Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Robert McCartney: Selection - a very testing time

When the late Lord McDermott, one of Northern Ireland’s greatest judges was faced with a novel proposition of law, he invariably posed the question “but where will it take us if it is adopted?”

In many cases the legal, social and practical outworkings of the proposition indicated that it was inherently flawed.

Unfortunately for the children of Northern Ireland there was no one of equal intellect and wisdom among those responsible for their education. As a result decisions were taken to abolish the 11-plus before any alternative was in place and to adopt a potentially untestable revised curriculum despite the failure in north Belfast of its prototype, the so-called ‘enriched curriculum’. These decisions were taken for ideological and political reasons rather than educational ones.

The attack upon the defects of the 11-plus was used to mask an assault upon the principle of selection itself. A principle which 64% of the parents and 62% of the teachers consulted by the Department of Education voted to retain. The views of parents have been repeatedly ignored by the Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane, and her ‘progressive’ advisors.

Despite putting in place a revised curriculum designed to be untestable and to subvert any form of selection, Sinn Fein and its fellow travellers were nevertheless forced to recognise that some method was necessary for assisting parents to choose a type of school suitable for the abilities and aptitudes of their children.

Their answer was the bright idea of the ‘Pupil Profile’ that would assess the ‘products’ of the revised curriculum. Despite the expenditure of huge sums and years of research the project was a disaster. Teachers rightly resented the non-teaching burden placed upon them, while parents found that profiles totally unrelated to any form of testing were meaningless generalities which told them nothing about the progress of their children relative to their peers. Meanwhile, the most up-to-date research about the ‘profile’ method in Germany had established that it was overwhelmingly prejudicial to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Not surprisingly the whole bright idea had to be abandoned with the Minister making the blatantly misleading statement that it had never been intended to assist parents in the choice of a suitable school. What other purpose it might have had has never been revealed.

Every parent and teacher who despairs of our educational chaos should note that the battleground is not educational but political and ideological. Devoid of any valid educational argument, the Minister and her supporters rely almost entirely upon an unctuous appeal to emotional class prejudice.

The transfer test has been characterised by them as ‘child abuse’ while disappointed children are claimed to ‘crumble’. This emotional smokescreen obscures the Minister’s ideological determination to destroy selection and the grammar schools. That aim has primacy over everything else. In pursuit of it she demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice the well being of the current P6 children and to ignore the anxieties of the child, the parent and the teacher alike.

The heads of grammar schools, both Catholic and others, have indicated their determination to provide both tests and admission criteria that will preserve their schools’ ethos of academic excellence and achievement. These tests will necessarily be unregulated in the sense that they will not have been designed, administered and marked by a central body under the direction of the Department of Education. Current reports are that the Catholic grammars will offer a test of the intelligence type while the other grammars will provide a test based on literacy and numeracy. These decisions have been forced upon the schools by the intransigence of the Minister. The difficulties such diversity will make for teachers in preparing pupils, for parents in selecting schools as well as the unnecessary stress for some children will be significant.

One person who could put an end to this chaos by providing a regulated test is Minister Ruane but, I believe, she is using this capacity solely to achieve her political aim. Essentially her first proposal is to offer her opponents a stay of execution. If they agree to a scheme for the gradual, but permanent, destruction of the grammar schools within three years she will, in the interim, provide a regulated transfer test.

Alternatively she might agree to a transfer scheme at 14 without testing thereby, in time, ensuring an end to selection and creating a comprehensive system. How such a scheme could be done, what it would cost, or the organisational reconstruction it would require remain unexplained. Its only value is that it looks like a compromise until its implications are examined. The Minister prior to May 2008 through the Department of Education commissioned the Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examination and Assessment (CCEA) to develop a test that would be available if required by the Minister as part of a transfer process. A document from CCEA in the writer’s possession confirms that the test was to be based on an expected level of literacy and numeracy at the transfer age. The test would be developed to a high standard and would be subject to rigorous and robust quality assurances. The test could be ready for first use for children currently in P6 by the autumn of 2009. The cost of developing the test was funded by Minister Ruane’s department.

The cause of the present chaos becomes clear. The Minister has spent huge sums in the development of a regulated test of high standard but children, parents and teachers cannot have it unless there is an acceptance that selection will end and with it the grammar schools.

I think the Minister is cynically gambling on parental anxiety and uncertainty coupled with the administrational difficulties of two different unregulated tests being the key to her success. It is not without significance that the regulated test commissioned by the Minister was one based on literacy and numeracy levels, not intelligence.

What is becoming increasingly evident is the attempt to divide and sectarianise the grammar school lobby by offering false compromises such as transfer at 14.

Quite clearly the Catholic hierarchy favoured non-selection, a position that their grammar school heads did not appear to share. The demise of Catholic grammar schools might have seen Catholic parents voting with their feet in a move towards the continuing state grammars, a situation which the Church would not have viewed favourably.

The current rescue initiative by Bishop McKeown is clearly an attempt to heal divisions within the Catholic sector, but it will create a gulf with other grammars where transfer at 14 and restrictive capping are viewed as deferred death, and who do not have the advantage of close unscrutinised control over internal selection and streaming enjoyed by their Catholic counterparts.

All parents, teachers and particularly people from humble origins who owe their success to the grammar school ethos regardless of denomination must stand united. If they fail to do so then not only will parents and children have descended into educational chaos but they may well remain permanently immersed in it.

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