Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

P7 selection: children in the eye of the storm

This year’s Primary 7 pupils are among the most unfairly treated children in a generation because of the transfer 2010 crisis.

That is the devastating view of Avril Hall Callaghan — one of Northern Ireland’s most senior teaching representatives — who warns that the welfare of children is being lost in the current bitter debate.

Ms Hall Callaghan, who is General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union and Chair of the Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council, said: “It is the children who are at the centre of this — hearing their parents discuss it at school gates, watching it on the news every evening and even talking about it among themselves.

“In the middle of what has become a huge raging debate throughout Northern Ireland, it is the children’s welfare which should be paramount but which, sadly, seems too often to be forgotten in the storm of politics and self-interest.”

She continued: “The weaknesses of the two testing systems are being revealed — for a start children are talking about the ‘Protestant’ and the ‘Catholic’ tests because of the schools which are largely opting for each — surely a step back in time for this country.

“And the schools still have to navigate the dangerous waters of actually staging these tests and dealing with any legalities.

“What we’re seeing are chunks of children’s precious classroom time devoted to exam hot-housing, as is the case in some schools where principals are under intolerable pressure to groom children for these tests or risk parents taking their children to another school with all the cuts in pupil numbers and funding that would mean.

“With every day that passes we are hurtling towards crisis. Surely we can still pull together for the sake of our children and decide on a solution that is best for them?”

As the new unregulated transfer system enters its first year, school principals are firmly in the front line.

They have to consider the needs of their pupils, demands from parents, warnings from Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, advice from unions, direction from boards of governors, legal implications and — probably at the bottom of the pile — their own feelings about the new grammar entrance tests.

Despite strong pressure, many primary principals plan to ensure that pupils wanting to sit the new grammar tests are prepared to do so.

Ivan Arbuthnot, Northern Ireland president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “As a secondary school principal I would be dead against selection so anything I say has to be taken from that standpoint.

“The situation we find ourselves in is a mess and our members have been put in an intolerable position. It only takes a few people for everyone to get whipped up into a panic.

“The directive from the department is that primary schools should not be doing tests with pupils and that is our attitude as a union but that is all very well for me to say as a secondary principal.

“Primary principals have to deal with whispers in their community about which schools are and are not preparing children for the new tests.

“They do not want to fail the kids they have had in their schools for the last six years. It is moral blackmail.”

Mr Arbuthnot said his union was advising schools to be very careful about what they do.

He continued: “I think there will be court cases and this could be from parents saying their children were not prepared adequately for tests, parents of children not sitting tests claiming their son or daughter was disadvantaged by time and resources spent on test preparation and also tribunal cases over post-primary schools’ admissions criteria.

“The angst factor amongst school principals is intolerable. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. There is no right or wrong way. It is just unfair.

“This problem is of a political making and that is where it should be resolved.”

Most teachers we spoke to said they could reveal more about what is happening in their school if they remained anonymous.

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