AQE ensures all of our children can show themselves at their very best
Looking back now after eight years of the new form of assessment, when every single pupil in every grammar school has been selected through the new independent system run by AQE and PPTC, it is hard to credit the resourcefulness, courage and determination of those who took upon themselves the responsibility of creating from nothing what amounted to new examinations boards operating wholly new tests for, in the case of AQE, something approaching 8,000 children. Without that unyielding commitment, grammar schools could not have continued.
AQE was founded by a number of groups, including former pupils' associations, concerned parents, grammar school governors, principals and teachers in response to the imminent end of the old 11-plus, first announced by Martin McGuinness hours before the prorogation of the old power-sharing executive in 2002.
These groups were faced by what they saw as a threat to the relatively high academic standards achieved by children in Northern Ireland, caused by the demise of academic selection, which was understood to add value to the whole post-primary sector, selective and non-selective. It should also be said, that, contrary to the declarations of some politicians, there was from 2002 a clear majority of the Northern Ireland population who supported the existence of grammar schools, and that majority wish has been maintained until now.
In creating the new AQE 'common entrance assessments', the team began by looking at the criticism of the old 11-plus and addressing each identified failing.
This gave rise to the structure of three tests, spread over a number of weeks. Initially, this might be thought to be more stressful, but the opposite is in fact the case: by taking only the best two of the three scores, much of the 'high stakes' quality of the old test, in which each score counted, is removed. Each child is tested, in a sense, on the same curricular material no fewer than three times, meaning that they are being given a unique opportunity to show themselves at their very best.
AQE also provides for children who may have particular needs which disadvantage them in a testing environment. Their situations are considered carefully by a special group of experienced primary and post-primary practitioners, who indicate to each school centre what should be provided to counteract their disadvantage. The central group ensures that all children are treated with fairness and that the same disadvantage will be treated the same way in every centre.
The outcome of the work of that original group of courageous reformers still stands as a robust, valid, fair and consistent means of academic selection, meeting the most stringent international assessment standards, conducted by our associated grammar schools kindly and patiently aware of the pressures involved and committed to supporting all children to show themselves at their very best.
Stephen Connolly is CEO of the Association of Quality Education