The coronavirus crisis upends society, changes the way we live and presents huge challenges to every sector, including the education sector. The crisis has both led to immediate and dramatic changes and prompted a deeper analysis of how we structure our system in the future. The initial response of closing schools led to the challenge of how examinations would be managed.
In the unprecedented circumstances of school closures, DE rightly decided that GCSE and A level exams would not take place this year and ruled that students be awarded grades based on performance and teacher predictions, a decision welcomed as a pragmatic solution to a pressing problem. However, pragmatism has gone missing when it comes to the transfer of students from primary to secondary school in the coming academic year. It has been decided that the year 7 cohort of students will take selection exams in autumn, albeit a little later than usual. Parents, understandably, their priority being their individual child, are up in arms.
DE has shown itself unable to confront the shibboleth of the 11plus. Why has this examination, provided by independent consortia, not been cancelled as a short- term measure for next year? Is the exam’s underpinning of our unequal education system so embedded that DE could not consider cancelling it in the coming academic year? Or were they concerned that, if, for one year, transfer was managed successfully without subjecting our children to the stresses of the system, that no-one would wish to revive it? Perhaps, it was the fear that a change to teacher assessment would put undue pressure on teachers from concerned parents? It is not acceptable that children should be forced to take selection exams next year when workable alternatives are available. A solution exists, tried and tested, which enables selection, including academic selection, without relying on teacher assessment.
A number of integrated colleges have been using such a system for the last five years. Integrated colleges are inclusive, welcome all faiths and none, and are all ability. They achieve their integrated balance through allocating places on the basis of religious background through carefully designed admissions criteria. It is equally important to integrated colleges that they are also all ability, accepting children from the full range of abilities. A number of integrated colleges have adopted a set of admissions criteria which enable them to accept up to one third of their incoming children on the basis of ability based on evidence presented by parents. Such evidence can be PTE/PTM scores (progress tests in English and Maths), CAT scores (cognitive ability tests), or AQE or GL assessment scores. Such an approach removes the burden of selection from the primary school and the Y7 teacher and places the selection of a school with the parent, where, on paper, it resides. These criteria work and have allowed schools to allocate places on the basis of academic ability for up to a third of its places. No stressful test is needed. Children can still be successful in attaining a place in their school of choice, even if they are not selected for the ‘grammar’ scheme. All children from a family can attend the same school with their individual needs being met. All secondary schools, including grammar schools, should now be asked to adopt similar criteria for the coming year. A common set of criteria for all schools should be developed as a matter of urgency using the model already working successfully for integrated colleges. This will solve the immediate problem of transfer for the coming year.
An avenue for the long-term solution to the problems inherent in our present system is also available. One of the last decisions taken by the assembly before the crisis took hold was a majority vote to establish an independent commission to review our education system, as promised in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Such a commission will review the detrimental outcomes of exclusionary practices, either by selection or segregation, on our children, our prosperity and our society. Such a commission will surely note our new -found reliance on and appreciation of nurses and care workers and other essential workers and reflect that many of these workers were educated in what are deemed to be ‘second rate schools. The present crisis underlines the importance of fundamentally changing our education system. The promised commission should be established as a matter of urgency.
Noreen Campbell was the founder teacher and principal of Hazelwood Integrated College and the CEO of NICIE (the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education) from 2009 – 2015