General Teaching Council Northern Ireland

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Study plans for post-11-plus era before deciding on their merit


09/05/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

The Irish News, like many other media, has devoted much time and energy to the issue of the 11-plus, academic selection and the proposals to replace it.

I welcome the attempt to engage primary school principals through the recent survey. Although I am not convinced about its accuracy, I do, however, believe the more debate we have about this vital issue the better informed we will all be.

That is why for the past year I have been engaged in extensive fact-finding, discussions and consultations with the widest possible range of people interested in education. I have talked to hundreds of teachers, headmasters, parents, children and other people interested in education.

I acknowledge that there is deep resistance to change within some quarters. And in moving forward I have taken the time - and it has taken considerable time - to try to build consensus on how we proceed.

Some people have criticised me for not having instant solutions to the challenges facing our education system. I have been in office just one year and have been working on a number of progressive proposals and initiatives that will transform our 60-year-old education system into one that is fit for the 21st century.

New transfer arrangements form just one element in the reform programme.

The extensive consultation on the new transfer arrangements is now complete and I will be presenting my proposals to the executive on May 15.

I will be meeting with the assembly education committee and will make sure that parents, teachers and headmasters understand what I am proposing.

Then and only then will any people be able to reach an informed position.

I have always said I am opposed to academic selection. However, this has been deliberately misrepresented by some; so let me make it clear - I intend to see academic excellence across the entire education system.

I want to see no child denied the right to an academic education, just as I want every child to be able to access the fullest range of educational pathways.

We have many successes in our education system. I applaud these.

But our system fails too many children and every year thousands of young people leave school with poor skills in literacy and numeracy.

This year sees the last 11-plus tests and it is now difficult to find anyone who ever supported the 11-plus.

I am not alone in my opposition to academic selection. The main Churches have publicly stated their opposition, as have the teachers' unions and organisations representing the business sector.

The Irish News survey even showed clearly that most primary principals are opposed to selection. They see first hand how teaching is distorted as children have to be prepared for the pressure of two one-hour tests that can change the rest of their lives.

Across the north we have many schools that do not use academic selection but produce excellent results and help to develop young people who are confident and creative, many of whom go on to third-level education.

These schools have successfully shown that academic selection is unnecessary in today's world.

It has been said that the 11-plus allows children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to go to grammar schools and then on to university.

While this is true in a very very small number of cases the reality is that academic selection actually in-creases exclusion of children from disadvantaged areas.

You just have to look at the low percentage of children in grammar schools on free school meals compared to other schools to see the huge gulf.

Equality needs to be at the core of education and it is my duty to ensure this happens.

I am now at the point of bringing my proposals to executive colleagues and hope to put these to the assembly soon after.

I have always been clear about my wish to have a sound legislative basis for my proposals and I hope colleagues can support them.

When I set out my vision for education in December I recognised that some schools may need time to adjust to the new arrangements. During the recent discussions I made clear my views on how this can be achieved.

I also clarified my view that 14 should be the age for key decisions.

Ideally, at 11 a child would transfer to their nearest suitable school, largely on the basis of criteria around family, geography and community. Most children currently transfer to their first-preference school on this basis.

Of course, some schools may be oversubscribed but if we take account of the educational provision in a local area instead of just one school it is unlikely there will be oversubscription and likely that schools will work together to best meet the needs of young people.

After three years of post primary education, at 14, the young person, in conjunction with parents, principals and careers advisers, can decide which educational pathway they will follow - in much the same way as young people choose their GCSEs at 14 now. This may be academic, vocational or both.

For some children this may involve a change of school but this will be done on the basis of election or choice.

It is important that our young people are made aware of the range of skills we need to help grow our economy, not just academic but also in the sciences and engineering.

By encouraging and facilitating collaboration between schools young people can have maximum educational opportunities to avail of.

The introduction of the Entitlement Framework in 2013 will further encourage schools to collaborate so they can offer the widest range of subjects.

We currently have 50,000 empty desks across the schools estate and this number is expected to increase in coming years.

I believe this gives us the flexibility to introduce my proposals without the need for extensive structural changes and with minimal cost implications. We already have an extensive school building programme planned which can also facilitate some of the changes, in conjunction with area-based plans.

This demographic decline has also changed the nature of many of our schools, particularly grammars, many of which now take a wide range of abilities.

Many of them have effectively turned themselves into all-ability schools, so we need to ask just how important academic selection is to them today.

We cannot stay still. The world around us is constantly changing and we have to give all our children and young people the greatest opportunities so they can contribute positively to their community and our society.

Next week, when I announce my proposals, I encourage you to read them and decide for yourself if we can afford to do nothing. Our children and young people are relying on us to act in their best interests, for all their futures.



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