A record number of primary school pupils are set to take unregulated transfer tests in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks.
Up to two-thirds of Year 7 pupils will be sitting the Common Entrance Assessment and the GL Assessment tests which begin over the next two weekends.
The continued increase in pupil numbers sitting the two unregulated tests will be a bitter blow to Education Minister John O’Dowd and bishops in the Catholic Church who have repeatedly called on schools not to use academic selection at the age of 11.
It also demonstrates that more than four years after the last 11-plus test and the launch of The Belfast Telegraph’s Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign, our political leaders are still no closer to resolving the confusion and controversy which surrounds transfer from primary to secondary schools.
The Association for Quality Education (AQE) Common Entrance Assessment (CEA) and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) GL Assessment tests, now in their fourth year, are used to judge admissions by Northern Ireland’s 68 grammar schools to admit around 9,000 Year 8 pupils.
Ronnie Hassard, chairman of the Post Primary Transfer Consortium that administers the GL Assessments, said: “All the indications are that parents are still keen to enrol their children at schools which have retained an academic component in their admissions criteria.”
And Billy Young from the AQE, which runs the CEA, stated: “The assessment is supported by parents and schools and is more popular than ever.”
The DUP chairman of Stormont’s education committee, Mervyn Storey, said: “Parents are voting with their feet and that has to be respected.”
An all-time high of 13,865 entries means that around 64% of Year 7 pupils have applied to sit the two sets of tests — a figure that has been growing steadily from 58.9% in 2009 when the first CEA and GL Assessments were held.
The figures also reveal:
- Overall, there has been a 1% rise in demand for the two tests at a time when the number of Year 7 pupils has slumped by 7%.
- More parents than ever have registered their children (6,991) for the GL Assessment, mainly used by Catholic grammars to determine their intake.
- There has been a 4% increase in GL Assessment entries since 2009, despite efforts by the bishops to phase out academic selection and a decision by Loreto College in Coleraine to abandon academic selection for next year’s intake.
Although the Education Minister was unavailable for comment yesterday, just this week he told the Assembly that “persisting with a two-tier model of provision at post-primary — or rather over-provision — creates the greatest challenges for the schools that serve our poorest communities”.
Commenting yesterday, the head of the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools (CCMS), Jim Clarke, said that as the bishops’ strategies gathered momentum, schools would grow in confidence to “show that every child can have not just the perception, but the reality of a high-quality education in a non-selective school without the pressure of a disruptive test”.
At the end of June the bishops issued a statement calling on their grammar schools to phase out academic selection by 2014, but not one Catholic grammar school has publicly agreed to the plans.
John Hart, director of the Governing Bodies Association, which represents 52 voluntary grammar schools, said: “Despite a decrease in overall pupil numbers across Northern Ireland we see a real-term increase in parents and pupils applying to grammar schools. As we have consistently argued, all schools must be free to set their own entrance criteria.
“The simple question must be put to the minister, and indeed the Catholic hierarchy: for how much longer will they seek to deny legitimate parental choice in the face of clear public demand?”
Mr Storey added: “It’s a clear message that parents will not tolerate shifty footwork by the minister... or those organisations opposed to transfer.”
Four years on and the logjam is continuing
By Lindsay Fergus
One of Martin McGuinness’s last acts as Education Minister was to announce plans to scrap the 11-plus in 2002.
But it was not until 2008 — when Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane got the job — that the 11-plus finally ended.
But another two forms of academic selection took its place with the creation of the unregulated Common Entrance Assessment and the GL Assessment.
All 68 grammar schools — and two integrated schools — added insult to injury by signing up for the tests now in their fourth year.
The fact that children who opted for both exams would have to sit up to five papers instead of one under the old system led to a public outcry.
In September 2009 the Belfast Telegraph spearheaded an award-winning campaign, Sit Down, Sort It Out calling on politicians to come together to find a solution.
That culminated in hundreds marching on Stormont to hand in a 10,000-strong petition on the issue.
Although there has been no resolution, “positive” talks between politicians and the two exam bodies are ongoing.
The controversial tests have bedded down and despite warnings from various Sinn Fein ministers of grammar schools having to fight legal challenges, none have been forthcoming.
While politicians are divided as ever, principals from Catholic and non-Catholic grammar schools have reported confidence in the system and parents — Catholic and Protestant — increasingly support the tests in face of stiff opposition from Catholic bishops and Education Minister John O’Dowd.