A republican's final act

Observations on Northern Ireland schools

While the government fights to keep, and even to extend, selection at the age of 11 in the rest of the UK, the 11-plus examination is being quietly abolished in Northern Ireland, which still has a traditional grammar school system. Martin McGuinness's last act as the province's education minister was to decree that transfer tests, as the 11-plus is called there, would end in November 2004.

When direct rule was imposed last month, the government could have cancelled McGuinness's decision. But the tests are unpopular, and the Burns report, an official document published in October 2001, was devastatingly critical about their effect on the province's children. It showed that grammar schools were thought to be superior to other schools, and the children who went to them superior to other children.

The minister of state now responsible for education in Northern Ireland, Jane Kennedy, has confirmed McGuinness's decision. But what will replace the tests remains uncertain.

Kennedy has issued one clear statement: "Too many children are disadvantaged by the transfer tests and we cannot allow this to continue." Then she degenerated into new Labour language: "By working with our education partners and keeping our focus on the interests of the child, I am confident that we can build on the consensus that has emerged from the consultation process and develop a modern and fair education system that enables all children to fulfil their potential."

Trying to find a meaning for these words is an unrewarding activity. All we know is that the Burns report recommended a system of "pupil profiling" in primary schools. The grammar schools want to use the profiles to select the brightest pupils. This would re-create all the evils of the 11-plus - and destroy the relationship between parents and primary school heads. Heads who write the profiles would become the people who decide whether a child goes to the posh grammar school and gets a good start in life, or goes instead to the secondary school and is predestined for failure from 11 years old.

Kennedy has so far allowed herself the wiggle room to bow to the grammar schools' demands at some point. A real educational advance in Northern Ireland could still be undermined by new Labour conservatism and timidity.