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No entrance test, but these new grammar pupils are just as able

By Anna Maguire

Northern Ireland's only grammar school to scrap academic selection has accepted an intake of pupils almost identical to its pre-entrance test days.

Loreto College became the first – and only – grammar school to abandon selection in 2011.

The move had been in the pipeline since 2009, shortly after the 11-plus was scrapped by then education minister Caitriona Ruane.

This week, the Coleraine school welcomed its first intake of pupils admitted to the school under an exclusively non-academic entrance process.

During an induction day in June, the 125 new pupils sat the school's annual Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs), which are set by GL Assessment, the same body which sets entrance tests for grammar schools in the maintained sector.

Pupils at Loreto College – including those admitted under academic selection – sit them every year.

Principal Martin James estimated that of the 125 new first years, around 10 would not have passed the school's entrance test, according to the results produced by June's cognitive tests.

"We use CATs every year so we had reference points from our pupil profile from previous years. This year's profile is similar to previous years," he said.

As of last year, pupils are admitted according to where they live and go to school, and whether they already have siblings at the school.

The post-primary institution relies on its traditional catchment area, which stretches from Rasharkin in Co Antrim to outlying areas of Coleraine.

Mr James added: "I know a lot of people would say we are moving into a new era, but for us it's largely business as usual."

And, with little variation in the ability of the school's new pupils compared to their predecessors, it appears to a case of little or no change.

Mr James attributed the absence of a noticeable shift in the socio-economic background and academic ability of the new pupils to the school's largely rural catchment area.

If an urban school abandoned selection in similar circumstances, the outcome could be very different, he conceded.

"There will be schools that it will be appropriate for and where it might work in their favour. There are lots of different factors and I do not want to be in a position where I am telling boards of governors what to do," he said. "But we were very glad we retained our catchment area."

Alongside internal training and research, staff went into local non-grammar schools to learn from their techniques.

The outcome is a mixed ability school, which streams pupils according to their ability solely in the subject of maths.

Despite some initial dissent, the move has been largely welcomed by parents. Of 73 prospective pupils with siblings already at the school, more than 60 opted to apply for Loreto College last year without sitting an entrance test for any other school in the area.

"It was a brave move taken by the Board of Governors at the time to move away from academic selection because it's not the norm in Northern Ireland," Mr James added.

"Historically the ethos in Loreto would have been based on inclusivity.

"Mary Ward founded the school 400 years ago at a time when she wanted to try to get education for women.

"Our ethos is still inclusivity and we wanted to take away that academic barrier."

Despite significant political wrangling and some advances since, Loreto College remains the only grammar school to have abandoned selection in Northern Ireland.

Its principal added: "The profile of our pupils has not changed too much and we really have been pleased about the students coming into us this year."

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