Belfast Telegraph

Caitriona Ruane: Why 14 is the right age for pupils and their parents to make informed decisions

In a recent opinion piece Robert McCartney comments on a range of education matters and yet again he makes statements which need to be challenged.

I have previously said that I want to encourage and support academic excellence in all our schools and right across the north we have many successful schools that have shown they do not need to select pupils on the basis of academic ability.

There are many examples around the world of non-selective education systems that are more successful than ours. Why do a small minority of schools cling to the outdated idea that we need to subject 10 year old children to a high stakes test in order to admit them to a post-primary school? Why do they think that only one type of school can deliver academic excellence? Why do they seek to continue with a system that divides families and communities and is contrary to the basic principles of social justice?

We have heard much about these schools and the view that only through forcing 10 year old children to sit two or three entrance tests can academic excellence thrive.

They ignore the successes of our many non-selective schools that produce not only excellent examination results, but young people who have achieved in a wide range of academic and non-academic areas, such as sport or music, or vocational subjects. They also largely ignore pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not appear to be significantly represented in the grammar school sector.

What is interesting is an analysis of some of those schools who have said they will set their own tests. Over the past few years some have been taking an increasingly wide range of abilities. Even some children, who just a short time ago, they would have turned away on the grounds that they ‘failed’ the 11-plus.

So I would ask, why are these schools proposing to set entrance tests? How will they set the pass mark? Will they tell parents in advance what the pass mark will be? Will it vary from school to school to enable them to fill their agreed intakes?

Thankfully the 11-plus is gone and I continue to work towards the abolition of academic selection. I have issued, for consultation, guidance to schools for Transfer 2010. If schools follow this guidance then no child needs to be subjected to selection to admit them to a school that best meets their needs and abilities. It is time some of those in education moved on and recognise we must do better for all children, not just a select minority.

I believe that we need to shift the focus from testing at 10 to a process of informed decisions taken at 14. It is at this age that young people already decide on educational pathways towards examinations or careers. They do this based on advice from their parents, teachers and careers officers.

This is when they can decide whether they are more suited to an academically-focused provision, a provision concentrating on vocational or professional subjects, or one that combines both. I do not see this as being a time of upheaval as collaboration between schools becomes more popular.

As we move towards implementation of the Entitlement Framework in 2013, more schools will see the advantage of working together, so that between them, they can provide the necessary 24 courses at Key Stage 4 and 27 courses post-16. There are now 30 Area Learning Communities (ALCs) established across the north within which schools, FE Colleges and other providers are working to increase the range of courses for pupils in local areas. This arrangement can work in many more areas to benefit our young people, teachers and our entire education system.

In both primary and post-primary schools, we are implementing a revised curriculum that has been well received by teachers in all types of schools.

It is a curriculum that emphasises the development of skills children and young people need in our modern society and gives teachers the flexibility to teach at a level that meets those needs.

We need to be able to let parents know how their children are progressing at school, and long before I became Education Minister work began on developing and testing the pupil profile, which has been phased in from the 2007/08 school year.

The profile was designed to reflect the fact that we'd introduced a revised curriculum and to make sure that, whatever school a child attended, the same format of report would be used by teachers so that parents would get full information on their children's progress across all of the areas of the revised curriculum.

Last year, an evaluation on the pupil profile showed that teachers, principals and parents found the new style of report easy to read and understand, though they did not like the name.

We also received feedback that, by making every school produce its report in exactly the same format, the result was that some schools were providing less information than they used to do and that was clearly a worry for teachers.

As much of the pilot was very positively received, we'll be making few changes to the detail of what should be covered in the annual school report. We are, however, proposing to go back to calling it an ‘annual report to parents’ to reflect the terminology that parents and teachers themselves use.

We are also proposing that there will be no change to the coverage of the annual report. It will still need to cover all of the main areas of the revised curriculum, with its focus on literacy and numeracy, but teachers have more flexibility to inform parents about a wider range of areas.

The idea has not been abandoned. I listened to what the evaluation told me. The pupil profile was intended to let parents know how their children were progressing at school.

I made clear from the outset it was never to be used by post-primary schools as a means of selecting pupils in the absence of academic selection. The annual report to parents has exactly the same status. It is for use only by primary school teachers and parents. We are in a period of major change in education. Everyone involved has a responsibility to ensure that all our efforts are used to ensure that the best interests of children and young people are considered at every stage in this reform process.

Belfast Telegraph


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