For more than 40 years the 11-plus has been under attack, yet on Friday another test will be held - the second of two this term, completing the last but one examination to be sat by primary school pupils. That is the theory, but only the Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane, has an idea of how most of today's nine-year-olds will transfer to secondary or grammar schools in 2010.
The primary schools, which use a new curriculum that is unsuitable for the 11-plus test, need to know how they will be affected, just as secondary schools do. Most of all, parents need to plan for their children's future. But the Minister refuses to debate the subject in detail, merely hinting that 14 would be a better age for children to choose their future direction.
Since the whole school system is based on a form of selection at 11-plus, the consequences of any radical change are enormous. If 14 is to be the new age at which children, and parents, make their choice of a suitable form of education, on what basis will they move from the primary to the secondary sector? If their first choice cannot accept everyone, how can parents try to guarantee a place for their child?
Primary schools are geared for the present age of transfer, so it would be for the secondary and grammar schools to work out how to cater for the new unselective era. In some areas, this could mean little difference, since several respected grammar schools have adapted themselves to accepting all grades of 11-plus pupils, including the lowest D grade. In others it would mean selection by postal code or by family association with the school.
As Ms Ruane has said, the fact that the proportion of the school population attending grammar schools has increased to 42% indicates that many have become non-selective comprehensives in all but name. These would have little difficulty with the abolition of selection, except to offer the full choice of subjects, while others with an academic reputation would want to preserve their status, and have even threatened to introduce an entrance test, as a unilateral declaration of independence.
Everything is in the balance, until the Minister decides, and it is hard to conceive that the ensuing debate will have concluded by January 31 next, the deadline for preparation for the new era which the Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment has set. Change will entail new costs and considerations, as schools will be forced into greater co-operation, to provide the full range of academic and vocational subjects, and some closures will be unavoidable, according to the numbers criteria set by the Bain report. No one denies that the Minister's task is difficult, but she has delayed far too long.