In a curious accident of timing the Belfast Telegraph revealed to readers on Monday 3rd August a convenient consensus between the Sinn Fein Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, and the rest of the political parties on education reforms. The breakthrough was claimed to arise from a document put to her the Governing Bodies Association (GBA). This group claiming to represent the views of the voluntary grammar schools suggest that the Pupil Profile should replace an objective form of academic selection similar to the 11-plus.

When the background is examined it becomes clear that despite conflicting messages and various side shows the GBA have always been behind the Pupil Profile. This is best illustrated by the Chairman of the Board of Governors of RBAI (Inst), Sir Kenneth Bloomfield who wrote in the Belfast Telegraph on June 2006 the following: The GBA rejected Computerised Adaptive Testing and a return to the 11-plus both approaches which would meet international standards of validity and reliability.

Pupil profiles may be best solution

[Published: Tuesday 13, June 2006 – 14:33]

Since the publication of the Burns Report, the Governing Bodies Association (GBA) has been deeply sceptical about the contention that academic selection can be abolished without prejudice to the ethos, standards and mission of our grammar schools.

Since the publication of the Burns Report, the Governing Bodies Association (GBA) has been deeply sceptical about the contention that academic selection can be abolished without prejudice to the ethos, standards and mission of our grammar schools.

We have sought to protect not the specific 11 plus selection method but rather the right of schools with an academic ethos to take academic capability into account in determining suitability for entry.

The Department of Educa tion has argued that the abolition of academic selection is a corollary of giving primacy to “parental choice”.

This sits very oddly alongside the clear evidence, from one of the most substantial consultative exercises ever undertaken in Northern Ireland, that a significant majority of respondents – largely themselves parents or looking forward to parenthood in the future – wish to retain academic selection in some form.

If the promise of the Minister and the contention of the Department that schools with an academic ethos can continue to flourish, regardless of academic standards at entry, proves to be misplaced, the inevitable outcome will be movement towards comprehensive education.

In many areas of England the perceived weakness of the State system has impelled families of comparatively modest income to make huge sacrifices to send their children to independent schools.

So far there has been no motive to move in this direction in Northern Ireland. We do not want the resources of the parent, rather than the aptitudes of the child, to be determinants of acceptance.

There are, of course, some recognisable weaknesses in the education system in Northern Ireland, but overall performance, which is the envy of the rest of the UK, will not be improved if a part of the system working so well, and commanding widespread confidence, is to be undermined.

The “parental choice” of which the Department speaks is not absolute. It would be impossible to meet every parent’s preference about the school he or she would like their child to attend.

There must inevitably be criteria for entry which will point to the most appropriate educational pathway for each child. It is our firm belief that, in the interests of achieving the best match between child and school, the Pupil Profile recommended by Burns should be developed which would be factual, specific, and in a form enabling all concerned to make a well-informed judgement about a child’s performance and competencies compared to others.

The profile would enable the primary and receiving schools to offer professional advice to the parent as to whether the child would benefit from their choice of school.

But, of course, if the consideration of academic factors as a condition for entry is wholly ruled out, a parent may, in certain cases – even if advised against it by both the primary and receiving heads – insist on that pupil’s right to entry if he is eligible under other entry criteria.

This primacy of parental choice, regardless of professional advice, cannot be reconciled with the preservation of grammar schools as we have known them. Nor will it meet the objective of matching each child to a suitable school.

When it comes to the non-academic criteria for admission it has to be emphasised that individual grammar schools are distinct organisations, each with its own traditions, ethos, mission and environment.

For instance RBAI, of which I am chairman, has been located for almost 200 years in the heart of Belfast drawing its pupils from right across the Greater Belfast Area and further afield. Our Board would be totally opposed to an emphasis on geographical proximity to the school.

If the Pupil Profile can be used as suggested and acceptable criteria for entry can be approved, some of the worst effects of a policy change we continue to oppose may be alleviated.

Yet, unless RBAI and schools like it change their very nature – and we are assured that they are not expected to do so – it is virtually certain that the exercise of parental choice would on too many occasions place into receiving schools, pupils who would find it difficult to cope with the academic environment.

Indeed, objective use of a rigorous Pupil Profile addresses the problem of being oversubscribed for any popular school of whatever educational nature.

The GBA stance on this issue reflects a concern for the whole system of education and the welfare of all pupils.

Government and society need to consider why so many of our children leave primary education without adequate understanding of language or numbers and why the provision for children of a less academic bent is so variable at secondary level.

As currently framed, the proposals in the Consultative Document and arising out of the Burns and Costello reports would ride roughshod over the clearly expressed opinions of local people.

This letter appeared in the Belfast Telegraph AFTER it was pointed out that the Pupil Profile did not meet international standards. So what did the GBA intend by this contribution. Perhaps to influence a shift away from academic selection to a return to social selection where schools decided who was “good enough” to be admitted. It is astounding that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield was appointed to lead The Association for Quality Education (AQE) which is on record as opposing the Pupil Profile and has developed an entrance exam which may be used to academically select pupils in the absence of a DENI sponsored 11-plus test.Perhaps the confusion is relieved when one considers the role of individuals such as Dr Wilfred Mulryne, former principal of Methodist College, in the GBA and his role in CCEA the exams body responsible for the development of the Pupil Profile. Dr Mulryne has a lot of explaining to do. Those who have supported, aided and protected him are to an extent responsible for the current education chaos.

The 11-plus is a valid and reliable instrument. It meets most of the international standards required of high-stakes tests. The Pupil Profile meets NONE.

It may be another inconvenient fact that the GBA is representative of the Catholic Voluntary Grammar schools, 32 in total. The position of the Catholic Church is entirely anti-academic selection. This might explain the GBA lack of support for a replacement 11-plus academic test and their miraculously timed consensus claiming proposal to the Minister.

The facts of the matter are somewhat different. The non-denominational (read Protestant) grammar schools do not endorse the Pupil Profile. Any who do need only contact the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education to confirm their position.

We are happy to let the community they serve including parents, former pupils and benefactors know who they are.

The GBA have exposed themselves as a divided group. Pupil Profile with no standards or academic test with objective results? Answers on a postcard to PACE please.