Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's academic selection put to test

By Billy Young

When the 11-plus was abolished by Sinn Fein, without any alternative being put in place, Northern Ireland was facing the threat of the imposition of a neighbourhood, comprehensive system of education against the clearly expressed wishes of the people.

At that time the Association of Quality Education (AQE) put into place the necessary elements to set up the company AQE Limited, which would devise and administer a new assessment. There was no chaos.

This assessment, offered by AQE Ltd, is designed to respond to the criticisms of the 11-plus, to satisfy the will of the majority and to reach high standards of reliability and validity.

Our three-paper system is greatly favoured by parents: this year, in our exit survey, almost 93% of the parents expressed support for the three-paper format, which is accessible to children yet discriminates, and which reduces stress by awarding scores on the basis of the best two papers.

It is also designed to assist candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have been greatly encouraged by the increase each year in applications from children who are entitled to free school meals, where the figure is now 12%, and especially by the performance of these children in last year's assessment where at least 50% of them had a chance of a grammar school place.

Each of our papers is completed in one hour, which is the time recommended for children of that age (candidates with learning difficulties and other problems may have 15 minutes extra), and it is not multiple-choice, which has been shown to favour boys.

We were delighted that the numbers applying to sit the Common Entrance Assessment (CEA) continue to grow and in the present cycle, there was a record number of 7,290 registered.

We are also encouraged by the results of our exit survey each year, in which the vast majority of parents responding continue to support academic selection.

AQE Ltd is in for the long haul and has already prepared the items for the next two cycles. This is not a marketing ploy, but a response to the concerns of parents who wish to see the preservation of an academic pathway as one of the outlets for their children.

Billy Young is joint Chief Executive Officer of AQE Ltd

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