‘Policy will end grammar schools’

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SO is private 11-plus testing as bad as the politicians would have us believe? Not according to those parents currently able to exercise a choice.

Four years of stable operation would suggest that any anxiety rests with those divided politicians rather than the electorate.

I wish to highlight the disastrous complicity of unionists in a process that will ultimately be run by the Department of Education, and thus result in the end to selection.

Currently two different exams are used; parents can choose AQE or PPTC or both for their choice of school. Competition for places has increased.

This situation will not continue if politicians sacrifice the future of grammar schools on the altar of expediency. The electorate and their children will be robbed of choice.

In an extraordinary political blunder, the Ulster Unionist Party have called on the Sinn Fein Education Minister to “take a step back” from opposing views on selection and introduce a single agreed test for a fixed period of two years.

While no detail is given on what would occur beyond that time, the news is not good for supporters of parental choice for academic selection.

Demonstrating a lack of understanding of how unregulated testing came about, Danny Kinahan, UUP education spokesperson, chided Education Minister John O’Dowd by claiming: “There needs to be a negotiated solution.”

Supporters of comprehensive schools could seize on the concession of negotiating over a test.

But the party seems not to realise that you cannot have common ground over selection. If you believe in grammar schools, you must have valid and reliable academic selection.

Mr Kinahan, privately educated in England, aptly demonstrates his political naivety.

Sacrificing the stable four-year history of valid and reliable transfer tests to Sinn Fein in exchange for a fixed period of two years of regulation would guarantee the end of selection in Northern Ireland.

After that two-year period, they would either water the tests down to the point of meaninglessness, so that they cannot differentiate between pupil applicants, or bin the tests altogether,

Hardly coincidently, the bishops are stepping up their pressure on Catholic grammars to phase out selection.

Mervyn Storey, DUP Education Committee chairman, has been calling for a single transfer test making claims that he has been discussing the detail with the two testing agencies. The DUP have recently become averse to using the term “academic selection”, instead preferring to use “assessment” in a move parallel to the bishops substituting “election” in place of “selection” in their pitch for transfer at 14.

Nothing save a modicum of self-control would prevent the education minister from throwing academic selection into the dustbin of history. Once removed, there would be no prospect of any transfer tests returning.

The requirement of cross-community support from those political parties opposed to selection at 11 would ensure it.

The one remaining thorn in Sinn Fein’s education policy paw is academic selection.

Who would have thought that the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party would wish to gift Sinn Fein a prize kept out of reach by parents from all communities for well over a decade?

The incoherent UUP education policy illustrates their folly.

The UUP claims: “Like children themselves, schools need order, structure and stability. With unregulated tests becoming the norm over recent years, the state has effectively lost control over a key component in the delivery of education; something which remains completely unimaginable.”

The DUP are equally culpable. Their reversal, for no convincing reason, of their previous position opposing the Education and Skills Authority Bill on essentially the same proposals will give the minister of education absolute power over the education system which he does not currently possess. This power would include regulating against academic selection and the slow destruction of the grammar schools.

Parents, as voters, must teach the political class that they have failed to understand the principle of parental choice and keep the transfer test beyond their reach.

Stephen Elliott is chairman of Parental Alliance for Choice in Education