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11-plus security shake-up looms

Exam officials in Northern Ireland are to tighten up security for 11-plus examinations following a fiasco in which questions were leaked and tests abandoned.

The Government was forced to scrap last year's test after questions were leaked during its trial.

Michael Ancram, the education minister, has now agreed a series of measures designed to minimise the risk of breaches of confidentiality. These include all rough work for the papers being destroyed, secure storage places in primary schools and supervisors being formally recruited and trained.

The Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment also recommended to the minister that no one involved in teaching or coaching pupils for the exam should be involved in revising the tests.

The CCEA took over the job of developing, printing and marking the tests last year but the Northern Ireland Education Department was in charge when the leak led to the first test in October 1994 being abandoned.

Mr Ancram rejected a call from the CCEA for a reserve test in case of further difficulties, but suggested that a supplementary one might be used if a main test was compromised. He said this would give time to prepare a new exam.

His department is also considering changing the procedure by which children transfer to grammar schools. The proposal is still at an early stage and has not yet gone to the minister.

It aims to tidy up the confusion that has resulted in several parents taking the Government to court over admissions. During the summer, four sets of parents successfully argued that full account had not been taken of special circumstances affecting their children.

There were 428 appeals over places in secondary and grammar schools this year compared with 437 last year - 154 were upheld, a reduction on the 1994 figure of 169.

The department is now planning to tell grammar schools to draw up clear selection criteria.

* Independent research has revealed that the number of children who miss long periods of schooling in Northern Ireland is at its lowest for 15 years.

A study by Dr Anne Sutherland found that the proportion of schoolchildren absent for 14 days or more in spring term 1992 was only 3 per cent, compared with 6.1 per cent a decade earlier and 7.8 per cent in 1977. The number of pupils missing school for very long periods also fell.

Much of the fall, however, appeared to be due to an unexplained improvement in health. In 1982, 4.1 per cent of children missed 14 days or more for reasons mostly to do with illness, but by 1992 this was down to 1.7 per cent.

Absenteeism was worse in secondary than the grammar schools. Belfast and the West had the highest rates of unjustified absence at all ages, boys were worse than girls, and Catholic schools had higher rates than Protestant.

However, there were few classic truants. Only one primary pupil in 18, 000, and one secondary pupil in 260, set off for school in the morning only to bunk off elsewhere without their parents' knowledge.

Far more were absent with their parents' knowledge.

One growing category of absentee was the suspended pupil, 233 of whom were found in the study of 200 primary and all secondary schools.

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