Belfast Telegraph

Pupil profiles may be best solution

by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, spokesperson of the Governing Bodies' Association and Chairman of RBAI

Since the publication of the Burns Report, the Governing Bodies Association (GBA) has been deeply sceptical about the contention that academic selection can be abolished without prejudice to the ethos, standards and mission of our grammar schools.

Since the publication of the Burns Report, the Governing Bodies Association (GBA) has been deeply sceptical about the contention that academic selection can be abolished without prejudice to the ethos, standards and mission of our grammar schools.

We have sought to protect not the specific 11 plus selection method but rather the right of schools with an academic ethos to take academic capability into account in determining suitability for entry.

The Department of Educa tion has argued that the abolition of academic selection is a corollary of giving primacy to "parental choice".

This sits very oddly alongside the clear evidence, from one of the most substantial consultative exercises ever undertaken in Northern Ireland, that a significant majority of respondents - largely themselves parents or looking forward to parenthood in the future - wish to retain academic selection in some form.

If the promise of the Minister and the contention of the Department that schools with an academic ethos can continue to flourish, regardless of academic standards at entry, proves to be misplaced, the inevitable outcome will be movement towards comprehensive education.

In many areas of England the perceived weakness of the State system has impelled families of comparatively modest income to make huge sacrifices to send their children to independent schools.

So far there has been no motive to move in this direction in Northern Ireland. We do not want the resources of the parent, rather than the aptitudes of the child, to be determinants of acceptance.

There are, of course, some recognisable weaknesses in the education system in Northern Ireland, but overall performance, which is the envy of the rest of the UK, will not be improved if a part of the system working so well, and commanding widespread confidence, is to be undermined.

The "parental choice" of which the Department speaks is not absolute. It would be impossible to meet every parent's preference about the school he or she would like their child to attend.

There must inevitably be criteria for entry which will point to the most appropriate educational pathway for each child. It is our firm belief that, in the interests of achieving the best match between child and school, the Pupil Profile recommended by Burns should be developed which would be factual, specific, and in a form enabling all concerned to make a well-informed judgement about a child's performance and competencies compared to others.

The profile would enable the primary and receiving schools to offer professional advice to the parent as to whether the child would benefit from their choice of school.

But, of course, if the consideration of academic factors as a condition for entry is wholly ruled out, a parent may, in certain cases - even if advised against it by both the primary and receiving heads - insist on that pupil's right to entry if he is eligible under other entry criteria.

This primacy of parental choice, regardless of professional advice, cannot be reconciled with the preservation of grammar schools as we have known them. Nor will it meet the objective of matching each child to a suitable school.

When it comes to the non-academic criteria for admission it has to be emphasised that individual grammar schools are distinct organisations, each with its own traditions, ethos, mission and environment.

For instance RBAI, of which I am chairman, has been located for almost 200 years in the heart of Belfast drawing its pupils from right across the Greater Belfast Area and further afield. Our Board would be totally opposed to an emphasis on geographical proximity to the school.

If the Pupil Profile can be used as suggested and acceptable criteria for entry can be approved, some of the worst effects of a policy change we continue to oppose may be alleviated.

Yet, unless RBAI and schools like it change their very nature - and we are assured that they are not expected to do so - it is virtually certain that the exercise of parental choice would on too many occasions place into receiving schools, pupils who would find it difficult to cope with the academic environment.

Indeed, objective use of a rigorous Pupil Profile addresses the problem of being oversubscribed for any popular school of whatever educational nature.

The GBA stance on this issue reflects a concern for the whole system of education and the welfare of all pupils.

Government and society need to consider why so many of our children leave primary education without adequate understanding of language or numbers and why the provision for children of a less academic bent is so variable at secondary level.

As currently framed, the proposals in the Consultative Document and arising out of the Burns and Costello reports would ride roughshod over the clearly expressed opinions of local people.


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