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The Big Education Debate: Deprived children 'failed by our transfer system'

Lisa Smyth talks to the principals of two primary schools on Belfast's Shankill Road, who argue that the 11-plus exam lets down many of their pupils

Despite claims that the 11-plus is a fair and equal system for all children in Northern Ireland, figures from the Department of Education would suggest otherwise.

In order to calculate the number of children from low income families in the school population, the department looks at the number of pupils receiving free school meals.

Statistics show that 18% of children in Northern Ireland are entitled to free meals - which equates to one in every five places being occupied by a child from a low income family.

However, according to figures, only one in 14 grammar school places are occupied by children entitled to free school meals.

So it comes as no surprise that the Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, has argued strongly that the 11-plus fails children from some of the most disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland.

After decades of the Troubles, poverty is a major issue for the Shankill community and principals of local schools have pressed hard for changes to the education system.

Betty Orr, principal of Edenbrooke Primary School, situated on Tennent Street, said children across Northern Ireland, but particularly those living in the Shankill, are being failed by the current transfer procedure.

According to Mrs Orr, the scope and objectives of the 11-plus are too narrow to cater for most youngsters in the province. "It is called the 11-plus but when you think about the time of year that the children sit the tests, very few of them have actually turned 11 by then, which is far, far too young," she said.

"What annoys me about this is that the 11-plus puts horrendous pressure on children to sit an external exam over two hours. How can you judge a child over two hours?

"Surely what we should be doing is placing value on the whole child and not simply looking at them from an academic perspective, and I also think that it distorts the education of children in primary six and seven as they prepare for the test."

Mrs Orr believes the 11-plus adds to the pressure for children to meet sometimes unrealistic expectations, which can have devastating effects on families and can mar the schooling experience for children.

" I know of examples where parents come into a primary school before their child is even born to put their name down, but before they do they want to know the school's success in the 11-plus exam," she said.

" If you are picking a school by academic success before a child is born you are putting your child under immense pressure from primary one and that isn't right for any child.

"You even hear horrendous cases where parents offer their children huge sums of money for good grades, but what happens if a family has twins and one gets an A and the other gets a D? It's very unfair."

Despite the massive competition for grammar schools, Mrs Orr said that in some cases children from the Shankill area decline to take up their place at a grammar school because they have concerns about their social status.

As a result, she said that more needs to be done to encourage and make it easier for more pupils from low income families to take up places at grammar schools.

"Some of our pupils who have gone on to grammars have felt very inept because of the costs of things such as school trips and I know of others who have not taken up a place at a grammar school because of this very reason," she said.

"However, I am never going to knock grammar schools. I believe they play a very valuable role in society.

"The top echelons are being extremely well catered for by our grammar schools and there are some absolutely excellent secondary schools, but I do think we need to examine very carefully why so many children are coming away from schools without necessary qualifications." In an effort to address this imbalance, the Education Minister is scrapping the 11-plus. However, it is thought that up to 20 grammar schools across Northern Ireland could implement their own common entry test.

While many questions still remain about the minister's plans for the education sector, the possibility that children may have to sit a test in order to secure a place at some of Northern Ireland's most oversubscribed schools has thrown up a whole range of further questions.

The Association for Quality Education - a pro academic selection lobby group - has already devised an alternative exam.

Few details are known about the test, except that it contains questions on maths and English - so how will children prepare for the assessment?

As mentioned by Mrs Orr, parents of some children preparing for the 11-plus take extraordinary measures to ensure their children win a seat at some the most coveted grammar schools.

Terry Leathem, principal of Glenwood Primary School, believes that this practice will be perpetuated by the continuation of academic selection.

While he said he does not actively oppose academic selection, he believes that teachers in primary schools across the province should not be expected to prepare children to sit the common entry exam.

"I have no objection to a common entry test, except that I wouldn't want to be the principal of a school that coaches children for such a test when we are just getting to grips with the Revised Curriculum," he said.

He also agreed with comments made by Mrs Orr that more needs to be done to tackle the stereotypes that the best education is provided at grammar schools.

"This is an assessment which by its very nature is there to fail more children than it passes while any other exam is there to support and praise and give credit to candidates," he said.

And admitting that Sinn Fein's Ms Ruane may face difficulties in pushing her proposals through the Assembly in the face of stiff opposition from the DUP, Mr Leathem added: "It is an interesting thing that I would talk to people in the community here who would acknowledge that people who have policies best suited to their needs are not their natural allies.

"Research shows that children from socially deprived areas can be up to a year behind at the age of two and two years behind by the time they start school.

"If your dad is a binman the chances are he is a bit less able to help you with your school work than if your dad is a solicitor and, then, children from better off families tend to be introduced to different experiences by their parents than those from socially deprived areas.

"That means that in many cases they are starting school from a better position."

So in what way does he believe Ms Ruane's proposals will help break the cycle of generations of children living in the Shankill failing to flourish at school?

"I don't think the minister's plans will benefit children from socially deprived areas. They will benefit all children because they won't have to go through the hoops they currently do," he said. "This is a time when we can move forward or go back and there are people wanting to drag us back. Of course, this is a vociferous minority but we really need to ask them to negotiate their way into change and look to the future."

Belfast Telegraph


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