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Education Minister John O'Dowd not for turning despite rise in transfer test sittings

By Rebecca Black

Published 28/11/2015

Opposition: John O'Dowd
Opposition: John O'Dowd

Eight out of the 10 most popular schools in Northern Ireland use academic selection, it can be revealed.

And as the number of children sitting the unofficial tests continues to rise each year, AQE, the body that sets a sizeable number of the tests, has called on Education Minister John O'Dowd to support them.

Figures released by the Department of Education show that despite the official abolition of academic selection over a decade ago parents are voting with their feet to send their children to schools which still use tests.

The most popular school in the province - by a long way - is Lagan College.

Last September (2014) the integrated school received more than 400 applications, and was forced to turn away 223 interested pupils to stay within it's allowed admission number of 200.

Next was Loreto College in Coleraine - which only recently stopped using academic selection - then St Dominic's High School in west Belfast, followed by Wallace High School in Lisburn.

According to Department of Education figures, about 44% of post-primary pupils currently go to grammar schools in Northern Ireland.

The final official 11-plus test in Northern Ireland was sat in 2008. Since then most grammar schools have used unregulated transfer tests set by the GL Assessment or the Association of Quality Education (AQE).

Around 14,000 children sit the tests each year. The number who take the AQE tests has soared to 7,773 this year, from 6,817 in 2010/11.

William Young, chief executive of the AQE, challenged the minister to start supporting the tests.

"Our assessments are, we believe, of high quality. They have high reliability and high validity values and each year the parents appreciate the fact that there are three papers, which allow for an 'off-day'," he said.

"We are pleased that our numbers are increasing each year with a 6.4% increase on last year's number of applications.

"The Minister for Education keeps calling the assessments unregulated; however, bearing in mind the St Andrews Agreement to which his party signed up and which supported academic selection, for this reason he should consider regulating what we do; that would also be in line with the democratic will of the people."

DUP education spokesman Peter Weir said parents were voting with their feet.

"Despite some suggestions that academic selection would wither on the vine, statistics show that it is more popular now than at any stage," he said.

However, Mr O'Dowd has reiterated his opposition to academic selection.

"The Entitlement Framework ensures every child, regardless of what school he or she may attend, can access the same broad-based curriculum," he said.

"It is a system that caters for children's interests, for their aspirations and for their career needs.

"Crucially, it is a system that breaks down barriers and enables children from selective schools and non-selective schools to be educated together.

"Reintroducing the official transfer test would be completely incompatible with this objective. This is not just my own view - it is consistent with views expressed by the Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Equality Commission, the Children's Commission and the OECD."

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