Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

School principal slams DUP over selection debate

The DUP should widen the education debate to reflect the feelings of most schools who are glad to see the end of academic selection, a leading school principal claimed today.

In a strongly worded letter to the DUP's Mervyn Storey who chairs the Stormont Education Committee the principal attacked the wider political controversy over education warning it is playing on the emotions of parents and blocking efforts to modernise schools.

Robert Poots, who is principal of Dromara Primary School in Co Down and former president of the Ulster Teachers' Union, revealed that almost 30 primary schools refused to support grammars in the Lisburn area who wanted to continue testing.

In what he said was a reference to the wider debate on education, his letter to Mr Storey said: "As chairman of the Education Committee you should reflect the wider educational opinion - you have not done so to date."

Today the DUP said Mr Storey had fulfilled his duty to reflect the wide range of opinion on education and said the party was focused on delivering the best system for parents, teachers and pupils.

The private letter sent to Mr Storey, which was then routinely circulated to committee colleagues by Stormont staff, arrived last month in the week that Education Minister Caitriona Ruane scrapped the 11-plus and issued guidelines for oversubscribed schools.

Today Mr Poots said his letter was an appeal for all politicians to focus on the needs of schools - highlighting that 75% of grammars already accept all abilities of pupil despite the row over ending testing.

"All schools - primary, secondary and grammar - agree that the 11-Plus test is flawed and should be abolished," Mr Poots said in his letter to Mr Storey.

"This has now been achieved and the present minister and her predecessor have ensured this. I have not heard even one principal express regret.

"However, I have heard you almost blame it on some political subversion of our system. Not true, we want rid of it."

The principal said the transfer test had forced schools to waste teaching time on preparing children for tests, with the large number of pupils who do not get top grades then branded failures.

"For the first time the ending of the transfer test provides the chance to remove this pressure from primary schools, parents and pupils, and grammar schools will still fill their places with pupils whose parents believe they are best suited, the way it is presently," he wrote.

"Recently two Lisburn grammar school principals met almost 30 local primary principals to see support for the AQE tests if they happened. There was unanimous rejection of this."

The principal said teaching unions welcomed the end of academic selection at 11 and said inspectors realised the Northern Ireland education system had to change if it was to match international standards.

He said most of those involved in education believed the opportunity existed to make progress.

"We also believe it is wrong to play on the emotions of parents, Year 6 in particular, by stressing that they need the transfer test 11-Plus to give their child the best chance," the letter said.

"If you do then parents will cling to this hope... even though they know 70% will end up failures."

The letter ended: "We can make our country an area of educational excellence which is being thwarted at present by your refusal to reflect the real view in education.

"We have moved a long way politically so now we need to move forward educationally.

"We owe it to all our pupils, parents and teachers.

"You have a great opportunity to make a difference. Please use it."

A spokesman for the DUP said: "I absolutely refute the suggestion that the DUP is playing politics - for us the number one issue is to deliver the best educational facilities in Northern Ireland for parents, teachers and pupils."

He said the party was opposed to the 11-Plus test but believed academic selection remained an important tool for ensuring children of all abilities reached their full potential.

The DUP had consulted widely with parents and teachers and as a result had made maintaining academic selection a major priority when it entered political talks at St Andrews in 2006.

He said: "That is why at St Andrews we ensured academic selection was retained."

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