The great transfer debate – latest

Through gritted teeth no doubt, Education Minister Caitriona Ruane recently sneaked out an unpublicised Assembly written answer disclosing the results of the unregulated secondary school transfer tests, area by area, school by school, (from page 33 of written answers for 11 December; selected details below the fold). Now if we adopt the standard of notionally reclassifying as a comprehensive, every grammar school whose latest 11plus intake falls below 50% A grade, we reach some interesting conclusions. 17 out of 56 – 30% – of grammar schools would lose their membership of the selection club. The first year of unregulated tests don’t seem to have pushed up entry standards. Once again, the losers by my criterion would include previous bastions of the elite, Belfast Inst and Campbell College. Retired top mandarin Sir Ken Bloomfield the driver behind the AQE, is exposed as fighting a rearguard action of behalf of his alma mater. So what next? After the agreement said to have been reached by the minority parties, what “short term compromise “ is envisaged for ending the transfer deadlock? The only one around seems to be official acceptance of a common transfer test for next year to replace the separate tests for State and Catholic schools in this the first, “unregulated” year. Although this was not the intention, this separateness looked awful. A common selection test would not only remove the taint of sectarianism but would make academic selection well nigh unassailable from Education Dept onslaught. Although I support the end of selection, this can only be achieved by consent. And consent will only come when parents can see for themselves area plans for each community which offer greater choice for their children, combined with protection for existing academic standards. The abuse crisis in the Catholic church plays into the debate. The facts that the Catholic grammar schools defied the bishops over selection and that the new Trustee support body is no longer the employer suggests that clerical governance is disappearing not with a bang but a whimper. “Support” can still mean clerical influence behind the scenes but at least school governors have shown they can take it or leave it. They should go on to ask themselves the key question: does a “ Catholic ethos “ really require separate schools these days?

Some A grade 11 plus results

Top in Belfast Rathmore 99%, Aquinas 91%, Grosvenor 88%, Strathearn 78%, Methody 76%
Bottom Hunterhouse 11%, Campbell College 20%, St Mary’s CB 22% , Victoria 35% RBAI 39% Once agoian

Once again, Catholic schools come top. What I don’t know is the size of each school’s intake in order to assess comparative performance. But if you were a Catholic parent ambitious for your kids, woiuld you heed the bishops and abandon selection? The question for state/Prod schoolparents is different in some respects. Are there too many schools, or too many in the wrong place?

This will not be sorted out quickly.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London