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Should Northern Ireland end selection at age of 11 ... and make it 14 instead?

By Kathryn Torney

The bitter political impasse on what should replace the 11-plus could be resolved by moving the age of selection from 11 to 14.

That’s according to Professor Tony Gallagher, head of the School of Education at Queen's University, Belfast, who has already strongly backed our Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign which is calling on the Executive ministers to take part in talks to end the stalemate over what should replace the 11-plus.

He is now calling on the politicians to consider a compromise involving academic selection at age 14 and also said that there may eventually be local solutions agreed — rather than a single option applied uniformly across Northern Ireland.

Today, we are outlining the main options which could be debated during political talks, including moving the option of selection to age 14.

Prof Gallagher was co-author of a hard-hitting report which examined the effects of the 11-plus selective system on schools, teachers, parents and pupils.

It concluded that selection at 11 had produced a long tail of low achieving schools, test preparation disrupted the primary curriculum and also that the system had a divisive impact on pupils, teachers and schools.

A 1998 report on selection at age 14 within the Dickson Plan system in Craigavon said then that this delayed selection system was a success but added: “...the evidence does not suggest that the two-tier system provides a better educational experience for less able pupils than the 11-plus system.”

Prof Gallagher said today: “Looking at all the various preferences and alternatives, the realistic scope for compromise is some form of academic selection at 14.

“This could be based on school work and pupils' preferred post-14 profile of subject choices and is therefore more educationally logical in comparison to academic selection at 11.

“It also allows for the retention of grammar options and fits with the Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum where the key decision point for pupils is after age 14.”

He said that to allow for discussion on the issue, it would make sense for an interim arrangement involving tests at age 11 to continue to be used for a set period. And he advised that limits should be set on the intakes of grammar schools during this period so they can only accept A grades.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has said that 14 is a better age for important decisions on educational pathways but proposed this would take place through “informed election” rather than selection.

During a recent debate she also said: “There is no acceptable form of academic rejection. The new arrangements are now in place; they will not be reversed.”

Thousands of pupils across Northern Ireland will sit the first paper of new entrance exams in less than three weeks’ time.

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The options:

Kathryn Torney outlines six potential ways to move the process forward

Option 1

Phase out academic selection: In May last year the Education Minister put forward “compromise proposals” which involved phasing out selection over three years.

She said that grammars could select 50% of their pupils based on their academic ability in the first year, 30% in the second year and 20% in the third year. Following this, all admissions would be based on non-academic criteria.

A temporary test would be set by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment.

Grammars would temporarily become ‘bilateral' schools similar to Holy Cross College in Strabane which has a grammar stream entry of up to 35% of its total intake.

In the longer term, the minister would aim to provide local learning communities where pupils can choose from a wide range of school types. Major education decision would be taken at age 14 when pupils ‘elect' for an educational pathway — no academic selection takes place.

PROS: The NI Commission for Catholic Education has directed its schools to phase out academic selection by 2012. Would allow schools some time to adapt to change.

CONS: Would need cross-party Assembly support to become a reality but would not be supported by DUP or UUP.

Not enough time to implement other changes needed to create more equal school provision — including area-planning process and school improvement.

Option 2

Extend the Dickson Plan across Northern Ireland: The 11-plus was dropped 40 years ago in the Craigavon/Lurgan area and replaced by the Dickson Plan.

Pupils from contributory primary schools pass directly into a Junior High School of their choice at the age of 11 and are placed in ability bands based on the recommendation of their primary principal.

Academic selection takes place at age 14 when pupils in Year 10 transfer to senior highs offering either academic or more vocational courses.

PROS: All political parties agree that key education decisions should be taken at 14 instead of 11.

A tried and tested system.

Takes test preparation out of primary schools.

CONS: Cost of creating middle school system across the province.

An evaluation of the Dickson Plan commissioned by the Department of Education in 1998 concluded that the evidence does not suggest that the two-tier system provides a better educational experience than the 11-plus for less able pupils.

Option 3

Move selection from 11 to an option of 14: Last year a group of educationalists representing a diverse range of views on transfer came forward with joint proposals for an interim solution.

The working group of six represented grammar, secondary, integrated, controlled and maintained schools and agreed that choices made by pupils at age 14 should be made more significant than those made at 11.

Under their proposal, children would transfer between schools at 11 without academic selection. If schools are over-subscribed, non-academic criteria would be used.

Academic selection could be used at age 14 and at this point pupils may move from one school campus to another.

The group’s paper stated that agreeing to abandon academic selection at age 11 in return for retaining the right to have academic selection at age 14 and again at age 16 would create the potential for a wider educational consensus and “offer Sinn Fein a good deal of what it appears to want while not denying the DUP something which it appears to value”.

There could be various school types to choose from at age 11, 14 and 16, including specialist, grammar, vocational, integrated and Irish-medium. Testing at 14 could possibly involve schools setting specific requirements for pupils wanting to take some of the subjects they provide — rather than having a single test.

PROS: Backed by both grammar and secondary heads.

No climbdown needed from either DUP or Sinn Fein — selection abandoned at 11 but optional at 14.

High stakes test for young children would be scrapped.

Primary schools freed from test preparation.

Keeps children’s options open.

Encourages more collaboration between schools.

CONS: Already rejected by Governing Bodies Association, which represents the province's 52 voluntary grammar schools.

Sinn Fein unwilling to accept academic selection at any age.

Option 4

Restore a state-sponsored P7 transfer test: This could be an annual test or a score based on continuous assessment in schools over years and possibly involving computer-adaptive testing.

May also include capping grammar entry to only top academic achievers which would stop them filling to capacity at the expense of secondary schools.

Could also try to create less reliance on a test by trying to make local schools the schools of choice. This could be done by school improvement and modernising the school estate.

The Governing Bodies Association proposed that all post-primary schools define themselves clearly and according to a standardised format — for example: an academic school, an all-ability school or alternatively a specialist music school.

Academic schools would be permitted to reject pupils ill-equipped to cope with an explicitly academic environment and cannot accept pupils simply because they have places available.

Transfer would take place at age 11 but pupils could transfer to another type of school at age 14, or any stage.

PROS: No radical change needed to system.

Option to transfer between schools at later stage.

CONS: Unlikely to have support of SDLP, Alliance Party or Sinn Fein.

Option 5

Local solutions: This was touched upon during last week’s first transfer meeting involving the SDLP, DUP, UUP and Alliance.

Area planning aims to provide a schools estate to match the educational needs of local communities. As part of this process, local area groups could pick and choose from various school type options and would select those which best suit their locality. Academic selection may not be required in some areas where people are happy with an all-ability option. In other areas, there may be a good grammar and equally good secondary/vocational/specialist school and local acceptance that academic selection can continue to be used if the grammar is oversubscribed.

Other school type options could include bilateral schools, comprehensive schools, integrated schools and Irish-medium schools.

All schools will be forced to collaborate more to offer a wide range of subject choices to all children at GCSE and A-level and this will blur the boundaries between schools.

PROS: No massive climbdown needed from either DUP or Sinn Fein. Choice given to local community representatives.

CONS: May lead to confusing and multiple transfer systems across the province.

Time it would take to implement changes and the money needed for any building projects.

Option 6

Continue with unregulated system: Retain current unregulated transfer system which has resulted in a free for all and led to grammar schools — and others — setting their own entrance exams.

Other schools are following non-academic entrance criteria guidance set by Caitriona Ruane.

PROS: No compromise needed from Sinn Fein or DUP.

CONS: Risk of legal challenges for schools setting tests.

Some primaries helping pupils prepare for tests, some are not. Private coaching for families who can afford it.

Grammars continue to fill to capacity at expense of secondary schools.

Puts schools and teachers in conflict with department.

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