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DUP Education Minister outlines his intentions in new role - 'I do not want to force my particular ideology on schools'

DUP Education Minister outlines his intentions in new role

By Rebecca Black

Published 13/06/2016

New Education Minister Peter Weir in his office at Rathgael House, Bangor
New Education Minister Peter Weir in his office at Rathgael House, Bangor

The new Education Minister, Peter Weir, has said he will not force his personal political beliefs on schools.

Mr Weir is the first DUP politician to take on the job, previously held by Sinn Fein since devolution.

He told the Belfast Telegraph his immediate priorities just days into the role are to review several decisions taken by his predecessor John O'Dowd, including a controversial new teacher recruitment programme.

The North Down MLA has also vowed to do all he can to ease pressure on children going through the unregulated transfer procedure from primary to post-primary school.

One of Martin McGuinness' first acts as Education Minister in 1998 was to abolish the official transfer test, the 11-plus. The final official test was in 2008.

Since then children have been faced with sitting up to five unregulated tests to gain a place at a grammar school.

Mr Weir said he will work to encourage the two separate test systems for State and Catholic schools to reach agreement.

The former Education committee chairman said he would not criticise Mr O'Dowd, but intimated his own style as minister would be very different.

"I want to see a degree of freedom given to schools generally. The idea of 'I have a particular ideology, I want to force that on schools' is an alien concept to me," he said.

"There would be different areas where ideologically John and myself would take a different attitude; even if there were issues I will disagree with, I wouldn't suggest there was any form of disregard of education.

"I think people do things out of a good motivation, even if at times different ministers will come to different solutions."

Currently more than 14,000 children sit unofficial transfer tests set by AQE or GL to gain a place at a grammar school. For children who sit both systems this means having to take five tests. Mr Weir said he is keen to see a single system agreed.

"The issue of academic selection is largely settled in that it is legally allowed and clearly there is a strong desire amongst both schools and parents to continue with that," he said.

"Clearly it is an issue where there is a wide gulf between different political parties - there is not going to be a consensus on academic selection.

"Different schools will use different ways, and many parents will not want their children to sit the tests. From that point of view I am not going to force anything on anybody.

"Within that context I would see myself as trying to be a persuader for those involved with it. I think we should try and make it as easy for parents and children as possible - moving towards ultimately a single system of tests would be desirable, but it doesn't lie entirely within my gift."

One of the other urgent issues Mr Weir said he is looking at is the Investing in the Teaching Workforce scheme, which proposed encouraging older teachers to retire, to be replaced by newly qualified teaching graduates.

It sparked anger from teachers who have been qualified for more than three years, claiming they would be discriminated against. "I want to make sure whatever decision is taken is on the basis of robust data - it has been fairly controversial so far, and whatever decision I take will not please everybody," Mr Weir said, adding that whichever decision he takes is unlikely to lead to changes in the workforce before 2017.

Addressing the budget cuts, the minister stated he is "acutely aware" of the pressure on school budgets and confirmed his department had made bids for extra cash in the June Monitoring Round, when unspent funding is allocated.

"Whatever broad direction the Executive takes, I think we have to work on an assumption there is not going to be a massive amount of additional money across the system and that will translate into a tough financial situation for education," he said.

Mr Weir added that among his priorities as minister will be focusing on educational opportunity and addressing educational under-achievement.

"As we move forward on issues, I want to make sure they are done on careful consideration. Occasionally you have to make snap decisions, but it's not great development of policy if you have to make policy on the hoof," he commented.

"I want to try and be thoughtful about issues and try and see what the best actions are that can be taken."

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