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The Minister is losing control of the schools transfer system

Catholic grammar schools have been given the go-ahead by Church leaders to introduce academic entrance tests in place of the 11-plus. Education Correspondent Kathryn Torney outlines what this means for children and parents

The policy statement released by the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) contained news Caitriona Ruane had been hoping not to hear.

The announcement that the group representing Catholic school trustees had reluctantly agreed that grammar schools could continue with academic |selection on a temporary basis meant another ally had bitten the dust.

Last week the SDLP also joined forces with the other side when it united with the DUP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party to call on the Minister to reinstate a selective test for P7 pupils for two years to allow time for political consensus to be reached.

The Catholic Commission has urged its schools to implement Ms Ruane’s non-academic admissions guidelines and said that all of the schools within the sector should stop using academic selection by 2012, but the strong headline from the new policy is that a green light has been given to the academic testing of children for another two years.

The Minister has stated that there will be no confusion and mayhem if schools follow her Transfer 2010 guidance. ‘If’ is, of course, the key word here.

It seems it is now time for the Minister to face up to the reality that she is rapidly losing control of the school transfer system and it’s only going to get worse.

Despite her warning of possible legal consequences, at least 40 schools are set to operate their own entrance exams and more Catholic grammars may follow this path now that tests have been sanctioned by the trustees.

It is not yet clear what form the testing by Catholic schools will take as yesterday’s statement effectively ruled out the plan by some schools to operate verbal reasoning tests compiled by a company in England. Some Catholic primary heads had |already voiced concern about this as the material being tested would not tie in with the teaching of the school curriculum.

There are no currently no plans for the Catholic schools to link up with their state school counterparts who are also planning to set exams — even though sitting one agreed test would make the process as simple as it could be for children across the province.

Maybe this is something to which serious thought should be given — otherwise there is a strong chance that academic testing of P7 pupils could be split along religious lines into systems of Catholic and Protestant tests.

The commission has also said that it will not be providing a test for its grammars to use so schools will be forced to go it alone or to combine their resources to come up with an agreed entrance test.

Unfortunately for parents, the way ahead is still not clear and as the days and weeks go by, this must be having an effect on the children and also teachers who are trying to plan ahead in a constantly changing education world.

Looking ahead, it appears as if the Catholic grammars involved in the commission’s working group have agreed to work towards ending selection by 2012 — this in |itself is a step forward.

The agreement reached between these grammar and secondary schools is more than any consensus yet reached at political level.

Frank Bunting, northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, said it was positive that the Catholic Commission had agreed to move away from a system of academic selection by 2012.

However, he added: “It is disappointing that entrance tests for grammar schools are being condoned for the next few years. |Essentially this decision continues inequality for Catholic children for some time to come.

“Overall the outcome is yet |another setback.”

The commission has called on the minister to consider the establishment of a time-bound working party of educationalists and other experts to find an agreed school transfer solution.

However, last week the minister also ruled this out as an option when it was proposed by MLAs.

She said: “A new working group has been proposed to make recommendations on transfer, but in recent years we have had the Burns, Gallagher and Costello |reports setting out options on the way ahead. We do not need another working group.”

Comments made by the commission yesterday focused very much on the future rather than the confusing present.

Bishop Donal McKeown, NICCE chairman, said: “This is a clear statement from the Catholic Trustees that academic selection at age 11 has no place in a modern education system.”

And Cardinal Séan Brady said: “I recognise the widespread concerns of parents about this uncertain and disruptive situation.

“I appeal to parents not to buy into the idea that only one type of school provides a quality education. Every school has the potential to offer a full range of future pathways for their pupils.

“Some parents may need to look again at their attitude to this issue, to the assumptions they are making about which schools can provide an excellent education for their child.”

As the situation becomes ever more complicated and fragmented, it will be interesting to see what the Minister’s next move will be.

Belfast Telegraph


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