A 10-year-old girl listens as her parents explain to me how she hopes to gain entry into a grammar school in Northern Ireland.
Naturally they want to do their best for her. They tell me that, come September next year, they hope she will attend either a Catholic grammar school or one of the 34 schools which have signed up to the Association for Quality Education.
At the end of the day, it will be down to the child. A winter of academic selection tests lies ahead. This child, along with many others across Northern Ireland, will be required to take three one-hour tests in November and December for the AQE schools and to spend another entire morning sitting two tests in quick succession in a Catholic school.
One child’s experience of Northern Ireland in the post 11-plus era is that she will face more exams than ever conducted in the assembly halls of big grammar schools rather than in the familiar surroundings of the primary school she attends.
Thousands of parents are registering their sons and daughters for the AQE’s substitute for the 11-plus and/or the Catholic schools’ equivalent. In doing so, they are ignoring the policy of the Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane. She may live in denial, but the 11-plus in other guises remains the reality of life this winter in many, many homes across this province.
The Catholic selection procedure looks extraordinarily daunting to say the least, committing 10 and 11-year-olds to completing two papers in succession in one morning. The time-span seems more in keeping with a university or A-level requirement, than for children so young. It is worse than the 11-plus and begs the question as to why a standard test for all grammar schools could not have been agreed.
No surrender. Not an inch. No selection. Not by a long chalk. As another school year begins, Caitriona Ruane has shown that tough, uncompromising and intransigent attitudes are not the exclusive domain of hard-line unionism.
The Minister for Education has exceeded all our worst expectations by her resolute obstinacy. Thousands of children have become unwitting pawns in the battle between a minister with |an ideological mindset and a grammar school lobby digging in for a long fight. Compromise is not in their vocabularies.
The Catholic Church has been pushed into a position where it is now looking two ways at the same time. The bishops accept that some form of interim selection procedure is necessary for their grammar schools for the next two years, contrary to Ms Ruane’s view that ability-related testing for such schools should not take place at all.
Yet, by 2012, the church foresees no need for selection, thus consigning its grammar schools to become comprehensives. The Catholic bishops are taking a gamble. While morally they see the abolition of selection as the right course, practically, they may find that more Catholic parents with bright sons and daughters will not relish sending their children to all-ability comprehensives.
Many have already chosen instead to send their children to non-Catholic grammars as is evident from the background of pupils at schools such as Methodist College and Belfast Royal Academy.
If this trend were to accelerate after 2012, where will it leave some of the long-established Catholic grammar schools? If more Catholics decide to send their children to other non-denominational grammar schools, competition for places will intensify and 11-plus style testing |will be all the more difficult to phase out.
What of the grammar schools which are opting to continue with academic selection? The Department of Education is helpless to stop them other than to issue guidance notes which are noted by grammar principals but then largely ignored.
There is absolutely no sign of the grammar school lobby stepping back. The long term prospect is of an elite band of schools operating their own academic selection procedure.
No matter how united Northern Ireland appears to be in |waving goodbye to the old 11-plus, consensus government has ensured no agreement at all on what replaces it.
We can blame whoever we please — Caitriona Ruane or the grammar schools — but apportioning blame takes us no closer to a solution.
The education system remains shambolic. Ms Ruane has failed to stop academic selection at 10 or 11 years old. She is about to be ignored by thousands of parents — Protestant, Catholic or whatever — who will put their youngsters through the very selection procedure she seeks to abolish.
I ask the parents of the 10-year-old girl how they felt. They were critical of the stand-off and said they thought more effort should have been made by all sides to find a compromise.
Partnership government at Stormont has fallen at an early hurdle and failed them. The stand-off between the Minister for Education and the grammar schools may not bring down the peace process but it is a sad reflection on our politicians.
If they cannot govern Northern Ireland effectively, efficiently and consensually on such a fundamental issue as the education of our children, what hope is there longer-term on other contentious issues such as justice and policing?
The following sample questions were drawn up by the Association for Quality Education. Questions can be found on the AQE website: www.aqe.org.uk:
Q1 — Marie plays a computer game 12 times. The range of her scores is 6. Her lowest score is 2. Her mean (average) score is 5.
What is Marie’s highest score? What is Marie’s total score for the 12 games?
Q2 — Write the answers to the |following calculations:
3.29 x 1000 = ________
567 divided by 100 = _______
Q3 — Work out the cost of each of the following:
3/4 of a kg of sweets at £1.20 per kg ___ p
30 litres of milk at 94 pence per litre £_____
40 cm of material at £1.50 per metre _____ p
Answers: 1) 8 and 60 2) 3290 and 5.67 3) 90p, £2.82, 60p