Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DUP: School selection consensus ruled out

The Education Minister in Northern Ireland has pulled the shutters down on agreement on pupil transfer to secondary schools, it was claimed today.

Caitriona Ruane abolished the 11-Plus test for selecting which children switch at age 11 from primary to grammar school and today produced guidelines on the way forward after accusing opponents of blocking progress.

She failed to achieve cross-party agreement on planning for the future of children moving in 2010 and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) claimed she today ruled out consensus in pressing ahead with her plans.

At least 30 schools plan to set their own entrance test but Ms Ruane today issued guidance asking those in charge of admissions to consider where the pupil lives and whether an adequate number of deprived learners attend.

DUP Assembly member Mervyn Storey claimed: "Today marks the public admission of the failure of the Education Minister to gain consensus and regrettably we have in this House today the Education Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive pulling down the shutters on consensus, pulling down the shutters on any way of getting an agreement."

The Sinn Fein minister blamed ministerial colleagues for refusing to discuss her plans for the future, which had included phasing out selection over a three-year period, allowing grammars to select half of pupils in 2010/11, 30% the following year and a fifth in 2012/13.

She told the Assembly: "I will not allow the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to block the process of necessary and well-managed change. I now intend to move forward.

"They support a system designed in the previous century to meet the needs of a previous century.

"Parents, teachers and pupils need clarity. They need certainty."

Schools will be obliged by law to "have regard" for the guidance. It recommends that they do not use academic admissions criteria.

It included:

  • As a first criterion, applicants entitled to free school meals would gain admission at the same rate as all other applicants to address a current imbalance.
  • Sibling, eldest child, attending a feeder primary school or the nearest suitable school would be among other criteria.
  • There will be a tie-breaker of random selection.
  • Where the pupil lives will be used in conjunction with where the nearest suitable school is to ensure rural applicants are not disadvantaged by their address.

Much of the process will be as before, the minister added, and her Department will set admissions and enrolment numbers for each school.

Where schools are over-subscribed, post-primary boards of governors must select children for admission by application of the criteria and decisions will be released in May 2010.

Ms Ruane promised to write to principals, boards of governors and parents. Teaching unions have supported her move to scrap selection.

However, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield from the Association for Quality Education (AQE), which has led efforts by some grammars to set entrance tests, said the area had been left unregulated.

"The minister is giving us what she describes as guidance but those schools who want to preserve academic selection represented by the AQE have taken heavy-weight legal advice in anticipation of this position," he said.

"When a minister gives guidance we will give consideration to that guidance but at the end of the day we are entitled to do what remains lawful.

"You can't rule out the possibility of court cases but I am persuaded on the basis of very good legal advice that the course many of us want to follow is legal."

The minister has said she is under no obligation to fund the rebel schools' assessment.

But Sir Kenneth said their tests would be paid for by parents, with the less well-off having their costs covered.

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