Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 11:31 UK

Catholic pupils face entry tests

Pencil and paper
The commission said academic selection of any kind should end by 2012

The Commission for Catholic Education has given the go-ahead for Catholic grammar schools in Northern Ireland to set entrance exams.

However, it has also restated its position that academic selection of any kind should end by 2012.

Some Catholic grammar schools have said they will set entrance exams in the absence of an official test.

Education Minister Caitríona Ruane welcomed the Catholic sector's contribution to the debate.

The final 11-plus was held in Northern Ireland's schools last November, and the way in which children currently in primary six will transfer to second-level education remains unclear.

A working group was set up earlier this year to consider the issue.

The commission said that in the absence of a regulated system of transfer, academic test may be appropriate in the short-term, particularly for those post-primary schools which are oversubscribed.

NICCE chairman Bishop Donal McKeown said: "This is a clear statement from the Catholic trustees that academic selection at age 11 has no place in a modern education system."

He told the BBC that everyone would prefer to have a regulated system in place and urged politicians to come to agreement.

"There is widespread recognition, across the academic community, that Northern Ireland needs to move beyond this bi-polar system of two sorts of schools, and the assumption that all children can be divided neatly into those two categories at 11," he said.

It is important that the family of Catholic Schools act in a spirit of interdependence and solidarity in responding to this and other educational issues
Cardinal Sean Brady

Cardinal Séan Brady said he recognised the "widespread concerns of parents about this uncertain and disruptive situation".

The commission stressed that Catholic schools which opt to use the tests must ensure they do not discriminate against any child, avoid a multiplicity of tests and should be used for only a limited period of time.

The church has been trying to keep the support of Catholic parents who want their children to go to a grammar school but who could choose to leave the sector and apply for non-denominational grammar schools instead.

Education Minister Catríona Ruane has asked schools to operate non-academic admissions criteria only.

She said if schools implemented the guidance issued by the Department of Education there was "no need for any breakaway entrance tests in any schools".

Catriona Ruane wants non-academic selection
Catriona Ruane wants non-academic selection

"As I have said many times this route is a legal minefield and should be avoided," she said in a statement.

"The statutory consultation process around the guidance is currently ongoing and after that is completed the department will then issue the final policy for Transfer 2010."

Many Catholic grammar schools have already announced they will set independent tests, while more than 30 state schools have said they will continue to use academic selection against Ms Ruane's wishes.

Dominic Bradley of the SDLP said there was a growing danger that an extended period of unregulated schools transfer could cause upheavals in the post-primary sector.

He said the statement from NICCE indicated a "willingness to be flexible on the part of the Catholic education sector".

Martin Bowen, the principal of St Peter's in Londonderry, said some kind of interim arrangement had to be put in place.

He said a CEA test based on English and maths, would be his "first priority".

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