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Parents back the transfer test system Education Minister John O'Dowd wants to axe

Families view unofficial exams as best route to grammar place

By Lindsay Fergus

Parental support for Northern Ireland's unregulated transfer test system is showing no signs of wavering - with competition for a grammar school place as keen as ever.

A Belfast Telegraph examination of the grades or scores accepted by grammar schools still using academic selection, against Department of Education wishes, has found that the system is becoming widely accepted and more sophisticated.

The informal transfer tests currently being used sprung up after the abolition of the 11-plus which grammar schools used to select pupils based on their ability.

Despite the Education Minister John O'Dowd's attempts to make academic selection a thing of the past, the two tests - known as GL and AQE Common Entrance Assessment- are still getting high levels of support from parents and the schools which use them.

The Belfast Telegraph breakdown found that three out of four pupils gaining entrance into grammar schools which use academic selection are doing so after achieving top scores in the unregulated tests.

Of all the grades accepted by schools in the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC), which administers the GL Assessment, 74% were A or the score equivalent.

Meanwhile, 77% of pupils in schools favouring the Association for Quality Education (AQE), which runs the Common Entrance Assessment, scored 100 or over. The findings are based on information provided by 67 post primary schools in response to a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper.

Tables outlining what scores every selective school accepted for their 2014/15 intake will be published in tomorrow's Belfast Telegraph. Data relates to the scores grammar and partially selective schools accepted for their current Year 8 intake who sat the assessments in autumn 2013.

It also shows a trend of improvement as the private tests, which remain popular with parents, bed in after six years.

Principals of schools operating the two tests said that parents have confidence in them, despite efforts by John O'Dowd to undermine academic selection. Tom Skelton, head of Dalriada School in Ballymoney, said: "We find the AQE test to be a robust method of selection which has the unanimous approval of parents in favour of academic selection."

And principal of Our Lady and St Patrick's College Knock, in east Belfast, Dermot Mullan, remarked: "Post-test survey of parents showed high levels of satisfaction with the test, its administration and the process."

However, Mr O'Dowd has called on parents to denounce the unregulated tests.

The Sinn Fein Minister said: "I strongly encourage all parents and guardians who have concerns about these tests to make their voices heard by the schools concerned. Indeed, everyone interested in social justice and equality should do likewise."

Yet, for the most recent AQE and PPTC Assessments, held in November and December 2014, entries hit a record high.

And selective schools remain popular with parents - 51 of those we feature were oversubscribed on first preference choices.

However, the Minister has dimissed the tests as "little more than a clever marketing tool; a barrier that schools put up to make them appear exclusive only to certain pupils".

In a strongly-worded denunication of academic selection, he said: "Educators should not choose which children they educate based on their performance in a pressurised and stressful test at age 10 or 11.

"All post-primary schools - grammar or non-grammar - teach the same curriculum. It is therefore incumbent upon all of them to consider all applications without using outdated academic criteria."

Key terms explained

  • Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC):  a group of 35 schools from both denominations which use an entrance assessment as part of their selection criteria for admission to Year 8 (Form 1).
  • GL Assessment: testing system used mostly by Catholic schools to select which children to admit to Year 8.
  • Association of Quality Education (AQE): a company formed to administer the Common Entrance Assessment (CEA) for transfer of pupils to post primary schools, mostly in the Controlled sector.
  • Selective grammars: Post primary schools - from maintained, controlled, voluntary and integrated sectors - which use academic testing.

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