Saturday, 14 February 2009

Selection at 14

In the Craigavon two-tier system pupils automatically transfer from primary to junior high school at age 11 without any need for a selective test. At age 14 about a third of the pupils are selected to attend senior high grammar schools on the basis of their school work. The rest either go to a senior high secondary school (in the controlled sector) or stay in the junior high schools (in the maintained sector). A research study in 1998 (for which I was a co-author) was carried out to examine whether the two-tier system provided a systemic alternative to selection at 11. We were also asked to examine whether it provided a better experience for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, but concluded that it did not. Our main conclusion was that the two-tier system did not provide a systemic alternative. At its origin the intention had been that the two-tier arrangements would grow with the development of Craigavon into Northern Ireland’s second city. Of course the city never developed and so the two-tier arrangements never became a full-blown system. Our evidence suggested that it was very porous in that parents could try to make best use of what was on offer through it, or send their children to nearby grammar schools: the small size of the two-tier system meant that parents could have a second or even third ‘bite at the cherry’ and this, we felt, was one of the reasons why parents locally liked the system. There was also evidence that some of the junior high schools operated very rigid streaming arrangements and we pointed to some of the negative consequences of this system.

At the time the 1998 study was published the Southern Education and Library Board was critical of its conclusions and suggested that it has overlooked significant advantages in the arrangements. A later study (2007) carried out for the Board by a group which included the principals of the schools in the system was also critical of the 1998 study, but recognized that there were some weaknesses in the process used to identify pupils for the senior high grammar schools. Among the strengths of the system they highlighted were the close relationships between the primary, junior high and senior high schools, fairer selection arrangements with less negative impact on the school curriculum and, it was claimed, good GCSE and GCE results.

The Burns and Costello Reports both concluded that age 11 years should remain as the most common point of transfer and did not favour a systemic shift to selection at 14. However, under the Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum 14 will become the key decision point for pupils: up to that age they will be following a largely statutory curriculum, but the enhanced flexibility in the Revised Curriculum will provide pupils with significant choice on the pathway they will follow post-14. This is one of the factors which has prompted many to suggest that 14 should be the main decision point in education, as opposed to the blunderbuss approach involved in the use of an omnibus test at age 10/11 years. This would not involve a simple shift from a ‘fork-in-the-road’ at 11 to a ‘fork-in-the-road’ at 14. At 14 pupils will have access to a wider range of options, particularly if schools maintain distinctiveness in their expertise and curricular offering, even though some will continue to set hurdles for entry to particular pathways (as already happens to some extent at 14, for entry to GCSE, and at 16, for entry to GCE). If schools work collaboratively, sharing expertise, then it will become possible, for the first time, to offer the same wide range of options to all pupils.

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