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P7 selection: What the principals really think


“Primary schools are falling out with each other and many head teachers are afraid and unsure of how to handle transfer this year.

“I have walked out of principals’ meetings because I can’t sit and listen to what some of them are saying.

“Some are adamant that they will not be helping children to prepare for tests in any way. Apart from that being morally indefensible in my view, it is also a very stupid thing to say and has resulted in parents moving their children to other schools.

“In one case, a few days after a comment like this was made by a principal, over a dozen children and their parents were standing on the doorstep of a neighbouring school prepared to help children through the tests.

“A phrase to be used publicly has even been coined by principals willing to help children through the tests, along the lines of: ‘Your child will be prepared to face anything that is put in front of them’.

“They won’t go on the record to say they are actively preparing children for tests — but this has become known within the education community as a kind of code which means that children will be given practice papers and time will be spent on preparation. I have the full backing of my board of governors to carry out testing preparation in school, but I have also been warned by them to be careful about what I say publicly.

“(Education Minister) Caitriona Ruane and the politicians from other parties need to sit down together and work out a solution.”


Stanley Poots, head of Dromara Primary School in Co Down, has been one of the most outspoken critics of academic selection, but even he is helping children to prepare for the new entrance tests.

He said: “I have to balance the idealistic side of what I would like to see with the reality that some of my parents are caught up in the current dilemma and want to do the best they can for their child.

“Our teachers will be teaching the revised curriculum — not spending long periods of time within the normal day giving children tests.

“I have taken the responsibility of working with children registered for the tests on exam technique outside of the normal classroom work.

“This goes against my beliefs to a certain degree but it will be the kind of thing that they will have to face when they move to their next school.

“Tutoring is rampant at the moment and that saddens me but parents just want to do the best that they can and feel under real pressure.

“What is happening now is bad for inter-school and inter-principal morale. And it is also not good for relationships with inspectors and the department.

“It is all personally very difficult for me but the bottom line is that we have to look after our kids as things stand at the moment.

“My area is competitive and parents want to get their child into what they perceive as the best schools. It is my belief there are very few schools doing absolutely nothing to prepare for the tests.”


“A lot of grammar post-primary principals are approaching this time with concern.

“I think most immediate and sharpest of all are the concerns about the vulnerability to legal challenge. We also had this in the regulated environment but we were familiar with it.

“At the end of the day all we have is legal advice, with advice being the key word. We are not in a situation where there is case law and precedent.

“We are doing what we believe is reasonable but ultimately a court is going to define that one way or another.

“There could have been 69 different entrance tests for the grammar schools but a real effort has been made to minimise the number of tests being taken. We have agreed to do certain things in common but at the same time are not surrendering responsibility and accountability for what goes on in our schools. Boards of governors have to ensure that what they are doing is the right thing to do but is also legal as far as it is possible to know that.

“I know that 14 children were moved out of one primary school because they felt that the exam preparation was insufficient. I have tried to de-politicise my thinking on the issue and do think that the minister should be respected.

“But if we had gone along with the minister’s wishes we would have been dealing with children with a range of needs and abilities at this school. You do not develop that expertise overnight. Where would we get the money and time to retrain our staff? I do have a real worry that children coming from homes that are not educationally aspirational or who do not have supportive parents, will not be entered for the tests. At least with the old 11-plus system primary schools did all that.”


“WE have decided that the pupils sitting tests will be able to stay on after school on certain days.

“We will be doing one hour after school one day a week and this will be work on exam technique. They need to know how to fill in the answers to multiple choice questions.

“What they are doing with the revised curriculum in terms of literacy and numeracy will prepare them for the content of the tests.

“To do any preparation work within normal school time would fly in the face of the advice and implied threat from the department. It would also do those not sitting the test a bit of a disservice as they may not get the same attention.

“This was an extremely hard decision to come to. I have had to consult a lot of people including my board of governors. If there are any ramifications, like the inspectors coming in, I want to have the full backing of my governors.

“There are five or six primary schools within spitting distance of me. If we had stood up as we would liked to have done and said we were doing no coaching for these tests, we run the risk of losing pupils. I cannot take that chance.

“If one school stands alone, there is a chance that pupils will walk. That would have serious implications for staffing.

“One or two grammar principals have said to me that they know academic selection is on its way out, but they cannot be seen to be saying this in public. They want to keep their numbers up as well.

“If I do have a visit from an inspector I will be very open with them. The reason why I am doing work with children after school is because some of our children would be disadvantaged if we didn’t because they cannot afford coaching.

“What we are doing, we are doing with good will. We need to do the best we can for the youngsters in our care.”

Belfast Telegraph


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