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Peter Weir: Why I'm lifting bar on transfer test preparation in schools

By Peter Weir, Education Minister

Published 07/09/2016

Reform: the DUP’s Peter Weir
Reform: the DUP’s Peter Weir
A child sits a test
Pupils at Millburn Primary School in Coleraine celebrate their results in 2014

I am proud of our recent public exam results, which yet again show students from Northern Ireland outperforming their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Such success did not happen by accident, but instead owes a lot to our local education system, and in particular highlights the benefits of a grant-funded school system, with academic selection a key component.

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We should not take this for granted, but should celebrate these benefits, and I support the combination of academic selection and grammar school education that continues to serve our community so well.

Academic selection has the potential to change people's lives. Every child, regardless of background, postcode, social group, religion or ethnicity, has equal opportunity to get into a grammar school.

These schools can, by setting demanding standards and offering rich educational opportunities, secure impressive outcomes for those who will derive the greatest benefit from them.

Through the selection process, grammar schools have been an essential vehicle for social mobility over several generations.

Many of Northern Ireland's most successful citizens, often from very modest beginnings, have benefited from grammar schools to become leaders and significant contributors to society. I acknowledge that many who didn't attend grammar schools have likewise gone on to make a very significant contribution to the social and economic life of our country.

The prospect of getting into the grammar school, and the opportunities that it creates, encourages aspiration in our children and their parents.

Our young people can stand alongside the most highly educated - indeed the most expensively educated - in the world and be confident that they have enjoyed the same privileges and achieved the same success without, in many cases, having to pay considerable fees, with many in England paying up to £30,000 per annum for the privilege.

It is a position that many parents in the rest of the UK can only look upon with envy.

I do not pretend that all selective schools are perfect. They have to rise to the challenge of delivering excellence upon which reputation rests.

Likewise the young people who transfer to non-selective schools must have access to a wide-ranging curriculum, excellent teaching and learning and pathways to success.

All types of school must offer the very best education to all their students. We must be proud of the achievements of the best of all schools, while not hesitating to challenge mediocrity from whatever it arises.

I support schools from all sectors continuing to work together to deliver the best outcomes through Area Learning Communities.

During St Andrews negotiations in 2006, it was the DUP who preserved the ability to use academic selection. At the recent Assembly election, it was the DUP who indicated the importance of education, our unquestioned support for academic selection and a greater need for school autonomy. We are delivering on the manifesto commitments endorsed by the voters.

In the debate around academic selection as a means of post-primary transfer, certain undeniable truths have arisen.

Firstly, it is clear that academic selection is here to stay. Predictions of a deluge of legal challenges and consequential imminent collapse at the time of removal of state-regulated transfer tests have proved unfounded.

Indeed, a record number of applicants took the transfer tests last year, showing the enduring popularity and faith in academic selection.

Secondly, it is clear that there will be neither a political or educational consensus around academic selection in Northern Ireland, and rather than engage in futile trench warfare on the subject, trying to persuade opponents who have ideological rigid opposition to selection, my aim will be to support the continued right of schools to use academic selection as a means of entry criteria, and seek where possible to improve the current process.

Thirdly, it is clear that some opponents of academic selection, having been frustrated at their inability to legally ban it, have sought instead to demonstrate their opposition by making it as difficult as possible for schools, pupils and parents to participate in the process of the transfer tests.

This not only ignores the reality of the continuance of academic selection, but unfairly places schools as pawns in an ideologically driven struggle. The practical outworking of this has been guidance to schools discouraging their involvement with anything to do with the transfer tests, in effect making life more difficult for them, with primary schools in particular, becoming the victims of outdated dogma.

The end result has been the creation of greater divisions within education and society.

While some schools have simply ignored the guidance, others have felt the need to comply, potentially disadvantaging some of their pupils, who are not on a level playing field.

It has also lead to the increased usage of private tuition, damaging social mobility and educational opportunity in the process.

The guidance that I am issuing today sets out the department's support for academic selection, but more importantly removes any perceived threat to schools. It accepts that it is in the best interest of pupils to be supported by their primary schools through the process of transfer.

Where it is in line with the wishes of parents, schools have a role to play in helping prepare pupils for the tests to enable them to achieve their very best.

Schools are now afforded the freedom to facilitate test arrangements by supplying support materials, preparation during core teaching hours, coaching in exam technique and providing familiarisation with the testing environment.

There will also be the opportunity by mutual agreement with the test providers to facilitate locations for the test, although this option is extremely unlikely to impact in 2016.

While I believe strongly in the merits of academic selection, this is not about compelling any school to take a particular course of action, rather the reverse.

It is ensuring that all schools are given greater freedom, that any perceived threats are removed, and that opportunities are provided that are in the best interests of our children, our schools and indeed of everyone in Northern Ireland.

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