to deliver a quality system' was put to the principals, two-thirds said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed. About 9 per cent chose not to answer at all. Graph Two.

Just 24 of those polled said they did have confidence in the minister - the majority of them from Catholic schools.

Principals were also asked about plans already outlined by Ms Ruane for a radical shake-up of school structures. Graph Three

So-called area-based planning, prompted by falling pupil numbers, could see schools from different sectors coming together under one roof.

Five new groups - representative of the areas served by the existing education boards - will bring forward proposals on how they believe schools should be reorganised locally.

They will also consider how to strategically plan the schools estate, reduce empty desks and promote sharing and collaboration between sectors.

While some principals admitted that they did not know enough about the plans to give an honest answer, the majority said they were in favour of the idea. However, this work is yet to begin.

Ms Ruane has meanwhile insisted that she intends to abolish academic selection, with pupils themselves to make key choices at the age of 14.

Exactly how this will be put into force remains unclear.

It will probably involve pupil profiles, which are designed to provide parents with information to help choose for themselves an appropriate post-primary school for their child.

Clearly defined admissions criteria will be used when schools are over-subscribed - but not academic performance, according to Ms Ruane.

It is likely therefore that many children will win places at post-primary schools closest to their home.

More than three-quarters of the principals surveyed said they either agreed or strongly agreed that children and their parents should make choices about the educational pathway best suited to them at 14 rather than 11. Graph Four.

The thorny issue of academic selection was the focus of another of the survey statements, which read: 'An academically selective system is best for children'. Graph Five.

More said they disagreed or strongly disagreed - almost two-thirds of respondents, compared to almost a third who favoured of selection by ability.

Some, however, qualified their answer by saying that while they disagreed with selection at 11, it was acceptable at 14.

Others said that children would continue to be disadvantaged within the education system even without academic selection.



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