Selecting a post-primary school in Northern Ireland

The selection process for secondary (or post-primary as they call it) schools in Northern Ireland can be quite a stressful one.

To begin with there are essentially seven types of school to choose from. First, there’s the state school system (largely Protestant) and the Catholic school system (largely, but not exclusively, Catholic), both of which come in high school and grammar school varieties. Then there are the integrated schools which come in high school, grammar school and mixed varieties. Finally, there are a few private or semi-private schools which are mainly a mix of grammar and non-selective with fees ranging from around £500 to £2500 depending on the school and whether you consider “voluntary” contributions to actually be mandatory (which, largely, they are).

In reality, the number of schools is somewhat thinned out due to geography unless you want to live a really complicated life. Thus, in our case, there are within sensible striking distance two non-selective state schools, two state grammar schools, two Catholic grammar schools, two integrated schools and three private/semi-private schools. That’s rather a lot to attempt to visit and in practice we ended up going to see nine of them which is still quite a lot and so we ended up spreading the visits over two years. The two we didn’t bother with were knocked out for us as, frankly, they are rubbish schools and everyone knows that.

Of those that we did visit, some were very easy to eliminate from consideration as we (ie us and the little guy) just didn’t find them appealing. Surprisingly, this included Inst (RBAI) which, on the face of it, seems an excellent school but we just didn’t particularly like it. That was also the case with Wellington though with that we were also none too impressed with the knowledge of the pupils on the open day. Ashfield bit the dust as it has an extremely narrow range of subjects – seemingly only those that are absolutely essential (eg one foreign language because they’re required to teach one).

Which left us with six and there’s only room for five on the form. In practice, you have to put one or two non-selective schools on the list in case the transfer test results don’t come out as you’d hoped but that’s not necessarily so easy a thing to do as the normal default school in our case would be Ashfield which states that you will only get accepted if you put them first or second on the form and this year it needed to be first as they appear to have had a bit of a run of applications.

Anyway, because of the need to put at least one non-selective school on the list, we had to drop Methody which was really nice and would have been third or fourth on our list otherwise. It’s a bit further down largely down to the logistics of getting the little guy there in the mornings and it would have been higher otherwise.

First place went to my old school simply because of that. My parents didn’t have the chance to do the open day experience that we did and I’m not sure that I’d have picked it out of the range of schools that we’ve seen. So it worked out quite well that he didn’t get that but rather the second on the list which in reality was our first choice. We’d have been equally pleased with our third choice which was a thoroughly impressive school full of very knowledgeable pupils on the open day. Fourth choice was the integrated Lagan College which looks like it will one day become one of the great schools but it’s not quite there yet (it’s pretty good at the moment). We could have lived with our fifth choice, Priory College, but wouldn’t have been over the moon with it.

One thing that always amazes me is that parents put down schools that they don’t like at all. This year is no exception if the Facebook comments of some pupils are anything to go by and I think a lot of tears have been shed on Saturday when the school selection letters turned up because of that. Why on earth would anyone put down a school that they know their child will hate? The applications to failing schools also confuse me – why do people apply to schools that are failing so badly that their closure is even announced in the information booklet that all parents get? The zero ambition of some parents is also sad with some really bright kids not getting to even try for a grammar school and instead ending up in also-ran schools when they could have done so much better.

What’s also sad, is how little thought some parents put into choosing which schools they put on their list. Many will only know of the school that they went to but these days there’s heaps of information about schools and they all have open nights. We spent ages pouring over the booklets that are sent out to P7 parents (and you can either download them or ask the primary school for them in P6 as we did). Our “short” list of nine took us two years to get through and we went to our favoured schools at least twice each. Yes, it did take a lot of time and effort but it’s going to be the school that James will be in for the next seven years and one that’ll make a big difference in his future.

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