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Education minister warns against political 'see saw' over state tests

Published 12/10/2016

Stormont's education minister Peter Weir said he is not going to waste time striving for an unachievable political deal over state tests
Stormont's education minister Peter Weir said he is not going to waste time striving for an unachievable political deal over state tests

Stormont's education minister has said he is not going to waste his time striving for an unachievable political deal that would bring back a state selection test.

DUP minister Peter Weir said he was realistic that he and Sinn Fein were not going to compromise on the thorny issue of post primary transfer.

Giving evidence to his Assembly scrutiny committee, he said it would be "legally do-able" for him to impose a state test, but he questioned the worth of such a move given a future Sinn Fein minister would likely abolish it again.

The minister said such a scenario would create instability and uncertainty, with a "see saw" of test or no test depending which party was in charge of the education portfolio.

"In an ideal world I would like to see a single test that was agreed by government," he said.

"In that regard I am realistic enough to know that there won't be agreement politically over that, so consequentially I am not going to waste time trying to find a state test and get agreement across the different views that are there."

Mr Weir added: "I've enough problems in education without seeking another trench warfare on something there isn't going to be an automatic solution to."

He said it was pointless imposing a test that could be scrapped if there was a ministerial change.

"I think there is no point creating a situation where this becomes simply whether there is a test or whether there isn't a test - it becomes almost a political football in terms of who is in charge of education in that regard," he said.

"And if I put something in place which, for the sake of argument, kicked in next year, and then in a future period, three or four years down the line, on the basis of a Sinn Fein minister it then gets abolished - I don't want this see saw."

He said he did not want to give people "false hope" that a state test would return.

"I am not going to be chasing something where I don't think there is any realistic chance of getting agreement," he said.

"It's important to be up front about that than simply pretending that, 'Well I am going to go into the next six months in discussions with Sinn Fein to see if we can reach a compromise', because it is fairly obvious there won't be a compromise on that issue."

There are currently two unregulated tests used by grammar schools still selecting on the grounds of academic ability in Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir said it was his goal to see if the two exam bodies running the tests could come together to produce a single test.

"That may or may not ultimately produce results but I want to at least give that a try," he said.

Last month, the minister granted permission for primary schools to use school time to prepare pupils to sit the tests. Previous Sinn Fein minister John O'Dowd had opposed such preparatory work.

Mr Weir said he was trying to create a more open system - claiming that many schools effectively ignored departmental guidance in the past.

"There was a sort of phoney war for years," he said.

"You had this element where schools sometimes were pretending not to do things but actually doing them and I think we are actually in a much more open situation (now)."

Sinn Fein committee member Jennifer McCann questioned Mr Weir's decision to permit test preparation, claiming the bulk of evidence blamed academic selection for exacerbating educational inequalities between the haves and have-nots.

"The gap between those who are deprived and disadvantaged and those select few that academic selection helps is just so wide," she said.

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