Page last updated at 04:59 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 05:59 UK

Summer homework for grammar tests

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

As the school year closes in Northern Ireland, there is confusion over how children will be admitted to grammar schools next year, following the abolition of the 11-plus.

Paula and Darren Martin
Paula Martin blames the education minister for the problems

In recent years, politicians in Northern Ireland have managed to sort out paramilitary ceasefires, arms decommissioning and constitutional change, but they cannot agree on how to educate their children.

Thousands of boys and girls will skip out of school this week for a two-month summer break not knowing what exactly to expect when they come back in September.

The transfer of pupils from primary to secondary education has entered uncharted territory following the scrapping of the 11-plus exam for grammar schools.

Opponents of academic selection say the 11-plus could not be tolerated any longer.

It was seen as unfair, elitist and placed pupils under too much pressure.

But now the old system has gone, there is no agreed replacement.

In official terminology, it is now an "unregulated system".

Some argue another phrase is more appropriate - educational anarchy.

Uncertainty

In the past four years, A-level and GCSE results in Northern Ireland have been better than in England or Wales.

The fear is that the transfer upheaval could damage the whole system.

The 15,000 pupils who took the last 11-plus back in November will attend their new schools in September.

The 10-year-olds currently in primary six are the ones faced with uncertainty as they enter their final year at primary school at the start of the next term.

People know my views on academic selection. I am totally and utterly opposed to it.
Caitriona Ruane, Northern Ireland Education Minister

They are the "guinea pigs" in the new era.

The majority of grammar schools have opted out of the regulated system and set their own entrance tests.

The Sinn Fein Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, advised them not to do it, but they went ahead anyway.

To make matters even more complicated, these schools are not all acting together.

Two different sets of tests are being set up, and will be held over five different weekends in November and December.

Confused? Well, many children are, as they try to figure out how they gain a place at a school of their choice.

Unlike the 11-plus, the new tests will be held at weekends in grammar schools, which for most children will be unfamiliar surroundings.

Some parents report that their children are having trouble sleeping, and are showing signs of increased anxiety.

'Flaws'

Rightly or wrongly, much of the blame is aimed at the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane for getting rid of the 11-plus without any agreement for a new system.

Paula Martin, a parent from Larne, says the minister must accept responsibility for the "chaos".

11 plus exam
The last 11-plus exam was sat this academic year

Her son, Darren, is one of the 23,000 pupils currently in primary six in Northern Ireland.

"It shouldn't be allowed to happen - you shouldn't get rid of something until you've agreed what's going to replace it," she says.

"I know the old system had flaws but at least the pupils were doing tests in familiar surroundings.

"They had two tests, in their own schools, in familiar surroundings, with their teachers, and with their classmates."

Paula Martin is part of an action group formed by concerned parents, called STOP - Schools Transfer Options for Pupils.

It is campaigning for the education minister to consider allowing academic testing of children to continue until politicians can agree on a new school transfer system.

There is no sign of the Education Minister doing a U-turn on the subject.

She told the BBC News website: "People know my views on academic selection. I am totally and utterly opposed to it.

"Change is going to happen in the system and change is happening.

"All of the grammar schools are well aware of my position on any schools breaking away from the system.

"I hope they don't do that."

Too late. More than 60 schools are planning to stage the entrance exams.

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BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson speaks to parents about their views on the end of the transfer test

'Abuse'

To date, 4,500 children have applied to sit the tests.

This figure could double before the September 18 closing date.

Ronnie Milligan, principal of Cregragh Primary in Belfast, said: "I feel that the Minister for Education, instead of getting rid of the 'child abuse' surrounding the old 11-plus system, has created an even greater nightmare for parents, schools and, above all, children.

"The prospect of children spending up to five Saturday mornings in the unfamiliar surroundings and high-pressure environment of a grammar school hall fills me with horror."

Blaming one politician may be harsh.

The reality is that the problem stems from a failure by all the parties at Stormont to settle on an agreed system.

Politicians in Northern Ireland have made many historic decisions in recent years but a school transfer system has defeated them.

While the pupils get a break this summer, the politicians are left with the homework.

Graph showing A level and GCSE figures



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SEE ALSO
Pupils withdrawn over school test
06 Mar 09 |  Northern Ireland
11-plus proposals 'nothing new'
27 Jan 09 |  Northern Ireland
15,000 children sit last 11-plus
07 Nov 08 |  Northern Ireland


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