Education Minister John O'Dowd has hit out at the grammar school sector – accusing it of being "mixed ablity in all but name".
The minister, who opposes acadamic selection, questioned the grades schools across Northern Ireland use to choose pupils after extensive Belfast Telegraph research showed that many grammars are accepting fewer As than the year before. The number taking in only pupils who achieved an A also dropped.
The Sinn Fein MLA pledged to support groups who want academic selection at age 11 removed as he promised to work to improve the standard of post-primary education.
He was reacting to the Belfast Telegraph's exclusive reporting of the academic selection intake data for 64 Northern Ireland grammar schools for 2013/14.
Using a Freedom of Information request to all schools, we collated and analysed the results of schools which accept the two transfer tests used to determine selection in our top grammar schools – AQE and GL.
It makes insightful reading to parents of children throughout Northern Ireland who would wish for their child to attend grammar school next year or in future.
The minister (right) has urged grammar schools to abandon academic selection after the abolition of the 11-plus, which was replaced by unregulated tests.
Mr O'Dowd said: "Today's figures once again prove that a large number of post-primary schools that persist in using outdated methods of selection are now, in effect, mixed-ability in all but name.
"The international evidence is clear that educational excellence does not require academic selection."
He added: "Indeed, an OECD report recently said that the existence of unregulated tests is potentially distorting the curriculum. This cannot be good for a child's education.
"Academic selection has the interests of institutions at its heart. It is not in the interests of any child."
Only two Catholic grammar schools in Belfast, Acquinas and Rathmore, admitted exclusively only pupils with As in the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) GL entrance test.
Most of the maintained grammar schools also offered places to those in the middle and lower grades (B1, B2, C1 and C2) and six schools admitted students with D grades. However, the number of pupils accepted with D grades by GL schools was lower than the previous year. While scores accepted by the 35 grammars signed up to the Association for Quality Education (AQE) test remained at largely the same level as 2012, 23 schools saw a rise in the lowest scores or grades accepted.
But many schools using AQE gave places to students who scored well below the average benchmark of 100.
But the organisation representing 52 voluntary grammar schools in Northern Ireland said that annual variations were to be expected given "the continuing differentials in demographic and other factors".
Nuala O'Neill, director of the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), defended the right of parents to choose to send children to a grammar school.
She said: "Year on year increases in the numbers seeking admission to grammar schools demonstrates that these schools remain the first choice of very large numbers of parents. The right to make such choices must be respected.
"Many of our member schools are over-subscribed, and some method of selection is inevitably required. All schools, including voluntary grammar schools, which are over-subscribed are required to apply their published admissions criteria fairly."
Ms O'Neill said that the GBA does not comment on how members set admission criteria, and added: " The GBA believes that as opposed to inputs, the focus should be on educational outcomes and the excellent education offered by voluntary grammar schools."
More non-A grade pupils gaining entry to top Catholic schools
By Anna Maguire
More pupils are gaining entrance to Catholic grammar schools without the top A grade in the transfer tests.
Our annual research of the grades accepted by grammar schools shows that those signed up to the GL Assessments tests – which are run by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) – enrolled around 65% of pupils with A grades in 2013, compared to 67% the year before.
The 34 grammar schools which used the GL system also became less academically selective in 2013.
The number exclusively enrolling pupils with the top grades nearly halved in 2013 as two of the 34 PPTC schools enrolled pupils with A grades only, compared to five schools in 2012.
Only Belfast Catholic grammar schools – Aquinas Diocesan and Rathmore – maintained their sole admission of pupils who gained an A grade, offering 110 and 180 pupil places respectively starting 2013.
But less PPTC schools accepted the lowest grades overall than in 2012. According to data compiled by the Belfast Telegraph, six of the 34 schools that signed up to the GL Assessments accepted pupils with D grades, compared to seven PPTC schools in 2012.
Grammar schools in the Catholic sector are under increasing pressure to abandon academic selection at 11. Just one school, Loreto College in Coleraine, ended the practice.
Last September Loreto, which is still officially listed as a grammar school, took its first intake of Year 8 pupils without using an entrance test.
Meanwhile, the 35 grammars signed up to the alternative Association for Quality Education (AQE) testing system accepted largely similar scores among pupils sitting its Common Entrance Assessment (CEA).
Less than 71% of pupils with scores of 101 or higher were accepted by AQE schools – compared to around 70% in 2012. Five schools signed to the AQE testing system accepted a score of 101 or higher in September 2013 – the same number as in 2012.
Ease anxiety through regular discussions
By Muriel Bailey
For most children moving from primary to secondary school can be very exciting, but it can also be a little scary not only for your child, but also for you as the parent.
One of the most important things to do is to let your child know that it's natural to be a little anxious about anything new.
You can reduce their uneasiness by having plenty of discussions around their worries or excitement and always try to be very optimistic and reassuring, no matter how big or small their issues may appear. Parents should try to remain calm and positive during the first days back at school. Listen attentively to your child's concerns and problems.
Parents may also need to adjust to the fact that their children do not wish to share as many details about school that they used to when they were younger. This is not a rejection of you as parents.
Back-to-school stress usually passes within the first few weeks, but if your child continues to appear anxious you may wish to talk to a teacher.
Most children like to feel they are prepared for starting a new school and have all the right equipment, so try to make the return or lead-up to a new school a fun experience. Parents should make themselves familiar with the policies within the school. It also is very important that children get as much rest and sleep to help promote growth and brain development The NHS recommendation is anything between 8.5-9.5 hours sleep per night for teenagers.
Muriel Bailey is Parenting NI's helpline director. Parenting NI offers a freephone helpline and appointment services t Northern Ireland. Contact 0808 8010 722, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit parnetingni.org.