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12 November 2009 Edition

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Selection tests traumatic, unnecessary and unjust

Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson John O’Dowd

Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson John O’Dowd

By Emma Clancy

As grammar schools in the Six Counties have begun testing 10 and 11-year-old children in an unregulated academic selection process, Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson John O’Dowd has said: “The testing of children at 10 and 11 years of age to decide if they may or may not enter a school is wrong. It has no proven educational benefit and numerous educational and social disadvantages.”
Around 13,000 Primary 7 children have registered to sit entrance tests over November and December with one or both grammar associations that have formed to try to maintain selection - the Association for Quality Education and the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium, which each represent 34 schools.
The Sinn Féin MLA welcomed the directive from the Commission for Catholic Education to its schools to phase out academic selection over the next two years and implement the Department of Education’s transfer criteria.
On 17 September 38 Catholic primary school principals in Dungannon, Cookstown and Armagh issued a joint statement criticising Catholic grammars for carrying out new tests, saying academic selection was “educationally unsound, fundamentally unfair and completely contrary to the ethos in Catholic schools”.
The unionist parties, grammar schools lobby and pro-selection media have tried to capitalise on the stress caused to children and parents by the unregulated testing process to reiterate their demand that Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane reintroduce a state-sponsored standardised test to facilitate the continuation of academic selection.
But it’s very clear that the concerns of those who champion their “right” to reject pupils from their schools are not for the welfare of students but for the legal ramifications of unregulated.
Urging grammar schools to remain within the Department of Education-regulated system, Ruane has repeatedly pointed out that the path of unregulated selection is a “legal minefield”. While the transfer test was provided by the CCEA, it was delivered by a professional, dedicated and expert educational body complete with appeal mechanisms.
There is no legally enshrined basis for discriminating against students using academic admissions criteria and families of children who may or may not have sat the entrance tests may challenge their exclusion from certain schools in court.

Political stunts
On 5 October, the UUP moved a motion in the Assembly that urged the Education Minister to reintroduce a state-sponsored test to replace the 11-plus, which was sat for the last time in the North’s primary schools last November.
In September the unionist daily Belfast Telegraph initiated its ‘Sit Down, Sort It Out’ campaign and petition, which calls for politicians to negotiate a compromise solution to the legislative impasse. In response, a “special Assembly group” involving the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance has held several meetings to discuss transfer tests over recent weeks. While the SDLP claims it is opposed in principle to academic selection, the party is following the lead of the two unionist parties which are aiming to build a “consensus” in support of retaining selection.
All of these manouevres are aimed at creating the impression that Sinn Féin is unwilling to engage in the education reform debate, when the reality is the exact opposite. The Education Minister has engaged in painstaking consultation at every stage of the reform process and in the Assembly and Executive the unionist parties have refused to even discuss the matter on several occasions.
Speaking during the 5 October Assembly debate, the Minister said: “I have always stated that my preference is for a new regulated system of transfer from primary to post primary and I spent two years developing compromise proposals, repeatedly seeking engagement upon them. On three occasions, other parties refused to discuss these proposals.”
The Telegraph’s petition campaign is carefully worded with a disclaimer saying the paper is not trying to dictate education policy and is not supporting any position. It is tapping into the understandable frustration that exists among parents about the emergence of unregulated tests.
But it is a cynical campaign, as it fails to examine the reality of the situation. By suggesting the problem is reform itself, it fails to acknowledge the absolute refusal by unionist politicians to engage on the issue, or to acknowledge that the old system was failing the majority of children. It doesn’t examine or critique the role played by the elitist grammar schools committed to putting the interests of their institutions ahead of children.
And far from being an objective voice with no vested interests, the paper’s editorial team has run a sustained campaign against the Sinn Féin Education Minister and the progressive reforms being driven by the republican party.
“Continued attempts by the UUP as well as the editorial teams of pro-selection newspapers will not derail us from securing a modern education system that delivers for all children,” O’Dowd said.
Ruane said: “There is no acceptable form of academic rejection. The new arrangements are now in place; they will not be reversed.”

Trauma
On Monday 9 November, BBC One’s School Report show examined the last 11-plus exam and its results in February in the context of the broader debate about academic selection. The documentary clearly showed the trauma inflicted on children through the process of high-stakes testing at such a young age.
It followed four children aged 10 and 11 as they described the stress, tears and even sleepwalking caused by the 11-plus – what PJ O’Grady, principal of St Patrick’s College, Bearnageeha, described as “institutionalised child abuse”. It then showed the distress of two of the children when their rejection letters arrived, with their parents describing them as “devastated”, “inconsolable” and “heartbroken”.
The reality is that while 68 grammar schools insist on putting young children through tests, the majority of grammars have become all-ability schools that are hanging onto testing as a way to ensure they can continue to pick and choose their students. The intake of the grammar schools after the last 11-plus results clearly showed this, with some schools such as Campbell College and Coleraine Inst accepting more students with D results in the 11-plus than As. At St Mary’s CBS, 40 of its 175 intake had received As and it also accepted 36 pupils who received Ds.
Ruane said the changing nature of grammar schools – as a result of demographic decline – “begged the question as to why these schools need to set admissions tests at all”.
“If schools follow the Transfer 2010 guidance there will be no need for any testing of 10-year-old children,” she said.

Class divide
Speaking in the School Report show, defender of academic selection and former Chief Inspector of Schools in England Chris Woodhead claimed the selective system was the most efficient means of “social mobility” for children in the North. (Woodhead, in an interview with the British Guardian newspaper in May, chatted about his belief that children from well-off backgrounds were likely to have “better genes” than kids from working-class backgrounds.)
Representatives of the AQE and other cheerleaders for the old system often use this “social mobility” claim to defend selection. But the figures show there is no truth in this statement and that the selective system clearly perpetuates rather than breaks down patterns of poverty and social exclusion.
The tests being sat now demonstrate this fact again. While across the North the average free school meal entitlement in non-grammar schools is about 17 per cent, in grammar schools it is six per cent. Only five per cent of pupils sitting the first AQE test on 6 November were free school meal entitled students.
“These figures alone expose what a socially unjust system selection is,” O’Dowd said.
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