Northern Ireland news

Minister and committee chairman clash over what defines a `grammar school'

Minister Peter Weir appeared before the committee via Zoom

THE education minister and chairman of the committee that scrutinises his work have clashed over the definition of a `grammar school'.

Peter Weir suggested that if selective post-primaries stopped using entrance exams, they would be viewed as `comprehensive'.

The minster said the "vast bulk" of people believed that a school had to have a test to make it a grammar - even though it does not.

He said there was a difference between the legal definition and common understanding.

Mr Weir was responding to Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, chairman of the assembly education committee.

The two have been at odds over plans to press ahead with 11-plus tests this winter.

A dozen schools have agreed to suspend exams due to disruption caused by the lockdown. The majority plan to proceed, however.

Mr Weir and the DUP are supporters of academic selection. He said critics of the system were yet to suggest any viable alternative should tests be scrapped.

Legally, the term `grammar' refers to a management type - such schools are under no obligation to use admissions exams.

Grammar schools existed before academic selection was introduced in the 1940s. Academic tests were only brought in years later.

Today, there are a small number of grammar schools that no longer run 11-plus tests and instead use non-academic entrance criteria.

At the education committee, Mr Lyttle told the minister that he had concerns about P7 children.

"You have legitimately asked for people that are concerned with regards to the sitting of tests in Year 7 to come up with alternatives. Is the recommended criteria of the Department of Education not a suitable alternative to consider?" he asked Mr Weir.

Responding, Mr Weir said schools were entitled to use academic selection. Alternative criteria, he said, were focussed on non-selective secondary providers.

"Realistically, in most people's understanding, if a grammar school is not using academic selection as a means to deal with oversubscription then to what extend is it a grammar school or is it effectively a comprehensive school?" he said.

Mr Lyttle argued that the department's own guidance on admissions criteria did not make the argument that it applied only to non-selective schools.

"I think it is quite robust criteria and don't see why it is not a suitable alternative," Mr Lyttle said.

Mr Weir said a school not using tests could "effectively" be badged as a grammar due to the way it was governed.

"But in anyone's understanding of what is a grammar school, if you are not having any method of criteria which refer to academic selection, then I think it is a grammar school only in name," he added.

Mr Lyttle pointed out that there were both non-selective grammar schools and others that had agreed to use non-academic criteria to determine admissions for 2021.

In reply, Mr Weir said: "The legal definition of a grammar school relates to its form of governance, but I think the common understanding of a grammar school is one that uses academic criteria as a means of entry. That is what I think the public will understand.

"Let us not pretend that if you get rid of academic selection that you effectively have a grammar school system. It isn't really the case."

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