Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Friday, 25 December 2009

11-plus dominated NI education debate

By Maggie Taggart
BBC NI education correspondent

The ending of the 11-plus and its repercussions has been virtually the only show in town this year.

Caitriona Ruane
Education Minister Caitriona Ruane wanted to end academic selection

The Minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane, had planned that schools would abandon academic selection and use other methods of selecting pupils when more applicants than places are available.

That would suit secondary schools but there was an outcry from grammar schools and aspiring grammar school parents.

In an attempt to smooth over the dissention, the minister attempted what she described as a "transitional solution": a three-year extension of the 11-plus but with reducing numbers of pupils selected that way and eventually being phased out in the third year.

The grammar school lobby said that would be "like turkeys voting for Christmas" so it was not accepted.

The minister then issued her vision of how pupils should transfer without using academic criteria, giving some advantage to pupils who are entitled to free school meals.

The new test will be held on Saturdays
The grammar schools say they would prefer academic selection to be administered by the Department of Education

However, the major weakness of that approach is that it is not legally enforceable - it is "guidance" which schools are obliged to consider but can then reject.

Grammar schools retaliated by threatening to set their own entrance exams.

The idea began with the voluntary and controlled grammar schools, which are mainly attended by Protestant children.

These schools commissioned the Common Entrance Exam, a test in English and Mathematics administered by the Association for Quality Education.

Later, the Catholic grammar schools and a number of non-denominational schools banded together to set a different test, also in English and Maths.

This multiple-choice test was bought in from English firm GL Assessment. These tests, used by half of Northern Ireland's grammar schools, are administered by the Consortium for Post-Primary Transfer.

Parallel talks

All the grammar schools say this unregulated route is not their ideal solution, and they say they would prefer academic selection to be administered by the Department of Education.

However, Minister Ruane, who is a Sinn Fein assembly member, has said repeatedly that she will not reintroduce a new 11-plus, even on a temporary basis.

Parallel talks have been going on between four of the other political parties: the SDLP, Ulster Unionists, DUP and Alliance.

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

Sinn Fein did not accept its invitation to join, saying the issues could just as easily be discussed at sessions of Stormont's education committee.

The cross-party group is united in calling for a temporary official test - while some want academic selection to continue indefinitely, others want to see it phased out in the long term.

The politicians will now ask a new advisory group of people involved in education to grasp the nettle in the new year.

They will try to find that elusive solution which pleases everyone, not an easy job considering the sensitivities of parents, politicians and schools.

Deadlines missed

Academic selection is not the only issue causing dissention.

The Education and Skills Authority (ESA) was due to come into existence on 1 January.

It will be a single body responsible for all sectors of education, of which Northern Ireland has many.

Now it appears that the third deadline for its creation has been missed.

The main bone of contention is representation for the Protestant Transferors, the clergy who handed over their schools to the state in return for a say in how the sector is run.

Until that is sorted out, unionist politicians are refusing to sign up for the legislation needed to create the ESA.

Interim arrangements have been put in place to make sure education can still operate legally after 31 December 2009.

That is a major inconvenience for the management of the education boards and sectoral bodies, not to mention some of their staff who had been anticipating a financial deal to allow them to leave their jobs early in 2010.

They now await a political deal which hinges on Protestant clergy being assured that their voice will be heard in any future regime.

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