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The toughest test: schoolchildren facing uncertain future


Belfast Telegraph

Today, as thousands of our schoolchildren face an uncertain future, this newspaper pledges to help families get through the transfer maze . . . and we demand an end to the chaos


The coming few months will be a period of great uncertainty for thousands of families in Northern Ireland. The children who are due to transfer from primary school — and their parents — are entering uncharted waters.

The abolition of the 11-plus examination has not ended academic selection, but instead created a new unregulated process, which has all the deficits of the past system and not even the merit of familiarity or simplicity.

In November and December an estimated 12,000 children will sit examinations set by 68 schools, mostly grammars, and evenly split between the state and Catholic education sectors.

Each sector will have its own set of tests, all set in defiance of Education Minister Caitriona Ruane who wants schools to use non-academic criteria when determining their pupil intakes.

Such is the confusion surrounding the transfer process, many parents are contemplating allowing their children to sit both sets of tests to give them the best chance of obtaining a grammar school place. That is ridiculous pressure to put on children at a tender age.

Over the next two weeks this newspaper will be guiding parents and children through the tortuous education maze. We will be giving guidance on the options available and bringing to you the opinions of those who matter most, the parents and children at the centre of this education melt-down.

We will also be giving every reader six booklets containing hundreds of sample questions to help prepare for the tests later in the year. While the situation is far from ideal, it has to be approached in a pragmatic manner to ensure that the children make the most of their talents.

The educational pathways taken by children now may well influence their entire lives, hence the importance of taking the right decisions. The great pity is that those who should play the central role in setting in place a process which will make the educational choices simple and straightforward — the Education Minister, her fellow Executive and Assembly colleagues and the schools which are determined to defy the Minister’s wishes — have failed both the parents and children.

The P7 children who are transferring to secondary level education should not have been placed in a position where the outcome of any choice they make — either to sit one, all, or none of the tests — can still leave their future options unclear.

Indeed, the courts may well be the final arbiters in this year’s transfer process as parents seek redress for what they feel is an unjust system.

What is evident is that the impasse between the Minister, the other political parties and the schools must be resolved before next year. It will be interesting to see if they can pass that test.

Thousands of children facing transfer trauma

Parents choose to ignore Education Minister’s warnings

By Kathryn Torney

Up to half of Northern Ireland’s 23,500 Primary 7 pupils will sit the controversial new school entrance exams this autumn, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.

It has been confirmed that 6,000 children have registered for the Association for Quality Education (AQE) tests. AQE is compiling its tests for 34 schools — mainly in the Protestant sector.

And it is now known that up to 6,000 schoolchildren are expected to sit the entrance exams offered by 34 schools from the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium which is using tests run by English exam company GL Assessment.

These schools are mainly Catholic grammars, but also include some state and integrated schools.

A spokesman for this group said: “We are estimating that we will have received between 5,000 and 6,000 applications by the closing date of September 18.”

Thousands of families have ignored warnings and advice from Education Minister Caitriona Ruane to register their sons and daughters for the tests in English and Maths being set by 68 schools.

However, they now face a potentially heavy financial and emotional burden in preparing for the tests — with some paying £28 an hour for tutors as well as buying practice papers.

Some families will have signed their children up for both testing systems to increase their chance of gaining a grammar place.

This will mean them sitting up to five English and Maths exam papers on Saturday mornings in November and December.

In recent years, around 15,000 children sat the 11-plus exam.

Ms Ruane has called on all post-primary schools to set non-academic selection criteria and to give special consideration to children entitled to free school meals.

She has insisted that parents do not need to put their children in for tests — but has also admitted that applications to grammars are unlikely to be successful if children do not sit tests. They would only gain entry if the school they applied to had less applications than places available.

Non-selective secondary schools are likely to follow the non-academic admissions criteria guidance set by the Minister.

When asked for her response to the registration figures, Ms Ruane said: “Our current Primary 7 children will be the first to transfer to post-primary schools without |having to endure the 11-plus.

“I know that every parent wants the best education for their child and I believe this can be achieved without the stress caused to 10-year-olds by selection tests.

“Across the north of Ireland we have many excellent schools providing educational pathways that best meet the needs of children, without the need for admissions tests.

“A minority of schools have said they will continue to select and reject children by testing them. Most of these schools are already accepting a wide ability range — why do they need to submit |children to tests before they can obtain the education that all are entitled to?”

Billy Young, from AQE, said: “AQE has said all along that the |assessments take account of the Northern Ireland curriculum and that any young person, in any school in Northern Ireland, should be able to tackle the papers. We are keen that as many as possible should try it — particularly young people in disadvantaged areas.”

Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea said parents just wanted to do the best for their children. “It is not the easy option to put your child in for the tests, so no family will have taken this decision lightly,” he said.

“For many people education is the single most important issue to be dealt with in Northern Ireland. It is not policing and justice or the war in Iraq, it is all about their children’s education.

“What these figures also demonstrate is that everyone is ignoring the Minister’s call to have nothing to do with the tests.

“She will probably say that legal challenges will follow but what she should be focusing on is engaging with others to find an agreed way forward.”

Have you any questions for the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane? Email Kathryn Torney: [email protected]

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