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Grammar school lobby head denies plans to breakaway


11/07/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, head of a group of schools preparing new entrance exams to replace the 11-plus, talks to education correspondent Simon Doyle about the plans.

While best known as the former head of the Northern Ireland civil service and later as a victims' commissioner, Kenneth Bloomfield has always been involved heavily in education.

He chaired the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council for eight years and is chairman of the board of governors of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he was a pupil.

Last year he introduced his pro-grammar school lobby, The Association for Quality Education (AQE), which wants to keep academic selection.

At one of its first public events it put forward computerised tests as an alternative to the 11-plus, although they had never been used to assess primary school pupils before.

More recently the group announced plans for a written Common Entrance Assessment, which 30 schools say they will use to continue selecting top pupils after the 11-plus ends this year.

While Sir Kenneth's organisation has been criticised by education minister Caitriona Ruane it appears to be enjoying some support.

Ms Ruane, while proposing to introduce a transitional transfer test for three years, wants to outlaw all forms of academic selection.

Sir Kenneth admitted that the AQE's plan was an "unusual arrangement", adding that he had expected government to produce proposals acceptable to the wider community.

Its test - which it intends to introduce next year - will consist of three one-hour papers, similar in format to the existing 11-plus, and focus on English and mathematics.

Sir Kenneth said he disagreed with schools under his organisa-tion's umbrella being described as "breakaway".

"We have not broken away from anything and we do not want to break away. We don't want to leave the public system of education," he said.

"Our legal advice is that it is lawful to include academic criteria amongst your criteria for selection and what we are saying is that as long as it does remain lawful, we want to include these criteria.

"In the absence of the minister producing any credible criteria we feel obliged to make some suggestions because people are coming up to us in the streets saying 'what in the name of goodness is going to happen'."

Sir Kenneth said he could not support Ms Ruane's proposals because it would mean the "eventual execution" of selection.

"We are often portrayed as being very selfish and all we give a damn about is our own 30 schools and don't care about what happens to the rest of the system," he said.

"We do understand the concern that people in the non-grammar secondary sector might feel that as

demography reduces numbers, grammar schools will continue to fill themselves up and they will be the ones to suffer.

"That, I am quite sure, is something that our politicians will want to think about seriously."

There are already some concerns about children taking the AQE tests being awarded a score instead of a grade, as this could leave individual schools to decide how the scores are used.

Some could allocate places in rank order, while others may decide to use different criteria to allocate places among pupils they judge to be suited to a grammar school place.

"You ought to be able to draw a line and say above that line all these kids should be able to cope with and benefit from what an academic school provides," Sir Kenneth said.

"There would be a level below that where people would be struggling.

"Each individual school will have to write its own entrance criteria and they won't necessarily have to be the same.

"There may well be some schools that will still say we will take people in strict rank order. There may be other schools that take a different view and say 'all we want to do is to establish what children would be better served elsewhere'."

Sir Kenneth denied that his group would be using children as educational guinea pigs.

"That would be true if it were some terribly exotic, far-out, inexplicable method. What we are proposing now we would regard as an interim arrangement," he said.

"Many of us have been extremely interested all along in the idea of developing a system of computer adaptive testing. The virtue of that is that it determines whether a child has cracked certain problems.

"If we moved into that area - which truly would be quite radical - it would need to be trialled, tested and costed."

However, Sir Kenneth struggled to answer technical questions about the new tests, such as where any trialling of questions would take place and whether there would be age allowances to benefit younger pupils.

"There are lots of finer details that will have to be worked on further. We are after all talking about a situation where, if this goes ahead, people will be filling in their applications in June of next year,'' he said.

"There is an opportunity for a lot of further dialogue and the AQE envisages having seminars in which we would involve primary people and parents."

Asked about the credentials of the test developers and why there was secrecy, he said: "If it is known who are the key people in this they can be subject to various pressures and influences that are not helpful to them or the system."

Despite it having been thought that an exams board in England would be developing the tests, this does not now appear to be the case.

"It is likely that we would be proceeding on the basis of locally prepared tests. That is not necessarily the way one would indefinitely do it," Sir Kenneth said.

It is also doubtful that a translated test will be provided for Irish-medium pupils, unlike the existing 11-plus.

"Although people want to have their children taught in Irish and value Irish, the fact of the matter is there is not anybody who is not capable of doing tests in English."



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