The row over transfer tests for primary 7 pupils is no closer to being settled after heated exchanges at the NI Executive.
The Education Minster faced further calls to cancel the process completely, with a single test, run by AQE, scheduled to go ahead on February 27.
But the decision looks like it is slowly being taken out of the hands of AQE and the minister with five schools already abandoning the test.
DUP leader Arlene Foster denied blocking a call to put the issue to a vote and it was agreed at the Executive meeting that Peter Weir will now present a paper on the issue at the end of next week.
“This isn’t about academic selection,” the First Minister said. “It’s about parental choice. Parents make decisions to send their children to the appropriate place. Parents have the ability to make that choice.
“If they choose to go down the route of academic selection that’s a legal route and therefore any discussion about trying to get around that, and using Covid actually as an excuse to do that, is very, very wrong.
“We heard from the Health Minister that there is no health reason why this shouldn’t go ahead at this present time. There may well be later in February, but it’s important that is registered.
“Executive processes are put in place to prevent a misuse of the any other business procedure. That is why a vote couldn’t happen today. Other parties wanted a vote, but if you allowed that to happen then any majority of ministers could come along and raise any sort of issue without having looked at the policy implications or the procedures of looking at all the things that need to be considered before an Executive decision is taken.”
Five schools have said they will abandon the transfer test for this year, despite AQE’s plan for their test to go ahead.
Royal School Dungannon, Victoria College, Campbell College and Belfast Royal Academy all said on Friday they would not be proceeding. Strabane Academy had already indicated it would be using an alternative method to decide places for the 2021/22 intake of pupils.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey praised those schools and also urged that the planned test next month is cancelled.
“Unfortunately there was a decision taken by some not to allow a vote to take place on this issue, I feel there would have been parties that would have backed my position,” the Sinn Fein minister said.
“I am calling on AQE, and on all of those that haven’t taken the decision yet, to show that leadership, compassion, and to cancel these tests, to work with teachers, with schools, with young people, with the minister and unions to find a way forward.”
Alliance Education spokesperson Chris Lyttle, chair of the Education Committee, said his party remained opposed to the transfer tests, but is committed to achieving a fair transfer solution. He said “ideological considerations” should be parked by everyone this year.
“The minister needs to take the decision that it is not viable for transfer tests to happen and provide contingency criteria for this year only,” he said.
“The uncertainty and distress experienced has been unacceptable. Alliance is committed to working with the minister and all stakeholders for an urgent and fair resolution in the best interest of the health and wellbeing of the children involved.”
Ulster Unionist education spokesperson Robbie Butler said the planned AQE single test was “not a realistic option” and instead proposed that pupils’ work could be used to decide their post-primary transfer.
Announcing the intention to hold a single transfer test on February 27, the AQE said the test would proceed “provided it can take place in public health circumstances then prevailing”.
The other private company running transfer tests, PPTC, has already cancelled all plans.