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Academic selection retains big support in Northern Ireland despite demise of 11-plus

By Rebecca Black

After a decade of uncertainty a glimmer of light has appeared at the end of the tunnel for tens of thousands of parents who want their children to receive grammar school education after primary school.

Opponents of academic selection celebrated in 2008 when Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane made good on her party colleague Martin McGuinness's promise to abolish the 11-plus.

She claimed she had ended stress for Primary 7 children. Ms Ruane's frequent cry then was "think about the children".

It should be remembered that she sent her own children to Dundalk Grammar School.

Yet, because of Ms Ruane's actions, any child in Northern Ireland who wanted to go to a grammar school had to sit unofficial transfer exams in an unknown test centre, instead of sitting a State-run test in the familiar surroundings of their own school.

One set of tests is used mainly by Catholic schools, while a second is favoured by controlled grammars.

However, for children in areas such as south Belfast, where there is a wide mix of schools, many had to sit both the two GL tests and the three AQE tests. That's five tests sat in unfamiliar surroundings. Talk about stress.

Then there was the discomfort for educationalists and parents caused by successive Sinn Fein Education Ministers Ms Ruane and John O'Dowd frequently voicing their disapproval of the unofficial transfer tests.

There was even a ban imposed on primary schools preparing pupils within school hours to sit these tests, and a number of primaries received warning letters from the Department of Education over allegations they had ignored the ban.

Amid this atmosphere, talks between the two examination bodies to find an agreed single test were unsuccessful. And yet, despite this, there is clear evidence of the strength of feeling among parents for academic selection, with more than 14,000 entrants to the two transfer tests last year.

The number of grammar schools using the test grades has remain relatively consistent, with just a small number opting to stop using academic selection.

When the DUP's Peter Weir became Education Minister following last May's election, he was the first in the post to back academic selection and quickly overturned his predecessors' ban on primary schools coaching pupils within class time.

This change of atmosphere at the department has been hailed by academic Peter Tymms in his report as potentially providing the "necessary catalyst" to help the two test groups to finally be able to reach an agreement.

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