Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Kathryn Torney: Testing times take their toll on pupils, parents and teachers

Exams are always stressful without the added uncertainty surrounding a replacement for the 11-Plus.

A new school term has started where the old one left off – with debate raging over the replacement for the 11-plus. Education Correspondent Kathryn Torney senses a growing anger.

With just eight weeks to go until P7 pupils sit the first paper of the last 11-plus exams ever to be taken in Northern Ireland, confusion reigns over the test’s replacement.

The Executive has not met to discuss any matter since June, education discussions planned for the summer in a bid to break the political stalemate did not materialise, and talks which are now taking place between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the issue of school transfer also appear to be going nowhere.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane shows no sign of backing down from her insistence that debate should take place on her proposal to phase out academic selection over three years — despite knowing that academic selection was secured during political talks at St Andrews and cannot be scrapped without cross-party support within the Assembly.

In February, the Education minister told the Belfast Telegraph that she would write directly to all parents and teachers in schools because of “scaremongering in the media” over the lack of information on the new system.

However, seven months later they are still waiting.

In the midst of the madness are the thousands of P6 pupils in schools across Northern Ireland who will be the first to experience the new system.

As it stands, it seems likely that an unregulated system and the potential chaos that this could create awaits them in their final year of primary school.

Thirty grammar schools are pushing ahead with their plans to introduce a new common entrance exam while other schools — under an unregulated scenario — would be ‘encouraged’ to follow guidelines set down by Ms Ruane, which do not feature academic selection as an option for schools.

Plans for a new single education authority are also now caught up in the political mire.

The DUP is understood to be holding back on agreeing to authority’’s establishment, while the stand-off continues in relation to academic selection.

If more positive discussions are taking place behind the scenes — which seems unlikely — the public has a right to know.

The debate over what will replace the 11-plus remains a main topic of conversation at dinner tables, work places and at school gates across the province.

Teachers are having to admit to parents that they simply do not know what is going to happen next year.

This means they cannot plan ahead or, most importantly, talk children through what will happen during one of the most crucial stages of their educational lives so far.

As Ms Ruane inspected a new multi-million pound technology and design block at a school in Glengormley yesterday, the public cries out for information on the way forward.

Failure to solve this serious dilemma would taint the Northern Ireland Assembly for years to come.

What’s the point in having highly-paid local representatives running our country if they falter and fail when it comes to agreeing on our children’s education?

Pupils transfer to post-primary schools once in their lives.

There are no second chances so we need to get this right for the current P6 pupils.

It is essential that all the political parties get their heads together urgently on this issue.

A bit of give and take, put the interests of children at the centre and political point scoring out the door.

Is the situation so extreme that we should consider putting them all together in a locked room and not letting them out until a resolution is reached?

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