In the New Year, the parents of every sixth class student in the Republic will drop their son or daughter off at their prospective secondary school.
They will have explained to their young scholars that their English, Irish and Maths entrance exams are nothing to worry about and that the results will never be known.
With a place in the secondary school guaranteed, the parents will return home satisfied that their child’s educational path has already been laid out.
Compare that to the experience of their Northern Ireland counterparts, who this winter will have to study hard just to determine what path is available to them and how best to navigate the many new obstacles that have been thrown in their way.
For those parents who opt for schools with the newly-established AQE or GL entrance exams, the stress begins now.
When should my child begin studying? Do I need to hire a tutor? Is the primary school providing the preparation necessary for my child?
For those who do not opt for these schools, in line with Minister Ruane’s recommendation, there will be that constant worry that they have not best served their child.
In the past 20 years, successive Ministers of Education in the South have reaffirmed (legally and otherwise) the idea that academic selection is unacceptable.
The arguments are simple. A once-off assessment of a student’s aptitude for English and Maths should not determine the educational institution that child is assigned to, especially when you consider the world of education has long recognised the multitude of intelligences that should be rewarded.
Second, the culture of failure cultivated among 10 and 11-year-olds has consequences far beyond the transition between primary and secondary education. And, third, studies in the Republic and in Norway show that academic selection strangles ambition in those schools that accept lower grades in the entrance exams and creates a tradition of under achievement.
Even more worrying is the awkward limbo that Northern Ireland’s education system now finds itself in. The abolition of the 11+ exam and the rise of the AQE and GL exams have further exacerbated the religious divide. Principals, students and parents already refer to the ‘Catholic’ test and the ‘Protestant’ test. What hope is there for an educated integrated society when the education structures themselves seem to promote both academic and religious division?
The South has often been accused of not supporting the needs of gifted students —perhaps a consequence of non-academic selection.
However, this is being combated through the development of the Centre for Talented Youth and through the revolution of teacher training.
The needs of every student — from those with learning difficulties through to those with exceptional talents — are being diagnosed and aided in every school. While the evolution of these programmes is taking time, the sentiment and philosophy demonstrate that every school can represent diversity and cope with the challenges that arise from it.
Supporters of academic selection claim that schools are better equipped to deal with the specific demands of students with common abilities. However this, like the streaming of students into hierarchical classes, often pigeon-holes a student’s potential.
Learning from the mistakes and successes of the Republic’s experience, the advice I would give to parents worried about the choices they have to make is this: In the partnership that is education, the most important person is you, the parent.
You drive your child’s ambition, you’re responsible for your child’s attitude towards education, you’re the pivotal care structure that comforts and supports, challenges and assists. You are the taxi service, the caterer, the barrister, the psychologist, the role model and the parent.
Ms Ruane may have made all those jobs a little bit tougher this year but that just challenges you to once again step up to the mark.
The premium that Northern Ireland society, and in particular Northern Ireland parents, has always placed on education is responsible for your success to date, not academic selection.
As a teacher, I am constantly reminded that the endeavours of parents are the instigator and motivator of my students’ success and I’m indebted to them for that.
David Hopkins teaches English and History in Colaiste na hInse in Co Meath