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Parents need to examine their bias against all-ability schools

Uel McCrea, chair of the Association of Headteachers in Secondary Schools and principal of Ballyclare Secondary School, argues that the assumption that having a system of all-ability schools would lower academic standards is wrong

Everyone agrees that the unregulated system now facing Primary 7 children and parents is intolerable and unacceptable for the future.

The temptation to blame others for this is too easy for all of us.

Politicians and educationalists however, rather than pointing the finger at each other, need to urgently find the will to bring about a better way for children to transfer from primary to post-primary schools.

One which is based on enhancing the educational future for all children, not limiting it depending on premature judgments made on them at 10 or 11.

The difficulty for many parents is while they want the best for their children some still have the outdated notion that means a grammar school at all costs at age 11. They need to be reassured that there are some great all-ability schools which will not require their children sitting a batch of tests in their Primary 7 year.

Throughout the province there are many excellent examples of such schools where pupils excel in public examinations at age 16 and 18. These schools do not see the need to separate children into different types of institutions based on performance at age 10 or 11 in two, three or now five tests.

The assumption that all-ability schools will result in lowering academic standards is, in my experience, wrong and needs to be challenged. Given the changes already largely in place in the curriculum at both primary and post-primary stages in Northern Ireland schools, this new educational landscape requires a different model of transfer than the present unregulated one or the previous 11-plus arrangements.

The development of partnerships between schools and as a direct result access for young people aged 14 to 19 to a wider range of academic and vocational courses in a learning community, is now very much a feature of the post-primary educational provision on offer throughout Northern Ireland.

The emphasis is now more than ever shifted from transfer at age 11 to decision-making at age 14.

This means that children can now benefit from courses at other schools nearby, including grammar and non-grammar.

It is widely accepted that for the foreseeable future children will continue to transfer from primary to post-primary school at age 11, but as in the past and presently thousands of children will do so without the need for them to sit entrance tests at 10 or 11.

Parents as always need to consider carefully the information on and from post-primary schools. They would wish to identify the school which best meets their children’s needs: they will be guided by what they have learned about their children from their time in primary and particularly the contents of the report on their children’s progress at Key Stage 2.

Post-primary schools will also continue to assist parents to make their decisions by offering them the opportunity to gather additional information and advice at open days or evenings. All post-primary schools publish admission criteria well in advance which they will use only if over-subscribed.

In the case of all-ability post-primary schools this will be based on measurable, objective and fair criteria similar to that outlined in the recently published Department of Education Transfer 2010 booklet.

In these schools no results from tests or entrance examinations will be included.

It is important, however, that parents do look carefully at these published criteria and make sure that they enter all relevant information on the official transfer form completed in their children’s primary school.

If we recognise that, while the nature and ethos of the school you go to at age 11 continues to be important, what matters much more than ever before is the combination of courses that best meets your interests, aptitudes and ambitions from age 14 onwards, and we will begin to accept that the decisions made when young people reach the end of Key Stage 3 are, and will remain, much more critical than those made at the end of Key Stage 2.

We will begin also perhaps to feel a lot less anxious about the decisions we have to make when our children are transferring from primary school at age 11.

We can not permit this unregulated situation to continue another year. We must find a consensus on this issue which has the needs and future of our children at its centre and is not based on an outdated view of post-primary education.

Such a way forward will only be found when there is a political and educational will to seek a solution on this issue.

All of us need to do so urgently.

Belfast Telegraph


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