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Four integrated schools opt for academic selection in defiance of Northern Ireland Education Minister O'Dowd

By Rebecca Black

Published 12/02/2016

The number of children sitting the unofficial tests has been rising steadily each year
The number of children sitting the unofficial tests has been rising steadily each year

Four schools have started using academic selection for the first time, despite Education Minister John O'Dowd urging the practice to be stopped, it can be revealed.

It is understood that they are the first schools in Northern Ireland to move towards a form of academic selection since the scrapping of the 11-plus. The four schools are all in the integrated sector.

Strangford College on the Ards Peninsula and Sperrin Integrated College in Magherafelt started offering a grammar stream for their current Year 8 (September 2015 intake), and North Coast Integrated in Coleraine and the Integrated College in Dungannon plan to start by the September 2016 intake.

Principal of Strangford College, Mark Weir, said academic selection "has not gone away".

The four schools are asking for academic evidence to gain access to 35% of their Year 8 places. This can be a transfer test result, a primary school report which reflects high academic ability or equivalent supporting evidence.

Lagan College in Belfast and Slemish College in Ballymena are also schools in the integrated sector that use academic selection for 35% of their intake, but they take applicants in rank order.

Mr Weir explained that their grammar stream is selected on other criteria - such as older siblings - and not placed in rank score order.

Applications for Strangford College - which has a Year 8 admissions limit of 80 pupils - have rocketed in the last three years.

In 2013, the school received 100 applications for 80 places; in 2014 this had risen to 179 and in 2015 it was 175.

Mr Weir said that 1,400 attended their first open night this year and 400 at the second open night, showing that the use of academic selection has not put parents off.

"The school as a whole would prefer there was none (academic selection), unfortunately selection has not gone away and in order to give children an equal chance of gaining an integrated education, systems like this are in place to try and help that," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"But the ideal for Strangford and other integrated colleges would be that this would not be necessary.

"Integrated schools, as well as bringing students of different traditions together, aim to bring people of different backgrounds and ability together. Part of it has been the need to provide schools that really meet the academic needs of all children as well.

"To do that, you need to make sure there is a balanced intake. That's what the grammar streams have been set up in the schools to do - to make sure that no one ability dominated.

"That helps us to meet our desire to be a school for all children."

Mr Weir said he believes the grammar stream is very attractive to a lot of parents.

"Parents want pace-setters at whatever level of ability their child is at," he said.

"They don't want their child to be the one in the class who is way ahead or way behind.

"It also means the school can provide a broad curriculum of academic subjects and vocational subjects, because there are enough children of each ability to justify the classes being available."

Mr Weir added: "With any school that is oversubscribed it is tricky, and in North Down so many schools are oversubscribed... it is a very complex issue. Ours is not academic selection in the pure sense because we do not use tests to rank order, the parent selects to use academic evidence to get in."

The news will be a blow to the Education Minister who is against academic selection and who has encouraged schools who use it to determine intake to stop.

So far only two grammar schools have voluntarily stopped using academic selection - Loreto College in Coleraine and St Patrick's College in Armagh.

Earlier this year, Loreto College in Omagh and Omagh Christian Brothers School indicated they plan to have stopped using academic selection by 2020.

No controlled grammars have stopped using it.

There are two sets of unofficial tests, which around 14,000 P7 children sit each year.

Most controlled grammars use the AQE system and most maintained schools use the GL system.

The numbers sitting the tests have been rising steadily each year since the official 11-plus test was abolished by former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane in 2008.

Billy Young, chair of the AQE testing system, said it has had a record number of entries this year - 7,772 - and that the number of children on free school meals who apply is also rising.

Just over 1,000 of the children who took the tests last year were in receipt of free school meals.

Mr Young said the organisation is delighted with the numbers.

He added that he is aware of a number of integrated schools which use his organisation's test scores but do not formally engage.

Talks are going on between the AQE and GL organisations, with regard to establishing a single test system.

However, Mr Young said his organisation is "in it for the long haul".

A full list of which transfer tests each grammar school in Northern Ireland uses is available on our website.

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