Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Saturday, 6 February 2010

Northern Ireland test breaks new educational ground

By Maggie Taggart
BBC NI education correspondent

Pupils taking exams
The results will determine which post-primary school the children attend

The 2010 transfer test results are breaking new ground.

Although Primary 7 children have done the 11-plus exams in the past, this is the first time that independent entrance exams will determine whether pupils will get places in grammar schools.

The Labour government, under direct rule, had planned to abolish academic selection altogether but a deal under the St Andrew's Agreement won it a reprieve.

It was then left it up to the local politicians to find a solution to what should replace the official 11-plus.

However, they cannot agree and so Northern Ireland is without a regulated test, although grammar schools are still permitted to use academic selection.

After giving up on the prospect of politicians finding a compromise, the grammar schools decided to set their own tests, but they split into two camps running totally different exams.

The Association for Quality Education devised three papers with questions on English and maths, children would be marked on the best out of three.

In late 2009, about 7,000 children sat the tests. At the same time, the Post Primary Transfer Consortium chose an English company GL Assessment, to provide two multiple choice papers, one in English and one in maths, to be taken on the same day.

Caitriona Ruane
Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has said the tests were unnecessary

The AQE is serving non-denominational grammars while the PPTC is providing tests mainly for Catholic grammars, along with some integrated colleges and non-denominational schools.

As well as different tests, they have also taken different decisions on the format of the results.

AQE has presented parents with the standardised score obtained by the pupil, with a separate guide to what grade the score indicates.

GL Assessment has sent out a form with both the score and a grade, so that either can be used. In fact most of the Catholic schools are making decisions on the grade they're given.

If parents are unhappy with the grade or mark , they can apply for a re-mark.

The AQE will charge for that while GL Assessment will not. However, both organisations say their marking procedures are so robust, it is very unlikely that mistakes will be found and grades raised.

The next step for parents is to take the results form to a meeting with the primary school principal and then choose a list of schools to which they want to apply for a place for their child.

The Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane is implacably opposed to academic selection and wants schools of all sorts to choose pupils mainly on how close they live to the school grounds, along with some other criteria.

However, she wished pupils who had sat the tests the best of luck in the choice of their next school.

While the pupils get their results and make decisions on their future, a group of educationalists has been given the task of succeeding where the politicians have failed.

They are meeting to see if they can find a solution to which all sides can sign up.

It is difficult to see how they will be able to make firm recommendations when other groups have not been able to agree on anything other than platitudes.

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