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New common entrance exam to be unveiled to primaries

By Kathryn Torney

Every primary school in Northern Ireland will today receive detailed information about the new common entrance exam being developed for 30 grammar schools.

The Common Entrance Assessment (CEA) will be used by the schools to determine their first year intake after the 11-plus test is scrapped later this year.

An information pack has been sent out to all primary principals containing the expected timetable, a guide for parents, sample test questions, a draft registration form and details on how special educational needs will be dealt with.

The pupils currently in P5 will be the first to transfer to post-primary schools under the new system.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has put forward a proposal to phase out academic selection over three years but, so far, does not have the cross-party political support needed to get this through the Assembly. She has already commissioned exams body CCEA to work on a temporary test.

The CEA will consist of three one-hour papers which are similar in format to the current 11-plus. They will assess English and Mathematics and will not include a science element. Marks will be awarded on the basis of the best two scores.

In an article written for the Belfast Telegraph, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, chair of the Association for Quality Education (AQE), said: "We bring forward our proposals with real reluctance, but in the conviction that academic selection remains lawful, that there is no prospect whatever of the necessary political agreement to prohibit it, and that every successive test of wider public opinion has endorsed its retention.

"The incumbent Minister has closed her mind to these realities, dealt with us as 'stakeholders' on the basis of a repetitive monologue, and finally unveiled an absurd 'compromise' in terms of a slow death of academic selection rather than its summary execution.

"These proposals are unacceptable to us, can never win sufficient support to be put in place, and would therefore leave an abhorrent vacuum after the final '11-plus'.

"If the Minister cannot or will not credibly fill that vacuum, others must do so. Further indefinite drift is unthinkable."

He added that the CEA will test whether, in terms of the key basic skills of literacy and numeracy, a child can cope confidently with a curriculum and ethos of academic rigour.

In response to questions from the Belfast Telegraph, AQE said that they hoped to use the Department of Education application forms and that parents could apply to a number of schools.

Pupils sitting the tests will be awarded a score rather than a grade and it will then be up to individual schools to decide how these are used.

Some may allocate places in rank order while others may decide to use different criteria to allocate places among pupils they judge as suited to a grammar school place.

AQE would not release the names of the chief examiner and revisers of the test.

A spokesman said: "Examination bodies tend not to publicise the names of those involved in writing and revising examinations to protect them from unreasonable pressures. We can, however, assure you that the individuals involved are very knowledgeable in their field."

The association believes that the test should be funded by the Department of Education — although this has already been rejected by Ms Ruane.

The AQE spokesman said: "If this is not forthcoming we will endeavour to keep costs as low as possible.

"We would hope that the cost could be kept below £30, but are committed to providing the assessment free of charge to young people in receipt of free school meals."

In April, the Education Minister said: "Schools considering a breakaway entrance exam should be aware of the considerable legal and financial risks they may face if they decide to proceed.

"There is the potential for multiple appeals and litigation aimed at overturning admissions decisions. I have made clear that the Department of Education will not fund or support any such entrance exam."

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