Top-up fees aside, the two radical measures unveiled in the past week have been initiated outside the English education system. In Wales, a review of national curriculum testing has recommended the abolition of tests for both 11- and 14-year-olds, and in Northern Ireland the 11-plus exam will be abolished in 2009. Selective education will come to an end north of the border.
In Wales, the recommendations of the review carried out by Professor Richard Daugherty of the University of Wales Cardiff are likely to be accepted by the Welsh Assembly. The tests for 14-year-olds will be replaced by assessments in all subjects a year earlier (at age 13) so that parents and pupils can have more information to help them choose GCSE subject options. Tests for 11-year-olds will be replaced by tests in key skills a year earlier, to show teachers how much work they have to do with pupils to prepare them for secondary school.
In both cases, the recommendations show a refreshing absence of dogma. They are fashioned with the interests of pupils, parents and teachers in mind rather than a broader electorate.
Of course, the recommendations were immediately followed by a point-blank refusal by English politicians to consider similar changes to the English education system. However, ministers at the Department for Education and Skills would do well to study the impact of the changes, particularly for 14-year-olds. The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is known to favour some form of assessment of pupils in a wider range of national curriculum subjects before they embark on the 14- to 19-years stage of education. It may be that an internal assessment by teachers a year earlier than the current tests is the way forward.
If England's politicians were to react to the Northern Ireland initiative - which, by the way, was announced by the Government's Northern Ireland education minister, Jane Kennedy, because devolved powers have been taken away from Stormont - they would doubtless say that it was a matter for Northern Ireland and that they remained quite happy with the present situation in which selection can only be ended after a parental ballot. Again, that would be a knee-jerk reaction. Selection at 11 cannot be justified, because it tends to write off too many children as failures at a very young age. Again, 14 is the age at which young people should be making choices about their future educational careers.
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