Belfast Telegraph

We need dialogue not just diatribes in testing times

As thousands of pupils sit another transfer test on Saturday, Neill Morton calls on politicians and educationalists to sort out the system

For the second year pupils wishing to attend Portora Royal School will sit the GL assessment test commissioned and administered by the school in collaboration with other grammar schools. The chaos predicted last year failed to materialise. The Minister of Education stands accused by some of lashing out at those who do not share her vision and ignore her advice. The reality is that the governors of schools like Portora had little choice but to commit to their own transfer procedure.

The Department may have trumpeted the death of academic selection, but was unable to convince everyone of the viability of such a radical departure in the timescale announced.

Schools like Portora should not be expected to implement a policy that does not have statute behind it. Radical departures from the expectations of the communities in which their schools sit will not be met with acquiescence among past, present and future parents and students.

And while we argue about how to transfer children from primary to secondary, the fractures in our education system deepen. Even the grammar schools have split into two camps each offering its own testing regime. Attempts to agree a single test shuffle into the new year.

Not that the Department is any more coherent. It sits as a commonwealth of ring-fenced departments that only occasionally communicate with each other. Members of the Education Committee are woefully under-briefed and the Executive seems to regard the Minister as some sort of errant daughter. Additionally, Education Skills Authority floats across the radar like an abandoned space-station: palpable but empty.

Along with many colleagues I have been dismayed that the debate around the transformative potential of education has been dominated by the issue of transfer.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century we need education to be true to its potential of transforming young people and the society in which they will prosper.

Even amid uncertainties, there is a lot of good work going on in our schools.

The curriculum has been revised; area-based planning has brought disparate schools to the same table to discuss shared curricula and there is an enormous amount of goodwill for a shared future.

But there is a need for leadership at every level to push these initiatives. Such leadership will never develop while key players believe their role is to destabilise each other over a single issue.

What is particularly disturbing is that honourable people have mistaken monologue for debate. Solutions are being lost in the miasma of rhetorical blind alleys. Terms such as equality and quality have not been subject to sufficient analysis and testing against the reality of where we are now or of how well schools are really doing.

To have cherished principles challenged is difficult. But to refuse a process by which they are challenged is a luxury that we cannot afford.

The Minister needs to balance out her insistence on equality with some of her decisions on resources and capital build. How does she balance denial of transferor claims against CCMS autonomy?

And governors and principals of grammar schools need to be more honest about the problems that they face. Many insist on testing at transfer yet cannot make their intake numbers exclusively from pupils who sit their tests.

We need to talk about things, not snipe at each other.

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