Belfast Telegraph

We're failing our kids: We challenged Stormont to sort mess over academic selection. Guess what? They didn't

Five years ago this newspaper challenged Stormont's politicians to sit down and sort out the mess over academic selection. Guess what? They didn't. And they haven't. Lindsay Fergus reports

The incoming 2014/15 school year will be a significant one – but for all the wrong reasons – in terms of the continuing thorny issue of academic selection.

It will be five years since thousands of P7 pupils sat the first unregulated transfer tests, following the abolition of the 11-plus.

Those 10 and 11-year-olds – the guinea pigs for the new Association for Quality Education (AQE) common entrance assessment and/or the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) GL assessment – will, in a matter of months, be preparing for another set of exams: their GCSEs.

No-one could have imagined that, five years on, another generation of P7 pupils would still be preparing to take those same five tests, if they register this May for both AQE and PPTC, in the hope of securing a place at a selective grammar school.

It was also five years ago that this newspaper launched the Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign.

On a winter's day in December, hundreds of parents and children descended on Stormont to hand over a petition calling on politicians to do just that.

I remember the day well; the sky was blue and the sun was shining as I walked from the gates of Stormont to the steps of Parliament Buildings, hand-in-hand with my niece, who was in P4, in the hope that the politicians would have resolved the selection mess by the time she was due to start post-primary school.

They didn't. And this year, as I select my son's primary school, in the back of my mind will be the reality that, because of the political deadlock, it is unlikely that it will have been dealt with by the time he reaches P7.

Five years on, political ideology remains at the heart of this shambles – not the education of children – and that continues to be the stumbling-block.

The two main parties' viewpoints haven't changed one iota: Sinn Fein is as opposed to academic selection as ever and the DUP remains the defender of selection, ensuring that it has been retained in law, so those schools choosing to use it can.

Neither has given any ground. But five years on, with transfer tests maintaining popularity, it is more confusing than ever for parents.

Our school landscape has changed – not all grammar schools are selective. We now have a partially selective grammar school – Strabane Academy – and one non-selective grammar school – Loreto College in Coleraine.

By September, another two grammar schools will have become non-selective – the amalgamated St Michael's Grammar in Lurgan and St Patrick's Grammar, Armagh.

Undoubtedly, others will follow suit, particularly in the Catholic sector, with increasing pressure from the Department of Education and the Catholic Church for grammar schools to abandon selection.

So, parents now don't even have the assurance that, if they put their child through the unregulated tests and their son or daughter secures a grammar school place, that it won't become all-ability.

Yes, there are some exceptional non-selective, all-ability schools. St Catherine's College in Armagh is proof of that.

But post-primary schools of that ilk are few and far between.

And that is why so many parents still back academic selection.

If the education minister, John O'Dowd, focused more on raising standards in non-selective schools, instead of his campaign against grammar schools, there would be no need for selection.

The facts, however, speak for themselves:

* Of 206 post-primary schools, just 91 have more than 50% of pupils achieving five GCSEs, including English and Maths, at grades A*to C – all 68 grammars and just 23 of our 138 non-grammars

* Almost half of non-grammar schools' GCSE results are down year-on-year

* In 61 non-selective schools, two-thirds of pupils did not achieve the Government benchmark of five GCSEs, including English and Maths, at grade C or above.

Of course, rather than trying to encourage all the parties to come together for round-table talks, the minister – particularly in Catholic grammar schools – has been stacking the board of governors with opponents of academic selection.

Look no further than his department's appointees to Lumen Christi College in Londonderry, undoubtedly one of Northern Ireland's best grammar schools, with an outstanding academic record, or to St Patrick's Grammar in Armagh.

The department will, of course, state that its appointees to boards of governors do not give it the balance of power, but add into the mix trustees and the Catholic Church's representatives and, in some cases, that would tip the scales.

No-one is calling for a return to the 11-plus. In fact, academic selection does not even need to be maintained, but that valid argument will never be won as long as just 17% of non-selective post-primary schools have more than half their pupils achieving five good GCSEs.

So, once again, politicians need to be reminded that, at the centre of this long-running row, is children and it is in the interests of those 10 and 11-year-olds that our MLAs put aside historical differences and work for the future.

It is up to them to agree on a transfer system that will have public and political support – not getting rid of selection by stealth.

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