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School’s out but new term will bring new test for P7s


Irish News

As schools break up for the holidays, those preparing for transfer tests face greater uncertainty than ever. Education correspondent Simon Doyle reports on what awaits pupils, parents and teachers when they enter uncharted territory this September

Schools have been tidying away their books ahead of the summer break but when the holiday ends, pupils, parents, teachers and principals will be plunged into a new and uncertain transfer system.

There have been repeated warnings of chaos, although no-one quite knows yet exactly how the new education landscape will differ from the old 11-plus system.

It is a leap into the unknown for all involved, including the grammar schools that have chosen to openly defy the education minister and demand that children sit brand new entrance tests.

There will be no state-

sponsored exam in November but almost every grammar has signalled its intention to forge ahead with what are, effectively, more 11-plus papers.

So when children start P7 in September they will have two months of schooling before becoming the first group to face new and different transfer exams on different days.

While it is difficult to pre-dict the impact of an unregulated system, there have been warnings that some parents may challenge results through legal processes.

Grammar schools have split into two camps using either a Common Entrance Assessment (CEA) or papers set by GL Assessment.

Both groups claim their English and maths exams will not distort the revised curriculum being introduced in primary schools, which is designed to allow more class time for teaching and less for practice papers.

Some secondary and primary teachers have been told by their unions to refuse to administer, supervise, mark or prepare children for grammar school entrance tests.

Teachers say such a stance is putting them on a collision course with parents who will demand that children be readied for new exams as they were for the 11-plus.

Some principals have said they want coaching to continue – whether during the school day or in homework clubs after class – but acknowledge there could also be problems preparing for sep-arate exams for different schools.

However, the 11-plus operated under a legal framework for selection and in an unregulated system unions have a basis on which, effectively, to challenge the practice.

Consecutive education ministers have struggled to formulate an alternative to the 11-plus since 2002 when Martin McGuinness first foretold its demise.

The move followed consul-tation on the Burns report which, to the anger of unionist assembly members and other pro-grammar voices, recommended that academic selection be scrapped.

Mr McGuinness’s successor, NIO minister Jane Kennedy, confirmed in January 2004 that the 11-plus and academic selection were to be abolished. In a 2004 report the government-appointed Cos-tello group also recommended that the last 11-plus test be held in 2008.

Later NIO ministers – Barry Gardiner, Angela Smith and Maria Eagle – echoed the policy of their predecessors.

Ms Eagle, however, added that responsibility for triggering the long-promised ban would be handed over to the planned new assembly.

When Caitriona Ruane took office, she said she hoped that selection would be abolished next year and that all schools would operate non-academic admissions criteria only.

Under attack from unionists, she announced plans for staged reform – it would involve a new transfer test in place of the 11-plus but for three years only.

Grammar schools would be able to admit only half of first-year pupils in 2010 using the test to be drawn up by the north’s exams board, the CCEA.

In the following two years this would be reduced to 30 per cent and 20 per cent, before selection by ability would be forbidden.

The executive, however, failed to reach agreement, prompting schools to begin planning their own admissions criteria.

Ms Ruane later told the assembly that she was withdrawing her preferred plan and issuing guidance that schools should use only non-academic admissions criteria.

Her department could not, she said, provide a test for use in admissions without a legal framework defining that use.

The guidance recommended that all schools use as their first criterion a measure that will ensure applicants entitled to free school meals gain admission at the same rate as all others. It became clear,

however, that while schools needed to “have regard to” any guidance issued by Ms Ruane, they could ultimately introduce any entrance requirements they wanted.

While grammar schools have said they will continue using tests, the decision has been unpopular among many.

The history of selection

The transfer test, more commonly known as the 11-plus, evolved under many different guises following its introduction in 1944.

Most pre-war children were educated in elementary schools, although limited places were available in grammars for those seeking university education. These pupils would mostly have paid fees.

The first 11-plus was to be used to determine which one of three types of school each pupil should attend after primary education – grammar, secondary modern or technical.

Central to this ‘tripartite system’ was the idea that skills were more important than financial resources and that different skills required different schooling.

The selective procedure would be used to identify those pupils best suited to the distinctive curricula provided by grammar schools and technical colleges. All remaining pupils would attend secondary moderns, although the technical element of the tripartite system failed to develop in practice.

Grammar schools would provide pupils with an academic curriculum to encourage them to stay in school beyond the statutory leaving age and provide a route to higher education.

The early qualifying exams focused mainly on English and mathematics although by the mid-1960s these were replaced with IQ-style verbal-reasoning tests.

Between 1976 and 1979 the format of the test changed again. In new ‘non attributable’ tests children were not required to write their name on their papers. Instead pupils’ combined performance determined how many of each grade each school was permitted to award. These were allocated to children on the basis of their classwork.

This was part of the then Labour government’s plan to move Northern Ireland towards a non-selective system of post-primary schools.

However, when the Conservative government was elected in 1979 this process was halted, the system of grammar and secondary schools was retained and the transfer procedure was restored.

Between 1981 and 1984 the entry level to grammars was capped but by the 1990s this restriction had been removed and there was an increase in the proportion of each cohort entering grammars.

In the early 1990s verbal reasoning was abandoned amid criticisms that children spent their time learning exam tricks. Reasoning had been combined with English and maths to make the tests more relevant by this stage.

However, these exams were replaced with the tests in English, maths and science that continued until Caitriona Ruane scrapped the system.


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