Secondary education in Northern Ireland has never been like the rest of the UK. Divisions based on religion and culture persist – but this is not the only point of difference.
Academic selection at the end of primary school is the norm, a norm that cuts across religious barriers. This does not mean that support for selection is unanimous, the model is uncontroversial, or that it has not faced the threat of reform.
In 2007, Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane was appointed education minister and vowed to end academic selection at age 11.
But the Executive, from then until now, has an uneasy coalition in government. Bold reforms are difficult when half or more of both the Executive and legislature is against them.
The minister abolished the centralised 11-plus but the grammar schools, and their ability to select pupils by performance, remained – with the old test ultimately replaced by two parallel, private sets of examinations.
With primary schools ordered not to teach to the test, private tutors filled the gap, offering services to coach pupils ahead of their end-of-primary-school exams. Having test preparation only available to children whose parents could afford it became a major issue.
Earlier this month a new pro-selection Education Minister, Peter Weir of the DUP, ended the ban on primary schools preparing pupils for transfer tests and vowed to strengthen both selection and the grammar system.
It is, however, unclear what plans the new minister has for the format of transfer tests. Upon taking office in May he reaffirmed his support for selection, but acknowledged that, “At the minute there are different bodies and different tests,” and if proposals are forthcoming on how this could be improved he would be “willing to explore them.”
Whether this means continuity, or unifying the testing system – either with a return to central control or with one designated test run by private operators – remains to be seen. However, he dismissed proposals from the UUP that transfer tests be replaced by continual assessment at primary school as “a non runner.”
The chief reason there is no clarity on precise proposals is that the Programme for Government (PfG) for this mandate is yet to be drafted, let alone finalised. In the coming months a PfG framework will be decided and, from that, a firm PfG will be drawn up.
Government in NI is almost entirely comprised of the DUP and Sinn Fein – strongly for and against academic selection, respectively.
The other three large parties comprise the majority of the official opposition and have slightly different views. The UUP are for selection but, as above, had suggested continuous assessment; the SDLP opposes selection but says this issue requires consensus and recently called for a “Cross Party Commission” to examine options; Alliance also wants to build consensus, is in favour of selection at 14, and has been extremely critical of the “the formalisation of two sets of unregulated tests set by private companies to transfer our 10 and 11-year-old children into post-primary education”, calling for an Education Committee Inquiry.
The PfG, and reaction to it, will be telling.