School transfer tests – a way out or surrender?

Might this be the start of some sense intruding into the school transfer mess? Browsing as you do for the latest on academic selection, I see the excellent Kathryn Torney has got hold of the report “Portfolio for Advice” from the Educationalists Advisory Panel’, a document  “which was presented to Assembly members last month and its contents shrouded in secrecy ever since.” Are MLAs waiting for inspiration or at a loss about what to do? We should be told.   According to the summary, the  main recommendations in the report are distinctly modest. They seem to amount to accepting the continuance of selection but improving the  procedure,  if such a thing is possible.

  • there should be a single, province-wide method of transfer from primary school.
  • Any new end-of-primary test should be formulated and led by school leaders assisted by expert test designers.
  • There is a need for a re-imaging and a restructuring of the post-primary sector in order to achieve parity of esteem across the whole spectrum. This will require a major injection of funding.
  • Free school meals is not the best social index to decide access to post-primary education and is not sufficiently robust for this purpose. This is one of Caitriona Ruane’s flagship policies.
  • A panel of head teachers should be established and consulted before any new school initiatives are put in place

Buried in here may be a hope that selection will wither on the vine as non-selective schools improve and the trend continues for many grammars to become, in effect, mixed ability schools. Transfer tests may become indistinguishable from aptitude tests in England. That still leaves the problem of entry to be cracked.  Might the suggested approach be the nearest we’re going to get to the case against selection made by former head of the school testing body Alastair Walker, in which  he also criticised the “single lurch” approach to non-selection of Caitriona Ruane?  

“Moving in a single lurch from a selective to a non-selective system, without undertaking all of the changes needed to make the process successful, would have had a terrible impact on the education of tens of thousands of children.

It is also worth remembering that the hurdle itself is set at different heights for different schools. Postcodes are as important as grades in our present system in determining who gets into grammar schools. Grammar schools are currently serving 40% of our community well. Transformed into excellent all-ability schools they would serve 100% of our community every bit as well,” he claimed. We already have a number of first-class all-ability schools. We know they work. We do not need selection with all of the trauma and stress that accompany it.”

Will the obdurate Caitriona back down from her position of  dogmatic impotence and can the Assembly as a whole pass a basic  test of competence at problem solving ?  Objective answers welcome but please, spare us rants.

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