Testing time, but it's our politicians who fail

Published: 22 Nov 2012 09:300 comments

I always enjoy those "real life" quotations, for example some the things people write on insurance claim forms.

Or actual answers from exam papers, such as those below.

Q. What is a seizure?

A. A Roman Emperor.

Q. What does the word 'benign' mean?

A. Benign is what you will be after you be eight.

Q. What is a turbine?

A. Something an Arab or Shreik wears on his head.

Hopefully, all the hundreds of pupils in Fermanagh sitting the transfer tests this month will have a clearer idea of how to answer their questions.

It has been a tough time for them, very stressful. Not to mention their parents.

It's time, don't you think, that our politicians and educationalists got their act together and put the children and their families centre stage in the debate.

Ramming their ideologies and dogma down our throats, and everybody else's throat, has got us into another fine mess, as Laurel and Hardy would say.

With all the major issues we face in re-shaping our education system fit for a competitive 21st century, it does seem to me that we have got bogged down on the single issue: to select or not select in a test at age 11.

I watched an interesting discussion on BBC television at the week-end, with four people representing varying viewpoints. Education Minister, John O'Dowd stood firm on the decision of abolishing the 11-plus, Also taking part was Sir Ken Bloomfield, from the Association for Quality Education which is behind the selection process.

And two people with the inside track, Adeline Dinsmore, former principal of Ashfield Girls, a firm proponent of non-selection, as well as David Lambon, principal of St. Malachy's College in Belfast, whose school conducted selection tests last Saturday.

It was a lively discussion, and strangely I found myself agreeing with bits of what all of them said.

So, I finished thinking of the Johnny Nash song: "There are more questions than answers,

And the more I find out the less I know."

We heard John O'Dowd insist that there is no need for academic selection in a modern education system, and that we never consider the children NOT doing the test.

Sir Ken countered that if the mantra of parental choice meant anything, the polls showed that the majority in Northern Ireland want selection. And with 7,000 sitting the tests this year, (64 per cent of P7 pupils), parents were voting with their feet.

Adeline Dinsmore spoke of her experience of pupils not selected having their self-esteem in tatters, yet they later go on to achieve in life in all sorts of ways.

David Lambon said we should look at how schools are set up, rather than simply selection. His school, while operating within the framework of the common curriculum, focuses very much on the academic subjects in sixth form, for example.

Personally, I was convinced by the argument that our education system should be diverse with room for a range of schools, including Irish medium, integrated, non-selective and even a return to vocational education.

And, of course, grammar schools focusing on academic excellence.

For many years, aspects of the education system have let down too many of our children.

But we do not serve them well by cracking down on those that have done well, either.

Last Saturday, my youngest boy, aged 11 sat the test at Portora Royal School. HE has decided he wants to go there, and I believe it is a school that would suit him well, so it was our considered choice to put him through the test.

But I know, too, that if he doesn't get a place, there are other fine schools where he will flourish.

Even though I am uncomfortable with the idea of training towards exams instead of educating the child; and I do have reservations about a system which give a perception of failure to some at age 11.

The Minister, John O'Dowd, I find usually to be a good performer in debates on television. But in this one, I thought he got a bit rattled and starting talking people down.

His aim, he said, was to convince parents that there was no need for selection. But, I doubt he managed on this occasion to convince many of the 7,000 sets of parents who put their children through the test this year.

His starting point seems to be the abolition of testing and then sort out the system of education. But that seems to me a bit like having your pud first and main course afterwards.

Why not revolutionise the system of education and make the need for testing redundant?

Adeline Dinsmore got it right when she said this: "What we need is for our political leaders to take a lead and set out visionary policies and practices to take us somewhere different to where we are at the minute, which is not a good place."

Catriona Ruane's tenure of the Department of Education was, in my opinion, a disastrous one.

But even four years after the abolition of the 11-plus, we appear no closer to a way out of this mess.

The Johnny Nash song I referred to earlier, "More Questions than Answers" came from his album entitled: "I Can See Clearly Now."

Frankly, most of us can't.

Pardon the use of the terms, but when it comes to the test, all our politicians are failing our children.

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