Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill critical at AQE plans to hold transfer test on February 27

Transfer test companies said the cancellation of their exams were `triggered' by a late night briefing giving details of extended school closures ahead of yesterday's formal Executive meeting. Picture by David Jones/PA Wire

MICHELLE O'Neill has hit out at a decision to proceed with a primary school transfer test hours after it was announced a series of exams due to take place later this month had been cancelled.

The AQE board was one of two examination bodies to confirm yesterday that the controversial tests - one of which was due to be sat this Saturday - had been cancelled.

However, hours later they said that a single exam will take place on February 27 subject to favourable public health conditions.

The announcement came just hours after the testing body had cancelled three planned exams due to take place later this month.

Earlier AQE announced it had decided not to proceed with transfer tests planned for Saturday, followed by two more exams on January 16 and January 23 and "will now be consulting with member schools" ahead of a further statement.

PPTC, which runs the GL test, was the first to publicly terminate, saying it followed a briefing from "sources close to the N.I. Executive" that a decision was "imminent" for schools to "close at least until the February mid-term break".

PPTC said parents were told "in early December" that "if no pupils are able to sit the Entrance Assessment on 30th January 2021 because of Covid restrictions, and these restrictions would not have ended before 6th February 2021 then PPTC will be unable to provide an assessment for any pupils".

It said now "responsibility falls on... schools to ensure that their admissions criteria cover this contingency".

Grammar schools are now expected to deploy a suite of admissions criteria in the absence of the common entrance exams.

It is likely consideration will be given to proximity to school of applicants' homes and whether there is a sibling at the school.

For schools with preparatory departments, these feeder primaries are likely to play a part in admission.

Children's Law Centre director Paddy Kelly warned of legal action ahead unless the department can "ensure an alternative non-discriminatory transfer system is immediately engaged".

"The Department of Education needs to take a lead in this regard and to publish what it considers to be a fair and reasonable contingency plan for transfer, along with a set of criteria which schools should use in place of academic selection."

The die was cast on Monday evening when First Minister Arlene Foster indicated the period of remote learning for schoolchildren would be extended amid soaring coronavirus cases.

However, there was still no clarity at that stage, with a decision delayed until after another discussion by ministers on the proposal yesterday.

Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma described it as "a truly shameful day for education in Northern Ireland".

"We did not need to be in this situation. Proper contingency plans should have been put in place for transfer tests months ago."

Naomi McBurney, of Bring It Back To Primary - a campaign for a single paper transfer test regulated by the Department of Education taken in primary schools rather than large testing centres - said parents are very divided.

"There are parents who are very concerned that if their child doesn't get the opportunity to sit the test, then they are going to be disadvantaged; for example, if they have an eldest child or only child, the main thing for them would be that the test was a more fair way for them to get access to a school that they want to go to," she said.

"It's quite frustrating for those opposed to the test because they are saying the country has had to sacrifice so much.

"The problem is the alternative criteria for schools isn't transparent as yet."

She said 12 schools which opted out of the test in June plan criteria "similar to nurseries including "if you have a parent that had previously attended the school or a member of the family on the board of governors".

Co Down mother Nicola McIlhagger said her daughter, an only child, cannot rely on an older sibling for entrance.

"My daughter has been working so hard all over Christmas, doing her practice papers, and we thought we were on the final countdown at last," she said.

"Now she is upset, wondering how she will get into a school", with their postcode far from schools in Belfast "where she had wanted to go".

"Tests aren't ideal but there has to be some sort of selection process, that's just the way it is... at least everyone is in and able to give it their best shot.

"Now we don't really know what will happen."

Kevin Donaghy, principal St Ronan's Primary School in Newry said closing schools is a "disaster" for children.

"My staff are completely devastated. We were all gearing up for coming back."

He said teachers should have been able to begin planning online lessons before Christmas.

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