Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Viewpoint: More confusion in schools chaos

The decision by 30 grammar schools to devise a common entrance examination to replace the 11-plus test is a further unnecessary complication in what is already an unholy mess.

The primary blame for the confusion that now reigns throughout Northern Ireland's education system must lie with Education Minister Caitriona Ruane. She has adopted entirely the wrong approach to what could be a laudable objective, the reform of a system which produces some of the highest achieving pupils in the UK, but which also fails even larger numbers of students.

A central plank in the Minister's approach was the abolition of the 11-plus test. She has not tried to build a consensus for this approach and has weakened her own case by pressing ahead with abolition before devising a viable alternative.

As the situation stands at the moment, parents, teachers and pupils have no idea how the new education system will operate. That is a wholly unacceptable position, yet the Minister is unwilling, or unable, to bring any clarity to the issue. Reform of the education system was always going to find ready opponents in the grammar schools. These schools enjoy the best funding, engage with the most academically able pupils and have the support of a strongly influential middle-class parent base. They can point to impressive academic results by their pupils and, of course, any education reform should seek to retain the expertise and outcomes of the grammar schools.

However, the grammar schools and the Minister seem set on a collision course. The decision by the grammar schools to ask pupils to sit their own entrance examination may be a tactic to force the Minister into clarifying her own proposals or it may be a direct challenge to her proposals.

Either way parents, teachers and pupils will be more confused. The grammar school test may even jeopardise the academic future of some pupils. The test has not been piloted, so its academic value is uncertain. Primary school teachers will be under no obligation to prepare their pupils for the grammar school examination.

There is no guarantee that it will be funded by the Department and it could result in some form of legal action being taken against the schools if they press ahead with their own entrance test. In the worst case scenario would that mean the province's elite schools going it alone without departmental support or funding?

Any two tier system of education would be to the detriment of the majority of pupils. It would be a disaster if reform of the education system was to create such a schism. Both the grammar schools and the Minister are being obstinate in their visions of the future. Neither has a foolproof blueprint. Whether the grammar schools like it or not, there will be a shake-up in the education system and everyone should be working with the Minister to influence her plans, rather than simply confronting her. Vested interests, either at Stormont or in the classroom, should not be allowed to harm the education of our children.

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