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Transfer chaos may run a for decade

Sinn Fein plays down possibility of a resolution Sinn Fein’s education spokesman John O’Dowd is interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph’s Kathryn Torney

A senior Sinn Fein Assembly Member has reiterated his party’s determination to end academic selection in Northern Ireland and played down any possibility of a political resolution to the long running dispute over school transfer.

Instead, education spokesman John O’Dowd called for pressure to be put on grammar schools to come into line with Sinn Fein’s plans.

He also conceded in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph that an unregulated school transfer system could be in place for 10 years.

And the Upper Bann Assembly Member confirmed that there are currently no talks taking place between the DUP and his party on the thorny issue of agreeing on a replacement for the 11-plus.

So far 10,000 people have signed the Belfast Telegraph’s Sit Down, Sort It Out petition which is calling on the politicians to agree on a way forward in time for this year’s P6 pupils to transfer.

Thousands of P7 pupils across Northern Ireland sat new unregulated entrance exams last term set by 68 schools — mainly grammars — after the politicians failed to agree on a new system.

Mr O’Dowd also claimed there had been “no confusion and mayhem” in schools this year.

This is despite many school principals speaking out publicly about their concerns and also a call from the head of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education for politicians to act immediately to deal with the current legislative vacuum.

Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, has called on the Education Minister to make it a priority for 2010 to resolve the “transfer test scandal”.

Ms Hall Callaghan said: “Thousands of this year’s P7 children have already been through the trauma of the unregulated exams set by grammar schools — some of them facing up to five papers — and more uncertainty lies ahead as we wait to see how the system copes with any appeals.

“That this was allowed to happen is a scandal but surely our politicians will not allow yet another cohort of children go through this.

“In the middle of what has become a huge raging debate throughout Northern Ireland, it is the children’s welfare which should be paramount but which, sadly, seems too often to be forgotten in the storm of politics and self-interest.”

In the interview, which took place before the Iris Robinson scandal emerged, Mr O’Dowd said that the wide grade intake at many grammar schools shows they are in fact all-ability schools and are “fooling no-one other than themselves”.

Alliance Party education spokesperson Trevor Lunn has again called on Sinn Fein to join the other main parties taking part in weekly transfer talks at Stormont.

Belfast Telegraph