Pupils set to select a school at age 14
Ruane favours choice model
The Education Minister looks likely to plump for a transfer model which allows pupils to make their own educational choices at age 14 without academic testing.
On possible replacements for the 11-plus, Caitriona Ruane has spoken of her desire to see Ulster pupils make choices for future career and employment opportunities at 14.
Such a system could see pupils attending their closest school until the age of 14 when they would select what school to attend according to whether they wish to follow a more academic or vocational pathway.
And in a straw poll by the Belfast Telegraph, teaching unions have backed what appears to be the Minister's preferred option for Ulster schoolchildren - but concerns were expressed as to whether such a radical overhaul can be implemented within the given time frame.
Although she has refused to be drawn on what her plans for the new transfer procedure are, it is thought the Minister is finalising the details and will make her decision public in the coming months.
She has come under increasing pressure to reveal her plans for the system which will replace the 11-plus - due to be axed next year.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Education and Library Boards, Ms Ruane said: "I am in favour of academic excellence, but against the current system which brands so many of our children as failures.
"I have previously said that 11 is too early an age to make educational decisions and that I believe 14 is the age when children make their choices for future career and employment opportunities."
Mark Langhammer, director of Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland, said the organisation believes that the age of 11 is too early for young people to make career-defining choices.
He explained: "The Education Order stressed that critical educational pathways should be at 14 or 16. Logically then, we need transfer mechanisms at 14 or 16, as well as greater fluidity between schools.
"Delaying pathways to 14 will create common ground in an entrenched debate. We support the Minister on this matter. ATL broadly supports transfer to middle or junior high schools at 11, with key decisions taken at 14 or 16."
Fern Turner from the National Association of Head Teachers said: "Our position would be that you can't have selection at 11. We are concerned about subjecting children at 11 to a test that will determine the type of education they will receive.
"I don't think they are mature enough at the age of 11 and it would be easier to live with a system where decisions are made at age 14. I do think it is possible that we can put a system in place where children make their own choices at 14. The big issue is the time frame - I don't know if the changes can be put into place by 2009."
Northern secretary of INTO, Frank Bunting, said: "Our preference would be for children to transfer without academic selection at the age of 11 but if this were to be the case at the age of 14 then we would buy that.
"Children at 14 are better placed to make their own choices about what they want to study and do in their life.
"I think it could be possible if the existing school buildings were used more creatively and more emphasis were placed on the shared future. I don't think it would be easy but nothing that is worth doing is easy."
However, any attempt to completely get rid of academic selection is expected to be met with fierce opposition by Education Committee chairman Sammy Wilson and pro grammar school groups.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a member of the Association for Quality Education - a pro academic selection lobby group - said giving children the choice to make their own decisions at the age of 14 as opposed to the current system would mean a huge overhaul of the structure of education in Northern Ireland.
"We would fight this and we are fighting it and that is why grammar schools are looking at introducing their own common entry tests," he said.
"Any kind of transfer at 14 where there would be a primary, middle and high school structure would be an enormous, elaborate and prolonged business. It would become a matter of parental choice and we believe that would then lead to those with money having access to the better schools."