Choice at 14 may end selection impasse

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Churches in Northern Ireland agree on new 'workable approach' to replace 11-plus

Allowing pupils to switch secondary schools at 14 looks increasingly likely to be the way to break the deadlock over academic selection in Northern Ireland.

The final round of 11-plus papers will be sat this month by more than 15,000 10 and 11-year-olds. But there are still no concrete plans for next year's pupils, despite six years of debate over the future of the country's grammar school system.

But discussions within Northern Ireland's mixed-party executive, and particularly between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, could break the impasse.

The plan - proposed by Catriona Ruane of Sinn Fein, the education minister - would allow pupils to start secondary school at 11, then transfer at 14.

Last week, the four major churches published a joint statement backing the plan. The Church of Ireland, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches said it was a "workable approach" and warned that Year 6 pupils were likely to become "anxious and distressed" at the current indecision surrounding their future.

Ms Ruane said this was a "helpful intervention" and that she would continue to meet church representatives and educationists to finalise plans.

The proposal is that pupils should be able to "elect" a school at 14, based on their subject interests. This would mean that parental choice and location would be prioritised when children move schools at 11.

"At 14, children are in a much better position to make decisions and choices," Ms Ruane said. "I believe that informed election at 14 is the way forward, and it cancels the need for academic selection. We have to keep pathways open to young people as long as possible."

But critics fear that once pupils have made their choice, schools might continue to use academic results to select them.

The 11-plus has been a contentious issue in Northern Ireland politics since Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness first pledged to abolish it in 2002. While there is now a consensus that the exam is ineffective and detrimental to pupils, there is still disagreement about what should replace it.

Teachers across Northern Ireland are frustrated about the lack of decisive action from the executive.

In April, just over 30 grammar schools said they would set up their own entrance exams.

Frank Bunting, northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, welcomed the churches' "progressive" statement, but warned that the plan's reference to "educational pathways" was overly cautious and open to interpretation.

"It is obviously a compromise position to enable rebel voluntary and controlled grammar schools to extricate themselves from the hook they have impaled themselves on through their espousal of private 11-plus testing," he said. "If, however, this is interpreted as a repeat of the same process, but at 14, it would be viewed by teachers as an unnecessary and unwelcome development."

Mervyn Storey of the DUP, the leader of Northern Ireland's cross-party education committee, said he supported the churches' statement.

"The DUP has always maintained that we support locally acceptable solutions for transfer," he said.

But he was concerned about how the proposals might be put into practice: "There is no escaping the fact that there would be huge logistical problems with wholesale change on a province-wide basis, not to mention cost implications," he said. "The prospect of selection at 14 would raise a myriad of questions, both educational and otherwise."

Talks at Stormont have been cancelled since September and the 11-plus has so far not been discussed.

"There is still time to reach a consensus," Ms Ruane said. "But we also need to bring an early conclusion to this debate and bring clarity to teachers, parents and pupils."


2001: The Burns Report found that 11-plus tests were socially divisive, damaged self-esteem, placed unreasonable pressure on pupils, teachers and parents, disrupted learning at an important stage and reinforced inequality of opportunity.

2002: Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, then minister for education, pledged to abolish the 11-plus.

2004: The Costello report confirmed The Burns report findings and recommended autumn 2008 as a date for the last 11-plus exams.

October 2006: The St Andrews Agreement paved the way for the restoration of the NI Assembly. Unionists won a concession that any decision about post-primary education would have to win cross-party support.

May 2007: A new power-sharing NI executive met. Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane appointed education minister.

December 2007: Ms Ruane announced the end of the 11-plus.

April 2008: The Association for Quality Education, made up of 30 schools, planned to create its own exams.

May 2008: Ms Ruane proposed election at 14, with children moving at 11 to post-primary schools based on parental choice and location; 11-plus to be phased out over three years.

November 2008: The last 11-plus exams were taken in Northern Ireland.

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