Up to health chiefs to call for scrapping of school transfer test – Peter Weir
It is up to health authorities to call for the last scheduled post-primary transfer test to be cancelled, the Stormont education minister has said.
Peter Weir was challenged to stop a test planned for February 27 by education committee chairman Chris Lyttle.
State-run GCSE, AS and A-level exams have been cancelled due to the pandemic but the assessment for 10 and 11-year-olds moving up from primary school is operated by private organisations.
The Association for Quality Education (AQE) and the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) cancelled tests planned for January and early February amid a third major surge in coronavirus infections.
However AQE announced plans to hold one test on February 27, public health conditions permitting.
Academic selection at 10/11 has long been a divisive issue among Northern Ireland’s parties, with the DUP accusing critics of using the pandemic to stop the tests.
A number of selective grammar schools have indicated they will not use AQE test results this year.
Mr Lyttle, of the Alliance Party, said if GCSEs and A-levels have been cancelled on public health grounds then the transfer test should be as well.
Mr Weir said the cancellation of public exams was also to ensure comparability of results across the UK, and with the previous year, which received assessed grades.
He added that if the Department of Health says “this – or any other issue – cannot go ahead on public health grounds, then that clearly means that something cannot go ahead on public health grounds”.
Mr Lyttle said the prevailing public health circumstances, the extent of the disruption to learning and the need for certainty mean that the minister “ought to use his power to extend that cancellation to post-primary transfer tests”.
Mr Weir responded: “In terms of a judgment on public health circumstances, that ultimately is a matter where the call shouldn’t lie with me or with you, it lies on that broader level with public health.
“Academic selection is both a legal entitlement and also a question of parental choice. The parents have a right to choose that, but it is also the case that either for individual schools or indeed for parents, it is certainly not compulsory.”
Mr Weir said schools were asked before Christmas to start drawing up entry criteria in light of the pandemic.
“The Education Authority at the beginning of February will be publishing every school’s position as regards criteria and there are a range of criteria which are either test related, academically selection related or non-academically selection related which are options for schools to go down,” he said.
“We have given advice to schools to take advice before they finalise their position because… there is no set of criteria that doesn’t come with some level of risk and some level of risk of challenge from a parent, for example.
“There isn’t some magic bullet solution out there which is getting something that will then be universally regarded as being fair, that will be regarded as being robust.”
Earlier in his opening statement to the committee, Mr Weir said work is ongoing by exams body CCEA around contingency plans for state exams.
He told MLAs he hopes to be able to reveal more detail by the end of the month, but the benchmark by which the 2021 cohort is graded will “effectively be the same as it was 2020”.
“What the exact methodology which is used, we need to produce fair results and one which the two cohorts can be compared together,” he said.
Mr Weir also told the committee he believes the Executive should make a case to the the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) for prioritisation for teachers to enable the continuation of school learning.