Belfast Telegraph

Academic selection: Parental choice remains but the obstacles in their way are growing

By Lindsay Fergus

Parents don't have it easy nowadays, thanks to the dual transfer tests, changes to the education system and the wealth of information at both their and their child's fingertips.

In my day, you passed or failed the 11-plus and your parents told you which post primary school you were going to. It was so much more straightforward when there was one state-run test and a grammar school was selective.

Today, parents have a maze to navigate if their parental choice is a selective school. First, they must register for one or two privately run transfer tests, which are held in the utmost contempt by the Education Minister whose Sinn Fein party opposes academic selection.

That, in turn, could determine what level of preparation their primary school provides for the unregulated assessments in P7.

Then, their child has to sit those tests in unfamiliar surroundings, unlike the old 11-plus.

If they opt for both assessments, their child will have to sit up to five papers over four weekends.

In January, as a raft of open days/nights at post -primary schools gets under way, they will be bombarded with information but will also have so much more to consider. There's Key Stage results, GCSE results, A-Level outcomes, attendance levels, inspection reports, pupil-teacher ratios - and that's just a few of the stats available from the department.

Then you can look at a school's extra-curricular provision, its accolades for the likes of sport, debating, music, green issues, etc.

And then there's the information provided by the Press, such as what grades/scores schools accept from the transfer tests, GCSE and A-Level league tables.

However, with changes to the education system in recent years it's even more complicated. Every education and library board now publishes an annual area profile which indicates if a school has financial problems or is failing to meet academic benchmarks.

And, thanks to the controversial process of area-based planning, question marks now hang over the future of some schools which fail to meet the Department of Education's sustainability targets, such as enrolment trends.

If a parent's head wasn't spinning enough, it is also no longer a given that a grammar school is selective or will remain selective.

Already, at 11, Loreto College, Coleraine, and St Patrick's Grammar, Armagh, have abandoned academic selection, but they remain voluntary grammar schools.

Though, interestingly, Loreto remains oversubscribed while St Patrick's is, for the first year, undersubscribed, its enrolment figures have been increased by the department by an extra 30 Year 8 pupils. There are more grammar schools contemplating moving away from selection, all, at this moment in time, in the Catholic sector. They include the Christian Brothers' Grammar School Omagh, Loreto Grammar, Omagh, Dominican College, Portstewart, while St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School Belfast has recently rolled back on plans to phase out academic selection.

Other Catholic grammar schools are also understood to be considering moving away from selection.

And finally, the threat of the removal of free transport hangs overhead. One of the recommendations in the Transport Review commissioned by the Education Minister is that if a pupil bypasses their closest school - regardless of its sector, ie, selective, non-selective, controlled or Catholic - to go to a grammar school they could lose their free bus pass.

Yes, parental choice for selective schools remains, but with every passing year those choices are diminishing and more obstacles are being put in parents' way.

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