Caitriona Ruane has called on grammar schools to scrap new entrance tests — less than nine weeks before thousands of P7 pupils sit their first paper.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the Education Minister stuck firmly to her stance against academic selection and warned again of the legal risks associated with the exams.
However, she also conceded that she understood why some parents felt the need to enter their children for the controversial tests.
Up to 12,000 children are expected to register for the exams being set by 68 schools — mainly grammars — by the closing date of this Friday.
There are two different testing systems. One run by the Association for Quality Education (AQE) on behalf of 34 schools catering mainly for Protestant pupils, while the other is being led by English exam company GL Assessment on behalf of another 34 schools — mainly grammars in the Catholic maintained sector, but also including some bilateral and integrated schools.
The first AQE test will take place on November 14.
During an interview at her department headquarters in Bangor, the minister insisted there was now “clear, open and transparent admissions criteria” for transfer from primary to post-primary schools.
This appears to contradict the view of many principals and |parents who have spoken out to the Telegraph about the confusion they are dealing with as a result of schools operating their own tests in defiance of Ms Ruane’s guidance to only use non-academic criteria.
“Obviously, I'd have preferred if my proposals were accepted by the Executive and if the DUP had not played politics in this, but they did and we are where we are. I am not going to let their blocking of change stop the change that is badly needed,” she said.
The minister denied the claim by many principals and parents that we now have a chaotic and confusing system with some saying it is worse than what we had before. “Most people aren’t saying that, actually,” she said.
“We did a public consultation which was open to everyone. It was open and fair and transparent. The vast majority of people who responded to us — over 94% or 95% — said that they supported the change.
“I am not prepared to stand by and watch our system fail thousands and thousands of children year on year. Others may have been open to doing that, direct rule ministers might have been happy to sit by, senior layers of the civil service might have been happy to sit by in the past. This is the policy of the Department of Education, Transfer 2010.”
A leaflet put out by the department earlier this month acknowledged children would be unlikely to get into a grammar school if they did not sit the new tests.
The minister said: “I understand parents are in a difficult position.
“It is unfortunate that some schools have opted to test children when they know they should not be testing children at 10 or 11 years of age for an education that those children are entitled to by right, not because of a result they get in an exam. I am not advising anyone to put children in for tests.”
But she added: “I understand some parents may want to go down the road of testing children even though they understand the difficulty that creates for their children.
“Many of those parents have told me they would have preferred to have a legislated way forward here. But people need to be clear — Transfer 2010 is the policy of the Department of Education.”
When asked about the estimated figure of up to 12,000 children sitting the tests in November and December, she said: “There has been a lot of hype and speculation in the press. Let's wait and see what happens. The reality is that the vast majority of children won't be sitting tests.
“The great thing for me is that from this year on primary schools are liberated from teaching to a test that they did not want to be teaching to.
“They saw the trauma of the children who were doing the tests, who were waiting then for the results, who didn't know what schools they were getting in to.”
What about the potential for legal challenges against schools?
“Well, that will be up to parents to decide what to do.
“I have no doubt that it is not possible to test children at 10 and 11 without discriminating against children.
“I have written to all the schools who say they are going to do these breakaway tests and move away from the mainstream system. I have told them that it is very risky from a legal point of view.
“I have asked them to pull out of the tests and have said to them that this is not the way to go.
“They are spending a huge amount of energy focusing on doing something they know in their heart and soul they should not be doing. This department will not tolerate children being discriminated against.”
How does she plan to move things forward and get a regulated system in place? “I believe that many of the schools will see sense and join with the rest of us.
“If, at a future date, parties are willing to work with me to legislate I'd be happy to look at that, but my job right now is to make Transfer 2010, Transfer 2011, Transfer 2012 are as fair, open and as equitable as can be.
“My job is also to protect children from discrimination and I will leave no stone unturned to do that.”
Does she envisage that Transfer 2011 and 2012 will be the same as 2010?
“Well, let's take this one step at a time. Let's make sure that Transfer 2010 is as seamless as possible, and let's make sure that schools see it as in their interests to work with us, so a small minority of schools can't block the change that's needed. I hope the DUP see sense and I hope they realise that we can't stay with a system that disadvantages many people who vote for them.
“My job now is to move forward in the interests of all children and that's what I'm doing.”