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Former test chief hits out at academic selection

By Kathryn Torney

The man who oversaw the setting and marking of the 11-plus tests for 10 years in Northern Ireland has written a book setting out his opposition to academic selection.

Dr Alastair Walker retired in 2004 from his position as Head of Education Services for the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

In his book — Selection Challenged — Dr Walker said it was difficult for him to accept responsibility for the tests taken by P7 pupils given his long-standing personal opposition to selection.

Writing for today’s Belfast Telegraph he explained that he began the writing project with the aim of setting out the case against retaining selection. And he said that what Northern Ireland does to 10 and 11-year-old children in the name of selection is “unacceptable in terms of the stress that is caused and the loss of self-esteem that some children suffer”.

He criticises the “unilateralist actions” of Education Minister Caitriona Ruane for the “mess” that education is currently in but also hits out at others in Government who he says refuse to co-operate in finding a solution.

The book’s conclusion includes: “Permitting the chaos of unregulated selection is unacceptable even if it is viewed as a step towards a worthy goal.”

And: “Moving in a single lurch from a selective to a non-selective system, without undertaking all of the changes needed to make the process successful, would have had a terrible impact on the education of tens of thousands of children.”

And he stresses that there is an urgent need to agree on a way forward that has cross-community agreement.

In his piece for today’s Telegraph, Dr Walker writes: “I am convinced that there is no testing system in existence that is capable of taking two quite average children and predicting reliably that, over the next five years, one will benefit from a grammar school place while the other will not.

“It is absurd that we are even making the attempt.

“It is also worth remembering that the hurdle itself is set at different heights for different schools. Postcodes are as important as grades in our present system in determining who gets into grammar schools.”

He said that grammar schools are currently serving 40% of our community well.

“Transformed into excellent all-ability schools they would serve 100% of our community every bit as well,” he claimed.

”We already have a number of first-class all-ability schools. We know they work. We do not need selection with all of the trauma and stress that accompany it.”

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