Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Thursday, 3 September 2009 13:18 UK

Parents confusion over 11 plus future

Will Leitch
Reporter, Good Morning Ulster

Primary seven pupils are back in class across Northern Ireland, starting their last academic year before transferring to "big school".

Transfer arrangements vary from place to place
Transfer arrangements vary from place to place

But this year, the arrangements for that transfer vary widely from place to place.

It has left many schools caught between their desire to do the best for the parents and children, and the wishes of the Education Minister Caitríona Ruane.

"Daddy, how come we've got this system that's been introduced.

"They took away the old one, but they didn't know what the new one was going to be."

Wilton Farrelly, from east Belfast, was struck by the words of his eight-year-old daughter a few months ago.

She was puzzled, watching her bigger sister bending over her books throughout the holiday months.

Wilton's elder daughter is working hard for the tests set by the Association for Quality Education, with the hope of obtaining a place in nearby Strathearn Grammar School.

That has meant doing practice papers in the summer, taking part in a revision club organised by parents, and private tutoring.

Officially, children are living in the post 11-plus era but thousands will still be sitting them later this term anyway.

The government test has been abolished, and the minister favours different selection criteria.

But the Executive has failed to reach a consensus on the way forward.

With no new legislation in place, the minister has issued advisory guidelines to grammar and secondary schools on her suggested transfer procedure.

Saturday testing

The new test will be held on Saturdays
The new test will be held on Saturdays in grammar schools

However, around 60 grammar schools have opted to continue testing.

Parents have until mid September 2009 to decide if their children should sit them.

They'll be held on Saturdays in the grammar schools, in a couple of months' time.

In Coleraine, Pamela Telford has been coaching her daughter, Jayne.

Her top choices for schools are Loreto College and Coleraine High School.

Whilst the High School favours the AQE tests, Loreto favours those set by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium.

Jayne will have to sit both, tackling five papers over four Saturdays.

Pamela wishes the old system had been retained until an agreed alternative was in place.

"What we had may not have been perfect," said Jayne.

"But it did work, and it made the parents a lot more confident."

Both parents expect their primary schools to get their children ready for the tests.

But the Department of Education has advised teachers not to do so.

Revised curriculum

In the Twinbrook area of West Belfast, Fionnuala Bradley is getting to know new pupils at St Mark's Primary School.

Like many of her colleagues, she was delighted when the 11 plus test was abolished, but now thinks teachers are in an impossible position.

The school is focussing on the new revised curriculum.

But Fionnuala and her colleagues are also facing pressure from parents who believe the grammar school system is the best and want their children prepared for the unregulated tests.

That would go against the Department of Education advice.

"They are our employers, we want to safeguard ourselves.

But as teachers, our primary motivation is the interests of the children," she said.

Harry Greer is Principal of Harmony Hill Primary School in Lisburn, but he also works with the National Association of Head Teachers.

"There's great anger in the primary sector. Who do we let down?

It's a hard dilemma to be in, to know that you're going to let somebody down," he said.

There is quite a different experience for parents and teachers at St John's Primary in Middletown.

For the last few years, no parent has asked for their child to sit a test.

Instead, the children transfer automatically to St Patrick's High School in Keady, an all-ability school whose academic results are respected by local people.

Parents are very positive about the system.

"We are so lucky to have an all-ability school beside us. The children transfer as equals, and as friends".

There is much uncertainty ahead for post primary transfer.

The minister says she's not for turning.

It is still unclear how this year's grammar tests results will be interpreted, or if any legal challenge will arise from the results, or admission decisions.

Children, parents and teachers all face more testing times.

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