14 May 2009 Edition

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EDUCATION : School principals fight bid to retain academic elitism

CAITRÍONA RUANE: ‘Entry exams will inevitably be discriminatory’

CAITRÍONA RUANE: ‘Entry exams will inevitably be discriminatory’

Heads speak out against new transfer tests


IN RECENT WEEKS, three groups of primary and post-primary school principals, representing more than 150 schools, have spoken out against plans by the majority of the North’s grammar schools to continue to use academic selection to admit pupils next year.
The principals, mainly from the Catholic sector, were reacting to a statement issued by the North’s Commission for Catholic Education (CCE) on 30 March which urged schools to phase out academic selection by 2012 but added that Catholic schools “may” continue to use entrance exams in the short term.
A group of 28 Catholic grammar schools said in early April that they will use maths and English tests, devised by GL Assessment, to be sat by children on 21 November.
About 30 non-Catholic grammars had previously said they intend to use a common entrance assessment – three tests to be sat in November and December – run by the self-styled Association for Quality Education.

A group of 72 Catholic secondary school principals formed the Catholic Principals’ Association in April, saying they intended to speak for the majority of schools in the North which had previously been sidelined by a minority of schools in the debate about academic selection.
The association issued a statement calling for “full and unequivocal support” for Education Minister Caitríona Ruane’s guidance that all schools should operate non-academic entrance criteria only.
“No Catholic post-primary school has difficulty with such guidelines nor should any Catholic school,” the group said.
The association said the CCE’s statement that selection “may” be appropriate in the short-term should not have been interpreted as an “unreserved or unanimous recommendation” to continue to use entrance tests.
“In a liberal society, people may do many things that are not conducive to their own welfare and/or the welfare of others,” the group pointed out.
“This, in our view, adds up to acknowledgement of a right to do so – not approval of that right being exercised.”
Two groups of primary school principals from the Catholic sector have also announced their opposition to continuing academic selection, particularly the impact new breakaway tests will have on distorting the North’s Revised Curriculum.
Following the statement from the secondary heads, the Clogher Maintained Primary Principals’ Group, representing 40 schools, said selection conflicted with Catholic teaching on inclusion, equality of access and social justice, and would cause children significant distress.
“We are concerned that taking a large number of pupils, from a variety of schools, to an environment with which they are unfamiliar will create significant levels of stress for many children; indeed, a child from a small primary school could be the only child from their school attending,” the Clogher group said.
“Our past experience in our own schools is that on the day of the test children can be very distressed and emotional, even those who are very academically capable.”
On 27 April, a third group of 46 primary school principals from the Mourne and Newry areas issued a statement outlining their concerns about the proposed new tests.
“In our professional opinion, academic selection at 11 does a disservice to our children, is divisive and distorts the primary curriculum,” the group said. 
In a letter to parents, the Mourne and Newry group said there was “no possibility” that GL Assessment-devised entrance tests, which would be based on the curriculum of England and Wales, could be compatible with the North’s Revised Curriculum.
“The tests in format and structure are alien to work carried out in our school. Sample test material presented to us is completely inappropriate in terms of content, structure and format,” the letter said.
The principals said:
“Deployment of staff and school resources will be for the Revised Curriculum only. If schools were to set aside the Revised Curriculum in order to prepare for tests, we would be failing in our statutory duty towards our children, notwithstanding the possible legal consequences.”

Welcoming the statements from the school principals, Sinn Féin Education spokesperson John O’Dowd MLA said:
“This again acknowledges that the vast majority of key stakeholders within the education sector supports an education system which offers educational excellence for all of our children.”
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation also welcomed the public opposition from the schools to the continuance of selection tests.
INTO’s Northern Secretary Frank Bunting said:
“Educationalists in schools should collectively discuss this shambolic scenario which a rump of grammar schools wish to foist on the schools system to the undoubted detriment of a new generation of young people.”
Meanwhile, speaking in the Assembly on 21 April, Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis slammed the DUP and UUP over their stance on academic selection, which she said perpetuated disadvantage among working-class Protestant communities, and impacted particularly badly on young men.
“The way we currently practice academic selection institutionalises inequality,” she said.
“The problem has got so severe that it has bled well beyond the boundaries of the education system.
“Some unionists in this chamber have for years been calling for unionist unity and to them I ask where is your sense of responsibility for the whole of the unionist community and not just the privileged few?”
Ruane confirmed that in 2008/2009 in the working-class unionist Sandy Row in Belfast, 11 out of 79 primary pupils transferred to a grammar school, while in the Shankill it was 10 out of 104 - compared with 214 out of 235 on the wealthy Malone Road.
The minister said discrimination within a selective process – especially against children with special needs, children from disadvantaged areas, and Irish-speakers or children with English as a second language – was “inevitable”.
“The question that anybody involved in education has to ask is: ‘Can you test children at the age of 10 and 11, put them through high-stake, grade-determined entry into post-primary school without discriminating?’
“I don’t believe we can.”
Speaking on 28 April, at the end of the consultation period for the Education Minster’s guidance on Transfer 2010, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd said:
“Those grammar schools’ boards of governors who have announced that it is their intention to set their own, unregulated, legally precarious test are attempting to continue a system of exclusion rather inclusion and should, in the interests of an new beginning to education, abandon their bid to replace the 11-Plus.
“The boards of governors in the schools who continue with such tests should be made fully aware not only of their social responsibility but also their legal responsibility in setting tests which will, in many instances, exclude children from a publicly-funded service.”

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