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Record numbers apply for grammar school despite minister's opposition

By Rebecca Black

Published 25/01/2016

Almost every grammar school in NI had more applicants than places
Almost every grammar school in NI had more applicants than places

Selective grammar schools are more popular than ever, with demand at record levels last year.

Despite Education Minister John O'Dowd's opposition to transfer tests, the number of children applying for schools using them surged in 2015.

Full list of  grades required for every grammar school below

There were 12,047 applications last year, up from 11,844 in 2014. Only one school was under-subscribed - down from three in 2014. Omagh Academy, meanwhile, received 95 applications for 95 places.

The grammar figures relate to pupils who sat the Post Primary Transfer Consortium's GL assessment and/or the Association of Quality Education's (AQE) Common Entrance Assessment in November/December 2014.

As these tests are not approved by Mr O'Dowd, there are no centralised statistics available.

Former Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane abolished the official transfer test in 2008. Since then most controlled grammars have used the AQE system, and most maintained grammars have used the GL assessment method.

Today the Belfast Telegraph reveals which grammar schools are most popular and the grades needed to secure a place.

Through almost 70 Freedom of Information requests, this newspaper has compiled the only comprehensive table of results revealing the grades needed to get into selective grammar schools.

As in previous years, we have produced AQE and GL summaries showing the grades selective schools accepted.

This year, for 64 schools, we have information on how many applications each received, how many were first preferences, what their approved enrolment is, and the highest and lowest grades accepted. Some of the toughest to get into include Our Lady and St Patrick's, Rathmore, and Aquinas grammars in Belfast; St Joseph's Grammar in Donaghmore - which accepted only As - and Lumen Christi in Londonderry, which took GL scores of no less than 245. In terms of controlled schools, Friends' School in Lisburn took AQE scores of no less than 106; Strathearn School in Belfast wanted 104 or more, and Sullivan Upper in Holywood and Banbridge Academy took no less than 102. The highest mark recorded in the AQE tests was 130 - by a student who gained a place at Methodist College in Belfast - six marks higher than the previous year's record of 124.

Collegiate Grammar in Enniskillen was the only under-subscribed school, with 62 applications for 70 places. However, this was against the backdrop of a proposal by Mr O'Dowd to merge the school with Portora Royal.

Collegiate principal Elizabeth Armstrong said the school had "heretofore been consistently oversubscribed, with the lowest AQE mark accepted being in the 90-98 range in previous years".

DUP education spokesman Peter Weir said the figures showed academic selection was gaining in popularity. "The figures revealed by the Belfast Telegraph in relation to transfer tables show the support for academic selection is not only holding firm, but actually strengthening," he added.

"When departmental-sponsored transfer tests were abolished nearly a decade ago we were told so-called unregulated tests would be mired in legal disputes and that support for academic selection would wither on the vine. Neither has come to pass. Indeed, record numbers of pupils are taking the transfer tests.

"This is reflecting strong parental demand and shows the belief of many parents that selection by academic ability is better than selection by parental wealth."

Stephen McConnell, principal of the Royal School in Armagh, added: "There were in excess of 7,700 applications to sit the AQE Common Entrance examination and a similar number applying to GL assessment. There clearly remains support for the use of academic selection."

Meanwhile, a number of principals have called for a single test system to be put in place.

Patricia Slevin, headmistress of Victoria College in Belfast, said: "We maintain a position which allows pupils who have taken either assessment to apply and be considered for a place.

"The college continues to advocate that there should be only one form of entrance assessment, which would be accepted by all schools who wish to use academic selection to admit their pupils."

This was echoed by Scott Naismith, principal of Methodist College, who said: "As in previous years, the procedure ran very smoothly and efficiently and the college remains committed to working towards a single assessment system."

Methodology used for poll

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) legislation we asked 66 grammar schools (including the two that no longer select) to provide the breakdown of the AQE/GL grades/scores achieved by the pupils they admitted in September 2015.

The data gives schools’ name, location, the highest grade/score/quintile/band it accepted and the lowest grade/score/quintile/band it accepted.

Other information included is the number of first preference choices it received and total applications (which includes first, second, third choices etc).

Several schools have provided bands for the lowest and highest scores they accepted, as this is the method they used to select pupils.

Some schools accept both AQE and GL scores.

Not all schools use academic selection to determine their entire intake. Wallace High School in Lisburn admits around 90% of its Year 8 intake on test results; Campbell College in Belfast admits 70%, while Lagan College in Belfast and Slemish College in Ballymena select just 35% of their pupils using test scores.

Some other schools also use additional criteria to separate students with the same score vying for the final places.

Two voluntary grammar schools, Loreto College in Coleraine and St Patrick’s Grammar in Armagh, no longer use academic selection.

Total pupil figures do not tally for a number of reasons, which can include pupils with a statement of special educational needs not being included in enrolment figures, and some pupils being accepted through special circumstances or on appeal.

In some schools pupils were admitted without using academic selection and some schools were undersubscribed.

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