Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Future uncertain as 11-plus ends

Academic selection has proven a contentious issue

by Maggie Taggart
BBC NI education correspondent

The final 11-plus transfer test has been held in Northern Ireland schools, but although it is legally scrapped, academic selection is not.

Selecting pupils for grammar school on the basis of their perceived intelligence began in the late 1940s and was seen as a way of giving a free grammar school education to bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The method of selection has changed little although there have been attempts to radically alter it. Attempts in the 1970s to introduce non-selective education were abandoned.

Sixty years after it was introduced, the 11-plus has ended.

Few people mourn the passing of the current test but there is consternation among some parents, teachers and politicians that there will be no officially regulated method for grammar schools to choose the brightest pupils.

Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane would prefer children to attend their nearest post primary school, but has not suggested dropping the title of grammar school.

Pupil profile

In fact, if academic selection does not take place, parents are being told to make an informed choice about which sort of school would suit their child best: a secondary or a grammar for those more academically inclined.

To make that choice, they are told to consult their child's Pupil Profile and talk to the teachers in the primary school. The problem is that few believe middle class parents would voluntarily choose a secondary school for their children, if they and most of their family have attended grammar schools.

Secondary schools are widely accepted to be losing out in the current system. Despite a fall in the number of pupils in the population, grammar schools are accepting the full number of children they're allowed.

That leaves many secondary schools struggling to fill their places.

In the absence of government-regulated testing at 11, grammar schools have said they will set their own entrance exams.

As an interim measure, the minister for education has offered a compromise deal: Grammar schools could use tests set and marked by the CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment).

But the schools would be restricted to taking 50% of pupils on academic criteria the first year, diminishing to none after three years.

Both the government and grammar school alternatives have similar guidelines. They would be held on grammar school premises and test children only on the English and Maths they're being taught in primary school.

Dickson plan

There is growing interest in some quarters for selecting pupils at 14.

But it is not clear whether those who back that idea would like to see a new system of schooling set up, with junior and senior high schools and grammar schools, or whether pupils would simply move to different streams within their own schools.

There is a precedent for transfer to a senior school at 14, in the Dickson plan in the Craigavon area.

It is supported by parents but research showed its success was partly due to it not being a "sealed" system. In other words, parents who want to bypass it with the 11-plus and grammar schools are not prevented from doing so.

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