Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Battle lines drawn over transfer tests

You may not have heard about it on the mainland, but here in Northern Ireland, the excellent education system has reached a crisis point.

The grammar schools were told that last year, 2008, would be their last chance to use academic selection to decide who would make up the new intake of pupils. The transfer tests, or 11+, were abolished.

But the grammar schools have devised their own tests, one being used by the predominantly Catholic schools, another by the schools with a Protestant tradition. Pupils in their final year of primary school (they call it P7 here) began the new tests, based on mathematics and English, this weekend, with the first of three papers to take place over the coming weeks. They must visit the grammar school of their choice on a Saturday morning, unlike the old official transfer tests, which took place in the primary schools. And, unlike the old tests, they are not free.

Education minister Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Fein believes the old system was unfair, and placed too much pressure on children at a young age. She has so far refused to countenance any form of compromise. Ruane seems to believe so strongly in her cause that she has now threatened the schools with legal action if their tests continue.

Ironically, the unintended consequences of Ruane's actions may be to allow a private education system to develop, which until now has been largely unnecessary because of the high standards of the grammar schools. Fees for the tests is perhaps a first step. School fees and opting out of the state system may be the next, if the grammar schools feel their statuses and reputations are being threatened.

Here at mathsbank, we would like to see a resolution to the increasingly hostile dispute one way or the other, before the education of the children of Northern Ireland begins to suffer as a result of it.

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