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Parents are creating division by hiring grammar test tutors and pressuring schools: report

BY ANNA MAGUIRE

Parents are creating social division within schools by insisting teachers spend more time preparing children for grammar education and employing private tutors to get them there.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned that training children for unregulated transfer tests used by grammar schools comes at the expense of the regular curriculum.

The body also suggested that because some parents can afford private tuition, social imbalance is being created, as children from better off families benefit more.

And it slammed MLAs for creating a divisive stand-off in the post-primary selection debate.

A four-strong OECD team called for a review of the commercial tests, which diverge from Northern Ireland's curriculum but can still dictate lessons in many primary schools, they claim.

"Primary schools report pressure from parents to ignore official policy and spend teaching time on preparing their pupils for the unregulated transfer tests. This is an example of commercial tests driving and possibly distorting the curriculum," the report stated.

Before 2009, when the 11-plus was scrapped, primary schools prepared pupils during class time for grammar entrance tests.

Grammar schools have historically taken in pupils from areas experiencing the lowest levels of social deprivation – measured by free school meals uptake – while returning best exam results.

Grammars had an average of 94% of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C in 2010/11 – outperforming non-grammars significantly.

While grammars staunchly defend unregulated transfer tests it is the Executive that has come in for most OECD fire.

Years of political deadlock around selection is so serious, it is preventing the effective delivery of the curriculum in primary schools, the authors claimed.

The "polarised political debate over the testing of pupils for post-primary selection is impeding the effective implementation of pupil assessment against (key stage assessments) and, by extension, the Northern Ireland curriculum".

One of its authors, Claire Shewbridge, stressed that selection at an early age does not translate into a region's economic success. Unregulated selection tests pile unnecessary stress on children, who face key stage assessments and multiple transfer tests.

But the chairman of the Assembly's education committee warned that the problem lies with politics, not the tests themselves. "Here we have a report which underlines the political uncertainty around the system, not the fact that we have the system itself," the DUP's Mervyn Storey (below), a supporter of academic selection, said.

"If you had a regulated system (of selection) in Northern Ireland, there would be no obstacle to all children. Selection... has the support of a majority of parents."

Nuala O'Neill, of the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), which represents voluntary grammar schools, added: "The GBA believes the present education stand-offs are not in the interests of children, parents and teachers. We shall strongly support new, respectful and constructive dialogue between stakeholders."

The £86,000 review, instigated at the Education Minister John O'Dowd's request, backs his own opposition to academic selection.

Yesterday, he said the review presents an opportunity for change, not "rehearsing old arguments".

The 200-page report also concentrates on the impact of political stalemate over the establishment of a money-saving single education body.

The Education and Skills Authority (ESA), which has cost £16.5m to date, is on the point of being abandoned amid a political dispute over its make-up. Schools in improvement programmes known as formal intervention cannot access vital support to raise standards, it warned.

PROFILE

The OECD is a body which represents 34 European and non-European countries. Drawing on statistics and real-life experience, the body makes recommendations to governments to improve national policies across a range of issues. It states that its mission "is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world".

Analysis: Political stalemate plays into report's findings, writes Anna Maguire

The OECD report's support for a wholesale scrapping of academic selection fits nicely with the Education Minister's own views.

John O'Dowd has repeatedly called for academic selection to be abandoned – challenging education bodies last month to "get off the fence" and call for the scrapping of transfer tests.

The report's authors, four OECD analysts, were in Northern Ireland for just 10 days. During the visit they went to six schools from different educational backgrounds.

They relied on documentation provided by the Department of Education to inform their review of Northern Ireland's system. The process took a year, with the Education Minister first requesting the review in November 2012.

While the intention was to get an independent, international view of our education system, questions are likely to be raised over the report's consideration of Northern Ireland's context and individual aspects.

But while the report does raise serious concerns over the impact on the curriculum of teaching for transfer tests in primary schools, it is the effect of political division which is the report's focus.

Our "polarised political debate" means selection at 11 is still here. But selection isn't the only controversy.

A "state of flux" around the envisioned Education and Skills Authority (ESA), whose future now hangs in the balance, means that struggling schools in formal intervention cannot access the support they need – because education boards have been run down ahead of the ESA getting off the ground.

It is important to note that the review describes Northern Ireland's education system as an international leader. The Department of Education's policies are lauded. But more work is needed on their implementation, the report adds.

Its authors call for an evidence-based case to justify the continued use of highly controversial computer-based assessments in schools.

It also warns that if teachers have no confidence in key stage assessments, they are unlikely to yield the "expected benefits" for pupils.

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