Mixed reaction to transfer test u-turn

September 12, 2016

There was mixed reaction to the Education Minister’s decision last week to reverse the Department of Education’s policy on the transfer test.

Peter Weir informed Northern Ireland primary schools on Wednesday that they are now free to prepare pupils for AQE and GL exams for entry to grammar schools.

The new guidance means that primary schools can support their pupils by supplying support materials, carry out preparation for tests during core teaching hours, coach in exam technique, and familiarise pupils with the testing environment.

Mr Weir said he had been clear from the outset that he supported academic selection and “wanted to reflect the widespread public support for its retention and for the process to be improved.”

He said the guidance sent to schools last week allows primary schools to respond to parental demand to prepare children for the transfer tests and removes any perceived threat to primary schools who are already involved in supporting children through the test.  Outlining his support for grammar school education, the Minister said he believed grammar schools can offer “rich, educational opportunities, secure impressive outcomes for those who will derive the greatest benefit from them.” He added that this  did not diminish “the excellent work” being carried out in non-selective post primary schools and reiterated that students who did not attend grammar schools have gone on to make “a very significant contribution to the social and economic life of our country.”

The Minister insisted the new guidance will make the transition to post-primary school “as seamless as possible” and said he believed it was in the best interests of children and “supports the positive intentions behind the use of academic selection to post-primary school.”

While many primary schools across the province spoke out in favour of the decision, other groups have expressed disappointment at the announcement.

Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said the decision would do very little to reduce the gap between richer and poorer students and was “not in the best interests of all our children.” Miss Yiasouma said whilst she understood the minister’s reason for the decision within the current system, “it is not even a sticking plaster to a system that requires root and branch reform.”

Locally, Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy called for academic selection to be scrapped and accused the Education Minister of being “out of step with international best practice with his move to allow schools to coach pupils for unregulated academic selection exams.”

Mr Murphy described the move as “disappointing and regressive” and said it will split classes and deprive the majority of children of valuable time which should be spent learning the curriculum, devised by experts.

“There is a wealth of international and local evidence, which highlights the damage academic selection has on pupils, the education system and wider society,” added the Sinn Fein MLA.

“Sinn Féin is not alone in our opposition to academic selection. Many parents, trade unions, churches and children’s and human rights organisations also oppose it.

“Only at the end of last year the OFMdFM commissioned report ‘Links in Achievement and Deprivation’ recommended an end to academic selection and stated that it reinforced ‘privilege and disadvantage’.

The huge improvements in educational attainment under successive Sinn Féin Education Ministers shows how unnecessary academic selection actually is.”