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Rebel schools to defy Ruane

By Kathryn Torney

The group of 30 rebel grammars across Northern Ireland today put themselves on a collision course with the Education Minister by pushing ahead with plans for their own school entrance exams.

Sir Ken Bloomfield, chair of the Association for Quality Education (AQE), told the Belfast Telegraph that work on the Common Entrance Assessment (CEA) is progressing and that the schools would not be “frightened off” by repeated warnings from Caitriona Ruane of costly legal challenges from parents.

As the new term gets under way today at primary and secondary schools across the province, children starting P6 still do not know how they will transfer to post-primary after the 11-plus test is scrapped later this year.

Meanwhile, any hope of a resolution to the school transfer debate has diminished after DUP Executive Minister Sammy Wilson confirmed to the Telegraph that intensive talks on education between his party and Sinn Fein — which were due to take place over the summer — did not materialise over the |summer.

Earlier this month Ms Ruane pledged to follow through on her contentious proposal to phase out academic selection as stalemate at executive level over the issue continues.

However, she cannot outlaw selection without cross-party support within the Assembly.

The minister wants grammar schools to select 50% of their pupils based on their academic ability in 2010, 30% for the intake in 2011 and 20% in 2012.

In 2013 all admissions would be based on non-academic criteria. However, her ministerial colleagues refused to discuss this proposal during a heated executive meeting in May.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Ms Ruane said it was “all systems go” in relation to her plans but refused to be drawn on what she would do if Assembly approval is not given for new legislation.

A Sinn Fein paper leaked to the Telegraph indicated the fall back position would involve issuing guidelines which schools would be strongly encouraged to follow.

An information pack been sent to primary school principals by AQE with information on the test which the 30 grammars will use to select pupils as a replacement for the 11-plus. It will consist of three one hour papers, similar in format to the current transfer test with marks awarded on the best two scores. Pupils starting P6 will be the first to transfer to post-primary schools under the new system.

Sir Kenneth said: “We have taken the best possible legal advice and are reassured by it.

“In particular it has brought out what I have said all along – that there is no way that the Minister can proceed without consensus. It would be against the Ministerial code. Her plan cannot be put in place without consensus and she is not going to get that.”

The former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service said he knew attempts would be made to derail the schools.

“Our plans are going ahead – although I have made it clear we do this reluctantly. We would like to see a resolution of this problem at government level.

“However, the Executive has not met over the summer so it is difficult to see how agreement can be reached when politicians are not talking.

“I am afraid we are heading into an unregulated situation and if that happens each school is going to have to do what is in their best interests.

“Children are starting P6 not knowing how they are going to transfer in P7. Something has to be done to plot a clear path for them.”

He added the Minister has not been in touch with the AQE since before the summer.

Sammy Wilson, Environment Minister and former chair of the Assembly’s education committee, said: “We gave Sinn Fein papers on the review of public administration in June and hoped to have intensive discussions over the summer on this and school transfer but that did not happen.”

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