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Bishop warns business must not dominate exams debate

Catholic leader says financial gain shouldn't influence transfer test plans


View: Bishop Donal McKeown

View: Bishop Donal McKeown

View: Bishop Donal McKeown

The Catholic Church has joined the debate over the future of this year's transfer test for primary 7 pupils and said business interests should not come before the interests of children.

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown said the test process - which is run by private companies - had become "big business", and has warned that financial gain "should not dominate the conversation".

AQE - the Association for Quality Education - cancelled three tests due to be held in January, with the PPTC also cancelling its proposed transfer test for this year. But AQE later said it plans to hold a single, rescheduled test on February 27.

AQE charges parents wanting grammar school places for their for their children £55 to sit the exam. The PPTC does not charge pupils.

Bishop McKeown told the BBC's Sunday Politics Northern Ireland programme: "AQE would have about 9,000 pupils applying this year. That's half a million pounds coming in to run a business.

"And let's say you work on the assumption that parents are spending maybe £250 on tutoring [for their children] - there's another £2.5m.

"We're not just talking about making educational changes - we are talking about a business.

"When business becomes a major element in educational decisions I think, perhaps, we've lost the point."

Announcing its intention to hold a single transfer test on February 27, the AQE had said: "It is the view of the member schools that academic selection represents the fairest way of allocating grammar school places."

It said the test would proceed "provided it can take place in public health circumstances then prevailing", and believed the process was the "fairest way of allocating grammar school places".

Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party have all called for the test to be scrapped completely for this year, with many pupils facing another prolonged period of learning from home.

They are not due back in the classroom until after the half-term break in February.

Stormont ministers clashed on Friday about whether the Executive should intervene in the AQE's decision.

Education Minister Peter Weir is to report back to the Executive at the end of this week on the test.

Five schools have already pulled out of the revised AQE testing process and said they were reviewing their contingency admissions criteria.

Ulster Unionist education spokesperson Robbie Butler has suggested an alternative hybrid solution which would see pupils' work used to decide their post-primary transfer.

That has been rejected as unworkable by the National Association of Head Teachers as schools do not hold the necessary records.

Bishop McKeown said: "The public education system has to be focused on doing the best for the largest number of people.

"It can end up ceasing to be primarily a test of academic ability and more become a measure of those who are financially able.

"I hope our politicians could grapple with that reality - when business enters education we have to ask questions.

"There should have had a Plan B long in advance. We really are out of options now - we have to say: 'How can we focus on doing the best for the largest number, particularly the most disadvantaged?'"

Belfast Telegraph